Your Turn: Cultivate better options for historic intersection

The intersection of 11th Street and Massachusetts Street is a Lawrence icon. Postcards, photographs, and civic promotional materials have treated it as the focal point of our city for over a century.

The majestic buildings of the Douglas County Courthouse and the Watkins Museum of History define the character of Lawrence. Its rich cultural, historical, civic and architectural importance are a value to the whole community today and in the future. This cannot be quantified, but it can be destroyed.

The Kansas River and City Hall welcome people to downtown from the north. The corners of 11th Street and Massachusetts Street are the intersection one first encounters after passing through South Park. It frames our downtown from the south. Because of the vital significance of this place as a gateway to our historic downtown, whatever is built on the northeast corner, and whatever business is developed there, must reach a very high standard.

The current proposal for The Hub, student-centered luxury apartments, from Core Spaces, a Chicago developer, does not meet this high standard, nor does it meet the standards set out in two important city documents: Chapter 22 of The Historic Preservation Ordinance-Conservation of Historic Resource Code and the Downtown Design Guidelines. The Historic Resources Commission unanimously denied this project based on these documents. Now facing the appeal of the HRC’s decision by the attorneys for Core Spaces, the City Commission is faced with a pivotal moment in the stewardship of downtown. The commission will have before it a decision that could radically change Lawrence’s most defining and beloved place. And to reject the Historic Resources Commission would set a grave precedent for our city government regarding its commitment to preserving the buildings of our past.

The rallying cry for the Hub proposal is that it brings people downtown. This wish for more residential density downtown is understandable. But the Hub proposal is just too big. The building is too tall, too massive and out of scale with all the surrounding shops and landmark buildings. And it introduces the possibility of 612 students or other residents to a space that is one-third of one downtown block.

This saturated density of people in a small area will create major parking issues. The Hub will have beds for 612 residents but it will only provide 272 parking spaces. Where will possibly 300 cars find spots? The streets in the adjacent East Lawrence neighborhood and the parking lots in the south end of Massachusetts Street already are filled, according to a City Parking Study done in 2017.

Density is supposed to bring more customers to struggling bricks-and-mortar shops downtown. But will that happen? Yes, the bars and restaurants will probably enjoy the proximity of 600 students, but will the propensity of many to buy almost everything on the internet change? The three new apartment buildings on New Hampshire haven’t increased retail sales so far. As a former retail shop owner downtown for 21 years, I sympathize with the shop owners’ struggle. Many owners are trying various mixes of online and walk-in shopping. Some have successful in-store events, talks, classes and gallery events. These are experiences you can’t get online.

There are many other important reasons to say no to this Hub proposal:

The Hub offering luxury housing designed primarily for students would exacerbate housing inequality and goes against the city’s own study on housing needs.

The Hub would radically change the social and cultural identity of this part of downtown and the East Lawrence neighborhood.

The developer of the Hub, Core Spaces, has a questionable track record in the many college towns where it has built these off-campus apartments. There are lawsuits by residents over shoddy construction, plus complaints about trash, mold and other lax maintenance. Core Spaces has sued or threatened to sue cities that do not allow their development.

The Hub’s 612 residents and the hundreds of cars will change how downtown looks, how it is used and who it is for. We would be wise to be patient and cultivate better options.

As residents of Lawrence and caretakers of our community’s legacy, we must stand up for what makes our city great and encourage our city commissioners to reject this Hub proposal at their meeting at City Hall on Tuesday, May 7. The risks are too great if we mess this up.

— Pat Kehde is the retired co-owner of the Raven Bookstore and a longtime Lawrence resident.


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