Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Deja Vu Anyone?

The city government is now looking at something new for their employees, a fresh fruit and vegetable cart in the lobby of the Government Center.

Building on an idea used by the High St Y, Councilman Steve Kay is circulating a survey of the city's staff in order to gauge their interest. Kay, a "Y" member, apparently has recognized that the idea has merit.

I am unfamiliar with the extent of variety or the quantity of the offerings on this produce cart, but the survey indicates that they will be those items that are “in season”. A selection of locally grown, and hopefully organic produce at reasonable prices could be another part of the new wellness aspect of the revamped health care package being promoted.

The first floor of the Government Center has become a fairly busy place under the Gray administration, what with the Mayors office being moved into the former ballroom. It remains to be seen what will happen during the holiday season which used to include many social functions for the staff.

A primary concern may be for the vegetable cart to occupy a lesser used corner of the lobby, but what if the response is so overwhelming that the offerings, in order to match the purchases, grow to an unmanageable size. I assume that it will be first come - first served, but will they park the delivery truck out back just for storage?

What if it goes beyond the fruits and vegetables? What else can the city offer to sell to its staff (or anyone else for that matter)? Will the first floor turn into an urban market? I recall seeing a photo of the old City offices before they moved to the now departed Municipal Building on Walnut St (now N Martin Luther King). See it here. The old Market house was on the ground floor while the City government ran out of the second floor. It was located on the corner of S. Lime and Vine St (opposite the current Phoenix Building) and built before the eastern portion of Vine st was constructed in the early '20s.

Maybe what was old is new again.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A New Face On Residential Land Use?

The Urban Land Institute (ULI) has just about confirmed it in their recent report What’s Next? Real Estate in the New Economy, our unsustainable lifestyle of college graduates getting good jobs and a place of their own, then a starter house while the parents downsize and the grand-parents move to someplace warm to grow old together. It was nice while it lasted but, as evidenced by some long history, it was an aberration and not a realistic scenario.

We have had a hint of its failure over the last decade or so. Fewer folks are making the great salaries and bonus packages than used to and the retirements funded by 401(k)s or Social Security have taken major hits with this latest recession (and even before). Housing prices and the foreclosures debacle have left many without equity or nest egg from which to rise again. Things are NOT going to change over the next decade, even if we come out of this recession, so what are you going to do about it?

To save money, more of us must either live in larger households or in smaller units.” says the ULI. I can tell you that Mrs Sweeper has been saying that for several years now. That does mean living in mufti-generational houses with the parents living in one area and the grand-parents living in another while the working family has the main space. To many people today, this sounds more like Communist Europe than the late 19th century standard for most of the world.

The current rate of home ownership is way higher than historically shown to be sustainable and must come down. At the same time the rental market, both smaller units and the larger complexes will see a rejuvenation and may see huge rate hikes for the better maintained ones. The ULI report calls for an expected 300,00 units annually to be built nationwide and I hope that most of them are designed to fit neighborhoods better that he standard complex of today.

I don't see why the apartment houses of the early 20th century could blend in so well, yet the ones designed after the zoning codes were refined could not. The apartments of Ashland Park or Chevy Chase do not detract from the neighborhood but the units along Alexandria or Cambridge Drs. Seem so out of place. The larger suburban developments just about scream that their residents are just temporary. They might as well be student housing.

One trend that we have seen lately, especially in the newer off campus student housing around UK, is the three and four bedroom apartments with a central entertainment room with kitchen and separate bed/bath suites for the roommates. Gone are the days of shared bathrooms down the hall like in the dorms. Living off campus is more like living at home and for some it is much better. Perhaps this style of apartment living could work for urban families, if we could get past the notion that all children need a yard to play in. What is really needed is the pedestrian access to restaurants, cafes, and parks or recreation centers which adds real value.

The decline of “McMansionized” housing is well documented but they may not be gone for long. They may follow the path of the old style Victorians built in the late19th century and be the typical housing of the multi-generational family culture on the horizon. For a number of our recent immigrants the situation already exists.

One scenario which exists is that with tightening lending standards, (putting down some equity and exhibiting a sound credit history) the rental market re-emerges to meet the multifamily demand. The vacancies will fall and the rents will rise and the institutional investor will re-enter the game. To keep these units affordable, many will need to be located around nsit stops and walkable commercial developments. Massive parking lots around these apartments will not exist.

Our older citizens will increasingly find that, as their financial situations continue to fluctuate their ability to be part of that “gray wave” of seniors relaxing on the beach or cruising the Caribbean is ebbing away. Many more will be aging in place right here in Lexington.

I, along with many others do not care for the idea of living in a “retirement community” and wish to remain a part of the whole community. As such, many of the housing units will have to be age friendly and include the ability of community social services to be provided. This may be done in condominium or apartment style although single family/duplex arrangements may work.

Now is the time for Lexington to look at how and where we will begin to take on these challenges. We can little afford to believe that keeping the long-time “stable” neighborhoods as exempt from change. All neighborhoods are changing. It is just a question of rate of change. In a matter of years, conditions may change which could swing any neighborhood in any number of directions. Plans should be in place to deal with such changes.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Which Way Is The Right Way

There is a lot of posturing being done on the Internet and in the local media concerning the current status of the CentrePointe development. Much of the dialogue centers on the apparent reversal of direction in which the Webb Co. wishes to take and whether it constitutes progress or not. It all began late last month with Beverly Fortune’s Herald-Leader article, which I think that many have misconstrued.

The article leads off with the assertion that our “world famous” guest architect from Chicago has been released from the development. Yet an opening quote, which I assume is correct, says that "She completed her work. She sent her final invoice and it has been paid,". I see that as saying that her contract is done. She was not “fired”. She has completed the work for which she was contractually obligated.

I am sure that the Studio Gang firm is not desperate for work, either here or abroad, and while they may be disappointed, along with several local firms and the other activists, their life will go on. Those here in Lexington seem to be doubly disappointed since their expectations were raised to such a level without knowing the details of the contract under which Studio Gang was hired. Now the locals see no hope of getting what they want or were led to expect.

I have always been told that nothing occurs in a vacuum and certainly other events were taking place during this time, which directly affect downtown and this development. The Arena Arts and Entertainment Task Force has, during this time, been studying the Lexington Center Corp. property and the possible redevelopment or enhancement of it. Similarly the Lexington Visitor and Convention Bureau was analyzing the possible need for expanded convention facilities. Both of these processes have been done outside the intense scrutiny of us mere mortals.

A number of recommendations from the preliminary report the AA&E task force include many unfunded, pie in the sky, facilities which are largely aimed at satisfying a local need. The data from the LVCB report, presented in August 2011, focused on the desires and needs of those who may wish to come here for conventions and such. Both reports have been prepared by well known and respected folks and surprisingly arrived at some identical, basic changes in the existing physical arrangements of Lexington Center/Rupp Arena.

One item that did come to light, and something that many of us here think little about, is the apparently very real desire of larger conventions to assemble in Central Kentucky. We saw a brief glimpse of it during the WEG and the eventual glowing stories in the international press. People liked what they saw when they visited and many will look for good reasons to come back, especially if it can be written off as a business expense. Conventions will give that reason. Now we have to accommodate them and hotel space/meeting space looks to be our limiting factor.

If we do need the increased convention space, then the idea floated by the original CentrePointe plan and not the boutique hotel concept pushed by the Mayor (and picked up by the Herald-Leader) may be the prudent path to take. The LVCB report suggests that maybe a second such hotel could be needed. If the AA&E group is serious about extending the downtown axis on the western side of Rupp and adding facilities, then we may have a location for our second convention hotel.

Dudley Webb has told several others, as revealed by TV news reports, that there is a newer contract with Studio Gang which has not been fully negotiated for further work here in Lexington. We may still get our “starchitect” building and it may be a boutique hotel, but I don’t believe it will be in the center of town.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

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