Saturday, March 22, 2014

Suburban Changes, But Nothing New - Again

Following up on the commentary from my last entry about all of the fun new doings in downtown, I thought that I would see what our suburbanite neighbors have to amuse them.

A few weeks ago it as announced that the UK HealthCare folks would occupy the former Dillard's portion of the shuttered Turfland Mall, while the remainder is to be removed. Once again, Lexington will experience a partial redevelopment a property which exemplifies the problems that brought about the EPA Consent Decree. The hundreds of parking spaces here and those retained by the Southland Christian Church on the former Lexington Mall site do precious little to reduce our storm water runoff problem.

At the corner of Lane Allen and Harrodsburg Roads, on a parcel not part of the original Turfland Mall, they are demolishing the former Verizon (General Telephone) building, to be replaced by a new Walgreen's pharmacy. It does not matter that there is a recently built CVS directly across the street or an existing Walgreen's in the former McAlpin's Home store just about 600 yards farther out the road.

This area was, at the time that the mall was constructed, a thriving blend of subdivisions with young families needing a wide range of goods and services. Apparently, now the demographics say that they are aging boomers in need of health care and pharmaceutical assistance. I still believe that a balanced mix of uses directed at the immediate neighborhoods would do everybody good.

Mayor Gray, in his statements praising the UK HealthCare decision said “UK is making health-care services more convenient for Lexington citizens, while bringing new life to Turfland Mall.” But the mall is still dead. Similar comments were also made about the Southland Christian Church and Lexington Mall and until the outlots there become developed, it too will still be dead.

In concept, the mall was never entirely about shopping or retailing, it was supposed to be about interacting with other living human beings. Victor Gruen, the man who originated the mall concept was a sociologist, not a merchant. Gruen was attempting to recreate the feel of the downtown commercial district amongst the spreading neighborhoods of suburbia, with all of its vitality and human connections. Lexington, as in most places, chose to segregate shopping from most other forms of urban vitality so that both the downtowns and the malls died.

One of the prime draws of the malls here in Lexington would have to be the cafeteria style dining places like The Blue Boar, Morrison'sCafeteria and, to a lesser degree, York Steak House. For the elderly, these mall staples were a place to gather socially and even get some exercise. As the shift, from a mix of uses toward strictly retail, neared its completion, the lack of social vibrancy drove off much of the clientele and many chances for impulse buying.

It is hard for me to understand that the rival pharmacy companies can justify being located so closely to each other when all of the stores carry essentially identical product variety and lines. When did the old style drug store advance beyond the “over the counter” first aid remedies, cosmetics and candy counter to the liquor, small hardware and snack groceries of today's big box pharmacy? What sets Rite-Aid apart from CVS or Walgreen's when they all appear so similar in building shape and layout?

At one time it was the local drug store and the neighborhood pharmacist, the image that these big chains want to project about themselves today, that occupied a prime, central spot within a residential cluster. It would have been considered an anchor business along with a barber, small grocer and civic entities like a school, firehouse or church. I may, ideally, have included a local centralized streetcar stop in order to connect with other residential clusters making up an urban area.

Since the mid twentieth century, after living that way for so long, we Americans decided that we could not continue and began to shift our style of living. We can still remember or fantasize about how it was. We can use images of the past to evoke feelings of connectedness with our present. We can repeatedly convince ourselves that our present situation is “so much better that before” while clinging tightly to those mental images of our parents' childhood. What we cannot, will not do, is duplicate the conditions which will allow our future to recreate those fading memories.

Why do our suburbanites cling so tightly to those images, more tightly than the in-town dweller, and yet not do anything that would bring reality to those memories? It may be that those who live within walking distance of downtown, and for some that varies, believe that they currently have such memories – as a reality. To them I say, your lack of action may allow your reality to quickly dissolve into equally fading images, so be vigilant and active in order to retain them.

Across town, Richmond Road has also seen its share of shifting or moving uses. From the major grocery chains moving farther out of town, while gaining up to 50% in floor area each time to the smaller structures designed specifically for fast food retailers, flipping from one chain to another. It is the rarity that any retailer will become so synonymous with the road or a neighborhood out there.

I believe that in no time before the aforementioned shift in our style of living did the primary roads connecting population centers become the hubs of commerce. To be sure, in some regions, many small communities became established and incorporated and, in time, grew to the point that they adjoined each other so as to become a population center. It is only now that those connecting roads are commercial corridors. They do not compare in scale or scope to our recent ones and often serve to unite neighborhoods rather than separate them.

Subdivisions of today bear little resemblance to those of a century ago despite the bucolic street names and the nature related neighborhood monikers. In the past 50 years we have fallen victim to the silver tongued marketing specialists not only in our increasingly dehumanized food supply, but what may be called a similarly dehumanized residence supply. After giving that game a try nearly 20 years ago, I do not want to play that game again. They do not really want what they think that they are buying.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Reasons Why Living Downtown Is Fun

Last week was an interesting week to say the least.

First off, there was the typical fall out over the Look IMAX theater presentation before the Board of Architectural Review. Without making a formal application on the property at the corner of W High St and S Broadway, the developers spoke only get some feedback as to the sentiments of the South Hill Historic District residents. I think that they found out fairly quickly that Lexington is not Dallas and, though we may be a RED state politically, we are nothing like Texas when it comes to preservation.

The problems of working with this location are many. Moving a large, historic home from its original site may save it from destruction but will alter our city's urban fabric in a way much greater than the removal of a few downtown buildings on the CentrePointe block. The earthwork of removing an outcrop of rock, just to allow a parking garage, means blasting in close proximity to numerous 150 year old buildings. That tends to make folks nervous.

A general consensus of people that I talked to felt that the development should go on the other side of Broadway – on the block that is identified as the Rupp Arena Arts and Entertainment District's prime site. Would it not be better to have private money begin the block's redevelopment than expand the $325 million that the taxpayers have yet found a way to pony up? Can the Look project folk not crack the administration's circle of planners to be part of a branded entertainment district?

To continue the topic of blasting out foundations, it was announced that we now have a daily scheduled detonation for the CentrePointe work. There will be traffic stoppage all around the block for 10 minutes while they blast, but beside that most folks will not even notice. For anyone concerned, I watched the foundation work for the Transit Garage, where they blasted twice a day, and felt barely anything.

I found an article titled 12 Strategies That Will Transform Your City’s Downtown, from Of the 12 strategies listed we are doing quite well.

We are seriously looking at changing our one-way streets to two-way and we have at least one regularly scheduled public event showcasing downtown merchants, music, and food. These two items were numbers 1 and 2.

Make under-utilized public land available to private developers” came in at #4 and the Rupp project will do that, although it seems that for the past few years some have been looking to private land to create more under-utilized public space on the CentrePointe block. Number six calls for establishing a permanent public market. Not just spaces to allow for the weekly Farmers Market to set up on set days, but a full-time market house like we used to have with Jackson Hall.

Since our local universities are downtown, we can skip to #8 and talk about a streetcar line to an adjacent urban neighborhood. The trolleys seem to be doing an adequate job at present but the permanence of the streetcar is what is intended. Does it strike anybody odd that when we did have streetcars, commercial areas sprang up along them at regular intervals? They helped to create neighborhoods.

An awesome kids playground and the branded entertainment district look to be still some way off, but they are going to take some effort.

The last two strategies of establishing parking maximums for downtown projects and some type of bike or car sharing programs are so foreign to Lexington residents that I will not hold my breath. Any strategy that results in more transportation choices available within a downtown is a good thing and the trolleys may be proving that. Certainly any effort that also provides indirect marketing and branding services for downtown is a valuable one.

Then I hear talk of a proposed rezoning along Newtown Pike between Third and Fourth for a fairly dense development of market rate housing and retail. If all of the rumors are true then what I said about Blue Stallion choosing a very good location looks prophetic. The combination of Transylvania University and BCTC building along Fourth St., the change from one-way to two-way (sound familiar?) by the state DOT and some pioneering retail can begin to make this area really surge. Other than Fourth St was any public money used here?

Look also for rezoning to expand the drinking and dining choices in the Second and Jefferson St area ( I wonder if it will have a fowl theme too) and maybe the Apiary will take flight this summer. Yes, there is more stuff coming.

And lastly, we return to the “downtown cinema wars” where Kirkorian allowed the Look theater group to show their hand, to which he promptly trumped it with a signed agreement for the property where we all knew that it should go. No rezoning, no BOAR, existing parking facilities and the ability to begin this summer - game over.

What will happen in the next few weeks?