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Analysis: Downtown Master Plan draft proposes a few big changes, but skirts critical local issues

The final draft of the long-simmering master plan for downtown Lawrence suggests that such landmark buildings as the post office, the U.S. Bank building, the Replay Lounge and the former Journal-World printing plant could be torn down or redeveloped to make room for new business and residential developments in the city’s core.

But the 115-page plan is all but silent on how downtown planning and development should deal with such key local issues as affordable housing, homelessness, aging of the population, soaring downtown vacancy rates and the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Oddly, it also does not appear to take into account downtown’s proximity to the University of Kansas, whose students provide a large percentage of the customers for downtown businesses, restaurants and bars.

The downtown plan was created for the city over the past 2 1/2 years by Houseal Lavigne Associates, a consulting firm based in Chicago and Pasadena, Calif., at a contracted cost of $110,000, later expanded to $147,000. Originally scheduled to be completed in October 2019 but delayed in part because inclement weather postponed public comment sessions, the draft plan will be presented to a virtual public meeting on May 20 and to the Lawrence City Commission on June 1. The plan ends with a blank “action matrix” that the city is to fill in to provide guidance on how to implement the plan’s key elements.

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The plan covers a wide variety of topics about the future of downtown Lawrence, ranging from remodeling building façades to height limitations to sidewalk benches. In its introduction, Houseal Lavigne writes, “The purpose of the Downtown Lawrence Master Plan is to guide growth and development. … Overall, the Master Plan establishes a vision for the future of Downtown and includes the recommendations and policies to make that vision a reality.”

But the overall vision as presented in the plan is fairly limited. While it purports to envision Lawrence’s downtown circa 2040, it doesn’t seem massively different from Lawrence in 2021. It barely touches on how the ongoing shift to online retailing will affect in-person shopping and doesn’t mention how the city will deal with the rise of electric and autonomous vehicles over the next couple of decades, something that planning experts believe will have a significant effect on street, transportation and parking needs.

The plan does make specific recommendations for a handful of downtown Lawrence’s best-known buildings, identified by the plan as “opportunity sites,” “redevelopment sites” or “catalyst sites.” The post office on Vermont Street, for instance, could be razed and turned into retail and residential space, perhaps with a row of townhouses behind it on Kentucky Street (no recommendation is made about where the Post Office would be relocated).

“Although a post office is a desirable use Downtown, the large footprint of the lot, lack of intensity in the development of the building, and incompatible architectural style makes this site a significant opportunity for redevelopment,” the plan says.

Adapted from Downtown Lawrence Master Plan draft report

Similarly, the plan identifies the venerable Replay Lounge and adjacent Red Lyon Tavern on Massachusetts Street as inefficient one-story buildings on the main business strip that could be torn down and replaced with a two- or three-story mixed-use building. And the former Journal-World printing plant, which takes up much of the 600 block of Massachusetts Street, could either be converted into “artisan manufacturing live-work space” or torn down and replaced by a mixed-use development, the plan suggests. (There is no mention of a longstanding proposal to use that site for a hotel and convention center.)

Other buildings could be significantly reworked, the draft plan suggests. The hulking U.S. Bank building might be expanded with at least two stories of residential or office space atop its one-story portion along Ninth Street. And facades of several downtown buildings could be enhanced under the plan, including replacing the 50-year-old stucco façade of Weaver’s Department Store, which covers a stately red-brick building built in 1911. “Several buildings that exhibit the ideal built form for Downtown suffer from deteriorating or altered façades,” the plan says. “The City should update its Downtown Design Guidelines and establish a Façade Enhancement Program to require façade restoration or enhancement when substantial rehabilitation is planned for a building.”

The draft plan for downtown also suggests building new mixed-use buildings on most existing downtown parking lots along Vermont and New Hampshire streets, replacing them with a couple of parking garages. “These lots represent significant redevelopment opportunities and should be planned for accordingly,” the plan says. One parking lot redevelopment, the plan suggests, might include a permanent plaza for the Lawrence Farmers’ Market.

August Rudisell/@KsScanner The former Lawrence Journal-World printing plant at Sixth and Massachusetts streets is pictured on May 10, 2021.
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Nonetheless, for all of these suggestions of new construction that might make developers’ mouths water, the draft downtown plan doesn’t spend a lot of time suggesting how all of this new retail, office and residential space would be occupied. With downtown vacancy rates at their highest levels in years in the wake of the pandemic, it may be years before many existing empty downtown storefronts are occupied again and Lawrence’s core regains its vibrancy. (The plan does suggest fees or taxes be levied against landlords who leave space unleased for long periods of time.)

Indeed, the draft plan strangely says nothing about the effects of the pandemic on local business, and it doesn’t seem to recognize the large number of impromptu al fresco dining options that have popped up on Massachusetts and surrounding streets in recent months as restaurants have scrambled to deal with social distancing rules and the business crash of the past year – though the plan does favor the general idea of sidewalk cafés. 

Nor does the plan substantively address affordable housing or homelessness. Some of its recommendations for new residential construction mention in passing that space should be set aside for affordable housing, but it includes no detailed plans for how to do that beyond saying “collaboration is paramount to the success of affordable housing in Downtown Lawrence and the City should foster partnerships with property owners, developers, and nonprofits whenever possible to ensure its success.” And its single page on homelessness makes simple suggestions for lockers for the unhomed to store their belongings and for a possible volunteer program that would give homeless workers vouchers for helping with downtown maintenance. But it doesn’t go much further than that.

The plan also is silent on a long-circulating idea to close portions of Massachusetts Street to vehicular traffic to create a pedestrian walkway, and although it cites the Kansas River area as “underutilized,” its recommendations for improvement there are mostly limited to building a pedestrian bridge, or adding walkways to the existing Kaw River bridges, and to create a riverwalk along the south bank of the river between Abe & Jakes and the former Riverfront shopping mall, now used for offices and a hotel. It also suggests “researching opportunities to activate the river including expanding fishing, kayaking, and other recreational opportunities, as well as a whitewater course.”

The plan’s recommendations for North Lawrence don’t go much beyond suggestions for high-rise commercial development around on Second Street around Johnny’s Tavern, which previously has been proposed by a developer.

Dramatic plans for Lawrence’s downtown have been created by the city and developers as long as the city has been around. Perhaps the most recent significant proposal was an idea floated in the late 1980s to turn downtown into a sort of giant shopping mall, anchored by three large department stores scattered around the downtown area and connected by skyways. That plan fizzled after about a year when city leaders decided they wanted to preserve Lawrence’s small-town feel.

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