City Commission provides feedback on East Ninth Project; final design expected in February

A proposal for the area surrounding the Turnhalle building is shown in this rendering from the September 2015 East Ninth Complete Street document.

The Lawrence City Commission talked about the pros and cons of narrower driving lanes and “intimate gathering areas” during a review Tuesday of the East Ninth Project concept plan.

The meeting was the first opportunity commissioners had to provide feedback on the design for the project, which aims to integrate public art and improve the street and walkways along Ninth Street between Massachusetts and Delaware streets.

Porter Arneill, the city’s director of arts and culture, said the purpose of the 87-page document was to put forth ideas to which people could respond.

The project’s design team will take the feedback from the commission — as well as what’s already been gathered from meetings with the project’s citizen advisory committee, the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association and the Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission — and work on a more comprehensive plan.

The final design development package will go before those other organizations before being brought back to the City Commission for a vote. Arneill estimated the commission would see the plan again in February.

“They’re still gleaning information. Speaking with Josh (Shelton) today, we’re realizing a lot more has to be done at this stage to really grasp some of the challenges in a very complex environment,” Arneill said. “That’s where we are at this stage. That’s where we are tonight.”

Commissioner Leslie Soden told Shelton with Kansas City-based urban design team el dorado inc., which is contracted for the design work on the project, that she had concerns about the plan’s gathering areas and was “not really in favor” of narrowing the street in any part of the seven-block corridor.

The plan calls for narrowing the street to 28 feet, with two 10-foot driving lanes and two 4-foot bicycle lanes. Currently, Ninth Street is 30 to 50 feet wide.

Narrower streets will leave room for more green space in the public right-of-way. According to the plan, ideas for the extra space include a public orchard, a bike corral, a neighborhood patio and intimate gathering areas — what Shelton called “pocket parklets.”

Commissioner Lisa Larsen said she liked the idea of including bicycle lanes along the street.

Soden said the gathering spaces were placed too close to private property.

“I feel like we’re setting a precedent that basically, I could come to the area in front of your house that might be considered public right-of-way and pull up some chairs there and start hanging out,” Soden said. “To me, that seems really inappropriate.”

Commissioner Matthew Herbert said the incorporation of green space was a “nice touch.”

The idea behind the gathering spaces, Shelton said, was to set aside suitable places for people to congregate. He noted the space proposed for Ninth and New Jersey streets, in front of the mural created by New York Elementary students under the direction of East Lawrence artist KT Walsh.

“They were less to suggest an imposition on peoples’ personal property and more a genuine hope to celebrate what is special about certain physical aspects of the street and neighborhood,” Shelton said. “I think the sentiment is to reach out and embrace special moments along the way that already exist instead of creating new ones.”

Walsh, who spoke during a public comment period Tuesday, asked that East Lawrence residents be hired to do some of the work for the project, including landscaping and constructing benches, “so that some of the money stays in the neighborhood.”

She also said she’s “had some issues” at meetings about the project “with repeating things and them not being either written down, heard or taken seriously.”

But East Lawrence resident Josh Davis said el dorado inc. “has been receptive to feedback.”

“Early on and with feedback, there was an understanding that this couldn’t be some bombastic project; you really had to take into consideration what was there now,” Davis said. “There’s been a lot of neighborhood input.”

Shelton, architectural historian Dennis Domer and Aaron Paden, president of the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association, proposed to commissioners that the East Ninth Project be done in tandem with other revitalization efforts, including maintaining appropriate land use and zoning.

“I’ve been receiving a lot of feedback, and I wanted to offer some feedback,” Shelton said. “I strongly advocate and support other efforts that might take place surrounding this effort that might have to do with zoning analysis, a conservation overlay. In the past 10 months, I’ve done a deep dive into downtown Lawrence and the East Lawrence neighborhood — it’s a special place. It needs protecting.”

Scott McCullough, the city’s planning director, said his staff was currently doing fieldwork and researching the neighborhood. He said he’d provide commissioners information about what steps are necessary to rezone the area to match its uses.

The city is also looking at the possibility of an “urban conservation overlay district,” which would create a specific zoning district for the corridor that has specially tailored regulations.

But Mayor Mike Amyx said he wanted to keep that work separate from the East Ninth Project.

“I don’t want to tie them together,” Amyx said. “I don’t want people to think that whatever the decision is on the street will ultimately change the decision process on the zoning and conservation. Land use needs to be separate.”

The East Ninth Project, which was first developed as an idea in 2012, was kick-started in June 2014 when the Lawrence Arts Center won a $500,000 ArtPlace America grant that will be used to fund the art and artists involved.

The city will provide the rest of the funding — an estimated $3 million.

In other business, commissioners:

• Voted 3-2 to adopt an ordinance finalizing a sales tax break for materials used on the Eldridge Hotel expansion. Commissioners Matthew Herbert, Stuart Boley and Mayor Mike Amyx voted for it, while commissioners Leslie Soden and Lisa Larsen were opposed. The ordinance had to go through two readings to be approved. On the first reading Oct. 13, all commissioners voted the same way they did Tuesday.

• Unanimously approved a preliminary development plan for the construction of apartment buildings on approximately 2.5 acres at 800 Monterey Way, near the Sixth Street intersection. The plan calls for connecting a private street, Morgan Avenue, with Comet Lane.

• Authorized city staff to apply for a LiveWell Community Wellness grant to install bicycle parking racks and corrals downtown, allowing for the addition of 74 bike parking spaces. Commissioners also authorized applying for a LiveWell Community Wellness grant to fund the installation of four bike repair stands across the city. All commissioners voted in favor of allowing the city to move forward, except Boley, who abstained. Boley works for the Douglas County Community Foundation, which gives out the grants.

• Unanimously authorized the city to enter into an agreement allowing the school district to purchase a surveillance camera for the Pinckney Tunnel under Sixth Street. The city will install the camera, and the school district will purchase and maintain it.

• Unanimously approved a special use permit for an indoor and outdoor facility for KU Tennis at Rock Chalk Park. Commissioners asked that 12-inch light hoods — not 10-inch, as proposed for some — be placed on all exterior lighting and that the court lights be shut off by 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Property owners to the east of the park cited concerns with glare from the additional lighting.

A previous version of this story misidentified the occupation of Dennis Domer. He is an architectural historian.