East Lawrence residents raise new concern about proposed Ninth Street ArtPlace project

A project to remake a portion of Ninth Street into a unique arts corridor is drawing new opposition from some East Lawrence residents after the leader of the Lawrence Arts Center has declined to make public the application the agency submitted to win a $500,000 grant for the project.

“The neighborhood is a little bit concerned about what is in there that they don’t want us to see,” said David Loewenstein, a longtime East Lawrence resident and artist.

But Susan Tate, executive director of the Lawrence Arts Center, said such worries are unfounded. She said she has provided a “word-for-word” copy of the bulk of the center’s application that resulted in a $500,000 grant from ArtPlace America. That document contains a vision statement and related narrative for the project, which is for the portion of Ninth Street east of Massachusetts Street. The document has been provided to members of the public who have requested it. It also was provided to the Lawrence City Commission as it considered city funding for the project.

Tate said other parts of the application — including the project budget, timeline and information about the leadership team — hasn’t been made public because the information could compromise the identity of private donors to the arts center, and also could allow people to figure out the salaries of some arts center employees.

Some East Lawrence residents have argued the entire application needs to be made public, in part, because the project involves remaking a city-owned street. The city of Lawrence also likely will have to spend about $3 million to make the project a reality.

The project is in the beginning stages. The City Commission later this month is expected to hire a consultant who will further refine the vision of the project, work on a design and host extensive conversations with the neighborhood and other stakeholders. But East Lawrence residents already are expressing concern they weren’t full partners in the creation of the grant application. The refusal to make the entire grant application public is adding to those concerns, said Aaron Paden, president of the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association.

“Things you can’t see are scary. That’s the real short version of this,” Paden said.

Tate, however, said the Ninth Street project will be very open for public review.

“I’m confident in our level of transparency,” Tate said. “Nothing will appear on Ninth Street that hasn’t been a part of a public process.”

Tate said that means that things like new sidewalks, public art, streetscape improvements or events for the corridor will go through the normal City Hall process for public spending.

Tate said she is concerned that releasing all the details requested by the East Lawrence residents could damage future fundraising efforts for the Arts Center. For instance, she said several donor names and donor amounts would be identified, perhaps against the wishes of those donors.

She also said it is protocol in the fundraising world that grant applications between two private entities remain private. Releasing the application for other organizations to see could diminish the competitive position of the Arts Center if it seeks a future ArtPlace grant, she said.

But Loewenstein said he was particularly concerned that the full application was being withheld from city officials and the city-appointed board that has been asked to make a recommendation on the consultant for the project. Loewenstein is a member of the city-appointed board, and he said the full application would have been helpful to him as he was trying to determine what consulting firm should be hired to oversee the project.

Assistant City Manager Diane Stoddard confirmed the city never has been given the full grant application. She said the city has not asked for the application, and is deferring to the wishes of the Arts Center on the matter. Stoddard said the city-appointed group expressed confidence that it had the information it needed to evaluate potential consultants for the project.

Stoddard, though, said she understands the concerns of East Lawrence residents. She said the city will ensure their voices are heard during the project.

“We have been very clear that we want the project to be very open and engaging with the neighborhood,” Stoddard said. “We have told people the key time for those conversations will be when the consultant gets on board. We understand the project will affect the residents of the neighborhood most directly. We want everybody to be pleased and proud of the project when it is completed.”