Proposal for less stringent historic preservation rules in Lawrence gets mixed reactions

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

The 1000 block of Massachusetts Street is pictured Thursday, Jan. 2, 2023, with the Douglas County Courthouse in the background.

Proposed changes that would loosen Lawrence’s historic preservation rules are getting a mixed reaction, with some residents and local leaders expressing concern about less-stringent restrictions and others saying the changes wouldn’t go far enough.

The city is in the process of revising Chapter 22 of the city code, which lays out rules related to the conservation of properties on the local historic register. The proposed changes loosen some requirements for the area around listed properties and make various other changes regarding how development is allowed to occur on or near those properties.

Chapter 22 was originally adopted in 1988, and Lynne Braddock Zollner, the city’s historic resources administrator, said the city wanted to hear from residents about whether the proposed changes were doing too little or too much, as well as any other thoughts on the effort to modernize the code.

“This is a process we’ve been undertaking for about the last 10 years, trying to bring the code up to more modern, current conditions,” she said.

One of the most significant changes, and one that generated several comments from residents during three meetings that took place throughout the day Wednesday, was a loosening of the restrictions for the development or demolition of properties in the vicinity of historic buildings.

Braddock Zollner said that currently, any property within 250 feet of a property on the historic register — an area referred to as the “environs” — is subject to a review from the Historic Resources Commission. Under the proposed changes, however, not all of the properties within that area would be subject to review. The requirement would only affect properties that are visible from the public right of way of the historic property. In addition, this review, now known as the “context review,” would be done by the historic resources administrator instead of the HRC.

Braddock Zollner also said the new rules would allow the HRC to make a list of simpler projects that could be approved by the historic resources administrator without going through the HRC. These could be projects on properties near a historic site or projects that are actually on a historic property.

Architect Stan Hernly, whose firm specializes in historic restorations, said he thought it would be a mistake to have the context review take place administratively. Hernly said the HRC review provides the public an opportunity to share its opinions on projects, and there is valuable public dialogue that takes place. He noted as an example the 2019 rejection of a project proposed for 11th and Massachusetts streets, called the Hub on Campus, and he said those kinds of discussions can help inform future project proposals.

“I think in the long run for preservation purposes, it’s important to keep the public involved in the conversation,” Hernly said. “So I would really support the context review remaining a public forum item, and that the Historic Resources Commission continues to discuss those and really weigh in on the topics that are related to that.”

However, others said they agreed with the changes, with some saying they thought the reviews could be even less restrictive than what was proposed. At a meeting later in the day, Hugh Carter, vice president of external affairs for the Lawrence chamber of commerce, said he thought the changes were a move in the right direction, but “definitely not enough.” Carter said he thought the administrative approvals would be a positive change, and he hoped that members of the HRC would be liberal when creating the list of project types that could be administratively approved.

“A little goes a long way as far as improving that process for applicants,” Carter said.

Ron Gaches, who has been the Chamber representative on the city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board but said he was speaking for himself, said he thought the current environs review had been “extreme and arbitrary.” He said he thought the proposed context review, as well as the creation of a list of projects that could be approved administratively, would ease some of the hurdles for developing affordable housing in the community.

“If we’re going to address our affordable housing needs of this community and if we are going to do it relying primarily on infill and increased density development, we’re going to impact the environs,” Gaches said. “We’re going to nestle up against some historical properties. Otherwise we will never meet the needs of our community for affordable housing, particularly in our downtown area where so many of our historic properties are located.”

Barry Shalinsky, president of the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association, clarified with Braddock Zollner that while the HRC would have the authority to create a list of projects that could be approved administratively, it would not be required to create such a list at all. Shalinsky, who said he lives in a home that is on the national, state and local historic registers, said there could potentially be conflicting priorities, such as density versus the context review, but that decisions that affect historic properties should be made carefully.

“Once a historic building is destroyed, it’s gone forever, and I think when we’re looking at these things it’s important to just keep that point of view in mind,” Shalinsky said. “Not that we can’t ever tear down an old building, but it’s the type of decision that should be made carefully and for purposes beyond maybe somebody’s immediate economic gain.”

Other proposed changes to the local historic preservation code include the addition of conditional approvals, meaning that if there are some changes that need to be made for a project to align with the code, the developer does not have to go back to the HRC a second time for an approval as long as those changes are made. Another key change is that there will now be different standards for listed properties and properties in the context area. In the context area, contemporary design for new construction and additions is not discouraged, and demolition of structures may be approved if the structures do not contribute to the context area and a replacement structure is proposed.

Braddock Zollner said the public could continue to submit comments by emailing her at, and that the HRC would receive all the public comment, as well as comments from city staff in code enforcement and other areas, as part of its next meeting on Jan. 19. She said that the HRC would give city staff direction on any changes to the proposal at that meeting, and that hopefully the new rules could be adopted in March.


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