Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Is Something Missing?

I began this blog nearly four years ago.  Somewhat in the hope of getting my thoughts of what is happening in Lexington out there and partially at the urging from Mrs. Sweeper, to put together information on Lexington's development history.  Mrs. Sweeper is hoping for a book on the subject but I'm not so sure that I can do it.

I have left my comments on things on many forum threads concerning Lexington like Skyscraper City's and CityData's and not always to the appreciation of the other forum members.  It took several years for them to see that I was leaning in a right direction.  It is that back and forth postings of those forums that I miss in this blog.

I also leave comments on the blogs of others, usually if I believe that I can clarify some of the assumptions made by those outside the loop or correct some outright misconceptions.  I have not always been received warmly when I do that, but it is nice to see later that I am quoted or cited somewhere down the line.

That said, what I find missing from this blog is a sense of dialogue with my readers.  I know that they are out there.  You are out there aren't you?  I watch my stat counters every day and see where I have recurring reads from all over the country. I hear from some of my sources that they know of folks who read  and take note of the posts.  I even see that there are numerous reads from the LFUCG personnel, though it sometimes appears that I take them to task about things.  Still, anything resembling a dialogue is missing.

I have taken to asking questions in my entries, either to find out more information or to determine if there is a direction that the readers would like me to go.  Without feedback it is like listening to crickets chirp on a still night.

I am not asking for validation or condemnation, just dialogue.  Is it out there?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Was The CentrePointe TIF Area Not Well Thought Out?

As of Friday afternoon, the Lexington History Museum has been closed due to excessive paint dust which contains lead. Lead paint was used almost exclusively in the prime years of the old court house, both before and after the major remodeling which took place in the '60s.

I find it interesting that this announcement comes just after I posted about Lexington's lack of will to maintain (or complete) many of their projects of late. This is just another example.

For the last 4 years now, the old court house has been THE major building residing in the Urban County Council designated Phoenix Park/Courthouse Area TIF district, or what everyone else calls the CentrePointe TIF area. Almost all of the rest of the properties are street rights-of-way, parking lots or other government owned park property. That makes the CentrePointe project and the McCarthy's block of buildings the sole generators of any taxes which may be incremented.

The beneficiaries of these funds are quite specific:
  • A tunnel connecting Phoenix Park to CentrePointe. (No longer a part of the Project)
  • A pedway connecting the Financial Center Garage to CentrePointe. (also not a part)
  • A Phoenix Park Garage. (has been removed from project)
  • Restoration of the Fayette County Courthouse and Cheapside Park / Plaza.
  • Makeover of old courthouse building including new roof, windows, atrium, and infrastructure. In addition, the courthouse plaza will be redeveloped to include the proposed closing of Cheapside Road. (Except for the restoration, all of this has been done)
  • Permanent display space and building for the Lexington Farmer's Market. Though not built to the detailed specs, this is essentially complete.
  • Streetscape improvements including street art. Main and Vine are done Lime, Upper and Short are lacking.
That is it. Straight from the TIF agreement of September of 2009. CentrePointe has been scaled back and much of the other work has been financed by some other method. And the old Court House waits, and waits.

The taxes from which these funds are to come are also spelled out in the document:
  • Ad Valorem Property Taxes levied under KRS 132.020(1)(a)
  • Individual Income Taxes levied under KRS 141.020
  • Sales Taxes levied under KRS 139.200

At present, I guess that only the McCarthy's crew and the reduced property value of the pasture are paying into that amount and it is well below what was projected on that block.

Meanwhile, as documented here and elsewhere, the Short St blocks (plural) are very much alive with NEW businesses, NEW sales and NEW property values due to the renovation work being done. This is money that could have and should have been added to the TIF calculations. I don't think that many people saw the revitalization of Short St four years ago and certainly not without government support. I can see success building on success in this area and yet I also see the opportunity to leverage this growth into the repair and renovation of the Lexington History Museum slipping quietly away.

I have been a very big supporter of the CentrePointe project from its initial announcement and still believe that something will break soon. I see the 21c hotel as being one more major enhancement for downtown but the ability to use its increment for public projects will also be lost if something isn't done soon.

If I read the agreement correctly, the agreement is self renewing unless one of the parties gives written notice 60 days prior to the annual termination date of Sept 23. I have heard of no public declaration that anyone has asked for a termination, but it may have happened.   Perhaps we should terminate this one and prepare a new one in order to fulfill the promise which the revitalization of Short St has shown for downtown.

If you wish to read the agreement, you can find it here.  The map of the TIF district is on page 18.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Why Do We Let This Go On?

I read recently where Council member Doug Martin was extolling the good times that he had on the latest CommerceLex trip to San Antonio, Texas. Many good ideas are attributed to these “investigative”trips. Some of which we have actually implemented and some are still on the sidelines.

That a number of those ideas remain just that, ideas, is somewhat explained by a Business Lexington article  which questioned our local taxing abilities and even our local commitment to pursuing an idea imported from other cities.

Both of these articles do well to help understand the confusion and frustration of all our residents who complain that we don't have a good array of urban amenities. I still read about those who ask “Where are the free museums?” or “Where can we go to do something fun with a family?” and “Why are the amusement parks so far away?” , but I don't have an answer. The thing is, the ideas which come back from these trips don't have the answer either.

I seem to be looking at finding the answers to, what I consider, a much better set of questions. Of all the ideas that our leadership has attempted to implement, all the civic improvements which were started (and “finished”), there is a mostly unperceived gap in our vision and our sense of finality. We get things kicked off and basically hope that folks will consider them complete.

My first case in point is the Fifth Third Cheapside Pavilion. The following thoughts come to mind: 

1) I keep hearing that there is more to do in terms of booth space along the old court house side of the space. Be it temporary or permanent stall space, it should complete the current space correctly. 

2) I remember the old arrangement, which had shade trees and plenty of well used public seating. Any seating now is reserved and controlled by the adjacent retail establishments and without any shade at all during noontime usage. 

3) The tree wells, ostensibly for the proper watering and feeding of the small trees, have become packed earth and a materials storage site during Thursday Night Live performances and smoking litter receptacles the rest of the time. One would have thought that they would compliment the rain garden planters of the new Main Street streetscape.

Speaking of the streetscape project, case in point number two. Since this was a project which included Federal funds, there had to be a definite end and we have seen it. But, to me, it looks like some unnecessary short cuts were taken. All of the decorative street lamps were taken down and reinstalled, some with extensive damage to the green enamel paint job. Simply reinstalling these 'less than beautiful” lampposts tends to detract from the finished look of the job.

There is also a portion of the decorative stone wall separating the sidewalk from a rain garden on West Vine which has been struck and damaged. Since it is outside of a building full of attorneys and generally they tend to care about appearances, should this not have been attended to before now? The law does say that the adjacent property owner is responsible for the sidewalk maintenance, even in the downtown area, does it not?

The way-finding signs, which I have complained of before, should have been installed during the streetscape project but followed by a good deal and there are places where it shows. There should have been a coordination of the contractors on locations of the bases which hold these signs but many time it just looks like the posts were jammed in helter-skelter. Even some other post completion construction work looks to mar the fine job done by the original contractors.

Case in point number three, an ongoing commitment to the status quo when there are massive changes in the surrounding area. For the most part, our downtown situation has changed for the better and that change has been well accepted. But some of the older, less noticed traditions apparently need to be retained. One of those recent traditions is that of delivery vehicles and where they may park.

Delivery vehicles used to have designated curbside locations for certain times of the day and, in general, many of the vehicles were small to moderate in size. They delivered to a handful of places and a somewhat limited quantity of products. There was a flow of vehicles moving down the primary streets, from block to block and taking up just so much space as necessary, then moving on.
Not so today. They use much larger vehicles and at times they tend to take much more room, whether there is available space or not. The vehicles are allowed to block crosswalks and pedestrian curb cuts or even entire lanes of the street during some peak travel times. Now that we have so many more bars and restaurants in the downtown area than in recent memory, can they be of greater number than during downtown's heyday? In my opinion, delivery vehicles are service vehicles and in performing their duties, should NOT be doing a dis-service to all else. I cannot understand why we continue to allow it.

One more case of “finish it and forget it” could be the Court House Plaza. Ten years or so after completion and multiple festivals where we have been tramping allover the grass, the smooth transition from grass to pavement appears to be fraying. Good sized metal or concrete junction boxes rise above the ground level and the irrigation heads stand quite proud of the grass in some spots. Here too, the tree wells are quite bare and are quick to accumulate trash and cigarette butts. A regular morning cleaning currently does some good, but is that the most efficient use of personnel?

Finally, the case of overall pedestrian movement in a downtown that is given high marks for walkability. Just having sidewalks, and especially new sidewalks, should not equate into high mobility scores. There are two other important factors to consider. One is to look at the ease of movement past the sidewalk landscape and furniture as well as the other pedestrians out there with you. The other is to look at the ease of locating your destination if you are a relatively new resident or a first time visitor.

Now that we have all of these new sidewalk amenities, we should be able to use them without impedance. There are three, possibly four, new segments of sidewalk and two of them intersect. Four if you count the renewed sidewalk of Triangle Park between Main and Vine. Any other pedestrian connections to these new segments are definitely showing their age with cracks and wrinkles.

I fully understand about the CentrePointe block and can overlook that since I expect something to change there soon, but all the other streets tend to need some sort of work. I also have pointed out that with the growth of Short St, that main and Vine are not the only, or major, walking areas of town. The Cheapside Park and Court House pavement seem to be the only well maintained walkways on the north side of Main. 
When we add in the sidewalk dining spaces, which can become a sprawling intrusion at times, and the attendant umbrellas dipping to just over six feet high, making your way through the required 4 foot pathway can become difficult for taller folks.

Not all restaurants will place their tables either next to the building or next to the street in order to leave this 4 foot space, some will occupy the full center of the walkway. I would like to see a consistent pattern here and some way of enforcing it. I believe that we used to somewhere in our 200 year past, why not now?

Other street furniture and its proximity to the tables is a consideration to reduce certain “pinch points”. Perhaps some of the parking kiosks could be rotated 90 degrees so as to have the customer standing closer to the curb rather that blocking the walkway when crouching to read instructions or complete his transaction. This is further complicated when it takes a committee to make it work.

Finding ones way as a pedestrian is sometimes a different matter. I think that it is a good thing that downtown Lexington is as small as it is. Most of the downtown attractions are not so far from each other as to make it impossible to get there, therefore we have no posted maps of the area and a “you are here” arrow. Still, there seems to be a need for better signage at the pedestrian level, particularly some signage which is not dependent on facing in the direction of the flow of traffic.

It is interesting, if not ironic, that two short years after the current automobile oriented signage was decided and installed, that the Legends ballpark took a new moniker and the Lexington Visitors & Convention Bureau - a place tourists want to go - moved to the opposite end of downtown. Each of these means that a change in signage has to occur and while the ballpark change has been made, the other has not. I'm betting that another change will occur next year come spring. Will the Distillery District or some other growing attraction make it to the importance of being included on more signs and is there enough room?

So, where is all of this going? Instead of looking for the next big idea that we can import on a shoestring or without bringing all of the supporting public interest and funding, why not find a way to enhance the last few big ideas with proper finishing touches and real support of the downtown property owners and tenants? Why is sidewalk maintenance the sole purview of the city when, I believe, the law says otherwise? When did the delivery of goods to our “service industry”supersede the accommodation of those being served? When did the appearance of our downtown start to take a backseat to expediency and the dwindling fiscal year coffers?

Maybe we can do it all. Lets find some new ideas – AND – build us a good financial foundation with which to accomplish them – AND – make sue that we follow through with the real finishing touches, gild the lily, and live with some design excellence.

Update:  As of earlier this week there looks to be improvements to the tree wells in Cheapside Park.  Sometimes progress can take so long to occur.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Heat Wave And The Fourth Of July

I doubt that many of us remember how it was during the days before air conditioning when heat waves would come rolling through the countryside, but I can just imagine what the public warnings could have sounded like. Since there was no such thing as radio or TV in the 1800's, and the newspapers of the day were reporting the weather not predicting it, many folks simply relied on common sense and practical measures

For instance, residential housing was built in such a way as to take advantage of the natural breezes and air currents with strategic placement of windows and doors. It even extended so far as to include landscaping and trees. It was the city densities and commercial buildings which began to plague the occupants during the hot spells and made city life nearly unbearable.

Today, the public announcements call for those with ailments and allergies to stay inside and for others to keep a check on the elderly or disabled. Places which were recommended for relief (Woodland Park or country outings) are now to be avoided since they are equated more with physical activity than with passive recreation. Those who wished to find a swimming hole could locate a shaded body of water, whereas now there are just expanses of sun-baked concrete and rules.

Lexington, like most urban areas, is not the small, ecologically designed community that it once was. We, and they, have sprawled out and built fanciful imitations of homes which remind us of what was, but cannot function without mechanical, environmental aids. This we call progress.

While ruminating on these processes of the past, I am also brought to consider the upcoming 4th of July activities and the events surrounding a fireworks display. The events of these days seem so different from those of my youth. Time may have moved much slower back them but, then again, it may be a matter of perspective.

I have read where this year's celebration will be capped off by a 17 minute aerial display (providing the fireworks are allowed at all due to weather) and it hardly seems worth it. I can remember when the 4th just seemed to never get here. Also, there was not a downtown based, community event.

Lexington's involvement was limited to the individual parks preparing decorated floats (flatbed trailers generally provided by a local transfer company) for a parade through downtown to the football stadium at UK. Most floats were designed and decorated by the older park regulars and directed by a team of parks staffers. The inter-park competition caused some floats to become quite elaborate. Probably the best part was the total lack of overtly political interjection.

Drivers would haul their park's float to Woodland Park and line up on Kentucky Ave. Then, at around 7 or 7:30, the parade would begin. From the park to Main St. and right down through the middle of town. A turn on Broadway and up the hill to Maxwell and back to Rose St.   Out Rose to the Avenue of Champions and ending between McLean Stadium and Memorial Coliseum.

Many of the participating parks had had their cook-outs and neighborhood celebrations or parades earlier in the day, but the kids still had their sparklers and flags for the evening. There was enough light left in the evening to get to the seating and maybe get a drink. Climbing to the top of the stadium and looking over onto the street below was a thrill to many a kid as was watching the sun dip below the treetops in anticipation of the “real” show. (Sunset would have come about 9 p.m. since this was before the Uniform Time Act of 1966 and there was no Daylight Savings Time.)

The fireworks were set off from the field where the marching band now conducts practice and the western end zone seats held the constructs of the so called “ground displays”. At dark the stadium lights would go out and a “test” shot would go up, I believe, to determine the wind conditions. Then the show would start.

There was an intermission during which music was played and the parade float winners were announced. More drinks and hot dogs and then back to the seats for some more show. An interspersing of aerial and animated ground displays later and the grand finale of bombardments over, it was time to go home. The parks staff rounded up their charges, got back on the floats and went to their respective neighborhoods. Even though I lived close to the stadium, I got home around 11 p.m. and sent to bed, one tired puppy.

Daylight Savings Time, a much larger parks network and insurance/litigation issues have surely put an end to such happenings but simple memories of simpler times make it rough to not long for those days again. I am sure that many of you have your own memories and will be making more this coming week, so I hope that the weather is kind to you and that we all play it safe this year.