Lawrence City Commission votes to increase community input for downtown master plan following ‘secretive’ focus groups

The 800 block of Massachusetts Street is pictured on Nov. 17, 2015.

After having criticized some “secretive” aspects of the process earlier this year, Lawrence city commissioners have agreed to increase the amount of community input gathered for the development of the master plan that will shape Lawrence’s downtown for years to come.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the commission voted 4-1, with Commissioner Matthew Herbert opposed, to revise and expand the community engagement component of the development of the Downtown Master Plan. The proposed changes would add $37,070 to the $110,000 contract for Houseal Lavigne Associates, the consultant helping the city to draft the plan, according to a city staff memo to the commission.

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Changes to the plan’s development process include adding outreach activities for youth and college-aged community members and a mechanism for community groups to host their own workshops to gather input, according to the memo. The memo states that the consultant would create, facilitate and analyze “Do-It-Yourself Kits” that could be used by community groups to host workshops. Other additions include a workshop about specific improvements that could be made to downtown, a community open house on the draft plan and two City Commission-level discussions before a plan is brought forth for consideration.

The changes come after commissioners objected in February to what they said were “secretive” focus groups for the development of the plan, for which the city subsequently issued an apology. Under the original plan, the focus groups were invitation only and were not open to public observers. The focus groups comprised meetings for city staff, developers, arts and events leaders, youth, and a “behaviors” group, which included police department staff and social service agencies.

The commission generally agreed that despite the significant increase in the cost of the contract, additional public input was needed because the plan, which will cover development in the downtown for the next 10 to 15 years, is so important. Commissioner Stuart Boley said he thought the proposed changes responded to the commission’s criticisms.

“I think it’s a good investment overall to spend the money that we need to get the best participation and opportunities for participation on the part of the community, because frankly that’s what we were critical about,” Boley said. “So, while I’m not overjoyed spending more money on this, big picture, this is a really big deal for our community and we need to do the best job that we possibly can.”

City staff is proposing using money from the city’s guest tax fund balance to pay for the additional expenses, and Boley also said that he thought that was an appropriate funding source. Mayor Lisa Larsen said that while she had some initial concerns with the costs, the consultants had provided good explanations of the additional expenses. Ultimately, Larsen said she agreed with Boley that the changes were needed.

“I agree that this is an extremely important study for our downtown — it’s going to set the stage for how we build in the future,” Larsen said. “I think we’ve all learned a real valuable lesson as to how we should make things work better and be more transparent.”

Herbert said he had concerns with the additional cost. He said that he thought it was strange that the additions would cost so much more when the original contract with the consultants already called for community engagement. Instead of paying more for additional input gathering, he said he thought that city staff could potentially promote the online surveys that are already in place and are being underutilized at this time.

City Commission Meeting 04/02/19

In other business, the commission:

• Approved, as part of its consent agenda, a proposed settlement in a housing discrimination lawsuit against local landlords that requires the landlords to attend a seminar on housing laws and make a donation to a local nonprofit. The lawsuit, brought against the landlords by the City of Lawrence in 2016, claims that the landlords discriminated against a prospective tenant based on his use of an emotional-support dog.

• Voted unanimously to defer changes to the city’s ordinance regarding penalties for marijuana possession in order to clarify the requirement for a drug evaluation. Specifically, commissioners directed city staff to make changes to the ordinance language to make it clear that a drug evaluation would not be required for first offenses and may be ordered for second offenses. The changes to the ordinance, which will lower the fine for possessing small amounts of marijuana to $1, will now come back for a second reading at the commission’s next meeting.


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