Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sometimes I Wonder Why People read What I Write

I had a curious visitor today. Someone who arrived by way of ProgressLex, thanks Dan and Ben. I think.

I noticed that they read my stuff for about an hour and had multiple page views. Then they returned a few hours later for more. My IP tracker says that they are SORG Architects , based in Washington D.C. I spent a little time looking over their site and found little to keep my interest. They have won many awards and been published in bu-ku journals and magazines, yet I would not like anything that they show there.

I am always interested in what my readers like and am asking for a show of hands. Go, take a look at SORG and tell me if you would let them design for our downtown. If I understand you guys, I would bet not.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Can We Get Rid Of Dead Walls

Thinking more about the upcoming discussions on design guidelines, I saw this in the Washington Post It seems that this writer has a problem with the style of CVS stores in the D.C. area. Not just CVS but most of the new retail buildings whether in the downtown or the suburbs.

The current trend in retail design is to maximize the shelf display space and control the lighting so they sacrifice windows. That is good for the inside. No windows on the outside makes for long, blank walls. Dead walls. Retail spaces in the urban cores of yesteryear had windows, large plate glass windows that used to display the goods sold inside. The major stores employed a staff of window dressers and kept them busy.

Like the old saying “The eyes are the window to the soul.”, windows are how we glimpse the spirit of a business. Large corporations in stark, modern buildings with great expanses of these “dead” walls come of as cold and impersonal. Couple that with an ocean of parking and you dread even approaching the front door. Buildings such as the PNC, Chase Bank and the CommerceLex do not entice me to enter and I suppose that most of us don’t go there unless we HAVE to.

Big box stores like the malls and big chains begin to elicit the same effect. Why else would places like Lowe’s or Home Depot have to display their seasonal sales all along the “No Parking/Fire Lane ?" Or have their spring garden sales or tent sales in the parking lot?

In our downtown area even the older historic buildings are getting this type of treatment. Take a good look at the Barney Miller’s storefront, big glass panels that used to be windows, now covered with billboard sized ads. How about the storefronts closer to the Government Center?

Downtown restaurants appear to be the general exception to the elimination of windowed storefronts. They seem to be happy for those outside to peer in and see human activity. These restaurants also are generally not the franchise chains and therefore exhibit a warmer taste of hospitality than their suburban siblings.
...while windows were always an extension of advertising, they were also transparent, and transparency brings with it many happy accidents. The best of these is the vision of human activity -- even if in a CVS -- through the storefront.
There has been a growing push for transparency in our day-to-day dealings with government and other aspects of our social lives, but the commercial design of “dead “walls goes against that push. Maybe they want a window into government without giving one into their world. Like looking through a one-way glass, it has to be in their favor. The interaction needs to flow both ways.

Older suburban retail areas (the Woodland triangle, Chevy Chase, Romany Road) still have storefronts with large glass windows though some still hide the uses behind them ( Sew Fine, Rite Aid, Hubbuch in Ky) and these are, for the most part, active pedestrian areas Downtown Lexington is spending a great amount of tax dollars to make itself a walkable pedestrian area, therefore we should consider the removal of these “dead” walls
A covered window is more than a concession to the hard realities of the retail economy or to the fear of crime. It is the loss of a form of consciousness -- the mutual regard of urban people for one another. It is the loss of an urban space that can't be found on any map, a place where you are on stage but not an actor, in the audience but part of the show, mixed up among I and you and we and us, a liminal space that has thrilled and terrified people since cities grew large enough to dissolve us in collective identity.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Chevy Volt Fulfills A Dream?

General Motors allowed some test drives of their Chevy VOLT, the electric auto that is supposed to change the world. has posted their early impressions and I'll tell you that I don't think that I'll be in line to buy one.

The big selling point is the all electric driving for up to 40 miles before you need the gas engine kick in and maintain the charge level. Ideally, this type of vehicle would be used by someone who has to travel less than 20 miles to work or shop. 20 there and 20 back, simple. For a lot of us that is no problem, but that means few or no side trips elsewhere. Like HybridCars says, the EV miles are the simple ones.

A number of my friends live just a little farther out that the 20 miles to get to town and their jobs. They would be using up the 40 miles before you know it. Maybe, for these folks, they will want to use the EV mode to leave home and get to the main highway where the can make better speed, then switch to the gas engine till they get to the city and switch back to EV for the easy miles around town. You know, save the electric usage for the in town driving. At that point all the engine noise will be left on the open road.

This is the kind of thing that fits well with the relationship that GM has with Google. They have an app for that, or there will be apps for it. You should be able to program your commute to fit your schedule and hopefully program your re-charging and down time. Maybe you could reprogram your lifestyle to fit your car.

Right now it seems that the availability will be more limited that the Toyota Prius was after it was introduced. There are currently 130 and all in the hands of engineers and test cases. Next year's model will be produced in the thousands(hardly enough to fulfill the hype and don't expect to see any major changes) and later models in the tens of thousands. Whoopee!!!

Then there is the solution that they have come up with for the problem of quiet electric autos. The driver will be allowed to control a chirp like sound that emanates from the hood. This would supposedly alert the blind and possibly an unaware pedestrian. Most drivers don't know when to use their turn signals, so how would they know when they are approaching a blind person in order to initiate the chirping sound. Maybe there will be an app for that too.

With enough apps maybe Randal O'Toole is right and a simple software upgrade will make it a driverless vehicle that is in limited availability and that hardly anyone can afford to keep on the road.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Thoughts On Driverless Cars

Back in March, my favorite tool, Randal O'Toole had apiece in the Wall Street Journal about taking the driver out of the car. By that he did not mean getting people out of their cars but just not letting them drive. Randal has long had an aversion to government or planner control of what he considers "personal freedoms", such as where we live and work or how we get between them. In his WSJ article, he clearly buys in to the belief that we can, by use of technology, create a system to allow passengers(i.e. not the drivers) to zip across the country to their destinations.
Driverless cars have so far remained the stuff of science fiction... they are finally close to reality... Making them completely driverless will involve little more than a software upgrade.
Most "coast to coast" travel is done by air nowadays so I doubt that Randal is speaking only of "coast to coast" travel and mainly focusing on commuting and regional travel. The commuting public is usually the group that ends up in gridlock situations. This brings up the question of when will such a system be required on even the majority of personal autos and who will enforce that requirement. My bet is that it will be government planners.

There are currently on the market several makes of autos that can self park and/or notify the driver of dangerous situations but these come with hefty price tags. Low end cars are what dominate the market these days (we are still in a recession). O'Toole mentions some experimental autos that make use of the enhanced global positioning system and how such technology would be used to allow autos to travel mere inches apart at cruising speed or higher(ala NASCAR). Have you seen the mess that makes with just one little bobble or a mechanical failure? And doesn't the government control the GPS satellites?

What would it do to the marketing of automobiles? Today they appeal to the "thrill of the open road" and the "joy of driving", if you remove the driver then all you are buying is a shiny metal box on wheels. Each one little different that the other, where is the status symbol in that? One would not be allowed to perform differently than another(that would defeat the purpose) but it could control the cost. Uh oh, there is the word again, control, Randal doesn't like that word.

Then there is the question of the speed limit or the cruising speed of normal traffic. Would you be able to switch the technology on and off depending on conditions? Would you need it on lightly used roadways? What if you wanted to take a more leisurely pace, to take in the scenery instead of whipping by at high speed? Higher throughput for the morning and evening rush hours would make for shorter commute times but does nothing for the destination storage problem nor the singularity of use insanity of auto ownership.

If we were to make this a reality AND peak oil proves to be correct, with what would we fuel these autos? Electric vehicles get up to 40 miles on an 8 hour charge, and while this may change, that is hardly sufficient for the longer, standard commute of many Central Kentuckians or the commutes of larger urban areas. This would require the non-use of the vehicle for the entire working day while it recharges, not to mention that parking lots and garages are not set up for such a thing. These things would have to be planned for, especially in government owned and operated garages. Parking spaces in shopping centers is a whole other story, can we guess how that would end?

I have no doubt that Randal's scenario could be accomplished but not without a major paradigm shift and a lot of planning. It is a lot more than a "simple software upgrade" and not without a lot of other variables being just so. If private industry is going to drive(so to speak) this driverless auto scenario, then they are coming to the table very slowly and if the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the Toyota (et. al.) recalls are any indication, then I don't want their type of technology.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

November's Campaign Begins

The fall mayoral campaign began tonight, right in the middle of Jim Newberry's victory speech.

I think that it is safe to say that the gloves are off and it is down bare knuckles at this point. Mayor Newberry is pictured as a mayor that makes mistakes and Gray as a supposed visionary who has done nothing.

Both of these men say that they have a vision (or in Gray's case WILL have a vision) for how Lexington is to move forward in the future(read next four years). Right now we are mired in the lagging efforts of an economic recovery while being finally forced to live up to commitments made by previous administrations. Not a very comfy environment to spend any time in.

Both men also seem to look toward a time when we have fully recovered and we can get back to business as usual. Lexington and the United States have been through recessions and depressions and we HAVE recovered, but these post depressions/recessions times have not been "business as usual". Post economic calamity times have always been very different from before and this one will no doubt be likewise.

I, like some of my fellow bloggers, believe that the availability of cheap energy sources is a thing of the past and government statistics are beginning to reflect that. Federal agencies are starting to urge social changes to accommodate such a scenario from as high as the Cabinet level, although meeting somewhat stiff resistance(claims of social engineering). As energy affects just about every aspect of our lives, the results of more and more expensive energy touch us all. I would like to see what each of these candidates thinks is in store for Lexington and how they plan to deal with it, or prepare us for it.

We have seen it in the water rates and the price of gasoline and we all say that there is not much that we can do. We will see more in electric rates and natural gas in the future and still not have much say about it. But some of the decisions that we make about land use and transportation options today can go a long way toward mitigating the effects of rising fuel costs among other things. A simple limiting of parking (and not just in the downtown) as other cities have considered would encourage mass transit and more localized shopping and services. Perhaps the situation at the Polo Club Chevron the other day was an omen to those living in suburbia that fuel for your auto could quickly disappear and you could be stranded.

There are many other topics and possibilities of future changes that could be considered and all in the realm of probability. I want to know where these guys stand and if they are thinking about the future of Lexington, or just the next four years.

Friday, May 14, 2010

My Position on CVS And The Downtown

There has been an awful lot of things said about the proposed CVS in downtown. For the record, I am against the current building and any design that allows an expanse of parking and a drive through within sight of the street. Most critics are correct in saying that this is an important intersection but all intersections downtown are important.

The committee that worked on the Downtown Master Plan identified it as a "gateway" to downtown, but that is subjective. "Gateways" serve to announce that you are approaching the business district and give a fairly good impression of the skyline, if one exists. These "gateways" are always shifting outward from the center of town and I can remember when it could be declared at Main & Rose. I feel that when they built the Woodlands condos that it moved to Main & Woodland and, honestly, it could be moved as far as Main & Walton.

The present make-up along E Main St., from Walton to Midland, consists of mainly residential and office uses set back from the street a short distance and NO parking other than the entry to the Woodlands. The only other street we have like this is N. Broadway. Every intersection along here is important and care should be taken to avoid any suburban type redevelopment. Care should also be taken on E. High St., from Woodland to Rose, as it redevelops.

"Gateways" should not announce that you are entering a wide , multi-lane roadway, designed to get you through town, but a calm, pedestrian oriented, business lined street. And, since "gateways" are a shifting location, any planning for new development should be aimed at a future idea of how the intersection will function. Planning for a past condition seems a bit pointless.

A part of the Downtown Master Plan is to revert our one-way streets back to two-way streets which would make this not just an entry, but an exit for both Main and Vine Streets. None of these three streets (Main, Vine and Midland) should look or act like a speedway. If I recall correctly, the plan called for Midland to be lined with new 4-7 story buildings facing the Thoroughbred Park. That, in itself, would change the nature of Midland.

Just as driving is not a right, its a privilege, neither is parking and although parking right at the door is something that we have come to expect, that privilege does not come cheaply.

I made a quick, cursory look through the Plan the other day and did not see any part of it that referred to either the enhancement or the elimination of parking facilities. I also realize that parking requirements in the downtown zones do not exist. Off-street parking, in the downtown area, was provided by the private sector since the days of the horse and buggy. Have you ever counted the number of livery stables on the Sanborn maps from the turn of the last century? There were several on every block and none of them were run by the local government. Local businessmen made money off of them. Even in those days parking was not free. These days developers say that they cannot make a project work without a government financed parking facility. Government now provides various of mass transit modes and the parking facility with which they compete, which makes no sense to me.

The subject of design guidelines is also another sticky morass through which to tread. What kind of guidelines would be best for Lexington? Form based? A rigid code? Some sort of "design czar"? A professional panel? Something of a hybrid ? Ask a dozen people and get a thousand answers. Some officials think that we should have design guidelines in place already although NO official action has been made to create or enact such guidelines. A few of our current Council members, and one in particular, are well suited to head up the task of getting such guidelines onto the local agenda, yet NO ONE has. Ironically, these are the same ones who cry foul when developments don't meet the non-existent, mythical guidelines.

Should the guidelines govern just the downtown or should they cover the entire urban area? We currently have a couple of ND-1 zoning overlays that impose some guidelines and several other areas are considering them. Is that the right path to take? One again, many ideas and few simple answers. There is a special set of rules being developed for the Infill and Redevelopment Area which spans the downtown and the "first ring" subdivisions. How will city wide design guidelines affect them?

Lexington has never had a distinctive style for which it is known except for the rolling horse farm landscape, and that just doesn't translate well into urban design. Most of our subdivisions, though "modern" when they were built have become somewhat dated over the years and some have asked if they will ever become the "historic districts" of some future generation. I would ask if we are planning and designing for the needs of today or the needs of the future? Have we become such an uncaring throw-away society that we don't think about how our children will use the buildings that we put up today? Our parents put up buildings that would outlast them while we put up ones that will not make it to our old age.

These are the things that we should think about and worry about, right up there with climate change and peak oil/energy depletion when we propose thing for our city and particularly its downtown.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

ProgressLex Is Supportable

I follow the folks over at ProgressLex not only because I want to see what they are up to, I also want them to help bring about change. I am sure that a majority of them feel that I am just another impediment on their path to a glorious future for Lexington, but their methods could be interpreted as “riding roughshod” over others like they feel that they have been for years. I comment on their site, not to antagonize them but to get them to think a bit differently about what they may be doing. Some of them wish that I would supply them with answers and directions but that would just be me giving them a box to think outside of. And, believe it or not, I do agree with their stated beliefs and mission statement.
Our Beliefs

ProgressLex’s mission is to create and sustain a thriving, diverse and beautiful Lexington that serves all citizens. Specifically, we will foster meaningful citizen participation, improve government transparency and support visionary citywide leadership toward the following ends:

* encouraging downtown design excellence
* promoting smart and sustainable economic development
* advocating for social justice
* pursuing environmental justice
* broadening support for arts & entertainment
I want a sustainable, diverse and beautiful Lexington that serves all its residents, not just the ones downtown, but all its residents. Even the ones living in the suburbs, they deserve a beautiful surrounding too. I want a true visionary in the lead for Lexington, not a politician who figures out which way the wind blows and set his sail. I want one who will chart a real progressive path.

I also believe that their specifics on their efforts are a bit too limited. Why not encourage good design for all of Fayette County? Why limit it to downtown? Why can’t the same excellent design that we want for downtown work in the new developments closer to the fringe? Is the typical suburban sprawl a smart and sustainable method of economic development?

This nation and this city have come so close to a real economic collapse in the past few years and, to some, we are not out of the woods yet. Should this be a lull in the storm and we again begin to fall, will the current suburban development model, with its lack of connectivity or alternate transportation modes, be able to survive? Will those who bought in to that lifestyle be able to get by on falling real estate prices and rising fuel fees?

The advocating for social justice and pursuing the environmental justice are very nebulous phrases and can be stretched or confined in many ways, while support for arts and entertainment should come from those who want and are able to support those kinds of things.
For Lexington to reach its full potential, we believe it needs:

* Urban design practices based on principles of sustainability, usability and aesthetics;
* Sustainable and innovative economic development strategies;
* Residents who are treated equally and compassionately regardless of gender, race, creed, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status;
* Green spaces that are respected and that preserve the region’s biodiversity and geographic beauty; and,
* A local arts and entertainment scene that is valued and citizens who appreciate how vital they are to the city’s culture and long-term economic well-being.
In order to achieve these items completely we may have to dismantle our free enterprise system and remove all profit motives. The free market system relies on taking advantage of somebody in order to get ahead, remove the incentives and progress slows dramatically.
Further, we believe the keys to achieving these depend upon:

* Our ability to work together as informed, engaged and empowered individuals for the common good;
* Establishing ProgressLex as a 21st-century grassroots organization capable of uniting many voices; and,
* Engaging citizens and working with local leaders to make government more transparent and responsive to community needs.
I have found many of the writers for ProgressLex to well informed of a wide range of topics and yet somewhat lacking on the details for their “cause de jour”. I have been accused of not being helpful while causing some of them to pause and rethink. They certainly engaged and definitely asking to be well more empowered than they presently are. I really do believe that ProgressLex WILL become a viable grassroots organization and WILL work well with our local leaders in making them more responsive.

Unfortunately, there are still a great many of our suburban residents out there who embody the sentiments of a recent Twitter entry of a ProgressLex’er,
“As a native suburban Lex'er, I never once gave one thought to downtown's design & appearance. I never even CAME downtown - except for Rupp…” Eric Patrick Marr
These grassroots residents are the ones that need to be reached.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Some Of Todays Unintended Consequences

Zoning, according to Wikipedia, has a primary purpose of segregating uses that are thought to be incompatible. You know, keeping things that annoy good folks at a distance while allowing them to exist.
In 1916, New York City adopted the first zoning regulations to apply city-wide as a reaction to The Equitable Building which towered over the neighboring residences, diminishing the availability of sunshine.
The rest of the country quickly followed suit and began to separate those uses that people enjoyed from those that were necessary but, by their very nature, offensive. Housing near the stockyards, not good. Smokestack industries near playgrounds, not good. Traffic intensive business near neighborhood schools, not good-well- maybe. Single-family homes near apartments, well, OK in some areas but it brings the home values down. Small single family's near estate lots, not in my neighborhood. Zoning has become out of control.

As our definitions of what is incompatible have become more narrowly interpreted and the scale of development has become larger, the separations of our land uses have started to cause us some problems. No longer are we within walking distance of our schools and churches, our local grocery or restaurants or even the places that service our very means of getting around, our automobiles. Everything that we need to do takes a trip of 1 or more miles. If my car was to have a dead battery or be out of gas, it is at least a 1 1/2 mile walk to the nearest gas station. And I consider myself to be closer than most.

I must say that the majority of this has happened during the "age of cheap oil". From 1916 through the early 1990s oil was relatively cheap and people could use it abundantly. Subdivisions could be spread out and just about everyone could live on a short, little used street. The cul-de-sac became the desired location for families with young children. It made little difference that these said cul-de-sacs were some distance from the schools and parks these children need or even greater distances from the shopping and jobs that the parents required.

The May issue of the Harvard Business Review notes a recent study which shows that areas with cul-de-sacs force their residents to travel 26% farther than the residents of areas with interconnected streets. As I have stated here before, government services are also forced to make the greater travel distances at a cost not just to the areas residents, but to the entire community. Subdivisions which have been zoned to limit the commercial opportunities and allow these cul-de-sacs could be forcing the travel distances closer to 30% or higher.

We are reaching the point of an end of cheap oil and will soon realize that such a continued excessive use of resources is surely unsustainable. Our zoning laws will have to be rewritten to reflect better uses of land and, indirectly, the resources necessary to maintain urban life. The Brookings Institute has also noticed that, according to a recent analysis of census data, more and more young, whites are returning to the city cores in America, something like a reverse "white flight". While they are not fleeing an influx of undesirable neighbors, they are escaping an undesirable living situation.

Since our past history of unintended consequences with zoning leaves a lot to be desired, how do you think we will fare in the future?