From kayaks to fishing to strolling, Lawrence gets more serious about adding amenities along Kansas River

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

City officials have filed for a permit to add recreational amenities along the Kansas River, opening the door for the city to begin applying for grants or gathering funding for such a project. The amenities, including fishing areas, a new recreation path, and a boat dock, would take advantage of a temporary road that has been constructed for a dam repair project currently underway. The temporary road where the new path could be built is roughly where the white truck is along the right bank of the river.

The idea of adding amenities to make the Kansas River more of an attraction in downtown Lawrence is as old as some of my fish tales. Both have filled more time than boats. But in fishing parlance, the bobber is starting to bounce a bit on the idea of the Kaw becoming a community gathering place.

City officials have filed for a special use permit that would allow for a host of amenities — everything from fishing platforms to kayak features — to be built on the portion of the river near Abe & Jake’s Landing and the SpringHill Suites by Marriott, which occupies what used to be the Riverfront Mall building.

That, of course, is right on the edge of downtown Lawrence, which already has created thoughts about how the river could become a new attraction for both locals and visitors to experience. Think kayak rentals or paddle boards or maybe even just a large patio to have a few cool beverages while watching the frothy water tumble over the nearby Bowersock Dam.

“Whether it is walking, fishing or just sitting there eating your sack lunch, we need to do a better job of getting people down to the river,” said Mike Logan, who owns the Abe & Jake’s Landing event venue that is along the Kansas River.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

Construction work is underway to make repairs on the Bowersock dam on the Kansas River. In the background is the area where city officials are considering adding amenities along the river. The former Riverfront Mall building, which now houses a Marriott hotel, city offices and other uses, already has a promenade along the river, which would be incorporated into future designs.

But any good fisherman knows the deal isn’t done until the hook is out of the mouth (and the subsequent tetanus shot is delivered, of course.) In other words, it is no sure thing that any of these improvements will happen. But the fact the city has filed for a permit makes it more substantive than most of the previous talk.

“It sure seems like we have an underutilized amenity in the community right now,” said Melinda Harger, the assistant director for the city’s municipal services and operations department.

And now may be the time that makes the most sense to do something about it, she said. A construction project already is underway to repair several holes in the Bowersock Dam. The city has undertaken the project — even though the dam serves the privately owned hydroelectric power plants on both sides of the river — because the dam keeps the Kansas River deep enough for the city’s water plant to function properly.

In addition, the city has discovered that a retaining wall along the south bank of the river also is nearing collapse, and additional work is needed to better stabilize the bank that holds Abe & Jake’s and the old mall building. Those projects have required the construction of a temporary road along the south bank of the river. Harger said one of the amenities planned for the river is a new trail that essentially would follow the path of the temporary road, just at a slightly higher elevation.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

A retaining wall near the Bowersock Mills power plant and Abe & Jake’s Landing has badly deteriorated.

That trail could be lined with some boulders and other hardscaping that both would stabilize the bank and create some safe fishing areas. The new trail also would have a connection to the existing promenade that runs along the bottom level of the old mall building. That promenade already is open to the public, but it attracts few visitors, and it is not like the city holds any events on the site. (Side note: Think of how often the city closes a street for a small event. What if some of those were held on the promenade with food and beverage vendors? Party on the Promenade.)

“It is beautiful, but it is like a secret garden that nobody knows about,” Logan said of the promenade.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

A view of the Kansas River from the promenade that is connected to the former Riverfront Mall building, just east of Lawrence City Hall.

The trail, fishing areas and connection to the promenade might be feasible in phase one of a river project, Harger said. But she also noted the city doesn’t yet have a cost estimate for the project, and it doesn’t have specific money set aside for it. But the city wants to get the special use permit — which would be issued by the planning commission and the City Commission — so that step would be out of the way if the city wanted to pursue grant funding for the idea.

Drawings submitted as part of the permit application, however, show a broader range of possibilities for future amenities. Here’s a look at the master drawing.

photo by: Courtesy: S20 Design and Engineering/City of Lawrence

A special use permit application filed with the city of Lawrence shows recreational amenities that could be added along the Kansas River near the portion of the Kaw that is just east of City Hall.

On the far east edge of the project, you see a spot for a new boat ramp. It would be just east of the old mall building. While the terrain is tricky, Harger said she hopes a ramp could be developed not just for kayaks and other small craft but for larger fishing boats and trailers. One thing the area has going for it is there already is a parking lot to serve the site. There is a parking lot on the east end of the old mall building, which is accessed by turning north off of Seventh Street, just a bit before you get to the old Santa Fe Depot building. That parking lot also provides easy access to the entrance of the promenade.

The plan also shows a trio of “kayak structures” that are near the path but extend out into the river. Details on those weren’t very clear on the plan, and my attempt to reach the Colorado-based firm that submitted the plans, S20 Design and Engineering, wasn’t successful. But they appear to be jetty-like structures made of boulders, which presumably would produce some turbulent water that might be fun for a kayak to pass through.

The plans also show a large patio area of about 5,500 square feet that would be located behind the Abe & Jake’s event center. It is marked off as a private area, which likely means Abe & Jake’s Landing would be responsible for funding that portion of the project. Logan said he’s excited to have that concept included in the permit application, but he can’t commit to whether Abe & Jake’s would be able to deliver on that, especially now that his event business has basically been shut down due to pandemic restrictions on event sizes.

“During the last few months, though, we have had a lot of time to dream big,” Logan said.

Any future project also probably will need buy-in from some other entities along the river. The city, for instance, owns the land that the former mall property sits upon, but the SpringHill Suites by Mariott and an investment group led by members of the Simons family — the former owners of the Journal-World — own the actual building.

The Hill family — descendants of J.D. Bowersock, who built the dam and used it to fuel an industrial empire on the river — continues to operate the Bowersock Mills & Power Co., which is adjacent to the project.

Sarah Hill-Nelson, co-owner of Bowersock, said some precautions will need to be taken to ensure boaters and others don’t get too close to the power plants, if the area becomes more popular for recreational activities. Despite those potential issues, she said she’s very enthusiastic about the project. She said she wants people to experience what she sees most every workday along the river.

“It is just very beautiful down here,” she said.


Welcome to the new Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.