Editorial: Now is the time to consider whether historic preservation is working in downtown

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Important work to plan for downtown Lawrence’s future is underway. Local leaders as part of that effort should spend some time considering whether they’ve placed too much importance on its past.

Historic preservation has long been a foundational piece of downtown Lawrence’s success. It is clear that historic preservation will continue to play an important role in its future too. However, the city-hired consultants who have been studying downtown have remarked that elements of the city’s historic preservation strategy are holding downtown Lawrence back.

Such statements caused the majority of a downtown working group last week to bristle. They’re recommending that the City Commission remove such language from the plan.

A better path would be to really talk about such language and the sentiment behind it.

First, it is important to understand what is not being discussed. The idea that there are many old, key, important buildings in downtown Lawrence that need protection is one of the few ideas that create true consensus in our community. You won’t find any support of significance for tearing down jewels like Liberty Hall, the Watkins Museum, the House Building, The Eldridge or so many others in downtown Lawrence. It is not hard to understand how those structures create a feel and attraction that benefit our community not only from a commercial standpoint but also a cultural one.

What is harder to understand is the concept of “historic environs.” This page has commented on that previously, and the city-hired consultants have now added their voices. In short, there are significant restrictions on what changes can be made within 250 feet of historic structures. Making certain changes to the “environs” of a historic structure can be a real no-no in the historic preservation world.

It also can be a real head-scratcher at times. There are a number of people who struggle to understand the concept behind the historic environs. How, for instance, would a modern-looking building that would replace the deteriorating industrial property that formerly served Allen Press at 11th and Massachusetts streets detract from the truly historic Douglas County Courthouse across the street?

City commissioners ought to use the downtown master plan as an opportunity to create a broader understanding of why this environs strategy is the appropriate one. If they can’t create that broader understanding, then they should modify the environs strategy.

A common criticism of the city’s environs practices is that it can be hard to predict what is allowed and what is rejected. There seems to be an awful lot of subjectivity in the practice. The cynics among us believe that there have been times certain city commissioners haven’t cared so much about historic preservation but have supported the environs practice — and the downtown design guidelines that go with it — because they are an easy way to maintain all the power over downtown development. If you don’t like a project, the environs and design regulations give you ample tools to beat it back. If you do like a project, you can make it so the environs and design guidelines don’t stand in the way.

Maybe that is what the community wants: maximum opportunity to reject projects on a case-by-case basis. If so, the consultants are likely right that downtown will fall short of what it can be. That type of environment will turn off many entrepreneurs who have good ideas for downtown. The risk is just too great that they’ll spend time and money advancing a plan to have it rejected for highly subjective reasons.

The current master planning process is the place to address those concerns. Let’s not just cut language from the draft plan that makes us uncomfortable. Let’s spend a little bit of time pondering why a trained set of outside eyes would feel compelled to include such language in the first place.


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