Nov. 15, 2017
When Lawrence business owner Cindy Maude stood up to speak in front of the city commission in June, she wasn’t just about to fight for a project left to its bare bones — she was fighting for the future of art in downtown Lawrence.
“We know the street needs to be improved. We know at a minimum that will be done,” she said. “But I think we have the opportunity here to go to the next step. I would urge you to go the next step. This project, while it has been compromised greatly from the original design, still has the opportunity to be a wonderful model for Lawrence and supporting safe, healthy and welcoming neighborhoods, innovative infrastructure and collaborative solutions.”
Maude was speaking that day about the East Ninth Street Project. On that day, June 20, the city commission put to a vote a basic street design for East Ninth Street. Four years ago, the City of Lawrence had a plan to make an arts corridor out of East Ninth Street. There were visions to add green space, patios for intimate gatherings, and sculptures and murals made by national and local artists across seven blocks downtown.
The original was far from what was put to a vote in June. The new plan was approved after a unanimous vote from the city commission; the original was dismissed.
What it would have looked like:
The original budget for the East Ninth Street Project was estimated at $3.8 million for a stretch from Massachusetts to Delaware. Outside of integrated art, there were also options for environmentally friendly additions. An original concept plan included a public orchard, perhaps most importantly to locals, preserved green space.
“East Ninth Street has needed this for a long time,” said Sarah Bishop, communications director for the Lawrence Arts Center. “They really need their street repaired. The infrastructure of the street itself [needs repair]. The sidewalks need repair.”
The plan also included major street and infrastructure upgrades. This area is currently classified as seven blocks of poorly lit streets and sidewalk long in need of repair.
The much-needed renovations brought the city to create a task force in 2013 to put together a plan to enhance the attractiveness of areas in Lawrence like East Ninth.
The city looked to the Lawrence Arts Center to help find financing for the arts portion of Ninth Street, while the city focused on the street itself. The center found help with a $500,000 grant in 2014.
A year later, an early concept plan was made for the project. In that concept plan, the city stated its mission to “revitalize and activate a six-block stretch that connects a warehouse arts area with downtown Lawrence.”
“Multi-modal paths, upgraded amenities, and new models of urban infrastructure will enable local artists to engage their communities and will be inspired by Lawrence’s rich artistic tradition,” according to the earliest concept plan available to the public, dated Sept. 4, 2015.
The original plan, however, is no longer happening.
Why it isn’t happening anymore after years of planning is unclear among Lawrence residents, although Maude had a guess at the June commission meeting.
“We understand there is a great need to balance budgets across the city. I would just like to encourage you to do something really special in east Lawrence,” she said.
In the 2018 budget and in the 2018-22 capital improvement plan, the funding number has not only dropped to $2.5 million for five blocks, but the art — the centerpiece of the initial plan — is gone. The new plan, dubbed the “basic street design,” was introduced in March of this year to the city commission and includes the blocks from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania streets.
“The vision that everybody had at the start of this is going to be different,” Maude said in an interview. “Are there some disappointments? Sure. It is what it is. But now our goal is just make the best of it.”
The $2.5 million plan as it stands includes scheduled improvements with the streets and sidewalks, and the installation of street lamps.
“Just like as if we were reconstructing any other street in the community,” said city engineer David Cronin at the same June city commission meeting.
Without the art in place in the city’s plan, there was a problem. The Lawrence Arts Center’s 2014 grant came from New York-based nonprofit organization ArtPlace America. Since that time, the Lawrence Arts Center has asked for several extensions, according to the grant’s program officer Leila Tamari, as the arts portion of the project was constantly in question.
Tamari maintains that ArtPlace is flexible with its investments.
“It would make sense for the project to shift, to have course-corrected,” Tamari said.
The Lawrence Arts Center’s proposal for the arts district was given to ArtPlace back in 2013 when the original plan was being put together. ArtPlace Director of National Grantmaking F. Javier Torres was a part of the panel that reviewed that year’s proposals. Although he did not vote on the art center’s proposal, Torres said the project was likely chosen for its ability to integrate “arts and culture as a core in development of communities.”
What the plan looks like now:
The current plans without art being directly involved in East Ninth include only remnants of the original art, such as temporary art installations paid for with the $335,000 the Lawrence Arts Center has left from the grant. A portion of the money was used for the creation of the plans.
In a revised project framework submitted to ArtPlace by the Lawrence Arts Center, drafted July 28, 2017, three rounds of grants will be given to artists in a program called “From the Ground Up: East 9th.”
With this framework, the original five artists selected to be a part of the East Ninth Project will now be in the first round of three grant periods, where a group of artists is given $15,000 to come up with either temporary or permanent art installations. The first round will start in January 2018 and end in August of that same year. The second round will have newly selected East Ninth artists. They will be given from September 2018 to April 2019, while the third round will cap it off from May to December 2019.
Effective Aug. 1, local business owner and arts center board member Cindy Maude took over as interim CEO of the Lawrence Arts Center. She succeeded Kimberly Williams, whose tenure began in 2016. Maude has taken the lead with the current iteration of the East Ninth Street Project. While she said the new plan is not “ideal” as it stands, there is resolve amongst the center’s team that something will get done in the area. The deadline to use the grant money is 2020, when ArtPlace America sunsets.
Maude said no plans are set in stone yet, but she eyes the end of 2018 as a start time for some kind of art to be installed on East Ninth.
“Some kind of art,” however, is a revised vision of what the city arts community had in mind, with few answers to how the city can at any point back a project with integrated art. Maude referenced this future as she concluded her statements in the June commission meeting.
“If the committee only funds the bare necessities, you’ll fail to take advantage of the partnerships with the Lawrence Arts center, ArtPlace America and the citizens of Lawrence. I would urge you to keep the environmental and artistic elements of the design. We are not talking about plopping art into the streets,” she said. “We won’t have the chance to go back later. We need to do this now.”
This is the first in a series of stories on the East Ninth Street Project.