Forget about the battles you have with other motorists for a prime parking spot in downtown Lawrence. The debate over downtown parking may be headed to a new level.
City commissioners are reviewing a report that examines how private developers could build on the public parking lots that line sections of Vermont and New Hampshire streets without creating a shortage of public parking downtown.
Specific developments haven't been proposed. Rather, city planners are suggesting commissioners start thinking about how or if they are willing to let the surface parking lots redevelop with a mix of multistory buildings and parking garages.
"Some of the larger parcels potentially available for development in downtown are those parking lots," said Scott McCullough, the city's director of planning and development services. "It is almost an entire block's worth in some cases."
Members of the city's historic resources and planning commissions have put together a report that provides suggestions on how any such future developments should proceed. Among the recommendations:
• Any private development that occurs on a public parking lot should ensure that the new development provides at least as many public parking spaces as existed before the development.
• Additional parking spaces should be provided for developments — such as apartments or retail uses — that will create additional demand on downtown's parking system.
• If the city decides to pursue development of a public parking lot, it should seek proposals from a variety of potential developers.
City commissioners haven't taken action on the report, but are suggesting that a study session on the topic be held in coming weeks. Commissioners are indicating they are open to more multistory buildings downtown.
"We have always said the salvation of downtown is to build more density, and we have some opportunities to do that," said City Commissioner Bob Schumm, a downtown businessman and property owner.
How tall future buildings should be is another question the planning report attempts to answer. In recent years, downtown has seen construction of an approximately 85-foot tall retail/apartment building on the southwest corner of Ninth and New Hampshire streets, and construction work is underway on an approximately 60-foot tall Marriott extended stay hotel on the southeast corner of the intersection. Plans have been filed for a seven-story apartment building on the northeast corner of the intersection, and a development group led by Lawrence businessman Doug Compton hopes to build a seven-story retail/apartment building on the Allen Press property at 11th and Massachusetts streets.
The planning report suggests that the city's development code be changed to make it clear that developers have no guaranteed right to build to the maximum 90-foot height stated in the code. Instead, it says, the regulations should emphasize that the maximum height of a building will be determined by the height of nearby buildings and whether the site is next to a residential neighborhood.
Neighborhood and historic preservation organizations have begun to express concerns that too many large buildings could have a detrimental impact on downtown.
"I think there is general agreement that more people living downtown will be good for downtown," Dennis Brown, president of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance, recently told commissioners. "But what doesn't follow is that every building proposed needs to be seven-to-nine stories tall and half-a-block long."
Linda Bush, president of the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods, told commissioners she would like to see code language that would set a maximum of 38.5 feet, about the height of the Lawrence Arts Center on New Hampshire Street, for any new building next to a residential neighborhood.
Schumm, though, said he wanted to be careful not to create an arbitrary height limit because different areas of downtown can reasonably support different sizes of buildings. Commissioner Mike Amyx said one idea is to create districts within the downtown and set height guidelines for each district.
Commissioners said those are the type of ideas to discuss in a study session.
"But there is clearly the potential for us to lay the ground work for a lot of neat stuff to happen in downtown," City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer said.