Monday, September 5, 2011

An Entertainment District Saturation Point?

For many years, we have followed the mantra of "build interesting retail and the folks will flock to it" in trying to rejuvenate our downtown.  It is not just here in Lexington but all across the country.  We did it when we built the Lexington Center and we are doing it today.  Build the retail and the people will come.

Back in the '60s, when we came to realize that our downtown was losing it luster, we tended to blame crime, outmoded buildings and the daily problems of traffic congestion (usually exacerbated by the railroad running through town).  Our solution was to partake of the new federal program of Urban Renewal and rid ourselves of the eyesores and trouble spots.  

First, the trains had to go.

Rail traffic was waning particularly passenger rail traffic.  1960 saw the fall of Union Station and eight years later the tracks were ripped up.  One of America's life giving arteries was bypassed with the Interstate and New Circle Rd. and the industries felt the need to be near the new artery.  Many special use buildings could not be re purposed and they fell into disrepair.  The activity and the vitality that they used to bring to the area simply ceased to be.
Then, getting into and out of town had to be made easier.

With the railroad gone, the former alignment became a prime location to east-bound part of a one-way couplet of streets to expedite traffic flow.  New Circle had been built to allow traffic to bypass downtown (especially for long haul trucks and cars) but now the new Main and Vine setup made it easier to get into and out of downtown proper.  It also made it easier to get through town and with little to stop for, that is what people did.

Downtown, the financial and legal center of Fayette County.

The area immediately around the (now old) Court House slowly evolved from businesses to banks and lawyer's offices.  The banks grew and grew, always moving into larger and larger buildings while the lawyers took space in whichever parts were not taken by others, as long as they were a short walk from the Courts.  Finding lunch which did not come from a lunch counter or a high end restaurant was a challenge. So much so, that I usually left downtown to get lunch and then get back.  Several building resorted to furnishing their own cafeterias for their staff, they were very much a wasted space for much of the day.

We'll build a focal point, a cultural focal point.

The early '70s found the University's Memorial Coliseum straining at the seams for every home basketball game.  Lexington needed a prime tenant for a new civic arena to which we could attract conventions and concerts.  On paper it made sense, so much sense that everyone else was doing it too.  We also had to allow plenty of space for the local retail to develop where they would take advantage of the increased foot traffic.  By eliminating the possibility of obnoxious or unsavory business in the area, folks would flock to this focal point in droves.  I think that we made our mistake when we removed the existing residential for parking and then refused to convert said parking to any retail use.  Take away your customer base and fail to build in services, what do you think will happen?  We ended up with a great place to play (and watch) basketball and little else.

National championships and sprucing up.

Lexington (and Rupp Arena) was one of the last of the smaller communities and arenas to be chosen for the NCAA Men's Basketball championships and in the early '80s there was a flurry of activity to get downtown ready for 1985.  We needed another downtown hotel and while we were at it some more office space, so we got started on the World Trade Center block and eventually the Festival Market building. 

The idea of festival markets was in full bloom at that time and many major cities wanted to have one.  Most of them were built to augment a local popular or natural feature so as to make it a focal point.  Ours was built AS the focal point to go along with Rupp Arena which, though well used, was being by-passed by many of the conventions and major concerts.  Retail shops on the first two floors and a food court on the third and an indoor carousel forced one to walk through the shops to get to the food and get back to work.  Conversely, the Quincy Market (one of the first) in Boston was set up just the opposite way.  The retail was overpriced and of such a mix that many failed to make it through the early years and eventually the whole place went under.

A little farther away on E. Main St., the World Coal Tower( a 50 story dream of Wallace Wilkinson) also failed and the City quickly stepped in to create a temporary park on the property and had dreams of building an Arts district around the Main and Lime intersection.  They acquired (with State help) and demolished some older retail buildings and then waited for the patrons on art to donate toward some magnificent project.  We are still waiting.

The NCAA Tournaments went well but nothing of such prominence has been held in Rupp since.

Events and festivals.

In the past decade or so, the focus has been on drawing the folks from the suburbs downtown, and especially on days when there is little else going on.  A downtown Farmer's Market on Saturdays or Second Sunday bike activities where one can park close to the action and then escape quickly.  It still forced those attending to drive to and from any event.

One bright spot has been the evolution of the Thursday Night Live series and the Gallery Hop Fridays.  Both events begin before most people leave downtown yet last long enough that others may join the fun once they get home from work. It also helps that more downtown residential has been built for those who want to live downtown, but units for folks who have children or need more than two bedrooms are in very short supply.  With more residential will come the demand for more retail and not the other ay around.

So, what now?

We have a new pavilion in Cheapside and a growing list of restaurants and bars along Main and Short streets. From Victorian Square to the Esplanade, just about all new retail is some sort of entertainment establishment and that may not be a good thing.  What is the saturation point for the downtown entertainment district?  How will we know that we have too many restaurants and bars?  Can we build a downtown on just an entertainment district or do we need other shops and services?  If we can get folks to live downtown, will they still  have to go to the malls to get simple needs other than food and drink?

Just last week, I heard that the Skybar may go the way of Bakers's 360 and for the same reasons.  But their place will be filled with the Parlay Social (a Prohibition lounge) and the Henry Clay Pub to be opened at 112 N. Upper St. (next door to Lexpark offices). 

Is there a saturation point?


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