LPA Letter to Lawrence City Commission About the Proposed HUB Project

 April 7, 2019

From: Lawrence Preservation Alliance

To: Lawrence City Commission

Re: HUB Project

The Board of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance stands in strong support of decisions by the Lawrence Historic Resources Commission (HRC) regarding the proposed HUB project in the 1000 block of New Hampshire and Massachusetts streets.

In denying a certificate of appropriateness, HRC has determined that the HUB project, as currently proposed, will significantly encroach upon, damage or destroy the environs of the Douglas County Courthouse and the Watkins Bank Building on Massachusetts, and the English Lutheran Church on New Hampshire.

In ruling that the project also does not meet the intent of the Downtown Design Guidelines, HRC has determined that the project will adversely affect structures within the Lawrence Downtown Urban Conservation Overlay District, by not meeting a number of key guidelines regarding the relationship that infill construction must have to existing structures in terms of height, mass and scale.

You have also received letters in support of the HRC determinations from the Board of the Douglas County Historical Society and the Watkins Museum of History, and the Douglas County Heritage Conservation Council.  The ownership group of the English Lutheran Church strongly supports the HRC finding.  Many Lawrence citizens are also expressing their concerns.

Should City Commission choose to overturn these HRC rulings, it will be rejecting the recommendation of every commission or board of directors in town that is focused on the well-being of this city’s historic and cultural assets.

LPA believes the decision before you is of similar magnitude to the one in 2008, when the City Commission overturned an HRC decision and allowed the controversial Oread Hotel to be built, or the one in 1984-85, when the Commission denied two proposals to place large downtown malls north of 9thStreet. The HUB footprint is similarly huge and the impact will be irreversible.

The County Courthouse and the Watkins Bank Building, along with the Eldridge Hotel, are the three most significant historic landmarks in downtown Lawrence.

The Lawrence Preservation Alliance Board is very sympathetic to our local downtown business owners.  Preservationists are ‘buy local’ people.  We understand that our downtown is more than a collection of historic buildings.  The people in them that provide goods and services combine with those buildings to create the downtown culture we all strive to protect and to grow.  We have listened to concerns they have expressed at the HRC and the Planning Commission and recognize the symptoms they are experiencing as real.  But we have concerns with their belief that this project will help the downtown business environment in any significant way.  We will address three of those concerns here:

Increasing residential density downtown will help increase sales for downtown retailers.

LPA agrees with this statement, but wonder by what metric can it be determined that it is actually working.  The Executive Director of Downtown Lawrence says that the last two years have been extremely tough for downtown business owners.  Yet, multiple high rise residential projects on New Hampshire Street were completed by that time.  Is this strategy not working?  Could it be that other known factors hurting downtown retail, such as internet shopping, exorbitant rents with unreasonable maintenance clauses, and frequent street closures for parades and outdoor events, are harmful enough to cancel out our already considerable building activity?

If we feel we must increase downtown residential  density to improve retail sales, why would we want to encourage downtown residence by the demographic least likely to shop during daytime business hours, college students, who are also the demographic most likely to shop online?  Yes, four or five times a year their parents may visit and shop downtown , but  downtown business owners are saying they need consistent Monday through Saturday sales throughout the year.

Such a large increase in student residential population at this location would increase parking congestion near the Courthouse.  It also would  be reasonable to expect increased safety concerns downtown during late-night hours, as potentially larger groups of young people having a good time congregate after shows or at bar closing time. Massachusetts Street has seen unacceptable late night shooting incidents in recent years.

Downtown is simply not the place to build a massive student housing project.  LPA notes that the other student housing project in the pipeline, the Opus Group on 23rdand Naismith Streets, is a good location for a project like this, has already received its approvals with minimum opposition, and is set to improve another area the City Commission is likely concerned with, which is the 23rdStreet corridor.

Increasing urban density with taller infill is more sustainable than continued suburban sprawl.

Most preservationists would say this is true, with a caveat.  Preservationists are not fans of suburban sprawl.  The preservation movement, officially starting with the passage of the National Preservation Act in 1966, closely followed the emergence of a post- World War II cultural movement towards greenfield suburban car-centric development.  This urban flight endangered many culturally significant and well-built structures that were abandoned by their builders.  Many of the first preservationists spent their money, time and sweat equity revitalizing that building stock, which they had purchased for a song because no one valued them anymore.

This certainly happened in Lawrence, and it happened to some degree in our downtown. Whereas preservationists rejected suburbanism more for architectural and community-based reasons, the  sustainability movement rejects suburbanism  for reasons concerning walkability, energy efficiency, climate change, population growth and deliverability of public services. 

 Preservationists welcome this move towards sustainability.  What’s the caveat?  Infill located in areas with historic resources must be constructed in a sensitive manner.  In the Lawrence downtown area, the historic character goes hand in hand with the local business people we want to prosper here.  Cramming a monolithic oversized five or six stories of development into an area with three significant historic structures and a collection of one to four story protected commercial properties will harm the one hand in hoping to help the other. 

The proposed location is an eyesore and has been that way for many years.

LPA agrees that our community has to solve this problem, but there could be any number of variables at play which have contributed to the current situation.  We don’t know if the property was on the market for all this time, or if the owners of the property, which fronts three major streets, were ever open to dividing the property and selling to two or more entities. We don’t know what the asking price is, or if offers have been previously received and refused.  Maybe the density is sky- high here because the asking price is.  We don’t know.

We do know that at no point in that time was a project proposed here that did not get built because it could not get historic review approvals.

Our community is currently working on a comprehensive Downtown Master Plan.  LPA would suggest that if the HUB project cannot fit within a range of storefronts from one to four stories high, and also cannot exist without the incentive of building in airspace over the city right of way in the alley (an issue LPA finds so egregious that we will address it in a separate letter), then this City Commission should uphold the HRC ruling, direct HUB to consider more appropriate Lawrence locations, make developing this vacant site a priority in the  Downtown Master Plan, and lead this community towards an appropriate solution of this problem.  We look forward to a future project that does follow downtown guidelines and historic guidelines and that the entire community can support.


Dennis J Brown

President, Lawrence Preservation Alliance