Thursday, May 24, 2012

“Is It Just Me Or…”

We all seem to have those “Is it just me or…” moments.  I had one just the other day during a lunchtime walkabout which I take most sunny days.

This was one in which I took a usual route, west on Vine and then either going out S. Broadway or on beyond the Lexington Center.  This day I strolled through Triangle Park over toward the historic W. Short St.  The park, for all of its renovation work, still has little for the noontime pedestrian to do.

The tour down Vine St continues to surprise me these two years since the streetscape was essentially finished.  The pedestrians are few and the service/delivery vehicles seem to park with abandon on the new, wide pavers which are clearly intended for people.  There are a few “smoker’s posts” near the office tower and they can make walking past a chore for the non-smoker but otherwise there is little happening here.

I made an infrequent stop in the Victorian Square Shoppes and wondered, almost aloud, how some of those places can stay in business.  They do and more power to them, as I say about the claims that we have too much vacant office space, just because I see no activity does not mean that there is none.  Victorian Square is alive, maybe not robust, but alive.

Exiting near the corner of Short and Broadway and looking back toward the Court House is about the time that it hit me.  My “Is it just me or… moment” nearly bowled me over, like the cyclist zipping down the sidewalk.  Short St is the vibrant, pedestrian street that we all would like downtown to be.

How many hours over the past decade, and several Urban County Government administrations, have been spent of discussions and negotiations concerning Vine St and what could be done to improve the freeway-like atmosphere which has attached itself there?  How many consultants submitted options on solutions over the years?  After all that, has there been much noticeable improvement?

There it was, Short Street, stretching from Broadway to Limestone in the noontime hour just bustling with sidewalk activity, street activity and the sounds of downtown life.  What I saw before me was accomplished with minimal government dollars and much investment by the private sector.  It was not perfect but it was quite vibrant.  It has been growing that way for a while now, gradually gaining, but this day it just popped.

Main Street still has its pedestrian activity and a number of café dining on the sidewalks but not like the volume on Short.  The one-way traffic and the width may alter the cozy nature somewhat but I am not sure that it makes that much of a difference.  Main St is quite a bit longer, so that may diffuse its activity, but it also has many more blank walls with which the public must deal.

The public spaces along Main St, both Phoenix Park and the Court House Plaza, see fairly consistent use though some may find the patrons a little less than to their liking.  Elsewhere the comings and goings are a bit more sporadic.

The activity on Short St is not all a bed of roses and some of the thorns do prick at me. 

With all of the restaurant and bar venues currently in place, not all of them are open for the lunch hour, there will naturally be a slew of delivery vehicles. I constantly wonder why the restaurants can take delivery before or after the peak pedestrian times but the bars cannot.  Why does it take three men and three or more vehicles, at least two of which are extended length trailers, which block the mid-block crosswalks near Cheapside.  The soft drink companies and the spirit companies can deliver with smaller trucks on these narrow streets, but beer route drivers are special?

I also dislike the encroachment that some café diners make into the remaining walkway.  Each restaurant is allowed a limited amount of sidewalk and will not police their paying customers who - sometimes – snatch more chairs than usual at a table and spill outside the allowed space.  Common sense should kick in at these times but maybe alcohol is involved.

Lastly, there are the cyclists, the dog owners and those with over-sized strollers which try to negotiate or occupy extremely tight spaces, usually to the detriment of good circulation.  If the committee working on the food truck locations can cite pedestrian obstructions as a concern, then they should be looked at for all of downtown sidewalks.  Cyclists are currently prohibited from downtown sidewalks by ordinance, but it is rarely enforced and just plain ignored by the court system.  Should we get all of our downtown streets as active as Short St has become there will be problems, so we might as well begin solving them now.

Well, that is a lot to think about.  Now, I ask you “Is it just me or…”

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Downtown Jeopardy

I'll have “Random Dates in Lexington History” for $200, Alex.

And the answer is, September 10, 1950.

What was the day when we got most of our one-way streets?

Correct. That was the day when, at least, six of the downtown streets were converted to one-way and new parking limitations for autos and trucks set in place. Today, many of the parking rules and loading zones are vastly different, but all but a few of the changed one-way streets are still with us.

One-way streets are a hot topic these days and I doubt if it is due to the changes made back those 61 years ago. Downtown traffic has always been a sore point and especially since the introduction of the automobile. Even in the horse drawn buggy and wagons era there were traffic problems. The conversation today is about slowing down the traffic which moves through downtown rather than just getting to and from downtown.

Is it not odd that the morning rush hour traffic which flows well on the two-way radial spokes of Richmond, Winchester/Midland, Tates Creek or Leestown roads need the one-way uses of Main and Vine to get to where they are going? During off-peak times are all of the vehicles solely trying to get to the other side of town since many feel that downtown is not a destination?
The 40 year experiment with one-way traffic on Main & Vine, the pattern which many now believe that we cannot do without, may be a factor in the oft referred decline of downtown and its bland atmosphere of rapidly moving traffic and lack of pedestrians. The nice thing about experiments like this is that the can be reversed.

Take the example of East Short St from around the turn of the last century. The section from Limestone to Walnut (now Martin Luther King...) was made one-way. In the winter of 1926 a delegation of Short street property owners petitioned for a repeal of that change and it returned to a two-way street. Due to the narrowness of the roadway where it passed the county jail, parking was prohibited for its full length. Twenty-four years later, during the changes of 1950, Short St was made one-way from Georgetown St to Deweese.

What has surprised me most in doing research for this is the Limestone, then U.S. 27, was still two-way and the oddest change was for Mill and Upper Streets to assume part of that traffic as it passed through town. Upper St was a southbound one-way at that point but not a part of the national highway system and Mill St (or portions of it) was northbound one-way.

Under the 1950 change, Upper became northbound and Mill became southbound. U.S. 27 traffic was diverted from North Broadway at Third and apparently used Upper and Mill to connect with Bolivar, from which one used Upper St to proceed south to Limestone and Nicholasville Rd. This only last a few short years, since, as a pre-teen, I remember Limestone and Upper as the exist today.

From the map accompanying the newspaper article, the old version of Vine St was changed to one-way from Broadway to Kentucky Ave. though I have no recollection of that at all

The plan of 1950 shows the westbound changes to Second St for both of its East and West portions and Church street for its entire length, along with Corral from Deweese to Midland.

That leaves High and Maxwell Streets which became the one-way pair as we know them today. As I have always known them from my days attending Maxwell School. I don't think that I have ever heard anyone suggest that it be any different. I do believe that if it is reverted to two-way, then any parking on them anywhere would have to be eliminated.

What will this new, nearly half million dollar study determine for our downtown streets? Will two-way streets add the necessary vitality to the streetscape? Will this be another wasted attempt at “bringing downtown back” which so many suburbanites bemoan from the safety of their insulated subdivision communities.

Downtown will never “come back” and I thank God for that. We can make it better and not just from a traffic standpoint, and I thank a whole handful of folks for that. But making it better is not as simple as doing or undoing what may be “failed” experiments. It could be tweaking some things and wholesale makeovers on others, so we need to be thoughtful in how we proceed. Since they were looking at parking restrictions and loading zones/times as part of the traffic(auto and foot) problem, then maybe we should revisit them as well.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Are Sidewalks The Road To Improvement?

Downtown has seen a lot of effort and money spent on it in the past few years. So much so, it seems like we should be looking at other areas in which to share the wealth but there is only so much wealth to go around. Still, somebody should be doing something.

Well, there are other neighborhoods which are doing something, whether with the government's help or without it. I feel that the role of government is to do those things that the people cannot or will not do for themselves. Public safety is one thing but building, repairing or clearing sidewalks is quite another.

The Main St,Vine St and South Limestone streetscape improvements clearly demonstrate the worth of making said improvements and now the Southland Dr area folks are working toward sidewalks there. Our history of auto-centric development has allowed many shopping centers built from the '50s up through the '90s to be devoid of any walking facilities of any kind. The original developers are long gone and the sidewalks need to be built, but it should not fall to the government to fund the lions share. Even in the name of public safety.

The sidewalks at your home, both the one in front of your house and the one which leads to your front door, are a focus of the curb appeal which welcome friends and family into your home. They are a big part of a first impression.

Many houses built in the last few decades seem to have walks which only go to the front driveway and appear to shun anyone who may not drive. Visitors who have to park on the street, either because the host  cannot get their autos in the garage or they have invited far more friends than they have space for, by necessity still have to use the driveway. Even the next door neighbor has to use the driveway.

I believe that by not tending to the care and upkeep of the sidewalk on or abutting ones property, one is showing utter disregard to their neighbors and, probably, to society as a whole. It is also not government's job to remind you to maintain the walks for the good of all, or to maintain them in your stead. I think that we can all agree that there are better places to apply their limited funds.

To a similar degree, the sidewalks in neighborhood shopping areas should be a large part of the curb appeal to the shops and restaurants there. Once again it should be a part of the welcoming feeling of approaching a friendly environment. Why else do you think that the office parks, despite their seas of parking, have lavish landscaping around the doorways?

When it comes to the larger “planned” shopping centers like the malls and their counterparts, it looks like the “planning” went right out the window. There may be sidewalks along the approaching roadways but getting to the entryways is strictly through the vehicular area and its many obstacles. Try walking from any of the residential areas around the Fayette Mall or Hamburg to any of their popular stores and see how comfortable you are. You might live close but the Walkscore is atrocious.

Lexington's best location for walking, with a walkscore of 85, is the downtown area. Origins and destinations within a reasonable distance, though not all of the origins are residential in nature and good availability of walking paths to take. But I wonder what the score would be if they took proper surface maintenance and simple daily cleaning/litter control into account.

Have you looked, really looked at some of our sidewalk conditions just a block or two off of the revitalized Main and Vine? What about the cross streets which connect them; Limestone, Upper, Market and Broadway which have remained untouched. Many of the sections of pavement are cracked and flaking, or the former tree wells are disintegrating and bulging. Litter and broken glass from beverage bottles are frequent sights.

I have said before that the way we use our public spaces is generally appalling and in some cases the abusers are just human pigs, but really folks don't you think that we can do better? We have a dedicated crew to police the heavily used spaces and it is the ordained responsibility of the downtown property owner/property manager to take care of the rest, but I don't think that they do that good of a job of it.

Government has the obligation to take care of the roadways and keep them in a safe and orderly manner and they have the power to enforce that the sidewalks be held to the same conditions. From where does this obvious disconnect arise? When and where was the ball dropped?

These sidewalks are the focus of our downtown curb appeal and we are allowing them to peel and fade like a bad paint job on our finest houses. When are we going to bring our downtown up to the standard where it should be? If the merchants and property owners will not maintain them, should the government do the job? Maybe yes, but the cost should be borne by those who have refused to do it themselves and not spread across the community as a whole. Or the whole nation by using Federal funds to do the job.

I think that it should be the community's desire to make our entire city into a walkers paradise, where every neighborhood has someplace attainable by walking and safe ways of getting there. It will take effort and commitment, but most likely, a change in attitude.

If it doesn't start with downtown, then the neighborhoods should start it but it need to start somewhere. I have pointed our some beginning places and I know that there are others, if you do also then lets get to work on it. 

The sooner the better.