Affordable housing, rising utility bills among the topics discussed at downtown forum for City Commission candidates

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

All six candidate seeking election to the Lawrence City Commission participated in a forum hosted by Downtown Lawrence Inc. at Abe & Jake's Landing on Sept. 22, 2021.

There was talk of whether a dollar store should locate downtown. There was talk of whether affordable housing units should be built above the Community Building in downtown. And there was even a question about whether the city will be able to afford future spending in downtown, with so many other bills mounting.

No matter the specific topic, the common theme was downtown and how candidates for the Lawrence City Commission would tackle issues related to the central business district. All six candidates seeking the three seats up for election on the commission attended a Wednesday evening forum hosted by Downtown Lawrence Inc. at Abe & Jake’s Landing. Here’s a look at selected comments from each candidate:

• Ma’Ko’Quah Jones said as a single mother of five who lives downtown, she definitely thinks downtown needs a grocery store. But she also urged the crowd to consider thinking slightly different, like a dollar variety store.

“It may be that we have to have something small but something that offers a variety of products,” Jones said.

She also said she supports a permanent farmers market location that could double as an Indian art market for Haskell and other such uses.

Like many, she said downtown would benefit by having more people living in the district, but she said the city needs to establish a “tenant bill of rights” to ensure renters aren’t taken advantage of.

• Amber Sellers said she would like to consider how downtown can “expand its footprint.” Figuring out better ways to highlight Vermont and New Hampshire streets likely will be key to that effort, she said.

Sellers was the only candidate that brought up an old idea: Converting the former Journal-World printing plant near Sixth and Massachusetts streets into a convention/conference center.

“When I saw that idea, it made sense to me if we can use that piece of property to drive events here and bring businesses downtown,” she said.

She also challenged city leaders to get more specific about what they mean when they talk about affordable housing downtown or elsewhere. She said the definition shifts from project to project, and as a result too many gaps remain. She said as a single woman with a job with the state of Kansas, there currently isn’t a house on the market in the Lawrence area that she can afford to buy.

• Milton Scott spoke on several occasions about fiscal challenges facing downtown businesses or the city as a whole. Rising utility bills were mentioned multiple times, and he said they are creating a hardship for downtown businesses, which already generate large amounts of sales tax revenue for the city.

“I think one of the things we can do is not raise the utility rates on businesses downtown,” Scott said. “It would make me feel better if you were not taxing them at the front door and the back door.”

He said the city’s downtown master plan also needed to give more thought to how buildings in the future could be retrofitted for green or sustainable energy projects. But he also told the crowd that there are real questions about how much the city will be able to fund future downtown initiatives, given that the city is creating budgets that are beginning to run deficits now. He said the city needs to “live within our means.”

• Incumbent commissioner Lisa Larsen said there were parts of the new downtown master plan she really liked, but she expressed concern that it doesn’t do enough to highlight how important increasing density will be in the future.

“It didn’t go far enough,” she said. “I think we need to get as much density as we can. If we want to get a grocery store and we want retailers to thrive, we have to have people to do that. You do that with height.”

Larsen said she wants more people living downtown and wants to explore ways to redevelop city-owned surface parking lots into buildings that could house more living units. But she also stipulated the developments would have to include well-designed parking garages to make up for any lost public parking.

She said the city also needs to focus on using its guest tax sales taxes, which are generated from hotel stays, to continue to develop an “unmistakable identity” for Lawrence.

• Bart Littlejohn was one of several candidates who said the city needs to do difficult work to address homeless concerns in downtown, and also gave people a glimpse at his philosophy on how to do so.

“We do have a bit of a houseless problem, and we need to address that with grace,” he said of homelessness. He also said much of the work will be dependent on those who are homeless wanting the type of support the city can offer because “that is a two-way street.”

Littlejohn said he supports the idea of a permanent space for a farmers market in downtown, and said he would like to see if such a facility also could be designed to serve as an outdoor concert venue.

Littlejohn said he also would like to see the city convene more meetings with developers and the city’s planning office and the city’s Historic Resources Commission to see if there are “mesh” points the parties could find to address concerns about the development process in downtown.

“I work by opening my arms and inviting people into the process,” he said.

• Incumbent commissioner Stuart Boley said he voted against the city’s new downtown master plan because he thought it fell far short of addressing environmental sustainability in the future. He said that may end up being a “fatal flaw” for the plan.

He said the city can do much to encourage more affordable housing in the community. He said the city owns a lot of property in downtown, which gives it the ability to propose its own ideas for how some of it could be redeveloped. One idea he floated is building affordable housing units above the historic Community Building near 11th and Vermont streets.

He also said the city could be more insistent on affordable housing components when developers seek city incentives for private projects.

“We should not be incentivizing projects that don’t provide some of the policy outcomes we want to achieve,” Boley said.

The City Commission election is Nov. 2, but advance voting begins Oct. 13.

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