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Architect wants to create downtown trail under Kansas River bridges

posted Nov 30, 2011, 1:34 PM by Ramandeep Dulku

By Chad Lawhorn Lawrence Journal-World

November 27, 2011

To Mike Myers’ way of thinking, the little spot between the two downtown Kansas River bridges is one of the more interesting locations in Lawrence.

From this spot just north of Sixth and Massachusetts — officially known as Robinson Park — the converging lines of the Kansas River bridges play tricks on your eyes and let you see the slow-moving Kaw in new ways.

Plus, the park has a cannon. That’s always cool.

“I really like finding unique, out-of-the way places, and this is one of them,” Myers said.

Just down the embankment, the spot underneath the Kansas River bridges is unique, too, but not for the type of sights you would put on a visitors brochure. The day Myers walked the area with a City Hall official, they found a person sleeping underneath the bridge.

But Myers, a longtime east Lawrence resident and an architect, is pushing an idea he thinks could bring new life to both locations. Myers has begun lobbying for a new downtown trail that would travel along the west side of Lawrence City Hall, underneath both Kansas River bridges and into Constant Park at Sixth and Tennessee streets. From there, folks could make the short walk across the grassy park and connect with an existing riverside trail that runs through Burcham Park.

A lot of Myers’ excitement, though, is for what could happen in between the two river bridges. Myers is proposing the trail include a new entrance to Robinson Park, which in addition to the cannon includes a pioneer monument telling the story of the founding of the city. Myers envisions a new outlook area could be built for visitors to gaze upon the river.

Plus, Myers is pitching that the trail will have practical purposes. He said the trail would be an easier way for bicyclists and pedestrians to navigate the confluence of intersections near Sixth and Massachusetts streets — well, easier if anyone feels safe traveling beneath the bridges and into territory that has gained a reputation as a hangout for the homeless and transients.

But Myers said a trail could help solve that problem, too. He said the project would give the city a reason to put lighting under the trail and add some fencing that would make it difficult for people to take shelter in the deep crevices of the structure.

“To my sensibilities, it makes sense to bring people and community life to that area to discourage some of the more nefarious activities that happen there,” Myers said.

Facing challenges

Myers has been presenting the plan to various city officials, including the Bicycle Advisory Commission and city engineers. City engineers and planners have stopped short of endorsing the idea, but they’ve said the idea has some appeal.

“It would be really nice if we could figure out a way to make it work,” said Todd Girdler, the city’s senior transportation planner.

But the project would have some significant engineering challenges, said Chuck Soules, the city’s director of public works. Because of the steep terrain near City Hall, a retaining wall would have to be built to accommodate a trail. The proximity to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks, which run behind City Hall, also could be a problem.

“Their goal is not to have pedestrians near their train tracks,” Soules said. “I think there would be some concerns we would have to overcome there.”

Then, there is funding. Neither Myers nor city officials have developed a cost estimate for the project. Both parties said grant funding likely would have to play a significant role in making the project a reality. Soules said there are some grant projects that fund pedestrian and bicycle projects, but he said the city would have to study the project to determine whether it should be a higher priority than other projects, such as filling in gaps in the city’s existing sidewalk system.

‘A real benefit’

Myers, though, said he intends to keep working on building support. He said he would like the trail to be the first phase of a larger project that would create a new trail through east Lawrence, connecting with the existing Burroughs Creek Trail near Hobbs Park.

That project could travel along property east of the former Riverfront Mall and north of the Santa Fe Depot at Seventh and New Jersey streets. The area has a conservation easement on it that dates back to the controversial construction of the mall. The easement strictly prohibits development of the property, including a trail. But Myers said the conservation easement has been a detriment to the property by making it so isolated that problems with homeless encampments have emerged.

“I’ve talked to people who even fought the mall who don’t think that conservation easement has worked out well,” Myers said. “We don’t want it developed, but we don’t want what we have now, which is basically a place to get in trouble.”

Myers, though, said he’s taking a long-term approach to the idea.

“I would love to see the whole thing happen within 10 years,” Myers said. “I don’t know how much the taxpayer is willing to pay or how much grant money there is. But I think it could be a real benefit. You really notice when a city takes advantage of its riverfront, and we haven’t done that very well.”
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