Draft downtown master plan lays out development plans, other recommendations for downtown’s future
photo by: Jackson Barton/Journal-World File Photo
Where today there are parking lots and empty buildings, the draft of Lawrence’s downtown plan sees the future.
In the recently released draft of the city’s new Downtown Master Plan, consultants from Houseal Lavigne Associates are recommending that the city take advantage of city-owned parking lots for development, and they’re also encouraging the redevelopment of other vacant or underutilized properties. The draft plan is meant to guide growth and development downtown for the next 20 years, and in addition to providing recommendations regarding the redevelopment of both city-owned and privately owned properties, the draft provides guidance on building heights, parking, transportation, infrastructure and streetscapes, among other issues.
Mayor Brad Finkeldei said the draft plan suggests that the community and commission should be open to new uses for various downtown properties. That includes not only city-owned properties such as surface parking lots, but privately owned properties that could be redeveloped and adapted to a different use.
“I think this encourages us to think maybe a little differently or maybe a little bigger than some people have thought about downtown,” Finkeldei said.
In January 2020, the consultants released the vision statement of the plan, which included a shift toward more experience-based businesses to complement existing retail, restaurant and bar options; the development of more housing at various price points; and increasing access to the Kansas River with the creation of a river walk and other features, as the Journal-World previously reported. The recently released draft provides specific recommendations regarding land use and development to help achieve that vision, and consultants will be presenting it at several meetings over the next few weeks and gathering feedback from residents.
More specifically, the plan calls for redevelopment of several city-owned parking lots along Vermont and New Hampshire streets, and it also singles out 10 additional downtown sites for redevelopment, four buildings that should be maintained and invested in, and four “catalyst sites.” The draft describes the catalyst sites as downtown’s most significant opportunities for redevelopment.
“The transformation of these properties will have a catalytic impact on surrounding development — spurring reinvestment and enhancement,” the consultants state in the draft.
The four catalyst site redevelopment plans call for redeveloping the downtown post office into a mixed-use residential building and townhomes; adapting or redeveloping the former Journal-World production facility as part of an employment hub, potentially including live-work spaces; redeveloping a space at 11th and Massachusetts into a mixed-use building with ground-floor entertainment and upper-level offices or residential space; and redeveloping the private parking lot on New Hampshire Street between 10th and 11th streets into four-story townhomes.
In addition to the plans for individual sites, the draft plan divides downtown into 11 sub-areas and recommends specific design elements, building heights, parking layouts and uses for each area.
For example, the area of Sixth and Massachusetts streets, which includes the former Journal-World production facility, should be transformed into a prominent employment hub for downtown, the draft says. The draft suggests that the primary uses in this area should be traditional offices and some light, tech-based manufacturing, and that live-work units should also be considered. Meanwhile, the sub-area of South Vermont Street, from Eighth Street to about 11th Street, would prioritize standalone multifamily or office buildings as well as limited mixed-use buildings with ground floor commercial or office uses and residential space above.
When it comes to redeveloping city parking lots, the draft states that redevelopment should only be considered if the city can make up for the lost parking spots elsewhere or if the parking spaces are deemed unnecessary based on changes in transportation habits. The draft recommends that the city use parking lot redevelopment as a means of accomplishing downtown goals that are not otherwise supported by the market. Examples provided include a business incubator or startup space, residential developments that include affordable units, a space to accommodate a permanent location for the Lawrence Farmers’ Market and a space for a safe and functional bus transfer station.
Commissioner Stuart Boley said that he thought the recommendation to redevelop city parking lots fit in with the city’s vision of increasing density and sustainability, and he was definitely open to the idea. He said how the plan addressed retail and residential development would be important aspects to consider.
“Two areas that are of real interest to me are our residential and retail, and I’ll be looking very carefully at how the plan addresses those two areas and how the community responds to those two areas,” Boley said. “Because those are key to a successful downtown.”
Connecting downtown to the Kansas River
Another of the draft plan’s recommendations involves increasing access to the Kansas River. The draft states that the river is one of downtown’s most underutilized resources, and it provides several strategies to better connect the river to downtown.
“The River should be enhanced as an amenity for active and passive recreation, natural resource education, and commerce,” consultants state in the draft.
The strategies include constructing a switchback ramp at Robinson Park down to the river; adding boat ramps on the north and south sides; building a boardwalk, public seating and a fishing dock along the bank in Burcham Park; and working with the property owners at Riverfront Plaza to extend the boardwalk for the entire length of all properties. The city should then program formal events at the Riverfront Plaza and Burcham Park to bring people to the river and create interest.
Finkeldei said that while improving the connection to the river would certainly be a long-term goal, he saw it as an important one.
“I appreciate the focus on trying to integrate the river more into downtown, and I think that’s a bigger goal — but, I think, an important goal,” Finkeldei said.
The draft also includes many smaller-scale recommendations, including maintaining the option for downtown businesses to create seating or dining areas in the angled parking spots near their storefronts, updating the landscape planters that line Massachusetts Street and creating more midblock crossings and other pedestrian-friendly improvements.
The draft states that all recommendations are based on an assessment of existing conditions and market potential, previous planning efforts, input from residents and business owners and best planning practices. The draft lists various ways to help support the plan financially, including grant programs, economic incentives and benefit districts, and it ends with an outline of an action plan. The action plan, which is not yet complete, will be the final piece of the master plan.
Finkeldei emphasized that the plan was still a draft, and that the city was looking for feedback from residents that could potentially inform changes to the document.
“We need people to react to it, to let us know what they think,” Finkeldei said. “It’s still a work in progress.”
Boley agreed that it was important for the commission to listen to how the draft was received by the community, and that the feedback would inform the commission’s path forward. He said many community members, such as people who live in the downtown area and those who operate businesses there, would also have valuable input.
“They have experience that we must honor and interests that we must honor,” Boley said.
After Houseal Lavigne released the vision statement of the plan in January 2020, the coronavirus pandemic delayed progress on the plan. The consultants released the draft plan on April 30 on their website, and they will hold a virtual open house from 6 to 8 p.m. on May 20 where they will present the draft, answer questions and collect community feedback. Consultants will then present the draft plan to the Downtown Master Plan Steering Committee at its meeting May 27 and to the City Commission on June 1.
Those interested in virtually attending any of the meetings can register by following the links provided on the city’s new release about the topic, which can be found at lawrenceks.org/news/.