Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Southland's Mall Error

I have often written about the former Lexington Mall property (also here) and the problems that the city has had in finding a solution. I have also written about other underutilized properties in Lexington and even mentioned one very near the mall location. I now believe that the solution which has been brought forward will not be in the best interest of our city, or even the entity purchasing the former mall.

The plans for the Lexington Mall were approved in 1969 as an answer to the Fayette Mall, which was itself an answer to Turfland Mall being constructed finally after being approved in 1961. Each of the locations was adjacent, or very near too, an intersection on New Circle Road and an entry to the center of the city.

The New Circle loop was completed in November of 1969 and hailed as the solution to the cut-through downtown traffic. It was also became the interception ring for all regional shopping trips coming from as far away Morehead, London and Liberty Ky. Shoppers could get on at any of the intersections and quickly get to many regional shopping areas. Such were the thoughts of the time cheap gas, good roads and a trip to the big city.

The era of cheap gas and multiple vehicles per family along with good roads and the Interstate completion helped to redefine how commercial interests assessed their prime locations for shopping centers. It is these same assessments that many planners and city officials are beginning to question as the environmental and traffic problems associated with parking lots (both runoff and air quality), congestion and non-vehicular access factor into a livability index.

As the downtown retail began to feel the effects of the loss of out-of-town traffic and the local first and second ring subdivisions found that they too could get to shops across town (without going through town),even the larger churches began to take notice.

Churches, like small retail, historically located in the neighborhoods where the residents could walk to services. Many street corner churches were established in the early nineteen hundreds, most sprouting up soon after there were a sufficient number of congregants in the area. Almost none of them originally had any parking lots as the expected their folks to walk to church.

People like to, or used to, identify with their particular congregation and would continue to attend even when the moved beyond a convenient walking distance or aged beyond walking ability. Churches soon had more people coming from some distance than there were from the surrounding streets and parking became a weekly problem. Add in the mid-week and other services and the “spiritual backbones” of the neighborhoods began to weaken in the neighbors eyes as the need for parking grew and the spaces started to vanish.

The downtown “legacy” churches began to creep into the adjacent neighborhoods just as the insidiously as the commercial and office buildings and their parking needs grew, but the subdivision street corner ones just packed up and moved to greener fields. Those who could do so took on the image of mega-churches with their massive acreage and parking for all. Out there was room to grow, space to build those things that large congregations need.

Churches began to take on many commercial facets and started to sell religion as a commodity and benefits, therefore they needed to locate like commercial shops. They needed to be on major roads, with a large edifice and easy access and they needed to cast as wide a net as possible. Now, churches and retail need the people to come to them rather than taking themselves to the people. Could this be why buying online and getting delivery by parcel truck is becoming so popular?

Churches will not have someone like UPS or FedEx come to their rescue, to deliver the services to their door. They, like many others who have become dependant on automobiles, will have to find ways to weave themselves into the neighborhood lives of the masses again, especially if the time of $5 gas comes as predicted. Their locating in large buildings on major roadways, though meant for ease of access, will then be more prohibitive to those who will need them most.

Southland Christian Church, in buying the old mall, may have picked the least useful underutilized property in the immediate area.

Lexington Mall in a larger map

Across New Circle Rd is the abandoned apartment complex originally built as Todd’s Trace Apartments. Sitting on nearly the same total area as the mall, these multi-family structures have been vacated for some time and are actually declared uninhabitable. They almost MUST be demolished. There is no drainage problem, nor has there been any. True, there is no direct access to either major road but the parcels are very visible from both the interchange levels. A primary factor for locating a church facility for the future should be the extreme accessibility to the neighborhood and this property fits the bill. I feel that this neighborhood does not fit the demographic which the church has in mind as its congregants or its object of major need.

Physically, the property is probably more conducive to redevelopment for a religious facility than the mall structure. I can visualize a well placed, environmentally sustainable building nestled in some of the existing trees with a calming natural meditation garden. I imagine something like a cross between the Christ the King Cathedral and the Unitarian location on Clays Mill. There could even be enough remaining space to maintain a community garden or local farmers market.

Just something to think about.

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