Friday, November 23, 2012

Like Things Of The Past

In the past several years the leaders of our community have brought in, sometimes at great expense, recognized experts to assist in our downtown planning. Folks like Jeanne Gang, Omar Blaik and Gary Bates have contributed their talents to specific projects and usually, very limited parts of our collective home, Lexington Ky.

Each time great care was taken to collect detailed physical data and a distilled compilation of opinions from the “stakeholders” of the project de jour. The results of these “expert” visits are then revealed with much ballyhoo and flair, which is then followed by the common nit-picking and nay-saying of the newspaper commentators, the search for political will and the greater funding with which to pull it off. Our success rate in the last decade is less than spectacular and maybe even abysmal. Certainly the rate for the last several decades is shameful.

Maybe the downfall for these expert plans was the consistent, limited scope of the individual project or the often trendiness of the solution which, as all trends do, fell quickly out of favor. Some of the trendy plans were misapplied and failed, even before the fad could run its course.

One sure element which has been left out of nearly all of these “solutions” is the need for the “human scale” elements, that's us humans, to interact between the various loci without mechanical intervention. In other words can we walk safely, comfortably and quickly from place to place and without feeling like we were wandering the Sahara. Traversing a treeless stretch of sidewalk or parking lot, either in the summer or winter, is no fun with or without a bunch of kids in tow.

I am currently read the new book, Walkable City - How downtown can save America, one step at a time by Jeff Speck, and though I could try and blast through it, I am taking the time to really compare how Lexington stacks up to his suggestions. So far, our city is in dire need of his thoughtful suggestions.

Speck claims that we “know” how to build successful walkable cities. Or we used to, because there are very walkable, older areas in many cities which are the remains of how it used to be done. I seems that we just “forgot” the process some 70 years ago and for four decades we went about doing something different. Those four decades were enough to allow many folks to believe that “this is how we have always done it” and “it shouldn't be done any other way”.

Not being a math whiz, I can still figure out that 70 years or so ago was in the later half of the 1930s. Just about the time that we let the streetcar system in Lexington die and the automobile culture really take over. It was also about ten years after a noted “expert” was brought in to write and give direction to The 1930 Comprehensive Plan. The end of the Great Depression, assisted by the Second World War, brought many “progressive” ideas on modern life and we began to forget how to build walkable elements into our lives.

Some 25 or 30 years ago, some planners began to notice that the human element was being left out of the new buildings being designed for our downtowns and other civic areas, while others noticed it missing from our subdivisions and suburban shopping centers also. The problem was that they were going up against the previous 40 years of growing, conventional “wisdom.”

That 40 years of conventional “wisdom” is alive right here in Lexington as evidenced by the continued use of bloated parking requirements, great swaths of residential development on barely navigable cul-de-sacs and large retail developments which lack any type of walkability. Even though changes are becoming evident in public thoughts and actions (housing choices and driving patterns), the plan updates show no real changes in land use designations or transportation choices. In most cases, I feel that we are operating under the land use and development codes of the 1960s, albeit with some nuanced tweaks and adjustments along the way.

In some minds, we really do need to make our city walkable - but that just means doing some enhancements to the downtown area or making sure that sidewalks are included in all new subdivisions. Downtown is the major focus whereas the whole city should be the target and for those intoxicated by the kool-aid of conventional “wisdom” the downtown is a wasteland and more or better sidewalks are not the answer.

It is my belief that our local planers, though raised on the conventional wisdom model, do desire to institute real change. They have all heard and read about the re-awakening of urbanism as a development model but as long as the property owners and their developers are still meeting the calcified standards of old, then what we have will be what we continue to receive.

So the question now stands, how do we bring about the change necessary in Lexington? Will we get to a point that the conventional “wisdom” begins to cost us in terms of attraction and retention of the talent displayed by the “creative class” Millennials so desired by our city. Some already believe that the brain drain is in progress, but I have heard that for most of my adult life. Will the change come from our leaders or from the residents as they relocate to desirable areas – here or elsewhere? Also, how will the use of conventional “wisdom” impede the change so needed?

The latest edition of Business Lexington details the recent addition of two planning professionals who are looking for the change that Lexington needs to make. Dr. Derek Paulsen and Jeff Fugate may be just the people who can debunk some of that conventional “wisdom” but old habits run very deep. We may need to look to our past for some solutions.

In the past we have brought in “experts” and sometimes we listened, is it time for another?

With my ear to the ground, till next time.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Color Of Another Horse

Many of you know that I follow the happenings of the dining and entertainment scene, especially when it appears to bring new life to our downtown neighborhoods. Sometimes I get in on the early stages while other just transition very quietly.  Such is the case this week.

After hearing very little about the Penguin Dueling Piano Bar, either good or bad, I went by a few weeks ago and found that the windows had been papered over from the inside.  Clearly there was a remodeling afoot.  Last weekend they opened as Paulie's Toasted Barrel, with a decor of antique wood which hopefully will aid in the sound attenuation problem for the rest of the condo owners.  This is still a little of of the beaten path for many, but lets see what we can do for them.

What I am waiting for is the opening of Lexington's latest craft brewery.  A development which is following the example of our other craft brewers and locating in a building setting right up on the sidewalk, inviting the neighborhood and enlivening the street scene.  I am talking about the Blue Stallion Brewing Company.

Blue Stallion is taking over the former location of the Ironhorse Forge at 610 West Third St, the intersection of the Corman Railroad and Newtown Pike next door, and an area ripe for further redevelopment.

I say that I am waiting on this not because I love craft beer, actually quite the opposite because I don't drink beer, but I do like to see something like this begin to catalyze an area.  Like the guys at West Sixth St, the Blue Stallion is just a block or so from the new BCTC campus, across from an industrial flavored Henry Street beginning to search for ways to mimic South Limestone or South Upper.  A short walk from the trolley stop on Jefferson St through historic housing in increasing states of renovation will be fun next summer. It also appears to on the uncompleted portion of the Legacy Trail.

I have been watching these guys since about August and just got a few tweets and a follow this past Monday, so I guess that things are now a real go.  I really like the logo of their "blue stallion" and I've been told that it is a rendition on Aristides, the first winner of the Kentucky Derby and grandson of Lexington (the other blue horse seen around town).

There is more than enough reason to support these guys and despite my distaste for beer, I hope that they are around for a long time.  The just happen to be the color of another horse.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

It Is Just A Question Of Time.

Home for "Old Smokey" or for something else?
Long time readers will remember that I am really into trains and try to closely follow what R. J. Corman is doing in town.  Sometimes that is easier thought of than done, especially when Corman is doing so much here lately.

Recently, the guys from Corman approached the City and requested a Certificate of Occupancy for the new "glass house" that they have been building in the Lexington Center Parking lot (see photo above).  As a common carrier, the railroad is generally exempt from rules that apply to you and me and are allowed to build just about anything that they want in the name of rail commerce. 

Such is the case in the building of the "glass house".  The prep work and excavation for the rail spur under the Oliver Lewis bridge began over two years ago.  I speculated then that it could be for a Lexington based version of the Corman Dinner Train, but not a mention was made by the railroad itself.  Articles have appeared in the local paper and still no mention of anything but "a place to the steam locomotive".

The "glass house" facility has no obvious ability to service such a locomotive as the mechanical equipment is missing .  Even the firing of the boilers looks to be problematic, since the ceiling is that bright pristine white.  This structure is definitely designed for some level of public access.

This brings me back to the request of the Certificate of Occupancy which all public building should have and is the final paperwork in the permitting process.  Just one hitch, there has been no permit issued for the "glass house".  There have been no plans filed for the building and no inspections, you know, that whole "exempt from the rules" thing. 

My question is, if they have not bothered with any Permits or Certificates for any of their other buildings (or improvements), why are they now asking for this one?  Will this building be host to a steady number of visitors from the public?  Why is this a priority now? 

This building, from all indications (and the rendering shown accompanying the request) is for the local rendition of a dinner train.  From Lexington to the wye at Christiansburg, by way of Midway and Frankfort, and return.  More than two and a half times as far as the Bardstown version, though maybe not as interesting in terms of scenery.

We will have a dinner train in Lexington.  It is just a question of time.