Thursday, September 25, 2008

Lexington will get "Trolleys" again, sort of

Today Lexington received four transportation grants, supposedly to solve our congestion and air quality problems. These are called CMAQ grants and are given to innovative or special situation projects. You can read about them here. Two of these grants are really just "feel good" money wasters and one of them, the largest, is a repeat of a past mistake that died a painful death years ago.

Lextran wants to return to "replica trolleys" in a downtown circulator system and this grant will allow then to purchase 4, yes only 4, fake trolleys to run continuously around a pair of less than 1 mile loops. This was trendy idea in the '70's and created quite a stir among the normal downtown occupant of the day. They were used by many as a novel way to celebrate special occasions. Eventually the newness wore off and they started to show their age and they didn't age well. The funding necessary to keep them running dried up and the only people riding were the lower income residents, some of them riding only for the companionship of somebody to talk to.

I will be first to say that I want trolleys to return to Lexington. I want "real trolleys", the ones with tracks and routes that go into the residential areas and collect people, deliver them downtown and return them home again with their purchases. We had those once and they worked, worked well, and at least 30 cities in the U.S. have or are considering streetcars/trolleys as a solution to their transit problems. These cities are not the largest or the most famous in America and they are moving forward with their plans. Lextrans request lists as goals these three items.

1. Enhancement of Lexington's existing public transportation system

2. Reduction in traffic congestion and improvement of air quality as a result of increased transit use

3. Boosting downtown tourism and the city's image as a world class city

Enhancement? How does a diesel guzzeling, decorated school bus inhance the transit system? And how will these trolleys increase transit use if they carry the same riders that would be using the existing routes. Does anyone really think that people will ride these things for only a few blocks to avoid walking more than the distance from their car to the store entrance.

This bring me to the idea of downtown, which I posted on yesterday. Did these people talk to the Downtown Lexington Corp. so that they could coordinate on the defination of downtown. DLC, in their report, list eight landmarks that are claimed to be in downtown, some of them are more than 1 and 1/2 miles from the old courthouse. Lextran's coverage area is less than a quarter of that. DLC want residents to come out to dine and shop and attend entertainment venues, then go home after an enjoyable day/night. Lextran, from the input meetings I attended, talked about transporting people from shops to work and Main St to Campus(UK or Transy), nowhere was there a mention about transit from home.

Can anyone tell me how a fake trolley will boost tourism? Will you travel to a distant location for the express purpose of riding or watching a fake trolley? There are transportation museums around the country that are struggling to have tourists come see the real thing, so who will come see the fake ones?

And then there is the idea of Lexington as a world class city. In whose alternate reality is Lexington a world class city? We have a world class basketball team, everybody knows that, and we have loads of world class horse farms. We even have world class distilleries, but just how much of their product do you have to imbibe in order to think that Lexington is a world class city? According to the dictionary, world class is defined as an adjective meaning "being as good as anyone else in the world in a particular field"and our downtown is nowhere near Cincinnati, Chicago, LA, New York, Paris(France) or Rome. We will never be a world class city. We have world class snobs who have homes here; who will tell you that we don't have a world class city.

So I have to say that these grants, although they bring money into Lexington, will avail us nothing if we don't do things right and go for real trolleys and a real transit system, then we are just throwing money down the drain. We need to stop going after feel good and start doing good.

Come see me when we get a real trolley running, I'll be the one grinning from ear to ear and feeling real good.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Is Downtown what you think it is?

At Tuesday's council work session there was a presentation of the results of the Downtown Lexington Corporation's survey about peoples perceptions of downtown.

The survey was taken, by phone, early in August of only 400 or so Lexington residents. These residents were evenly divided between inside New Circle Rd and out. It seems that they tried to cross all age ranges evenly, but the 18-24 year old group looks a little sparse. Could this be because they don't have "land line phones"? I have participated in surveys before although the Mrs. says that I don't, and I know that what, how and when questions are asked all influence the way the answers are tabulated. Survey designers can make the questions suit the pre-conceived ideas of the client. You can go here to read the results and see if you believe the way they think that you do.

So, do you really know just what downtown is? Is your definition the same as your neighbors? Heavens be, mine is not close to the Mrs. Our age difference and where we grew up and when, all influence how we define downtowns. To me, going to town was a half hour walk down to Main St. and the movies. To her, it was a half hour car ride to find a place to park and then some torturous ordeal such as "back to school shopping". What about you? What is your early remembrance of downtown? It wont matter if it is Lexington or not. What this report is really saying is "Why don't you believe me when I tell you what downtown is?" or "How can we change your mind to what we say it is?"

I have posted elsewhere that the majority of people in Lexington feel that "downtown", that nebulous shifting somewhere, is generally an impediment to getting where they want to go. That area that I have to go through or around to get to the mall/airport/co-workers house. Going downtown is analogous to going to Chicago, when you are actually going to Skokie. It's just in the neighboring area but everyone knows where Chicago is. Most people in America think about downtown like they think about police or fire departments, as long as you are not bothering me, its fine. But as soon as I NEED you , you had better be there.

If the powers that be really want to change the preception of downtown for people, then change what people think is wrong with downtown. That wasn't a question on the survey, "whats wrong?", now was it? Does that mean that there is nothing wrong with downtown? No, there plenty wrong with downtown, thats why we have all those consultants studies(Wayfinding, Downtown Master Plan, Streetscape Master Plan, Downtown Facilities Study, Economic Development Study). They are all costly and at times, at odds with each other and usually at odds with those who wish to spend their money for something different. These studies generally reveal the desires of the stratified few in Lexington who requested the study and only lip service to the wishes of common citizen. Is this any different from other cities? I don't think so.

Well, let me know what you think and we'll keep delving into this report.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Oktoberfest and Public Spaces

Okay,I did make it to Oktoberfest. A friend and co-worker's band played on Saturday afternoon and we went to see him perform. As usual I did run into other friends and I must say we had a good time, even the little ones.

On our way back home we encountered a situation along a narrow roadway, whereupon we met another car traveling in the opposite direction, two parked cars on either side if the street and room enough for only one car to proceed through. We both slowed down, trying to gauge just whom got there first, then the other car stopped. This was all well and good, but he stopped in just the wrong spot for a smooth maneuver where nobody would have to stop. I mentioned to all in the car that this brings up, what I call the "general rule of public spaces".

The General Rule of Public Spaces states that if any one person or group of people wishes to meet or stop moving in a public space, it will be where it will inconvenience the greatest number of the other people in said space. Think about it, when someone walks into a room at a party or other event, the first thing they will do is stop. Stop and look around. It is even worse if they are a group, it then takes longer to decide where in the room to proceed. If a pair of old friends greet each other and talk, it will be in the doorway from one room to another, or at the only access to a seating area, or even worse, between your seat and the bar. I also think that the size of the impediment is inversely proportional to the impeded.

This general rule also shows up in a larger scale when dealing with larger events. Take the preparation for the downtown festivals that have been held lately. Now before I begin, don't go thinking that I dislike downtown festivals. I do like the festivals and they do much to bring life and vitality to the downtown area. I do pick and choose the ones that I will attend but they all have their place in the fabric of downtown living. What I have a problem with is the timing of the preparation for the festivals.

The last two festivals have been planned to begin on Friday nights, around 5:30 or 6 p.m. There fore the layout of stage, food booths and vendors stalls have to begin at noon or before. For the Roots and Heritage Festival this meant closing Elm Tree Lane early in the afternoon and causing an inconvenience to those who use Elm Tree to leave downtown after work, clearing the way for coming for the event to have someplace to park. To me this was only a minor problem. On the other hand, the Festiva Latino was on the Courthouse Plaza so about noon they closed Short St and two lanes of N Limestone. This of course backed up traffic past Maxwell St. and, due to a combination of lack of warning and adjusting of the traffic signal timing, backed up traffic on Main St and Vine St for several blocks.(probably also High and Maxwell)

I don't profess to have the answers for all this but I have been part of the planning and implementation of some large events and recognition of a problem is a step toward a solution. Maybe what Lexington needs is not only a special events person(which we have) but also a logistics person to direct the setup of all downtown events. Someone who can coordinate manpower and have the material/equipment to place everything accordingly. I know that we have had some of these people in the past but it seems we lack them now.

On a final note, I wish that the people of Lexington, those who attend these public gatherings, be they small or large, would try to take care of their public spaces as they would their homes. Simple things like no littering and cleaning up after themselves. The cleaning fairy is not on retainer in Lexington. Even the Farmers Market is not immune and some of the vendors in the summer, at the height of the season, have left the area worse than they found it. This is a problem with the festivals and the Streets and Roads crews do not power wash when they clean up. I just wish that Lexingtonians would take care of their public spaces as they do their homes, but looking around, maybe they do.

Until next time.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Octoberfest and Chevy Chase

This weekend in the annual Oktoberfest at Christ the King Cathedral in the middle of Chevy Chase. This is not one of my usual haunts but I have been by there on occasion, usually to see if there was anybody I knew around and to watch the activity of the event. This thing has been going on since I can remember, granted I was not wandering in this area much before the middle sixties.

From what I can gather, the parish first used the property for services in 1946, so they most likely purchased the land just after the War. And since I've seen a subdivision plat for almost everything else around the church property, I believe that they bought directly from the developer, an heir to Henry Clay. This is reasonable because recently I came across a property transaction in the business area on Romany Rd. where one of the deeds traced back to a Henry Clay purchase to expand his holdings of Ashland. It seem that all the residential properties were platted and the others were sold by metes and bounds deed description. It just seem like a curious way of doing it. The only other place that I've seen it done is in the exclusive area of Ashland Park, on Ashwood and Barrow Rds. and the lots facing Richmond Rd. between Woodspoint and Chinoe Rd.

The aerial photo of 1937 shows the old farm house in the general location of the former Chevy Chase Baptist Church building and some out buildings where the Cathedral now stands. Once the second World War was over the area must have busted loose, with all the returning GI's needing a place for themselves and their families. Quite a lot of the housing was surplus prefab housing, some of which lasted until just these last few years. Christ the King held their first services in a prefab building before they could get their school and other facilities built in 1951. The current church building was completed in 1967.

I have also often wondered about the old training race track on the 1937 photo. It shows as a very distinct heavily treed oval of, what appears to be, 1/2 mile in length. While the turns are quite precise and the front and back stretches are straight, the ground, to me, is anything but level. I can remember when they were just cutting in Woodlake Way and I rode up to see the cul-de-sac at the end and then noticed the strange treeline. It was a double treeline about twice as far as I could reach, and I stand 6'4", so that means that it was about 12 feet apart. That would make it a narrow, uneven training track but maybe that is what they were used to in the mid 1800's. Somewhat more like a cross country course than what we know of as a race track.

As I said before, I may not get to Oktoberfest this year because the Mrs. and I are leaning toward the mural unveiling at Al's Bar on Saturday evening. Listen to a little jazz, see the mural and check out the northside streetscape for something interesting. We'll let you know what we find.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Distillery District and Manchester St. (part 1)

Much of this week has been taken up with looking at the proposed Distillery District along Manchester St. There is so much history here that it will take a bit more time to compile a really good entry, what with the Tarr and Pepper distilleries along this street. This proposal is so full of possibilities that I will have many future tales to tell. This only the beginning.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Cheapside and Mr.Breckenridge

I went up past Cheapside today to see what if anything is happening since they closed it to vehicular traffic and I was a little disappointed. The idea was for the local establishments to expand their seating and/or service areas into the park, but the crowd(if you can call it that) looked a bit sparse.

This all got me to thinking about all the hoopla about Centrepointe and the TIF district/s. One of the proposals is to move the farmers market to the Cheapside location and build a permanent facility there. And of course I was reminded of an earlier proposal to build a streetcar transfer station on the same spot(this was in 1921). I have even seen a sketch of such a proposal but do not have a scan of it at this time. It was to be a two story brick structure that would run most of the block from Main St. to Short St. and the streetcar tracks would serve both sides of the station.

To build either of these proposals means that the Breckenridge statue would have to move. This statue has been watching over the west entrance of the Court House/s since 1887 and saw the building, built in 1883, burn in 1897. It also presided over the construction of the building which now houses the Lexington History Museum and all the activities held at Cheapside. John Cabel Breckenridge was a native Lexingtonian and the youngest Vice President of the U.S. under Buchanan, a U.S. Senator and eventualy a Confederate general.

I have been thinking hard about where I would like to see the statue placed, should anything be approved for the Cheapside Park space, and have come to realize that Lexington has not had a lot of statuary done in a long time. Oh, we have had some abstract, free-form, immpressionist stuff and horses but no real honest-to-goodness honorary statues. We have monuments to groups and fallen heros and popular ideas but no new honorary statues. Even our new public spaces seem not to be designed for such honorary work. If anyone has any suggestions, drop me a line and let me know.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Shropshire Ave being continued

Well, now we all have seen the recent developments in the Bluegrass Aspendale area. The beautiful new school, the new residences and the connectivity through the neighborhood that just wasn't there before. Which brings me to the completion of Shropshire Ave.

Shropshire Avenue first showed up on the plat for the Loudon Park subdivision in the 1890's. It runs south from Loudon Ave across Seventh St to end at Breckenridge St. and at the rear of the grandstand of the Kentucky Association race track. The Loudon Park Building Association would build the houses on lots purchased from the Belt Land Company and when the homeowner bought his home aranged for a weekly payment plan. The Kentucky Traction and Terminal Co. opperated a streetcar line along Loudon to Shropshire, then turning onto Shelby St., then Jackson St. crossing E. Seventh St. to Breckenridge St before turning back toward Race St and the entrance to the race track. Sadly this streetcar system would last only until April, 1938. It did last longer than the race track, which closed in 1933.

The Kentucky Association track gave way to the first two housing projects in Lexington. Bluegrass Park contained 144 units for white residents and Aspendale had 142 for black. Since this was in the middle of the segregationist South, there was no connection between them. Bluegrass Park stood at the end of E. Sixth St and Aspendale at the end of E Fifth St. and each was arranged around a central oval park area. At the eastern end and centrally located between them was a power house for the generation of electricity and, I believe, steam heat. The remainder of the race track property plus an adjoining subdivision was filled with an additional 800 units in the early 1950's. At some point a roadway connection was made from Bluegrass Park to Breckenridge St. and as it was just barely offset from the existing Shropshire St., it carried the name into the the housing development.

This is how it remained for roughly 40 years with minimal maintenance, often multiple generations of the same families living next door to each other(or together), the end of segregation and the "white flight" of even the poor white residents. Public attitudes changed toward dense public housing and a plan was developed to thin out the number of structures on the property. Separating the area into five "pods" of non-connected strees was thought to bring a sense of neighborhoods to the "project", but the planners failed to talk to those who lived there and ask how they saw the neighborhood. The Housing Authority went back to the drawing board and after a few years of applying for Federal "Hope IV" grants , finally recieved enough money to redevelop the entire area.

The area now boasts quality affordable housing, a grid style street pattern and a modern elementary school. E. Fourth St has been extended as well as Fifth and Sixth Sts. in the east/west axis, but the BIG connection is the extension of Shropshire St. It now continues south to the narrow alley like Grinstead St. (I feel that this is named for a local horse trainer who stabled his horses on the backside of the old race track.) Lexington's plans for this area in the 1980's included the proposal to create a couplet of "one way streets" out of Third and Fourth Sts. and the governmandent began aquiring property to accomplish this. In 2001, the "couplet" idea was abandoned for a concept of enhancing the Third St corridor and using some of the property already aquired for the continuation of Shropshire St. across Third St., along a widened Ann St. to a new intersection with Midland Ave. I am happy to say that it is now very soon to be completed.

This new connection will allow traffic to go from downtown to Loudon Ave. in a more direct way than has been possible before. Although it is labeled a "local" street it will probably function as a "collector" and allow school related traffic(parents before and after school) to flow more easily. I can foresee a traffic signal at Midland Ave. and at Third St. although the State Transportation folks say "no way". I just hope that no one get injured (or killed) before they do allow one to be placed there.

Until next time, keep your eyes open for more jewels along the roadways.