Editorial: How much change can downtown handle?

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Lawrence city commissioners largely followed the public’s lead in rejecting plans on Tuesday for a large apartment/retail building at 11th and Massachusetts streets.

There are worse things for politicians to do than listen to the public. Hopefully, though, commissioners understand their work on this issue doesn’t end as the crowd leaves City Hall.

There were hints that they understand this. Commissioner Jennifer Ananda said during last week’s meeting that the design guidelines for downtown should be rewritten, arguing that the vagueness of the existing guidelines “made it impossible” for the developer to comply with them.

That should not be the case — if the community is interested in seeing new investment in downtown Lawrence. Entrepreneurs who are taking risks with their own money deserve some help from government in the form of predictability. An entrepreneur’s worries should be about the vagaries of the market and other factors that can’t be controlled. They shouldn’t have to worry about regulations shifting like sand beneath their feet.

What developers heard from some in the crowd at Tuesday’s meeting is that Lawrence is the “jewel” of Kansas, and we can pick and choose which projects we want. We can say no and wait for something better to come along.

Hopefully city commissioners didn’t take that approach in rejecting this project. It is not how the system is designed to work. Government sets the bar with its codes and regulations, but it doesn’t get to say to someone that you cleared the bar, but we are going to reject you anyway because we think you could have cleared it even higher. The system is designed to work as a partnership. Government builds floors. The private sector and risk-takers build the ceilings.

It will be interesting to see if city leaders really are interested in making the current design guidelines less vague. As part of a rewrite, city officials could go so far as to set density and height limits on each of the downtown lots that clearly will have development pressures in the not-to-distant future — the Allen Press property at 11th and Massachusetts, the former Journal-World printing plant at Sixth and New Hampshire, and every city-owned surface parking lot. Tell everybody up front this is how big of a building you can construct and this is how tall it can be. It would be a green light for investors far and wide to seriously look at downtown.

Is downtown, though, ready for a green light? More precisely, is the community ready for it? For instance, some people clearly were concerned that this proposed project and its approximately 550 bedrooms was going to bring a horde of college students to live downtown. For those people, rejection of this plan had little to do with historic preservation.

Never mind that there is nothing stopping the hundreds of apartments recently built on New Hampshire Street from becoming student housing in the future. This project, though, was structured that way from the beginning and caused many to confront those fears. No doubt, the environment of downtown would be at risk of changing significantly if downtown becomes the next student living district. It likely would require a new set of regulations and reactions from City Hall.

Maybe the public reaction on Tuesday says Lawrence isn’t up to that challenge right now. Figuring out what downtown is ready for is among some of the heaviest lifting left for city commissioners. Downtown doesn’t necessarily have to change. It can continue on its current course and it likely would become more of an entertainment and tourist district. But, remember, there is nothing cheap about a tourist district. And many of them — especially those not next to mountains or an ocean — frequently flirt with becoming unsustainable. Greater density and more living units probably play a big role in keeping downtown vibrant for the long term.

But density will produce a lot of change for downtown. The district will look and probably even feel different. That’s the biggest chore for city leaders: convincing the public that downtown can change but still be great.


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