Lawrence is getting a climbing gym, and downtown may be getting a nearly 50-foot tower as part of it

photo by: Courtesy: Paul Werner Architects

Renderings show what a nearly 50-foot climbing tower would look like at 714 Vermont St., the future location of the climbing gym Climb Lawrence.

Maybe while you’ve been in lockdown mode during this pandemic, you’ve wanted to climb the walls. Soon there will be a new spot in Lawrence that makes a business of it, and it may change the downtown skyline in the process.

All the way back in January, we briefly reported that plans had been filed to convert the building at 714 Vermont St. into a climbing gym. Well, those plans have continued to advance, and they may lead to a new five-story building being constructed on Vermont Street, right behind the historic Eldridge Hotel.

Plans call for Climb Lawrence to begin some operations in the building’s existing space as soon as mid-November, Deanna Mylander, general manager of the business, said. But the really big project may come after the pandemic situation becomes clearer.

The business has received preliminary City Hall approval to build a 47-foot tall climbing tower in what currently serves as the driveway of the 714 Vermont warehouse building. That would allow climbers to reach heights of 40 feet on a nearly vertical wall that would be equipped with state-of-the-art climbing technology, Mylander said.

She said the tower currently is considered a second phase of the Climb Lawrence business. But she does think it ultimately will happen because she’s confident area residents are going to take to the idea of a climbing gym, which has become popular in the Kansas City area.

“Lawrence is a very young, healthy community,” said Mylander, who has been involved in climbing for the past 13 years. “Lots of people who love to run and mountain bike are going to love doing this too.”

The facility will start out with two climbing options. An approximately 20-foot vertical climbing wall will be constructed in the warehouse portion of the existing building. In addition, the building will include a boulder course that operates at lower heights and less steep inclines.

The wall requires climbers to use a rope system and to belay, which is a climbing system that often involves two climbers working in tandem, with one climbing and the other helping anchor the climber to the wall or cliff face. The gym is expected to have an auto-belay system, which allows climbers to use the technique even if they don’t have a climbing partner.

The boulder course doesn’t require a rope system. Heights on that course are no more than 15 feet, and the area below is padded. Plus, climbers are going to get instruction on an important part of the sport.

“You learn how to fall, because that is part of the sport,” Mylander said.

But so too is using your mind. Mylander said climbing is a bit like chess, in that you are most successful when you think several moves ahead. Unlike chess, though, you have to do your thinking while at times putting your body under intense physical strain.

“That is one of the parts of becoming a great climber,” Mylander said. “You learn how to stay mentally relaxed when you feel physically strained, and vice versa, you learn how to relax physically when you are thinking through things mentally.”

The combination of physical and mental skill is one of the aspects that attracted Lawrence resident and avid climber Darren Klish to the sport, so much so that he formed the company that is opening Climb Lawrence.

“The first time I ever entered a climbing gym, I knew instantly it was something Lawrence needed,” Klish said. “It is an opportunity that I want everyone from Lawrence to have. It is intended to be a community gym. It will meet the needs of competitive rock climbers, which we have in this community, but also will meet the needs of moms and children during their summer breaks.”

Mylander said the gym would be a full-service facility, meaning it will provide lessons and also have equipment to rent. Pricing will start at about $18 for a day pass, and membership plans will also be available.

As for details about the proposed tower, it will be large, but it won’t be the largest structure on the block. The tower will be considerably shorter than the brick communications tower that is next to the building. That tower, which is across from the library, is about 180 feet tall, said Leticia Cole, who is part of the climbing gym’s design team with Paul Werner Architects. Cole said the 47-foot climbing tower also would be shorter than the historic Eldridge Hotel, which is just east of the site. The hotel is just under 59 feet tall, but it also is on ground that is about 12 feet higher than the site for the climbing gym.

The city’s Historic Resources Commission last month approved the design of the tower on a 4-3 vote. Commissioners noted that the tower wouldn’t be out of place given the height of the surrounding structures. But the project also drew much discussion from the group because of the type of materials planned for the structure.

The exterior of the tower will be metal panels, which Cole said are foam panels wrapped in steel. She said they would provide a weather-tight and highly efficient skin for the building. But it will be a different look for downtown. While metal panels have been used on portions of some downtown buildings, the tower is expected to make greater use of the panels than other buildings downtown.

HRC members spent considerable time debating whether the project met the city’s downtown design guidelines. HRC staff members recommended that the project not be allowed to use the metal panels. A majority of the commission’s members, though, voted for the design that included the panels, with several noting that the city’s design standards also didn’t fit very well with the midcentury design of the current building at 714 Vermont St. That, along with the taller buildings, made the site a candidate for some innovation, commissioners said.


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