Friday, April 15, 2011

Greying In Lexington

I read an interesting piece the other day out of St. Louis County, Mo. Interestingly enough, St. Louis County and the City of St. Louis are not a merged government nor is one inside the other. The city of St. Louis is called an independent city and is separate from any other city or county in Missouri. This story had to do with the suburbs and exurbs of the city of St. Louis and their governmental futures.
In the once bustling communities on the outskirts of the city proper, many aging baby boomers are now finding that their comfortable homes, designed for life built around the auto and deemed a safe place to raise kids, have become much more quiet in the last few years. Most of the kids have been raised and sent off to college, but the parents have remained and life has taken on a whole new set of challenges. These places are becoming the land of the empty-nesters.
Homeowners in communities like these seem to have just two choices when this happens, move downtown or move away completely. Rarely will it be in their best interest to remain as they are.
These homeowners will look much closer at the availability of shopping and the need to drive everywhere. They will be less inclined to vote for tax increases for schools and parks. Their need for medical services and transportation will increase. Their isolation will grow as their ranks thin and the look and feel of the neighborhood will change as they can participate in the daily activities of suburban life.
This environment is a product of the monoculture of development that has been the norm since the sixties. Building block upon block of cookie-cutter style houses, each one similar enough to its neighbor that they could be easily confused at night. All of the daily needs of the residents are carefully placed far enough away so as to not intrude on the calm residential feel of the area. There is no way to remain in the neighborhood while downsizing or even getting out to the market or community center to shop or visit friends. Such neighborhoods are designed and built for one thing, raising kids.
Think of it like you would a thoroughbred horse operation, laid out and developed for specific uses in a certain pattern. Very difficult to use for other crops be they animal or vegetable. Any change from one style to another is costly and unprofitable. And seldom do horses grow old on a typical breeding/racing based horse farm.
For many, this rollover of neighborhoods is natural and cyclical and has been going on for decades, but honestly the older neighborhoods (pre-1950) were not of such sweeping magnitude as those built in the '60s and later. The creation of Levitttown in New York brought examples of larger and larger subdivisions and the autos and Interstates made the possible. When you reached the end of particular phases of child rearing, you just moved. Today's economy will not allow such luxury.
The subdivisions of the last half of the last century also were built with housing stock which was designed for active families. They had great rooms and vaulted ceilings, three car garages and pools. Fine for raising a growing family or entertaining but way too much for an aging empty-nesters or a widow to take care of. Should we make our elderly move from their homes simply because we forgot to plan for their needs as they aged?
Other communities have begun to see their populations dwindle in these types of developments and with it a decline in tax revenue. This decline is accompanied with a rise in demand for services both of the transportation and emergency medical variety, many of them very specialized in nature. Lexington is fairly lucky in this regard as all of Fayette County is covered but the examples from St Louis County is a compilation of small cities and many unincorporated places. We shall see these same problems arise here but the impact should be lessened.
The upcoming Comprehensive Plan process will give us a chance to consider how we can set about to correct some of the possible problem areas and prepare solutions. Now is the time to begin thinking about it. How will you like to age in Lexington over the next ten years?

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