Fifth-grade students draft unique plans for proposed site of controversial downtown apartments

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

From left, students Alex Kerr, Morgan Sponholtz and Piper Bonner practice a presentation about their proposed plans for the corner of 11th and Massachusetts streets on July 23, 2019. At right is Madeline Herrera, who was the students' fifth grade teacher at Deerfield Elementary last school year.

After city leaders rejected a controversial proposal to build a five-story apartment and retail building downtown, some local elementary students were so inspired to come up with alternative plans that they’ve spent their summer working on them.

In May, the Lawrence City Commission rejected the proposal from Chicago-based developer Core Spaces to build the Hub on Campus at the northeast corner of 11th and Massachusetts streets in downtown Lawrence. Following the decision, Madeline Herrera asked her fifth grade class at Deerfield Elementary, as part of a project-based learning method, what they might build instead.

Herrera said after she posed the question, the students were buzzing with ideas and some even gave up their recess to work on the project as it progressed. When school ended a couple of weeks later, the students decided to continue working on the project during their summer break.

“I was incredibly moved,” Herrera said of her students’ decision to work through the summer. “I think it’s just a testament to how much kids will care about their community if you give them the space. And I think so often as adults we don’t give them that space, and we say, ‘Oh, that’s a nice idea,’ and we just drop it.”

About two dozen students have worked on the project. They broke into teams to figure out how the building’s interior and exterior should look and what types of businesses should go in it, and they reviewed the city’s downtown design guidelines and other rules that the project would have to follow. The students have now spent about three months on the project, which they’ve named Home of the Phoenix, meeting twice weekly throughout the summer.

On Thursday, they will reveal their proposal at a public presentation at the Lawrence Public Library.

photo by: contributed photo

A model of a building that students are proposing for the corner of 11th and Massachusetts streets is pictured within a model of downtown Lawrence.

Though city leaders rejected the Hub on Campus project, that denial is now the subject of a pending lawsuit. The Hub on Campus projects, targeted at college students, have been built in college towns throughout the country and provide “resort-style amenities,” according to the Hub on Campus website. The students’ proposal is decidedly different from that concept. It calls for a three-story building with a grocery store, cafe and subsidized child care center on the ground floor and affordable apartments for low-income people on the upper floors.

On Tuesday, a group of students met at Deerfield to practice for their upcoming presentation. Student Piper Bonner told the Journal-World that she kept working on the project into her summer break because it was fun and she wanted to come up with a building to meet community needs, such as affordable housing, a downtown grocery store and affordable child care. Piper also said she wanted the building itself — which the students have designed with a limestone exterior — to fit in with other downtown buildings.

“I really just wanted to see a building to help people that really fit in with the surroundings,” Piper said.

Student Morgan Sponholtz agreed with that sentiment, noting that a recent study found that about 5,000 people are in need of affordable housing in Lawrence. Last year, BBC Research & Consulting completed a housing market analysis that indicated that 5,200 Lawrence households are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities.

“One big thing that stood out to me is that there are 5,000 people in need of affordable housing,” Morgan said. “So obviously we aren’t going to reach all of those people, but we just wanted to help as many of those people as we could.”

The students took inspiration for the design of the building from a walking tour of downtown Lawrence and also received some professional guidance. When employees of architecture firm Gould Evans Associates heard about the students’ project, the company provided its downtown Lawrence offices as a meeting space and several employees offered additional assistance, including Gould Evans associate Nick Fratta. Herrera said that with that assistance, the students drafted plans for the building and created a model that they placed within an existing model of downtown in order to gauge its scale.

photo by: Contributed photo

A model of a building that students are proposing for the corner of 11th and Massachusetts streets is pictured within a model of downtown Lawrence.

Herrera said one unique aspect of the building is that it would have a ground-level courtyard and garden, which would mirror the location of the garden directly across Massachusetts Street from the project. The garden is one of the environmentally friendly elements of the project, which would also have solar power, energy-efficient appliances, low-flow toilets and showers, and bamboo flooring. Herrera said the students researched potential grants the project could receive if it were to be built to certain environmental standards.

In addition to designing a project they feel would help the community, several students said they enjoyed the experience of working with Gould Evans on the project. Student Cooper Keefer said he was happy to have adults listening to the kids’ ideas and that he liked being able to work with real designers.

“We got to do things most people our age don’t get to do,” Cooper said. “It’s just cool.”

The students will present the plans for their building at 7:15 p.m. Thursday at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St. The presentation is open to the public and the students will host a question and answer session following the presentation.

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