Saturday, December 12, 2015

If It Is Coming, We Need To Plan For It

Nearly every major car maker in America and several large technology firms are racing to develop vehicles that can operate with limited-to-no human interaction. Driver-less cars are on the horizon. Some say within 20 years.

If that is the case, then the auto industry will take a dramatic turn from selling to the individual to selling to transportation service providers. As young professionals across the Western world are discovering, it is extremely more convenient to summon a form of transportation than to concern ones self about where and how to store or maintain an expensive automobile. To Millenials, the automobile is not the freedom device it was to their parents and much more costly than their current freedom device, their smart phone/tablet.

With that in mind, I would like to know just how cities like Lexington are beginning to plan for streets full of such driverless autos. 

I can see one scenario where more and more commuters choose to use an automated form of transit (not the flying cars from the science fiction movies of the '50s) like a driverless car to carry them downtown in the morning and make a return pick up in the evening. They need not bother about a designated parking spot nor the questionable safety of the trek to the garage. How would this affect the look and feel of downtown Lexington?

Many of the comments I have received on this blog have dealt with the need for downtown residents to have their personal, and private, parking. The primary reasons stated are the need for a car to leave downtown for the weekly shopping trip or other amenities not currently found downtown. I feel that the age range for these folks will fall squarely in the Baby Boomer set, still enamored with the freedom of a set of wheels.

Too many times I have read the projections of planners who looked at past trends and fell short of the impact of a cultural or social shift, or the media pundits who forecast rosy urban developments which falter due to local/global economic situations. They are fun to read when they do both with different aspects of several connected elements of society.

I do not think that it is too soon to begin monitoring the possible shifts in parking demand in he suburbs. Reports from this past Black Friday shopping frenzy lead one to believe that the parking fields of many malls and commercial centers fell far from crowded. The use of land-use related parking minimums are being rethought by more communities than Lexington.

Those same parking shifts could tell an even better story for downtown. Without the need for one to store an automobile for up to 8 hours a day, how many of our current surface parking lots would pay for themselves in daily revenue? How many more of these lots can, and should, be put to better use?
From my memory and experience, the local community has not planned for potential uses of demolished buildings, citing the lack of jurisdiction due to it being “private property” yet requiring permission to erect anything in its place. History has shown us that the “stop gap” measure of allowing a temporary parking lot is anything but – temporary.


In the suburbs, life without an auto will present many new challenges. These same people who find commuting to work easier may also wish to use a different sized driverless vehicle to take the family to the park, pool or the movies. Weekly shopping trips may also be accomplished with similar ease. What should not be necessary, in the long run, is the large ocean of parking around even the simplest of shopping developments.

Is someone now looking at what alternative configurations may be possible for the existing commercial areas? The current B-6P zoning classification is considered a “Planned Shopping Center” zone, with its own set of minimum parking requirements. Widespread use of driverless vehicles, increased online shopping (with drone delivery) or even major enhancements to the existing mass transit system can render those requirements obsolete in just a few years. A forward looking community should have a concept of what an alternative could look like.

Staging Areas 
At the point that driverless cars become as prevalent as as anticipated above, the sheer number of such vehicles would mean a systematic and strategic set of maintenance and staging facilities. Today's family car gets a somewhat limited amount of daily use, roughly 1-3 hours out of 24. A fleet of driverless vehicles could go from one assignment to another almost 24/7, much like the fire and emergency fleet does currently. They will need the typical refueling and maintenance but at a higher frequency interval. 
Does this bode well for the once ubiquitous service stations, now convenience stores? Which zone would be best for such a facility? Following in the footsteps of VHS vs Beta, Apple vs Microsoft and Uber vs Lyft, will there be competing versions of driverless systems out there?

Auto dealers
Then there is the whole question of dealing with the usually unsavory task of shopping for a car. Will it be a new car or a used car, will you go for all of the bells and whistles as add-ons, 2-door or four,and will you take the luxury car path? All of these questions may become moot save for the hold outs of the 1% who already have drivers employed. An interesting story from the Tech Insider on the shift in car ownership may be found here.
It may not be right around the corner and it may take a while to fully get here, but the whole concept of planning is to look to the future and its possibilities. From what I read, of the 50 largest US cities only 6% of cities’ transportation plans consider the potential effect of driverless technology. Their land-use plans are probably also lagging as far behind as well.

I, and many other Baby Boomers, may not ever buy one or even use one very often but the say that they are coming. Our technology developers are planning for and I don't think that our urban planners are.

I am open for any comments.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

An Alternate Downtown Nightlife?

Saturday night, Mrs Sweeper and I took our 23rd anniversary dinner at Shakespeare & Co's downtown location. Good food, a few drinks and a comfortable atmosphere in a downtown that we love. I hope for at least 23 more years with her.

As part of our dinner conversation, a question arose as to what someone new to Lexington, say a visitor who had arrived just past 6 p.m. or so, would look to do as an after dinner activity. We decided to try and see just what was happening in downtown at about 8:30 on December 5th.

We walked East on Short Street past several storefronts and other closed doorways. Past some surface parking, two other eateries with TVs on and an office or two (closed). East of Mill, saw more closed offices, two restaurants, a pub with TVs (and bar food), a well lit up Pavilion (mostly unused) and more surface parking. Some more shuttered offices and a former court house patiently awaiting some tender loving care took us to Upper St. Shorty's taproom and a calm Upstart Crow were all that were open on the next block and we took a turn toward Main. Two bars with lots of TVs, a quiet court house plaza and a closed hot dog place and we rounded the corner and headed back to Broadway.

Main St was very quiet with Thai food and many closed storefronts, some silent cranes keeping watch, a bar waiting the evening crowd and a 21c hotel rounding into shape. From Upper to Cheapside looked dead as a doormouse on Christmas. Forward to Mill and we passed a quiet office building and a basement bar (with TVs). From here to Broadway, we saw two people dining and little else. The Square was fairly active (I actually saw a few shoppers in the Urban Outfitters), lots of diners and a busy set of valet parking drivers.

We then looped back by crossing the street after walking to the Roastery (closed) and walked through Triangle Park noting that the skaters only had about a month left to be on ice. Once winter really set in the rink will be long gone. Crossing Broadway at Vine, we strolled up to Main and saw a bar with many TVs and a quiet hotel restaurant. Again very quiet on Main to Mill, but walking up Mill gave us nearly 50% storefront activity.

After about an hour I think we had our answer; dining and drinking and after you have done the first, you can only do the other. And watch TV.

I know what I would be doing if I were in my 20s and unmarried but we all cannot stay that way. I will take suggestions on things to do over the next few months.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

What Does The Future Hold For Phoenix Park?

As of the end of November, the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government now owns all of Phoenix Park.

What? Did you just ask me to explain myself?

Phoenix Park is a park which has been there since 1985, first as a temporary park of landscaping and walkways wandering through the back-filled corner property, and then made permanent. The downtown park where we chose to locate our VietNam War memorial alongside a representation of an urban stream. The park where we have placed eternal flame monuments for our fallen peace officers and firefighters. How could we do all of that if we did not own it?

Well, we did own some of it, just not all of it. Now we own all of it.

On April 5, 1985, the State of Kentucky sold the front portion of the area we now know as Phoenix Park to the City. This sale came with a restrictive covenant wherein the LFUCG could only use the property as a public park. The City had for months before been working to make this property presentable for the NCAA Final Four at Rupp Arena that year. Such work had been done on a perpetual easement granted by the State on the remaining property.

So, great, as long as we have an easement things are smooth sailing, right?

Smooth, until the State decides to consider the property surplus. KRS (Kentucky Revised Statutes) 45A.045(4) grants the Secretary of the Finance and Administration Cabinet the authority to determine that the property is more suitable to the public's interest if utilized in another manner. If so, then the property may be sold.

Utilized in another manner? It has been a cherished park for 30 years now, what other use would part of it be put to? A chain sandwich shop just spent a lot of money opening a storefront onto this park, now what?

Official Order 15-134 from the Secretary of the Finance and Administration Cabinet has declared the property surplus and directed disposition toward the LFUCG. Great, now it can stay as a park for all of the city to enjoy.

Wait a minute, what is this in the paperwork? Whereas the LFUCG proposes to “utilize the property for a public purpose only, to wit, for the purpose of creating vehicular parking...” Wait a minute, vehicular parking? In Phoenix Park? Where? How?

Remember, this is only the part that the State retained with the easement for the park purposes. But, does the downtown, walkable park really need vehicular parking to operate and maintain it? After 30 years?

Also, the State, in disposing of this property to the LFUCG, included the prior property transferred some 30 years previous “only for the purpose of releasing the restrictive covenant requiring Parcel 14 to be utilized as a public park”. A replacement restrictive covenant requiring Parcel 14 for a public purpose only, including but not limited to vehicular parking. Again with the vehicular parking. Now allowed on all of the Phoenix Park property.

This parking shall be available at all times for use by the general public. Well at least it did not say that it was free parking, just general parking.

Okay, so there is going to be public parking on the Phoenix Park property. How would you arrange it? Will they place some back-in angled spaces along the north side of Water St so that the Panera delivery folks do not have so far to walk to their vehicles? Will it be angled pull-in parking instead? How will this aid the purpose of operating or maintaining the existing park?

There must be more to come.