Saturday, May 11, 2013

Help See The Future?

What will Lexington look like when we get to the middle of the century?

Now, what did you just think of when that question flashed through your mind? Was you first thought of how downtown would look and did you wonder if there would be many new buildings? We will have to accommodate several thousand new residents, so did you imagine a wider expanse of suburban housing developments? Maybe you thought of a community where just about everything you could need was close and available, but I doubt it.

For those of you who thought strictly of downtown, I am not surprised because most people do. The traditional method of gauging modernity of a city is to look at its downtown. Progress is measured by the number of striking new and wonderful buildings. How many of them will we have in the next 20 years? Will it be more or less than in the past 20?

Actually, it has been over 25 years since a tower crane graced the skyline of downtown for the construction of a new high-rise. That my friends is a pretty stagnant rate of progress in anybody's book. What has been proposed has been fought, tooth and nail, by just about every faction. Now, with a few select areas gentrifying at an ever increasing rate and more people desiring to live downtown, will we make all of it livable?

Lexington is considered to be very lucky to have its most historic buildings in the the downtown area and the problem continues as to how to preserve them and allow new progress to proceed. We, and many other progressive cities, have arrived at our current status by both allowing and decrying the loss of our older building stock. How we achieve a continuing balance there will take a lot of hard work.

How we handle the way in which we travel to and from downtown will play a big part in Lexington's future. So far we have been able to bypass the temptation to follow other cities and their urban expressways that they are now removing.

Our surface parking situation pales proportionately in comparison to cities twice our size. Our closest neighbor, Louisville, leads the nation in average temperature rise between urban and rural land use environments. The difference between their urban heat island and their outskirts will average nearly 2 degrees throughout all seasons. Surely, we can continue to do better.

Still, downtown is not the only place that will have to make a change for the better. Eventually the close-in suburbs will undergo a familiar transformation from dullsville to walkable and inviting places.

I call it a familiar transformation because it has happened in Lexington previously. A number of well known retail clusters retain vestiges of their residential roots as single family houses.

Take the Woodland Triangle as an example. The initial Woodland subdivision plat of 1884 laid out strictly residential lots. By 1906, only the school, the fire station and two small shops (one at High and Woodland and one at High and Kentucky) interrupted the housing stock. It would be another 10 years or so until the commercial structures typical of the '20s made their appearance in the triangle and bring the goods and services the people needed. Again, retail follows residential.

Or, consider the beginnings of the Chevy Chase shopping area which developed well before the residential subdivision of the same name farther out Tates Creek Rd. The block bounded by Ashland, E. High and Euclid was full of the frame houses typical of the early 20th century and some of them remain though greatly altered. Just slip behind the storefronts on the south side of Euclid and check out the backsides of those places.

How about the stretch of E Main from Walton to Ashland or Mentelle? At approximately the time when the school board built the Henry Clay High School (1928) several businesses were converting houses for retail/mixed use.

These three locations are barely half a mile from each other, in easily walkable neighborhoods and on the streetcar line. They are not by any means the only examples since the commercial cluster at Sixth and N. Limestone or Third and Jefferson appear to have happened around the same period. But will the bland expanses of Lansdowne, Kirklevington or Opengate have this opportunity of variety and vibrancy?

Current suburbs are an accumulation of the past 60 years of spread-out development standards brought about primarily by the institution of a zoning code. The “evils” of urbanism creeping into a neighborhood have replaced the “fears” of communism regulating the permissible options of a landowner. Our freedom from unnecessary intrusion has led us into a self-imposed isolation of sorts over a wider and wider area of our lives. Such a freedom has exacted a high price on society.

Some parts of downtown are still pockets of isolation but truly urban neighborhoods are beginning to chip away at that.

One condition that concerns me is the prevalence, since the early '50s, of arterial and other major streets defining a neighborhood boundary. These roads are the prime candidates for widening, thereby separating some folks from others rather than aiding in the coalescing of neighborhood vitality in a sense of community. Today's neighborhoods have no identifiable center and no community asset to which they can be solely connected. It is little wonder that we have transient owners with little willingness to put down roots.

Lexington is not just our downtown for which we need to plan a future. Lexington is a series of neighborhoods and they need to be connected and planned for too. So, I ask you:
  • If you could make one change in your own community what would it be?
  • What’s the best way for individuals to advocate for change in their communities?
  • What do you see as the future of real estate and owning residential real estate going forward?
  • How do you think technological advances will contribute toward changes in suburban infrastructure?
These and other questions were put to June Williamson, author of Designing Suburban Features: New Model From Build A Better Burb, it may interest some of you to look into what she said.  Other thoughts on this can be found here,

As always, you can let me know how you feel.


Blake Hall said...

One thing to change: This is going to be a tad generic, but I'd like to see more positive and constructive interaction/commentary from the Lexington community. The Herald Leader's website's comment section is mostly complaints and illogical ramblings. You may occasionally stumble onto enlightened commentary, but usually it's the same few people parroting the same thing. Getting more constructive people involved with any planning process would help a lot in drowning out the more loud mouthed and negative people.

Best way to change: I would say getting involved with local govt. Whether it's council meetings or what have you. Also it would be nice to see more people using things like Neighborland as a way to crowdsource ideas and sentiments about those ideas.

Future of real estate: No idea. I imagine downtown will have an increase of non-student renters and more homes that have been chopped up into cheap apartments will be restored to single family dwellings.

Tech contributions: I see technology as assisting community interaction with local government. Also, technology will, hopefully, increase the accessibility and management of real estate information like zoning, lowering the effort required to jump through legal hoops. Side Note / Plug: I'm a member of OpenLexington where we try to use technology to better govt. and citizen interaction with it.

Personally, I see Lexington at the cusp of becoming a larger, more urban, city. I would love to see a more walkable downtown with bike lanes and mixed use zoning, but I also know that Lexington is dependent on the car. And before it can deal with that dependency it has to deal with all the suburbanites and commuters who are against anything that they perceive as against their cars, whether that be replacing lanes or taking away parking. Eventually, Lexington will probably overcome them and start implementing more multi-modal transportation infrastructure but it'll probably take awhile.

Lex Streetsweeper said...

First of all, I don't believe that you can change people and their complaints and illogical ramblings. They will be with us forever.

Second, I think that we all see Lexington getting larger in population and hopefully a more dense and urban community. Downtown is not the place that needs more walkability/bike lanes, that would be the newer subdivisions. What they need is more destinations to which they can walk or bike.

The auto dependency will dealt with by the very suburbanites you claim are auto lovers, but it will take a severe economic situation to cause them to do so. The demand for better multi-modal transportation will come from the outer suburbs and not the central part of the community. Few people will demand for what they already have.

danny said...

The take-away I get from the Williamson links is that most of the U.S. living space exists in the suburbs, and that more attention--most--should be given to making those places work, since that's where most people live.

Williamson doesn't give much in the way of specific examples, or really anything other than "NYC cred," that can be useful here in Lex, but I do note that Lexington has way more suburbs than city, and yet it is the city--an entity that all residents and outsiders here seem to agree is a small footprint--that has gotten all of our cultural and political and media and economic attention when it comes to discussions of livability and retrofitting and investment.

This is a shame; it's an outgrowth, an unfortunate one, of Lexingtonians' proclivity for caring so much about getting approval from non-Lexington places/trends/ideas. And it will mean that the city will be behind, once again, in twenty years when global experts/analysts from places like New Jersey and San Bernadino start charging us in exchange for common-sense suggestions for retrofitting the burbs.

Lex Streetsweeper said...

You seem to imply that "the city" is just the central core where our movers and shakers are focusing all of their energy, and that you don't like it. I ask, how would you do it differently?

I often wonder how things would be IF Lexington had developed as so many other communities did. What if we looked like Northern Ky or Jefferson County? If the Beaumont area was a separate incorporated area? Or Hamburg? As I have stated before, the Woodland/Chevy Chase shopping area pondered incorporating over a hundred years ago. What if they had?

danny said...

First, I'd quit focusing on the city--an entity that has variously meant the space between Third and UK (roughly Jim Gray's definition when I asked a couple years ago); the more black north side where most small-scale private gentrification is occurring; or the near (white) suburbs of Chevy Chase, Woodland, Bell Court. (Think of these as the rings of defined urban-ness.)

Then I'd suggest abandoning the attraction of creative class demographics as an economic model that the city economically underwrites.

This strategy of moving away from urban creative class economics would also entail not paying for expensive global events whose purpose is a nebulous over-branding of our city as the home of (a) horses; (b) basketball, or (c) bourbon.

So that's what I'd stop. In its place, I'd redirect city energies and monies away from the core and the creative class. It wouldn't be disinvesting so much as it would recognize that, nationally and globally, private money (ie, the creative class) is already going into cities, so no need to double down on that investment. Here's some things I've written that show what I'd do with the money earmarked thus far by city and state for Rupp:

(Lest I be perceived as abandoning all those white settlers moving into the urban environment, here's something that might show the small change downtown things I'd engage with:

Here's an earlier thinking on a similar topic of how the city might redirect its energy into providing food county-wide. This was about 4 or 5 parts:

My interest in parks as locations of community, health and food was sparked by my interests in community sports (directly opposed to corporate sports like horse racing and gold standard college basketball). These might include bike polo, bocce, roller derby, disc golf, etc.:

Here's a piece where I compare the difference in city priorities between corporate and local sports, and their effect on the city budget (what I called disc golf politics):

And finally, tying together my county focus is transportation: busses, bikes, and walkers. Here's something in which I attempted to offer a vision that tied in food, new transportation routes and the development of county culture. It was part of the Bloomberg "Mayor's Challenge" submissions:

Lex Streetsweeper said...


There are times when I think that you believe that a city is a social construct and not a commercial one.

I will try to explore that in future posts.

Blake Hall said...

I agree that we need to address the suburbs. Personally I'd love to see more Jefferson St. and Chevy Chase transformation occur in existing neighborhoods. I imagine that Lexington (and cities in general) will become less divided into industrial/residential/commercial districts and become more of a network of smaller mixed neighborhoods. I believe that too much focus is placed on the major arteries, as where that is where the most car traffic is, and not on the neighborhoods themselves. I lived on Kirklevington, just a 5 minute walk from the park, but I couldn't comfortably walk to anywhere but the CVS on Redding or maybe the Thortons. Trying to get to Fresh Market would have me walking, without a side walk, next to Tates Creek and under New Circle Rd. Even though it was close and I could walk there much faster than drive, the area was not built or designed with pedestrians in mind. I know I'm preaching to the choir but actually experiencing it really drove the problem home for me. If there is more of a focus on neighborhood accessibility and not necessarily city accessibility, neighborhoods will start developing their own commercial and retail sections that will better serve the immediate community.

More so about downtown:
While, I agree with Danny that the creative class will move downtown and to the surrounding areas regardless of where public money goes, I still think it's the job of the city to prepare and encourage that development, I also realize that I'm very biased as I live downtown. One part of the accepted Town Branch proposal that I like so much is the work on Midland. Right now it is rather barren and serves only to connect downtown and Winchester Rd. Even the park project on Third and Midland hasn't progressed in over a year, like we talked about on Twitter.