Consultants say new master plan aims to make downtown Lawrence a regional destination

photo by: Jackson Barton

The Douglas County Courthouse and downtown Lawrence are pictured in an aerial photo Saturday, July 13, 2019.

Consultants creating the new Downtown Master Plan say one of the key goals of the plan is to strengthen downtown as a destination, not only for Lawrence residents but for the entire region.

The city hired consulting firm Houseal Lavigne Associates to complete the plan, and the firm presented a draft of the first sections of the plan to the Downtown Master Plan Steering Committee on Monday. Houseal Lavigne principal Nik Davis told the committee he wants the plan to help make downtown a regional destination by building off the area’s unique character.

“And making sure that all the plan’s recommendations that we’re providing here aren’t creating something that’s more generic or vanilla, but it really does build off of what you’ve already done successfully,” Davis said.

When the master plan is complete, it will give policy recommendations for downtown land use and development for the next 20 years, touching on areas such as building heights, parking, transportation, infrastructure, beautification and streetscapes. Consultants asked for feedback on the draft from the 17-member steering committee, which includes downtown business owners, neighborhood representatives, and development and cultural representatives.

Committee members had about 20 minutes to provide suggestions regarding the draft plan’s vision statement, guiding principles and other elements at the end of the meeting, and consultants asked for members to send additional comments by email over the next few weeks. Comments made at the meeting included a need for the draft to better address social and racial equity; emphasize the number of art gallery and exhibit spaces; address the changing nature of how people work, including co-working spaces; consider access to the downtown from adjacent neighborhoods; and provide direction for updating the Downtown Design Guidelines.

A few committee members expressed interest in the plan addressing a potential update to the Downtown Design Guidelines, which all downtown construction, redevelopment and renovation projects must follow.

Committee member Steve Clark, who is the committee’s architect representative, said the design guidelines are old and not super sophisticated. Clark said the guidelines could be written in way that is more robust and potentially more accommodating.

Committee member Sally Zogry, who is the director of Downtown Lawrence Inc., spoke to the design guidelines and the city’s building permit process. Zogry said those processes should be improved because they are huge stumbling blocks for property owners or business operators who want to construct or update downtown buildings.

Davis said the committee members’ comments would help inform the next draft of the plan, which consultants would also present to the committee for feedback. Davis said the policy recommendations that the plan will eventually provide will be based on the draft plan’s vision statement and guiding principles.

Currently, the draft plan has eight guiding principles. In addition to strengthening downtown as a destination, the plan calls for leveraging the riverfront; balancing historic preservation with infill development; reinforcing downtown as an economically thriving district; maintaining downtown as the city’s civic and cultural heart; making it easy to get around; creating an attractive pedestrian environment; and ensuring equitable participation and involvement.

The vision statement pictures a downtown that has grown in prominence as a regional and statewide destination over the 20-year lifespan of the plan. As part of the vision, downtown has adapted to the rise of e-commerce with a shift toward businesses that give customers unique or personalized experiences, rather than just selling them a physical product; housing is available at various price points; the city has replaced surface parking lots with new mixed-use developments; and the city has created a River Walk that increases access to the Kansas River and supports new commercial uses that leverage that access.

The 130-page draft of the first sections of the Downtown Master Plan is available on the project’s website. Consultants will present the draft to the City Commission during its meeting Tuesday.

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