Steering committee for downtown plan wants more time to consider feedback to draft plan

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Members of a steering committee overseeing the proposed master plan for downtown Lawrence are asking the city commission to delay consideration of the plan for at least three weeks to them more time to gather community feedback and consider existing comments on a final draft of the plan, which will be the framework for downtown development for the next two decades.

Thirteen members of the steering committee voted unanimously Thursday to ask for the delay, saying that the process was moving too fast and that the consulting firm that drafted the plan hasn’t had time to make adjustments based on public feedback already received. The plan has been scheduled to be presented to the Lawrence City Commission on Tuesday.

“When we talk to our peers, they’re very concerned by some of the language, even though most [of the plan] we celebrate. We think there’s opportunity here,” committee member Brady Flannery, who is also the president of Weaver’s, said Wednesday. “But to rush this through, especially in a time of COVID, especially with business in downtown Lawrence being in a crisis, would completely be tone deaf.”

While most of the 13 steering committee members present Thursday voiced appreciation for the consultants from Chicago-based Houseal Lavigne Associates who have spent almost three years gathering information and drafting recommendations for the future of downtown, it was equally clear that many were unhappy with much of the recent process.

The steering committee, which comprises various stakeholders around Lawrence, had met only twice prior to Thursday, but still was being asked to recommend to the city commission in a matter of days that the plan be adopted. Several members commented extensively on how they couldn’t in good faith recommend the plan for approval without seeing how the consulting firm would incorporate public feedback into a final draft. They said another steering committee evaluation was necessary after the extended comment period ends.

In Thursday’s meeting, members of the steering committee noted public objections to various elements of the draft plan, including language on historic preservation, issues of inclusion and suggestions that landmark buildings like the downtown Post Office and Replay Lounge could be targets for future redevelopment. The committee members said they needed more time to digest that feedback and make recommendations to the consultants and the City Commission about how to modify the final version of the plan and its specific recommendations, which have not yet been formulated.

In an email to The Lawrence Times earlier this week, steering committee member Sarah Hill-Nelson, chief executive of Bowersock Mills and Power Co., said that the group had received no communication on the plan from the consulting firm since January 2020, and moving so quickly to approve a draft plan they’ve only had access to for a matter of weeks felt especially rushed. At a public hearing on the draft plan last week, many community members also said they felt the plan was essentially being railroaded through.

“It came out of the blue a little bit as I wasn’t actually aware of the timeline of an early June approval until some members of the public reached out to me with their concerns,” Hill-Nelson said. “The turnaround is really quick now and we haven’t had a chance to digest this material or really give the public time to consider it.  The concern would be that although the Master Plan is just a guideline, it does set parameters and it seems like its significance is great enough that there should be just a little more time on the back end for both the Steering Committee and the Public to absorb and comment.”

Hill-Nelson echoed many of those comments Thursday, and other steering committee members agreed to delay the plan. Whether or not commissioners will still hear a presentation on the plan Tuesday is unclear.

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