Sunday, February 26, 2012

Grassroots Wayfinding

It only lasted about five weeks but it got a lot of attention, both locally and internationally. It seems like a really good idea and something that could find some legs around here. It is the brainchild of a graduate student majoring in landscape architecture and in urban planning.

It did not happen here in Lexington.

It, is a grassroots effort to demonstrate to residents the ease of walking to various destinations and has linking to a smart phone app from which they get directions and an estimated walking time. It is a way to incorporate the pedestrian into the wayfinding methods of the city. It was apparently also illegal and stopped by the Planning Director.

"Walk Raleigh" was started by graduate student Matt Tomasulo and some friends as a way to get pedestrians into a more integrated utilization of the City of Raleigh, N. C.  Raleigh has a wayfinding system, as does Lexington, but it as basically geared toward the automobile as is Lexington's. Involving the pedestrian seems to be of lesser concern to most city governments, so many of us walkers have to fend for ourselves. In Raleigh, one has to get permission to put up a sign, and as always with governments, some locations may be disapproved or prohibited outright. That takes the spontaneity right out of it for the masses.

I have written about the wayfinding signs here in Lexington and detailed some of the faults which I, and others, have noticed. The fact that our and other wayfinding systems are geared for the motorist stands out as(to my mind) the greatest fault. Now I ask, what effort should we, as the residents of a very walkable downtown, do to enhance the present wayfinding setup?

Last week, Dhiru Thadani, the prime author of the Downtown Master Plan reiterated, in his remarks to the 2012 Lafayette Seminar, that Lexington has a walkable downtown, and that even beyond the limits of the central business area the walkability continues. I did not hear anyone ask if we needed to do more for our wayfinding system nor did I hear Dr. Blues speak of doing more for anything but the Design Excellence group's work on the development standards for downtown. We seem to be planning for more people on the streets on downtown, yet are leaving with an auto-centric signage system. Perhaps the Master Plan is still coming up a little short. I hope that our new Commissioner of Planning could do a bit more in that regard.

On a side note, I read last week that the Colt trolley arrangement is getting a facelift and finally thinking of using Short St (as I suggested back in 2009)  instead of Vine St. Maybe late is just a little better than never.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Corman Is Still At It

Rumor has it that R. J. Corman is at it again – or should I say still at it. Buying property that is or better yet, trading for it.

The City of Lexington has a couple of properties which are divided by the Town Branch. One of them is the Jail parcel and the other is the Public Works yard parcel. The divided portions are between the creek and the Corman rail line to Frankfort. Combined, they make up nearly 22 acres of land completely isolated from the used portion.

Forty years ago, when the City began developing the public works yard, there was a chance to straighten the creek as was the practice of the day but we chose not to. The City could also have built a bridge across the creek and chose not too, so the land has sat vacant for all these years.

Now, these 22 acres don't seem to be much. There is not much flat land and mostly falls away from the railroad tracks with flood plain which covers maybe 3 of those acres. But what makes this property interesting is that it does lie adjacent to the railroad and connects with the 50+ acres which Corman bought earlier. This, I believe, is why Corman is in talks with the City to swap for something that the City can use.

I'm thinking that Corman's Rupp yard, not being a classification yard, could be shrunk by a bit and the sand/cement trans-loading facility is being moved to the previously mentioned 22 acres. Such a move would allow the large trucks which pick the sand and cement to use the more appropriate roads and streets of the industrial area off Old Frankfort Pike. Since W. T. Congleton Co. touches the eastern end of these 22 acres and has already built an industrial strength bridge across the creek – AND – receives cement shipments, it makes for a nice coincidence. Yeah, right.

So, what would the City do with the land now occupied by the sand trans-loading equipment? This land lies alongside the Town Branch and opposite the proposed Town Branch Trail. It also holds the track that leads up to the newly placed trackbed under Oliver Lewis Way on which Corman has spent much time and effort lately. Should this track be intended for some future passenger usage it stands to reason that the freight usage be moved elsewhere. This would still appear to be railroad usage of the land and not given over to the City. This still leaves some 22 acres of Corman land somewhere which can be traded. Or they could be buying it.

If anyone has any better ideas or information, I am ready to hear it.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Energy Security Or Food Security, A Choice?

Here is an interesting item from The National, a daily newspaper from Abu Dhabi. 

The Arab states are becoming concerned about food security, since the region imports more than 50% of their food needs. Some of their poorer countries import even higher amounts. While the Gulf states can afford to pay the cost of importation, the others cannot.

America has just begun to really worry about oil security and how we would cope should supplies be really cut off. Could we live within the limitations of what we drill and pump? Can we be energy independent? Some think that we can, but it would be a tremendous change for us all.  And it would include food security too.

Food security exists when a nation, state or region can feed itself with local agriculture and not need the imports of the global market. Food insecurity will begin, for many of us, when the price of oil reaches such a point that transporting food cost more than raising it. For many in America that means reverting to the seasonal occurrences of fresh fruits and many vegetables. Many of our large agri-businesses will have to decentralize and maybe depend on local farmers a little more. The distance between the farm and the table will have to become shorter.

Oil and energy security have become reason for war. Our leaders don't come right out and say so, but we all realize it anyway. We fabricate alternate stated reasons but we don't involve ourselves too much if there is no oil in the picture. How long will it be until our (or somebody else's ) food security is the real reason that we are fighting? Will we fight for fresh fruit shipped in from Argentina or Chile? How about fish from off the coast of Russia? Will we defend our lobsters in the Grand Banks?

I believe that most of us civilized folks will say that food should not be used as a weapon in an economic battle and great famines are rare in this country, but if an oil starved/food rich America can fight for oil then an oil rich/food starved Arab region can fight for food.

Situations are bleak in multiple parts of Africa and portions of Australia are suffering drought conditions as well. Could we be closer to the brink than we realize? Should we plan for better food security as well as energy security? 

My answer is yes but what do you say?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Can We Stop The Quibbling?

While I was crafting last night's entry, the Herald-Leader was breaking the news about the latest CentrePointe designs and opening the door to all the loony comments which they know always ensue. From the wanna-be Frank Lloyd Wright's to the “anything built in the '80s is bad” crowd, they all showed up and it was off to the races.

Some folks think that Dudley is just trying to ruin the city's reputation, others that the Webbs are truly criminal for stealing the wonderful vibrancy of the block's former self. Four years (and one deep recession) into the project, some believe that if they bring enough criticism that they can delay the outcome until they can influence a change of design. Others still long for the memories of a once popular music venue and little else on a downtown block which was mainly vibrant after dark and basically stagnant during the day.

There is also the segment who call for project to be “taken away” from the Webbs and developed by “someone who can see what we need”. This is absolutely fiscally impossible as well as contrary to Kentucky eminent domain law.

When it comes to design the opinions are again all over the charts. Should it be one structure or a series of varied ones? Should it be a boutique hotel or a convention sized one? It even comes down to whether or not an elevated pedway should connect to other buildings. Why does everybody bash the idea of pedways? They are just another way to get around and between buildings.

Nobody forces people to walk via pedway versus the street level, just like nobody forces folks to ride the bus versus driving a car. Pedways have failed in other localities but I would wager that the failure was due to what they connected and not how the connected.

The one sure way to get more street level foot traffic is to put more interesting and attractive storefronts at street level. People need a reason to be doing/going where they do and how they do. Give them that reason and the traffic will increase.

Retail businesses need those same reasons to be where they are, give them the option to be either on a pedway or on the street. One severe critic, Michael Speaks is only giving an opinion when he lashes out at the concept of pedways. If he wants to argue against pedways, then he should introduce some facts into the conversation. Likewise Dudley should show some supporting information for supporting them. The University of Kentucky must realize that they are useful, they keep building them.

The Webbs are usually cited as developers of “failed projects” but only a few are mentioned. I wonder if the Woodlands is considered a failure when it is fully sold out of the condos (and they aren't cheap). The architecture of the building is not the downtown beige that everyone decries and one story that I heard many years back involved a returning alumni for UK's homecoming weekend—He commented to his young family what a great job they had done restoring the structure. It was less than a year old at the time.

Do most of the folks in town think that Regency Center on Nicholasville Rd is a “failure”? Aren't all the shops leased out and active? Will the Kroger store be damaged by the new Trader Joe's when it opens later this year? Is this center relatively close to enough residential for it to be considered a walkable retail location?

I feel that with all the other design questions of neighborhood safety and interconnectedness, of increased dependency on automobiles for mobility and shrinking government revenues with which to remedy these situations and the possibility that we just aren't prepared for a probable economic collapse, we have better topics to endlessly vent about.

Most of the residents of Lexington have three main concerns:
  • Don't try to force me out of the subdivisions,
  • Don't try to force me out of my car, and
  • Don't spend my tax money on things that I will never use.

CentrePointe comes up a “meh” on all of those points.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Lexington Mall, Idle Hour And Other News

I have been keeping an eye on the church construction on the former Lexington Mall site and even before the Herald-Leader article noticed a slow-down in the progress toward enclosing the new building. The demolition company had removed their equipment but uncharacteristicly left large piles of the pulverized concrete material in place. The pace of progress made no sense since we have had such a mild winter season so far. I also was not surprised when I saw the latest revision of their development plan several weeks ago. For a location which apparently had failed to support retail uses and had to be used for a church, the increased size and purpose of the outlots could mean only one thing – the costs were definitely rising.

I don't like the whole concept of what they are doing on that project but there is little that I can do about it now. A large edifice surrounded by a sea of parking and the runoff flowing directly across the street from our back-up water supply. Now we are adding a drive in bank and a drive-thru fast food place, which they hope will do well. This has been a fairly dead commercial stretch lately and just about anything would be an improvement.

Speaking of improvements, the whole Idle Hour Shopping Center has undergone a sprucing up in the past few years and it is not finished yet. @GossipGirl 40502 tweeted me the other day about the activity in the old Walgreen's location and hinted at a new restaurant coming there. Well it is true. The site is being prepared for a place called Papacina's, but it is not going in the old building, it is replacing the old building.

Those of us familiar with the Idle Hour area will usually think of the restaurants which have dotted the place since the mid-60's, both in the mall and the shopping center. Most of them have been the typical dash and grab sites, although Durango's is one of the better sit-down establishments around.

A year or so ago, the property owners began talking of a stand-alone building replacing part of the old Walgreen's and Raising Cane's was tossed about, but the parking and drive-thru details could not be worked out. Now we look to have a solution in hand.

Think of a building like Sal's or Malone's but free standing out in the parking lot. Not my favorite style of building and not what I would like to see in a “walkable” neighborhood. When, oh when will we change our development standards to force the B-1 zone to put the building on the sidewalk and hide the parking in the rear?

Maybe the one effect that the church has had on the area is that more people are looking at the potential along Richmond Rd. inside the Circle.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Becoming An "Urban County"

I heard a conversation today where the participants, clearly very pro PDR (that is Lexington's Purchase of Development Rights program) spoke of the council representation for the 12th district. I believe that the exact words were that “the rural interests of the 12th district have not been represented since Gloria Martin left office”. That is just the facts of living in a continually urbanizing county and the willing move to raise the minimum lot size for residential use.

Fayette County has twelve council districts which, by charter, are supposed to be nearly equal in population based on the latest Census figures. Even in the early days of merger, that meant including a good portion of the suburban neighborhoods.

Lexington chose to become a very compact city, when in 1958 they imposed a urban growth boundary (USA), actually the very first in the nation. It was designed to bring on orderly, cost efficient development and prevent dispersing services widely throughout the county. Many of its objectives did as designed but some such as our trunk sewer system could have used some better estimates on sizing.

At about the same time the local health department recognized that septic systems in the rural areas would need larger lots in order to function correctly and imposed a 10 acre minimum on all new development outside the growth boundary. This, of course, would bring the overall residential density of the rural area lower over time without other influences coming into play.

But other influences did come into play, in the form of “agricultural” subdivisions for those wishing for a place in the country. Ten acre plots springing up all over the county for housing a family looking for basically a status symbol house and little more. Farmland being used for fewer and fewer people and no agricultural production of any kind. Actually a worse type of sprawl than paving it all over and building shopping centers on it. The rural character was lost as well as the loss of density.

The authors of the merger charter desired to live up to the spirit of the Urban Service Area concept by designating one council district, the 12th, to be as rural as they could make it. Unfortunately, that meant including enough of the urban subdivisions to bring the district population proportionate to 1/12th of the county. To accomplish that a large part of the long established USA was required to be included.

By now it should be easy to see that, electing a representative in an area which will only grow more urban and expect that representative, being responsive to his constituents, to remain totally rural focused. A council member elected every two years, a district adjusted every ten years and the trend toward increasing urbanization can only mean a loss of rural influence.

It may be this loss of influence that these folks were speaking of which will play a part in the ongoing onslaught toward PDR.

Many people are beginning to feel that, in these days of increasing budgets and falling revenues, PDR is a luxury that we can no longer afford. I have heard it said that PDR is paying property owners for development rights on land that cannot be developed as it is.

This is not to say that a major thoroughbred farm operation or the Horse Park/Keeneland type places is not fully developed, because they obviously are. But should we pay for these “developed” farms to NOT develop? The Council's last few budget battles have brought more and more pressure to bear on the viability of continuing to fund PDR.

Gloria Martin was a championing force behind PDR and the increase to 40 acre minimum lot size as well as the 300 foot setback for rural houses, and failing any rural influence since her departure, PDR may be in real trouble. This year will see a district race in which PDR will probably have a good showdown. The real rural dweller in the race is set on dismantling the existing program and the suburbanite candidate may not be able to fund its continuance.

We are marching on to becoming an urban county.