Editorial: Hub project forces the question of ‘what type of downtown do we want?’

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

The Lawrence City Commission on Tuesday has a lot more to figure out than whether to allow a large apartment building in downtown.

A more important issue to decide is what type of downtown do we want? Do we want a historic district that allows for some economic activity? Or do we want an economic district that respects some historic structures?

As is the case on several topics, it is not really clear what Lawrence wants today.

The latest project to bring this question to a head is The Hub, an approximately five-story building proposed for 11th and Massachusetts — across from the County Courthouse. The Hub would have a mix of retail and apartments, which would total about 550 bedrooms.

The Historic Resources Commission has rejected plans for the project, and city commissioners are being urged by staff members to uphold that denial on Tuesday.

There is no reason to over-complicate the major issue. City staff thinks the building is too big. Arguing about building heights in downtown is nothing new. The city has created a document that almost guarantees it.

One part of the city code says buildings can be up to 90 feet in downtown. This proposed building has a maximum height of just more than 65 feet. But with a phrase that delights lawyers who bill by the hour, the code also says the 90-foot height is subject to “location and height limitations in the Downtown Design Guidelines and Downtown Design Standards.” Theoretically, that would be fine if the design guidelines actually went lot by lot in downtown and assigned a maximum height that each lot could support.

The guidelines, though, do nothing of the sort. They are much more subjective, which is just how historic preservationists like them. Historic preservation, you see, is not a science. It is much more of an art. Historic preservationists like to see how a project will look, and then they’ll make decisions on whether the project fits in with the historic district.

It actually may be the way to create a good historic district. Make no mistake, the local historic preservation community is full of good and knowledgeable people. The same goes for the city staff reviewing this project, which is just doing its job as it has been presented. Don’t make this personal.

But the historic preservation process can be unpredictable, and that doesn’t make for a good business district. Business people making investments like as much predictability as they can get. Just tell them upfront how tall a building can be on a particular lot, and they can make their decision on whether to proceed.

Instead, investors are left to contemplate findings like this one from the city’s staff report: “No other structures of this size have ever existed in the environs of the listed properties,” which are the Courthouse, the Watkins Museum and the English Lutheran Church.

The fact there hasn’t ever been a building that tall next to these buildings is one of the reasons people want this project denied. Thankfully that rule hasn’t applied throughout human history. We all would be colder at nights without roofs over our heads.

This is where the idea of historic preservation starts to fall apart for many people. It is one thing to have laws on the books making it difficult to tear down the historically significant buildings on Massachusetts Street. They are treasures.

But to have some rule that the Courthouse must always be the dominant building in its area seems odd. How does that reflect the world we live in? What will future historians think of us? We live in a world where population growth makes us more crowded but we refuse to make our buildings bigger?

But maybe that is what historic districts are supposed to do: keep the world the way it used to be. That mindset, though, will make it difficult for downtown to be the economic district it can be.

If downtown isn’t destined to be our economic district, it is crucial that city leaders determine what will be. Historic districts are beneficial to a community. Economic districts are critical.


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