Saturday, November 28, 2015

Lexington Looks To Improve Their Public Spaces --- Again

I cannot hide the fact that I want more walkable spaces in Lexington, even in the area considered the most walkable – downtown. Therefore, I participated in the Gehl Studios Public Space Public Life study done for the Lexington DDA this past summer. I took part in the two initial session where the questions about where the places of most interest are and what Lexingonians want in their public spaces. I not only gave my opinions but also watched as others worked to give theirs and to appropriately show locations on an aerial photo. More than a few had some trouble.

I also attended two similar versions of a presentation on the results of the study and was quite surprised by the way the data was depicted. It took me a few additional days to finally see the final study maps for a detailed perusal.

Favorite places

The initial step in the study was to gather base data and basically confirm some apparently global social desires for public spaces.

The first set of points mapped was to show where the respondents go today and for which of 4 reasons they go. This to highlight the current hot spots of urban activity as it relates to public space. The obvious and usual places jump right out at you: Jefferson Street, Triangle Park, Cheapside Pavilion, Gratz Park and the Court House Plaza. These are what I consider our current “pockets” of urban vitality.

Some others are not so logical either from their location or for the listed reason for going there. The cluster of 11 or so dots in the center of the CentrePointe “hole” indicates that some want to spend more time there – today-. An additional 8 or so indicate that they go to socialize on that block of Vine St without any public attraction apparent there. Similar groupings of markers in the Cox St parking lot for Rupp Arena or the rock strewn lot across from the Thoroughbred Park on Main St raise major question about the usefulness of this as “baseline”data. The points concerning Thoroughbred Park itself could be a whole question to be answered later.

From the responses of what Lexingtonians like to see in public spaces (here and elsewhere) and the mapped “hot-spots” of their favorites, ten key focus areas were identified. Again the obvious ones predominate. Jefferson St, Gratz Park, Short St, Cheapside Pavilion, North Lime (up to 3rd St) and Thoroughbred Park on the north side of Main St. Triangle Park, Phoenix Park, South Limestone (at campus) and the Transit Center on the south side. As an aside, only three people indicated the Transit Center structure as a “favorite” place and they may have been misplaced.

Movement between our favorite places

The next step was to measure when and how we move between these hot-spot or “pockets” on a typical day. Using volunteers to count solely the pedestrians as they took to the streets on their daily routines, maps were generated showing hourly levels of foot traffic.

The weekday locations of maximum traffic did not surprise me, nor should it anyone else. The Short/Limestone intersection and the Transit Center /Ayres Al connection (or lack thereof) dominated the morning and evening commute time frames. Main and Short Streets from Limestone to beyond Broadway held the top area during the lunchtime hours followed by the university heavy dining choices of South Limestone restaurants. The happy hour foot traffic centered on South Lime, Main/Broadway and Jefferson St in that order.

Pedestrian traffic between any identified “pockets” is minimal to non-existent. Knowing this and seeing that the data confirm it may lead to another study, but that is what I thought would be covered in this one.

The weekend locations again surprise no one. In fact their beginning time frame is the “morning market” when the primary traffic of any kind will be focused on the weekly Lexington Farmers Market event which has held dominance in downtown for many years. The numbers for Thoroughbred Park look to be at their highest at this time and despite the claims of desires to spend more time there, they. barely make the chart. Lunchtime on a Saturday afternoon should typically find most of the activity around the dining places on the west side of Limestone and the campus hangouts of South Lime and the realization that Jefferson St barely moves the needle until after 5pm is interesting.

Again the pedestrian movement between these “pockets” is lacking.

To compare Lexington to other US cities might seem a bit presumptuous but, at its peak even Short ST is on par with other business districts. That it cannot hold that pedestrian count for any sustained amount of time tells a different story. This study does freely admit that we have definite peaks and lulls but says nothing about the relative distances of the compared districts.

Pedestrian conclusions

Some of the most notable conclusion which were drawn from the collected data are:
  • 1) that very few people downtown are willing to walk to work.
  • 2) that the greatest downtown pedestrian volume is at lunchtime.
  • 3) that the pedestrian activity comes in bursts (usually accompanied with sponsored events).
  • 4) that without the events, the pedestrians go away.
  • 5)that families do not spend non-event time strolling through the downtown.
But the top conclusion was:
that people will stay downtown after work and party, get this, around the Pavilion and usually with an event. 

What is missing from any conclusion is the recognition that pedestrian traffic on Vine Street, other than at the Transit Center is minimal at best. Yet is where the City has spent a lot of money in the recent past

Anybody even remotely cognizant of downtown could come up with this conclusion without hiring a consultant.

Passive public recreation figures.

In terms of what a typical downtown visitor does when one gets to a public space, Gehl Studios measured the ratio of those who lingered to those who passed by. This was labeled as “stickiness” and looks at where they did linger but not totally identifies the why of the lingering.

On a typical weekday one out of every two pedestrians took time to linger in both Gratz and Phoenix parks followed by Thoroughbred Park with one out of three, but the pedestrian numbers for Phoenix dwarfed the other two. Of the 3 sites, I can find little reason to stay at any of them.

North Limestone at 1 out of 4, South Limestone with 1 out of 7 and Jefferson St showing 1 out of 15 all share the same characteristic, the public realm in each is the sidewalk which connects drinking/dining establishments there. I think that the Jefferson St ratio is skewed due to the number of elderly from Connie Griffith Manor out for a walk around the block.

Triangle Park holds one out of every 38 passers by on a typical weekday and one out of 19 on the weekends. Unless there is an event in the park, there is little reason to pause for any length of time. The park neither engages the street nor fully isolates the seeker of passive free time from the sounds of major city traffic. One cannot find respite from the hot summer sun nor the brisk spring and autumn breezes and while the soothing sounds of the tumbling water may bring comfort to the mind it does not mask reality. What becomes quite evident from the numbers is that despite the claims of being “favorite” places, Thoroughbred and Triangle Parks are not very popular. Symbolic and visually striking, but not gathering spots for Lexington.

Four guiding strategies

After the collection of numbers, the visualizations of the actions of our pedestrians versus the expressed desires of interested parties and the discovery of the lack of retention elements of our public saces, the Gehl Studios group put out 4 strategies to guide further work.

To begin with, we need a “people first” urban core. With that I agree. That is not to say we need to remove automobile traffic altogether, but to limit its domination of all forms of urban traffic. Pedestrians should get priority at major intersections and through town vehicular traffic should be discouraged.

Then a bridging of our north-south divide by not just strengthening our Limestone and Jefferson corridors, but Martin Luther King and Rose/Elm Tree Lane as well. Our focus need not be just on the west side of Limestone. The report says to 'prioritize sidewalk improvements' and that should not be limited to additional paving but more and better retail engagement to whatever pavement that currently exists.

We must also begin to use what we have, our existing resources. It was acknowledged that all of our “great” destination style public spaces are not well connected. That these spaces need to be easily accessible and imbued with something to invite and hold a visitors interest. Attempts at better way-finding signage are being made but we must do more. It is suggested that an increase in diverse and more dramatic programming, with extended hours could be the answer, but there is an expense to that.

Filling in the gaps, those basically dead pedestrian segments, seems to roll all of the other strategies into a culminating objective for downtown. Many of these gaps are extended lengths of monochromatic wall or surface parking lots where retail formerly stood. Main St and Vine St are of particular note in having more of this dead space, even where the former retail spaces remain but the engagement with the sidewalk/pedestrian is missing. No amount of streetscape redesign or rain gardens will solve this.

Next, I think will look at the several “pilot” projects which have been proposed. Until then, let me know what you think.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Raising Of "Chicago Bottoms" - Or So We Hope

I have been watching the area along Corral Street for several years, basically since they tore down the old City Hall and the Clark Street jail. With all the barren surface parking and treeless streetscape, there is little reason for many people to go there. I guess that much of the property on the south side of Corral is just waiting for the Central Christian Church to expand their religious campus.

This part of downtown used to be a hive of activity with the daily hum of city officials , court attendees and the bill payers going to the offices of the local telephone and gas companies on nearby corners. Pedestrian traffic was so heavy that there was a stoplight required at the intersection of Walnut (now MLK) and Barr. Thirty years later, this volume of activity is merely a memory to some of us.

Back when the Council was discussing the food truck issue, many of the “bricks and mortar” restaurants were pushing strongly for Corral St to be a primary location in which to place these trucks. It made no sense to me, as this is such a distant walk from anywhere people downtown currently frequent. What the street needs is something to draw activity to the area other than the regular movement of street people from Phoenix Park to the Lighthouse Ministries or the Catholic Action Center.

One good thing to happen in the area was the recent Louis Armstrong mural, with its bright, vibrant colors. It does strike me that he is looking back over his shoulder toward a section of town hich was called “Chicago Bottoms”. The housing is long gone now but the streets used to be lined with small shotgun shacks and a few rough and tumble bars. Spruce and Second Sts had some particularly deadly bars, about 80 years ago.

Neglect and the addition of downtown support businesses may have cleared the area but it sure wasn't gentrification and displacement by the trendy spots as we have seen elsewhere. Lexington's young professionals tend to shy away from here, but that is about to change.

Over the last five years or so, an LLC by the name of Lexington MLK (since changed to Urban 221 LLC) has bought up a little over 1.6 acres on N Martin Luther King, between Corral and Wickliffe, and looked to be repairing the old Columbia Gas Office. A Robert McMeekin designed structure from the early '30s, it is still in fairly good shape and solidly built. Alas, it appears that they could find no new use for the beautiful corner building.

Plans I saw today show a five story apartment building, with ground floor structured parking and providing 150 residential units. The building envelope sets right on the existing property and right-of-way lines to the extent that it will crowd the street a little more than probably necessary. Though its access is from Corral, I believe that it will front primarily on Martin Luther King but could certainly command the full corner beautifully.

I hear that these unit will be targeted toward the young urban professionals that we call the Millenials. Quite different from the single room occupancy units on the other end of Corral. One good point is the ground floor space available for amenities, but I understand that it may extend only to exercise rooms and a “dog spa”. Hardly something which can bring street front activity during the day when the residents are away working or sustain it into the evening.

All in all, I find the proposal encouraging for the area. Will Sayre School follow along with something on their parking lot? Or will the Central Christian Church fill out the other corner with an urban use which is compatible? I hate to lose a dignified building that we have, but there is much to gain and this area can use it. We have a chance to begin something nice on MLK (there is another LLC acquiring land up the block) so lets start out correctly.