On draft downtown master plan, steering committee calls for changes involving preservation, equity and development
photo by: City of Lawrence
A steering committee tasked with providing input on the draft downtown Lawrence master plan has called for changes related to historic preservation, equity and inclusion and some of the plan’s redevelopment recommendations.
As part of its meeting Thursday, the Downtown Master Plan Steering Committee voted 10-0, with several members absent, to recommend that the City Commission approve the draft plan once the changes are incorporated. The most debated issue was historic preservation and the city’s related ordinances. Though committee members’ views differed, they agreed to remove a negative statement about the city’s preservation ordinance from the draft. They also took out some specific suggestions to weaken the ordinance and replaced them with a more open-ended recommendation.
Matt Veatch, who represents the Historic Resources Commission on the committee, said the historic nature of downtown is what makes it a destination that people want to visit. He said the draft as proposed was inappropriate.
“We don’t have a downtown that’s a destination, like what we have right now, without the historic preservation effort of the last 25 or 30 years,” Veatch said. “Our ordinance went into effect in 1988 and it has done its job — it has made sure that we have maintained that historic fabric.”
The 119-page draft plan, which has been under development since August 2018, will guide growth and development downtown for the next 20 years. It provides recommendations regarding land use, development, building heights, parking, transportation, infrastructure, streetscapes and public art installations, among other elements. The city hired Houseal Lavigne Associates in August 2018 to complete the plan. Once adopted, the plan will function as a guiding document for policy making.
The draft plan proposed by consultants states that the city “may be stymying reinvestment” by requiring buildings downtown that do not have historic significance or integrity to comply with the city’s historic preservation ordinance. Currently, historic landmarks and districts as well as properties within 250 feet of those properties — an area known as the environs — must comply with the ordinance. Requests for demolition and construction projects in these areas could be denied based on historic preservation reviews.
In their draft plan, the consultants suggest that the city should consider revisions to the environs standards, and that it should allow staff to approve construction or demolition requests for nonhistoric properties without the City Commission’s approval. The consultants also suggest that the ordinance should only apply to properties listed on the Lawrence Register of Historic Places.
Veatch said the way the draft impugns historic preservation was inappropriate and that the specific recommendations for code changes were out of character with the rest of the draft plan. Other committee members generally agreed with Veatch, though a couple of members said that some downtown property owners thought the current historic review process was cumbersome and potentially discouraging for those who wanted to improve their properties.
The committee agreed to strike out the negative comments about “stymying reinvestment.” Instead, the committee agreed that the draft should note the tension between historic preservation and development and that it has been one of the most debated issues in the draft plan.
Veatch also noted that the city has already initiated a process to review the preservation chapter of city code, and committee members agreed the draft should simply indicate that, as opposed to making specific suggestions for changes that would ultimately be debated and decided as part of the upcoming public process. The committee agreed that the draft should state that the city, the HRC and all stakeholders should complete the current initiative to revise the ordinance, including a review of the environs requirement and the idea of potential city staff approvals, “to better accommodate contemporary challenges when balancing historic preservation and development.”
Consultants collected 230 pages of comments from residents on the draft plan, and the committee voted at its meeting May 27 to request more time to consider the comments and their recommended changes to the draft. In addition to concerns about the historic preservation section, residents also expressed concerns that the draft did not adequately address equity and inclusion. The committee agreed that the draft should include specific suggestions for how to improve equity and inclusion downtown, with possibilities including business incubator space or incentive programs for minority entrepreneurs and businesses.
“(We need) something that says we have some intentionality about reaching out and making downtown more culturally diverse,” said Edith Guffey, who represents the Affordable Housing Advisory Board on the committee. “It’s not just going to happen.”
Sally Zogry, who represents Downtown Lawrence Inc. on the committee, said that historically the parking lot on Vermont Street between Eighth and Ninth streets had been a block of Black-owned businesses until the block was razed to make the parking lot.
“We need to come full circle and get back to where more people have a real stake and a permanent place downtown,” Zogry said.
Some residents also voiced concerns about the plan’s recommendations for redeveloping certain sites, specifically the post office, the Replay Lounge and Red Lyon Tavern. As the city does not own any of those properties, project manager Nik Davis clarified that the recommendations were not intended to suggest those businesses did not have a place downtown, but that they were meant to provide guidance should the sites become vacant in the future. The committee members agreed with Davis’ suggestion to add a disclaimer clarifying the intent to the recommendation for the post office site, and also agreed to remove the Replay and the Red Lyon properties from a list of “opportunity sites.”
Davis said the revised draft plan would be published on July 20 and would go to the City Commission for consideration on Aug. 3.