Monday, November 8, 2010

Looking At Mayor-Elect Gray's "Fresh Start"

A few years ago, I looked at Mayor Newberry’s “Vision 2040” and what it really had to say. I will now try to look at our Mayor-elect’s “Fresh Start” document from his campaign and see if some of these thing are really doable. They are in no particular order but in how I see things.

One of Jim Gray’s, major themes was the “big hole” left in downtown and what should be done with downtown as a whole.
The public outcry over the destruction on the CentrePointe block in 2008 made it clear how deeply our community cares about its downtown. I led the fight to get a better project because what was proposed didn’t make economic or cultural sense. We failed, and a block that held some of our richest history and was home to a lively entertainment scene for the next generation is now a grass field. That sends the wrong message to the bright young people we need to ensure Lexington’s future.

While the CentrePointe project is stalled and the building are gone, I still feel the good that all that has happened in downtown has been because of and not in spite of the controversy of CentrePointe.
As mayor, these are some of the steps I’ll take to give Fayette County the urban center it deserves:

Carry out the Downtown Master Plan that was created with broad community input.
The Downtown Master Plan, as with all other Lexington plans, was developed by those who have direct interest in or understanding of, but that still leaves out a majority of our citizens and draws from a limited number of viewpoints. The Plan is painted with a very broad brush and citing the CentrePointe block as a problem is a small detail. Many of the public portion details of the Plan have been implemented, or begun to be implemented as funding has become available. Private property rights are NOT controlled by the recommendations of this Plan.
Create design guidelines that will give developers a framework for projects that respect our past and enrich our future.
This as another good place to move forward and it is a shame that, as Vice Mayor, Mr. Gray did not make more progress. Design guidelines have been recommended since before he was elected to Council and he has chosen not the push for any, until now. As a design professional, these types of guidelines are "right up his alley" and he has a whole staff who could assist along these lines. One of his employees even served as chairman of the Planning Commission. The Planning Commission would be the body to send forward such guidelines to the Urban County Council for adoption. Chances lost or delayed maybe?
Make TIF (tax increment financing) a tool for urban stimulation and transformation. I’ll accomplish this by working with and encouraging developers who envision projects, like the Distillery District, that celebrate Lexington’s unique heritage.
Many communities already use TIF as a tool for urban stimulation. Our first was for CentrePointe and the council should have expanded the area to at least the blocks bordering the specifically affected block. As it is, the only place the TIF funds will be generated, and can only be spent, is the CentrePointe "field" and some publicly owned property which, of course, does not pay taxes to be incremented. This may be an oversight of the council but it should have been argued about when the council, not the developers, instigated the TIF. On the other hand, a TIF is also in effect for the Distillery District and until the developer follows through on his commitments, little stimulation can be realized.

It is also my hope that TIF will not be used for redeveloping JUST for unique heritage sites.
Study what works downtown – the Farmer’s Market, the 4th of July Festival, Second Sunday, Thursday Night Live, the Kentucky Theater’s summer classic series, our Roots and Heritage festival – and support private/public partnerships that create more activities to draw people downtown.
This, of course, has been going on for more than a decade. The Farmer’s Market, the 4th of July Festival, and Thursday Night Live have been progressing steadily and tweaked along the way, sometimes under duress, but almost always for the better. The others are all gaining followings and some importance of their own. I find it interesting that the Spotlight Festival, a rousing success according to most folks, is left out as something which "create more activities to draw people downtown".
Incorporate planning for parking in all downtown planning. People expect a place to park when they come downtown.
Now, this is an idea that I can disagree about quite vociferously. Parking should be a private matter. Government should NOT be in the parking business. During the nineteenth century, and before, when you rode your horse or carriage to town for the day, you left it in the care of a private businessman - at a livery stable or corral. This type of service was not supplied by the government, nor should it be today. The idea of incorporating parking in planning should be from the private side alone.

There are places farther on in the "Fresh Start" document where Gray speaks of alternate types of travel and using Lextran. We will get to them later, but if we will be using more alternate transportation then we won't need as much parking.

This leads us to urban planning in general.
We’ve settled for too much development that doesn’t respect our culture and our landscape. I’ve spent 35 years building a nationally recognized design and construction business. I’ve learned that if you’re not going in the right direction the only way to change is by creating a new approach, making a plan to get there, and working hard every day to make it happen. We need leaders who can create a plan and stick to it. We must encourage responsible growth to grow our economy but also ensure we’re doing it the right way-in a way that fits Lexington and protects this unique place for future generations.
Lexington, along with most other cities have developed in the same ways for the past 45-50 years. Many of these methods have been encouraged by the automobile and the prospect of unlimited cheap energy. Some of us can see the end of that on the horizon yet nowhere in this next section is it mentioned. I have seen at least three "new directions" for planning and they all seem to end up looking the same.
To promote a new beginning in Planning, as mayor, I will take these actions:

Create a Commissioner for Preservation, Planning, and Economic Innovation to modernize and consolidate our city’s splintered planning and development agencies. This will eliminate bureaucracy and provide a clear path for growth.
As it currently stands, both Planning and Historic Preservation are under the direction of the Commissioner of Public Works while Economic Development is under the Mayor. I would question why we need to add commissioners, when we have no funds to pay them. Planning seems to "play well" with Economic Development and I see this as one more level of bureaucracy on a path to growth.
Maintain full funding for the Purchase of Development Rights program and its urban equivalent.
Many people see this as a general waste of money, or a subsidy of our wealthiest horse people. It has helped preserve our farm land from urban development but has left in the control of those who will not use it to the best advantage of all when we need it to produce food for Lexington in a post carbon age.
Step up enforcement and develop a system of incentives to assure that abandoned and neglected buildings and land within already developed areas are used to their fullest capacity. Areas like vacant mall properties, the former Springs Inn, and others must be utilized properly to moderate demand for converting farmland to other uses.
In the past four years on the council, I think that we can all see where this has gone. An example of the Lexington Mall is that an unused mall with its sea pf parking lot will become a worship center, still with a sea of parking lot. The building will be re-purposed, yet the basic shape and activity levels will barely change. Maintaining an auto centric land use on the periphery of our neighborhoods will not add to the walkability by a simple addition on two sidewalks across barren parking, when suitable alternate transportation is available.

Many under utilized properties have been identified and yet little has been done to incentivise a majority of them in the past four years.
Support, encourage and promote homegrown projects that make use of our unique place and people, like the Distillery District, Town Branch Trail, and the Bourbon Trail, to provide services and entertainment for our citizens and to attract visitors as well.
While it is nice to see some of our homegrown projects come to fruition, we must try and see that these projects have a wider base upon with to support them. Distillery District still needs much more private money than they do public assistance and that private money is harder to come by. I still find it difficult to spend public money on an entertainment area which will benefit private investors to a higher degree than the public coffers.
Create a set of measurements to tell how well we’re doing in protecting farmland, making sustainable development a reality and creating environments for our citizens to enjoy. Using these measurements we will report every year on our successes, failures and plans for the future.
Now, this one is a really difficult one to understand. Firstly, most measurements over time have to reflect a constant set of community values and admittedly ours seem to change constantly. Also changing is our understanding of sustainability and what we can do to enhance it. I see it as similar to the CATS testing in the schools, a constant changing of how we measure our progress.
Encourage infill and redevelopment while avoiding expanding the urban services boundary. Four years ago I was the first candidate to call for a moratorium on expanding the boundary. We held the line and I will continue working vigorously to protect the rural landscape.
I think that this is just "feel good" hype. If Mr. Gray felt that the CentrePointe project was all wrong due to the economy, then any expansion of the Urban Service Area would be all wrong. Holding the line on expansion mean that we will be building up in the older neighborhoods and particularly downtown. Protecting the rural area comes with a price in the urban area and protecting the existing neighborhoods means putting extra pressure on urban expansion. This will be a very tough job. One that most all previous mayors have claimed to address and still it is a needed priority.

This brings us to something I am not sure any is willing to really solve. It will take just too much work.

I’ve met a lot of people in this community since I began running for public office eight years ago. Almost to a person they have two things in common: they love Lexington and they hate the traffic here. Most feel they spend too much time stuck at lights, dodging construction projects and crawling along our major arteries. Downtown, meanwhile, struggles to create a walkable, shopable environment while autos zoom by on fast-track one-way streets. It’s frustrating and wasteful for individuals. They feel powerless because it’s hard to live and work in Lexington without driving but driving itself can be so hard. It diminishes the quality of life for the entire community, decreases air quality and adds to our already big carbon footprint. We’ve gotten here because traffic engineering is in a silo, often trying to play catch-up when growth patterns have created logjams.
As mayor, these are some of the steps I’d take to do things differently and begin to unsnarl Lexington’s traffic jam:
Identify communities that have successfully addressed systemic congestion, study their approach and bring those lessons to Lexington.
It is as if Lexington had not done this repeatedly over the past 40 years. On the other hand, Lexington has been held up as an example to many other cities and has won numerous awards. Studying someone else's solutions to their problems will work if we have their problems.
Step up creation of bike lines and develop incentives for using alternative transportation, including LexTran, to get more cars off the road.
Great idea.

The Newberry administration built more bike lanes than all other mayors combined so this will be a major feat if it can be done.

LexTran made great strides in demonstrating their convenience of travel during the WEG and has already announced major upgrades to their services and equipment. All of this for getting more cars OFF the road. Should all these efforts succeed, then I ask , why do we need more parking downtown or at any of our other destinations?
Develop a process for public and stakeholder input when road construction projects are in the planning stages – not when pavement’s about to be torn up as happened with the S. Limestone project – to avoid unnecessary disruption and inconvenience.
This is a laudable goal and stakeholder involvement should probably be made mandatory.
Expand regional transportation planning beyond the current Metropolitan Planning Organization, which includes only Fayette and Jessamine counties, to include all of our Central Kentucky neighbors.
The MPO should be expanded to include all of our neighbors but we have seen what has happened in the past. The BIG city wants to tell the smaller brethren what is needed without knowing what is wanted. The MPO is a clearing house for state and federal dollars and the smaller cities will see this as a siphoning off of their rightful finding. They already do not get what they deem sufficient for a project and fear that they will see less in the future. The current MPO is housed in Lexington's Planning Division and would need to be separated and enlarged to cover any extra area. Is he advocating to the ADD to take on this function?
Make the timing and coordination of stoplights a top priority for the Traffic Management center to ensure efficient traffic flow throughout Lexington.
Many communities from around the nation have looked to Lexington for guidance on traffic control. In my opinion, maybe we should take a few pages from Louisville's book. Specifically the part on inner city intersections controlled by stop lights. From my experience, many of these intersections work like usual four way stops, allowing a few autos through before switching to the cross street. Cycles are very short and no one street gets a huge volume advantage over a lesser one. No one is left sitting in a queue and everyone feels that they are getting somewhere. There are also many intersections where signals could be removed or replaced with four way stops without altering the traffic flow.
This is a big, complex problem and we’ve got to involve planning, economic development, neighborhoods and businesses in not only improving traffic flow but also attacking the actions our community took – or failed to take – that got us to this point. There is no one solution and there’s certainly no quick solution but unless we start thinking and acting differently congestion will only get worse. I can move us in a new direction.
Mr. Gray is correct that Lexington has taken - or failed to take - some very important actions. Some of the actions taken include; vast areas of subdivisions filled with cul-de-sacs, acres and acres of housing with little connectivity between them and long distances from any local shopping, schools and parks located more appropriately for driving to instead of walking, and wide arterials intersecting with wider still circumferential roads which create basically impassible situations for anyone other than drivers. Attacking these problems will mean altering many of the regular notions that folks have about our city and their neighborhoods, the same neighborhoods that they believe the new administration will be protecting. I have often toyed with the idea of showing how the streets from early last century would look if they had been allowed to be built similarly. I feel that it would be nearly impossible to go from downtown to New Circle Rd. and beyond that, simply a nightmare.

Rebuilding our suburban neighborhoods to include walkable shopping and recreation areas will necessarily mean changing what most people find desirable about where they live. Such wholesale changes will require more than incentives to get Americans to change their lifestyles. Making all of Lexington into a walkable city is more than we are willing to spend.

Coming soon, I'll look at some more of the "Fresh Start" plan.


Hilary Baumann said...

I have to completely disagree with your comment that parking should be an entirely private matter. Two main reasons:

1) Because on-street parking exists and the streets aren't private property. Most cities you expect some level of on street parking.

2) It would encourage property owners to consider knocking down historic buildings instead of repairing them to make way for a potentially lucrative parking lot. (Or you have the other side of the coin where historic building would be sold to the government to be torn down and turned into a parking lot.) Check out the Kentuckeean's blog post trying to save the Pennington House in London KY:

That said, proper city planning should include parking to help the growth of a city. This doesn't mean private parking or other means of transportation like Lextran or bikes shouldn't be evaluated. I just don't think it would be smart for the government to leave parking entirely up to the private sector.

Liveries, stables and corals existed because horses are living creatures and are very different from cars.

Streetsweeper said...

Hilary, the on-street parking is not in question. On-street parking is a part of the complete streets package.

The off- street parking is the real problem. There should be a way that the individual developers can incorporate some level of parking into their project - without involving the government. Publicly financed parking is a cost that is paid for by all citizens, not just the ones using the facility. This is the common complaint given about public mass transit, public housing and to a degree public schooling.

All Lexington citizens pay for our new subdivisions (new home owners could not afford the housing if the infrastructure was not subsidized by taxes), then they pay for the roads to be widened (to accommodate the extra traffic), then they pay for the transit service (to allow the inner city workers to get to the new employment opportunities), and the extra public safety services, etc. etc...

To now pay again for the parking facilities to be used by those whom we subsidized to live beyond a normal walking/travel distance does not make sense.

The idea of government supplying a "parking space" has only been around for the last 80 years out of several thousand years of civilization.

Hilary Baumann said...

I didn't mean just on-street parking but that's what I said. I meant more than on-street.

"individual developers can incorporate some level of parking into their project - without involving the government" <-- This assumes new buildings and doesn't take into consideration the old buildings that weren't developed with today's population and transportation in mind.

"To now pay again for the parking facilities to be used by those whom we subsidized to live beyond a normal walking/travel distance does not make sense." <--- so it's now those people's choice that our city has a bad case of urban sprawl?

Or what if I lived in Georgetown or Versailles or any other surrounding county and wanted to drive to Lexington? Lextran doesn't go that far and walking and biking isn't a reasonable option at those distances. Many people in surrounding counties spend money in our city, help businesses thrive in our city ...

Overall economics is more complex than we could argue about in comments on a blog post.

I gave up on going to an event downtown once because after a half hour of driving around I couldn't even find a reasonable illegal place to park let alone public or paid private parking. People were in fact parked on sidewalks. By the time I realized I wasn't going to find anything, I didn't have time to go home and catch the bus or bike. And I had planned on going to a party after the downtown event where Lextran doesn't visit as well (and would have been too far to bike.) I did consider going home and taking a taxi but that's fairly unreasonable when I have a car at my disposal.

I still stand by the fact that "I just don't think it would be smart for the government to leave parking entirely up to the private sector." There's a reason for city planning and it should look at all of the working cogs ... maybe even be "whole"istic.