In Lawrence, a proposed luxury housing development has downtown divided
For more than 30 years, Anne Tangeman has enjoyed, from her Lawrence home, a view of the skies above downtown. She loves the sunsets, and she loves the city’s landmark clock tower, which sits atop the former Douglas County Courthouse. The other day, while driving along Massachusetts Street, she suddenly realized that a new development being considered by the city threatened the peaceful views she cherishes.
“The whole thing would just be blocked out,” Tangeman says.
Across the street from the courthouse, on a vacant lot at the corner of Massachusetts Street and 11th Street, a Chicago-based developer called Core Spaces wishes to build a luxury student housing complex called The Hub on Campus. The development, which would also include some retail, would stretch over nine townsite lots that formerly housed Allen Press. If the project is approved, Allen Press will hold a long-term equity position in The Hub after selling the property to Core Spaces. (Full disclosure: Allen Press prints The Pitch.)
The Hub has Lawrence residents deeply divided. Opinions on the development are so strong that it was suggested to me over the weekend that as many as 1,000 people may attend Tuesday’s Lawrence City Commission meeting to voice their thoughts. Tangeman admits that the property — two dilapidated buildings sitting at the inner corners of a crumbling parking lot — is currently an eyesore. But she and many others in the community hope that Lawrence city commissioners will vote against the project. Their concerns range from historic preservation to a lack of affordable housing to the developer itself.
Allen Press CEO Randy Radosevich defends his company’s plan to sell to Core Spaces.
“Lawrence is a university town, and the Core Spaces team is an expert in that space,” Radosevich says. “Of all the developers we considered, what we liked most about Core was their fresh take on architectural design and their use of quality materials.”
Core Spaces has indeed developed a portfolio of Hub on Campus sites in college towns across the country, but many of them have less-than-favorable reviews. Many Hub complexes have one-star ratings on Yelp, rife with complaints about recurrent maintenance problems and poor management.
“If I could, I would give them zero stars,” says one Yelp user who lived at Hub on Campus Tucson, built in 2014. “Very poor quality, complete waste of my money.” Another Yelp user recounted their experience at Hub on Campus Flagstaff, which was built last year: “Dishwasher sprouted a leak saturating the wall, vents are messed up, heater nearly caught fire and produced thick black smoke engulfing the apartment. All I got was ‘sorry.’”
Rodney King, Core Spaces’ senior vice president of development, claims that his company’s portfolio has an average of a 4.1 star rating on Google.
“Core Spaces wants to be a good neighbor, and the Lawrence 2040 plan encourages this type of project,” says King. “We are confident that the development of this 25-year vacant property will enhance and strengthen the downtown core of Lawrence.”
However, when The Pitch looked through the Google reviews for 16 other Hub on Campus projects, many favorable four- and five–star reviews were for properties that have not yet been completed. Seven Hub properties were rated with less than 3.5 stars.
For example, Hub on Campus Tuscaloosa, built in 2018, averages 2.2 stars on Google, and has been in the local news for issues with flooding and mold. Flagstaff’s Hub has a Google rating of 2.5 stars, and residents of Flagstaff also opposed the Hub on Campus in their town for many of the same reasons Lawrence residents currently are.
As of last Friday, the Lawrence City Commission had received 155 pages of input from local residents, most of which criticized the huge scale of The Hub, which would be located near three of the city’s historic landmarks: the courthouse/clocktower, Watkins Museum, and English Lutheran Church.
“Both the height and the incongruous style of the architecture would, I fear, take away from the historic buildings near the project,” wrote one resident.
The city’s Historic Resources Commission (HRC) agrees. Last month, the commission voted unanimously to deny a certificate of appropriateness for the project, finding it would “encroach upon, damage, and destroy the environs” of the three historic sites. The HRC also stated that the proposal did not adequately meet the city’s downtown design guidelines. At that point, Core Spaces appealed to the Lawrence City Commission. The HRC has previously recommended against other projects that the commission went on to approve.
John Gascon, chairman of the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals, thinks the student housing complex would be transforming to the community and believes the HRC misinterpreted the definition of “environs.”
“This proposal doesn’t touch any of those [historic] buildings,” Gascon says. “It’s across the street. This isn’t a case of tearing down a beloved building [or] putting something monstrous right next to some type of very historic site.”
Supporters of the Core Spaces development argue it would be a missed opportunity to pass on the project, since it would be developed with zero public incentives and add approximately $400,000 in new tax revenue to Lawrence’s coffers. Supporters also note that the project would revive a space that has been vacant for more than two decades; it could be years, they say, before another developer comes along.
“They’re coming into our market and not asking for a single incentive, which is completely unique,” says Allison Moore, a longtime real estate broker in downtown Lawrence real estate. “I also think that it is an incredible improvement as a gateway to downtown.”
But other downtowners think the city would be compromising the future potential of the site if it moves forward with Core Spaces.
“Supporters of this project frequently point out that the developer is not requesting any subsidies. But this is not true,” say Meredith Moore and Paul DeGeorge, owners of the downtown shop Wonder Fair. “It is subsidized by the entire history of our city. It is subsidized by the prescient decisions of past city commissions and the HRC who acted to protect the vitality of our downtown over the past several decades.”
At one of the HRC meetings, Sally Zogry, executive director of Downtown Lawrence Inc., voiced support for the project on the grounds of density: more population density from the development would be beneficial to downtown businesses. Allison Moore echoes that.
“It just provides more bodies and more access,” she says. “Think about the residents shopping, and having access to, and dining, and grabbing their coffee or their breakfast.” She also points out that the development offers retail space that is smaller than many existing downtown storefronts, and might help identify a larger market for smaller retailers.
Parking is another issue. The Lawrence Hub on Campus would be designed to house about 600 students with a parking structure holding spots for less than 300 cars. Dave Lowenstein, a longtime Lawrence resident and board member of the East Lawrence Neighborhood Association, voiced his concern about the potential impact of parking issues.
“We are already seeing how the new developments one block over are forcing people who live in the neighborhood to find parking spaces that are a block or two away,” says Lowenstein. “And some of these are older residents.”
Supporters of the project argue less parking would discourage incoming residents from bringing their cars, and increase the walkability of downtown.
“There’s too much parking provided on this project,” says Gascon. “Making a walkable city is probably the most important thing we could do, and that means putting students downtown where they don’t need their car.”
Finally, both sides seem to believe they are championing affordable housing. Those against the project say the luxury complex will widen housing inequality in a time when the city needs more affordable options. But supporters say the increased student housing will draw students away from single-family homes they currently occupy, and open them up for low-income residents.
Last week, City Commissioner Matthew Herbert posted on his Facebook page that, while he had been given plenty of reasons not to approve the project, he hadn’t heard many suggestions about what to do instead.
But Tangeman and Lowenstein, along with Dennis Domer, who’s lived in Lawrence since the 1960s, have several ideas on what could occupy the space: a farmer’s market, a grocery store, a senior living community, or maybe a smaller-scale affordable housing complex.
“I’m not against new construction as long as it’s somewhat good architecture or quality architecture,” Tangeman says.
The city is in the stages of creating a Downtown Master Plan, which will identify the greatest needs of the downtown area. Dalton Paley, who serves on the Master Planning Steering Committee, says some people have said they want to wait until the plan is completed before deciding what should occupy the space.
Paley, who also manages several downtown businesses, is still on the fence about the project. He hopes that Tuesday’s meeting at least inspires productive conversation and progress.
“I’ve gone back and forth a couple times now as we weigh this out,” Paley says. “I don’t know that I think it’s the perfect project, but I do think it opens up a conversation about what development best serves the community and allows downtown to grow in a changing market.”
The Lawrence City Commission will convene at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, May 7, at Lawrence City Hall (6 E. 6th St).