Lawrence historic resources board hears heated comments on East Ninth Street design

This contributed rendering imagines the final design of the East Ninth Street Project, which includes large rocks, a stormwater management system with native grasses, and integrated art installations that combine unique lighting and recorded sounds.

Brewing tensions came out at a public meeting Thursday when those in support of an East Ninth Street redesign showed up to debate those who have attempted to stymie it.

In front of a packed room, Lawrence’s Historic Resources Commission discussed — for the second time — a concept design for the proposed arts corridor along six blocks of East Ninth Street. After hearing from 14 people, eight for it and five against, commissioners voted to send a letter to the Lawrence City Commission expressing their support.

“Some passionate thought and comment has been made,” said commissioner Michael Arp. “I heard a comment that we have the opportunity to stop this project, but that’s not our role. We can’t just stop it. We have standards to adhere to and apply, and I don’t see this project as having potential to significantly encroach (on), damage or destroy landmarks. It’s a positive development.”

The commission’s message to city leaders will relay some concerns they have with the project moving forward, including how historic brick and stone is removed. An original brick street lies under the asphalt on Ninth Street, and there are plans to remove and store bricks for future projects.

In April, when the Historic Resources Commission first took up the issue, a host of people cited concerns with the project’s effect on the historical integrity of the neighborhood.

Proposed landscaping along Ninth Street from New Hampshire to Rhode Island streets is shown in this rendering from an East Ninth concept design document dated March 25, 2016.

The same people who spoke at that meeting also attended Thursday. But so, too, did the design team, its historian and a local developer, business owner and former city commissioner, as well as a few neighborhood residents, in favor of the project.

One of the concerns expressed at both meetings centered on the Turnhalle building, built in 1869, and what a reconstruction next to it would do to its historical value.

Dennis Brown, president of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance — which purchased the building in 2012 to save it — said the project could only help.

“Just thinking logically, if public dollars are going into a project right alongside the property, which is endangered, you would think a private developer would be more likely to put money into it,” Brown said.

Tony Krsnich, an East Lawrence developer who now owns the Turnhalle, said he has investors lined up for the vacant property.

“If the Ninth Street corridor project doesn’t move forward, they would run for the hills,” Krsnich said. “If we care about buildings like Turnhalle being saved, this project needs to move forward tonight.”

Krsnich went on to say those East Lawrence residents opposed to the idea were “obstructionists.”

“There’s a group of people in town who, if you say the sky is blue, they’ll say it’s black, and if you say it’s black, they’ll say it’s blue — just for the sake of it,” he said. “That’s why we love Lawrence, right?”

Though only five showed up to oppose the design Thursday, a larger group of 17 signed a letter to the Historic Resources Commission stating the project was “much more than simple roadwork” and needed a thorough historic review.

Though the commission will look again at more detailed designs, it won’t come until after funds have been approved for technical renderings.

“That’s just backwards and very costly to the city,” the letter states.

East Lawrence resident KT Walsh reiterated that sentiment to the commission Thursday.

Walsh was the first to speak after commissioners set a time limit on public comment and asked commenters to talk only about a new packet of information from city staff.

Walsh took issue with those limitations, noting the packet of information was not released online until Thursday afternoon and audience members were “rapidly trying to read through it.”

“The vote you just took puts the public at a disadvantage,” she said. “There weren’t enough copies for everyone. A lot of people wrote things to say tonight. There are process glitches here.”

After a commenter who opposed some elements of the design was allowed to talk a second time, Krsnich, visibly frustrated, also asked permission to speak again.

“We’re not trying to squelch any voices,” Arp said.

John Naramore, whose father — also John Naramore — owns commercial property on East Ninth Street, stood to speak for the second time against the design, specifically saying it veers from the street’s purpose of being used for businesses.

It’s been said by those opposing the design that the elimination of some parking spaces would burden the street’s businesses.

“I don’t see the good of a project that makes a longtime owner of property on the street enter into any kind of legal dispute with the city,” Naramore said. “It doesn’t seem smart.”

A stormwater management plan is illustrated in this rendering from an East Ninth concept design document dated March 25, 2016

East Lawrence resident John Gascon, on the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals, responded: “To those threatening a lawsuit because they’ve had free parking for 30 years … go look how they treat public property in front of their building. If they claim to care about history, perhaps they’d care about that property, which they don’t.”

Walking away from the podium, Gascon said, “Go ahead and sue.”

The Historic Resources Commission is the fourth body to issue its support for the design. The East Ninth Street Citizens Advisory Committee, Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission and the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association have all previously voted in favor of it.

The City Commission is set to review the concept design at its Tuesday meeting.

Most recent estimates put the project cost at just over $3,500,000. The current design includes two driving lanes for most of the six-block corridor, along with sidewalks on each side and an 8-foot shared-use path for both pedestrians and bicyclists. There’s also parallel parking on the south side of Ninth Street.

Three art installations have been proposed so far: poles putting off low-level light on gathering spaces; speakers playing a variety of sounds, including some picked up from New York Elementary School; and a large rock formation that would act as a sitting area.

Former city commissioner Bob Schumm, one of those speaking in favor of the design, submitted the project had the potential to “be one of the great things people would cherish about Lawrence.”

“Only so many times in a decade, or in multiple decades, do you have an opportunity to make a dramatic statement about where you live and how it will function and look for people in the future,” Schumm said. “This is that time.”