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East Lawrence Residents Show 9th Street Design Team Their Neighborhood

Just in the last handful of years, an industrial area in Lawrence, Kansas has been transformed into what's called the Warehouse Arts District. Previously boarded up buildings, like a former grocery warehouse and a cider vinegar plant, now house a gallery, a few dozen artist studios, and apartments. 

Plans for the 9th Street corridor in east Lawrence have raised hackles, with some area residents butting heads with city officials. But the grant-funded project for new art and infrastructure along East 9th Street —a seven-block stretch from downtown through a residential area to this burgeoning arts hub — is starting to get underway. Last week, a citizen advisory committee met for the first time, and the design team took a tour. 

"The first piece of the puzzle down here was the Poehler lofts, an old produce storage facility," says Flint Hills Development Group's Tom Larkin, who guides a group of architects and designers charged with connecting 9th Street from downtown to this arts district.

Larkin starts with the district's anchor: the Poehler Loft Apartments, which opened in 2012. He points out the exposed brick walls, polished concrete floors and lots of windows. 

"The idea is to build a district where artists, where Lawrence, where everyone is comfortable and wants to be here and wants to be part of it," says Larkin. 

Listening and learning 

Kansas City-based el dorado, inc. heads up the design team for the 9th Street Corridor project, an art and streetscape proposal with funding from an ArtPlace grant. el dorado principal Josh Shelton says an advisory committee of stakeholders, from neighborhood leaders to city officials, will help shape the design. 

"There's such a variety of perspectives from people that live right here in the neighborhood watching very closely how the street ties into their side yards and their existing neighborhood fabric to other stakeholders ... (asking) how is this a street that serves the city, how does it fit in with the larger urban context?"

British artist Tristan Surtees and French architect Charles Blanc met in Scotland in 2000 — and they've been collaborating almost ever since as the artist collective Sans façon, based in Calgary, Canada. They're the project's lead artists, so Surtees says they're trying to gather as much information as they can from the people who live and work in east Lawrence. 

"You can't really make a contribution without listening and learning first," says Surtees. "For, just really understanding what makes East Lawrence special is part of my job, and a pleasure."

A time of transition

"It's a very interesting place, it's a delicate place, it's sensitive, it's often an angry place," says architectural historian Dennis Domer about east Lawrence. "Because it's being gentrified, and well, there's almost no way to stop it." 

Domer recently retired from the University of Kansas after teaching for four decades. He's spent a lot of time studying and documenting working class houses, like those in east Lawrence, built primarily between 1865 and 1900. Continuity with the past, he says, will help protect a future that will be more sensitive to place.

"I think it's possible for us to do a series of changes on 9th Street without changing the character of 9th Street," Domer says. "That will be delicate task of these designers."

Keeping what's there, open to change

About a dozen east Lawrence residents are waiting to meet the design team at Hobbs Park at 10th and Delaware. There's a softball field, a playground, and a house built in the 1860s. It was scheduled to be torn down a few blocks away, but it was re-located to this site. But, not without a fight, says artist Ardys Ramberg. 

"The fact that this house moved here is a serious indication of how seriously many people feel about keeping what's here," she says. 

And that phrase "keeping what's here" is a recurring theme with many residents as they walk through the neighborhood, from flowering trees along 9th Street to affordable rent. 

A nearby community mural organized by artist Dave Loewenstein includes scenes of the history of the area, like the names of American Indian tribes and images of the canning industry.

KT Walsh, also an artist, pauses for a look and says she's hopeful about the 9th Street project. "It could be really, really good. And we need more sidewalks," she says. But, she's being cautiously optimistic. 

"I think people are trying really hard to heal," she says. "The process in the past has been behind closed doors."

Gaining trust 

It's the day after the site walkabout, and Tristan Surtees and Charles Blanc of Sans façon are scheduled to return to Calgary. They stop in at el dorado's offices near the Crossroads Arts District in Kansas City to reflect. 

"It was as much about relationships and forming a kind of level of trust, in a genuine way," says Surtees, who describes this stage as being a sponge. "Our sponge period is probably 2/3 of the project. And then it starts to emerge and appear for itself. It should feel very natural to that location. That's how we try and work. And that's when you know it's right."

Blanc explains that it's very much the beginning of their process.

"Gathering of information is more intangible, almost like the poetic of the place," Blanc says. "It doesn't have to be recorded exactly what that person said word for word, it's more about the action of being in those places, and the stories that come up." 

And Sans façon — and the rest of the design team — will be collecting more stories and talking to more residents over the next few months. A public presentation of the 9th Street design is expected in November. 

The city of Lawrence will host three public workshops focused on the 9th Street Corridor and the project's design process on Wednesday, April 8, Thursday, April 9, and Monday, April 20, 7 pm - 9:30 pm, at New York Elementary. Find a complete list of public workshops and presentations here

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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