How tall is too tall? City contemplating downtown skyline, other big issues

Downtown at "tipping point" of going different direction

Massachusetts Street is illuminated by holiday lights and vehicles on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017.

As new multistory buildings rise up aside the low-slung blocks of Lawrence’s historic downtown, city leaders are looking at adding guidelines that may change the skyline for years to come.

In recent years, New Hampshire Street has become a corridor of high-rise buildings — at least by Lawrence standards — adding hundreds of new apartments and hotel rooms. But now developers and architects are thinking even bigger. The latest proposal for a downtown conference center calls for a 12-story building, which would be a full five stories taller than any other downtown building.

The changes have the City Commission ready to develop a new downtown master plan, which will replace guidelines that have not been updated in 20 years.

Commissioner Matthew Herbert said that turn toward new urbanism — with denser development and taller buildings — has made a new downtown master plan a necessity.

“We are on that tipping point right now of downtown going in a totally different direction than it has in the past,” Herbert said.

How tall?

The next few years of change have already arrived at City Hall in the form of architectural renderings. In the midst of such proposals, city planners said the current downtown plan is lacking.

“It’s old enough as to be out of date for some of the current issues and addressing some of the current needs,” said Scott McCullough, the city’s director of planning and development.

One of the questions many of the new developments have raised is how tall buildings should be.

Currently, McCullough said, there is a gray area as to how high downtown buildings can be. He said the development code has a limit of 90 feet, or about eight stories, in the downtown commercial district, but guidelines also dictate that the height of surrounding buildings should be taken into account.

“That could be a subject of the new plan,” McCullough said. “How much height does Lawrence tolerate in the downtown?”

The tallest buildings downtown are seven floors, with most of the shops along Massachusetts Street only two floors. However, the most recently aired proposal, for the northern entrance to downtown, includes a 12-story condo and apartment building and two seven-story mixed-use buildings along Massachusetts Street.

When asked what he thinks the height limit should be, Herbert did not have a specific number in mind. Rather, he said, as the city strives to create more affordable housing and infill development, he is nervous about setting “arbitrary caps.”

“To some degree, you have to maintain that discretionary freedom to look at projects on a case-by-case basis, because there are going to be some larger projects that have a great community benefit,” Herbert said. He added that his instinct is to make sure a building fits with those that surround it.

Commissioner Lisa Larsen also said adding more density and residents downtown is important for the future. When it comes to height limits, she said there should be guidelines, but those would need to be looked at closely as part of the master plan.

“I think we do need to have some sort of guidelines as to how high we want to go and where we want to do that,” Larsen said. “Because you could possibly have different guidelines depending on where your location is.”


The city recently commissioned a parking study for the downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, which made specific recommendations about how parking downtown can be improved.

The downtown master plan will also likely touch on parking, specifically whether including parking should be required when a property is redeveloped. Currently, the responsibility of providing parking downtown falls to the city. That policy resulted in one redevelopment, of the Pachamamas building at 800 New Hampshire St., adding about 70 bedrooms and only a handful of on-site parking spots.

In addition to the city providing parking, Herbert said he thinks large residential developments downtown should be required to include parking. He said the Pachamamas redevelopment is an example.

“You’re putting all the parking burden on shop owners and neighbors, and that, to me, is inappropriate,” Herbert said. However, he said he thinks it’s reasonable that less parking be required downtown than in suburban areas.

Larsen said she thinks parking will be a good topic to discuss, especially given the large number of parking lots throughout downtown that are owned by the city.

“They are all just on ground level,” Larsen said. “Is that the best and highest use for that property? I think that’s something that needs to be discussed.”

What’s missing?

When it comes to the future of downtown, Larsen said there needs to be a mix of uses with various types of business and residential options. For residential, she said that includes workforce housing so people who work downtown can also afford to live downtown.

“I think that is something that is probably truly, truly lacking for the downtown,” said Larsen, who noted that some more expensive housing does seem to be meeting a need. “But we also need to look at meeting the needs of the average workers.”

One thing Herbert said he thinks will be crucial to the success of downtown is the business hours of retail shops. Though he admitted the city can’t regulate that, he said successful downtown districts have a variety of stores open into the evening.

Larsen and Herbert both said they think the new plan also needs to better establish what the boundaries of downtown are. Specifically, Herbert said that is important for Ninth Street, which runs through the East Lawrence neighborhood and into the growing Warehouse Arts District.

“I know that there has been some concern from neighbors about if downtown will just keep growing east and where is downtown ever going to end,” Herbert said.

The new plan

The need for a downtown master plan was identified in the City Commission’s strategic plan. McCullough said the plan will set guidelines for downtown that could also prompt new policies and changes to city code

McCullough said the new downtown master plan will cover various topics, including development, open space, transportation, infrastructure and streetscapes. The plan will also cover land use relationships, which McCullough said covers how developments affect adjacent properties, including factors such as shading and traffic flow.

A committee of city staff is currently working on the scope of the plan, and a request for proposals for a consultant will likely go before the commission in January for consideration. Part of the study will include gathering input from the community, which commissioners and city staff have said will be key in developing the plan.

“The downtown master plan is trying to put the community’s voice together with the current commission’s voice and figure out what do we want downtown Lawrence to be like in 20 years,” Herbert said.