Thursday, December 19, 2013

Eastern Kentucky's Agricultural Box

Last week, in an op-ed to the local paper, Bill Best wrote “When articles are written about Appalachia, the most frequently left-out words are "gardening" and "agriculture." Yet Eastern Kentucky was once self-sufficient in food production and could easily be again.” As true as that wording is, it is difficult to conceive that most people don't think that way at all. 

I have never thought of Eastern Kentucky as a hot bed of food production but the hill folk, from the settlers on forward had to feed themselves some way. I can also relate first hand that there are many fine cooks who have made their way out of the hills. Eastern Kentuckians have survived of much more that coal jobs.

There has been a lot of talks lately about what could or should be done to aide in the relief of the region's economic problems, but they all seem to center on incentives or developments which are generally better suited to urbanized areas. A large industrial park or an outlet mall style shopping center need both population density and transportation access to be successful. These are items that the area lacks.

While progress has been made in reclaiming many a strip mine site and the coal companies conducting “mountain top removal” are required to put things back to as “natural” as they can, preparing the land for agricultural production is not on anybody's radar. Neither the coal company's nor the local's, since Eastern Kentucky is not a “farming” area.

Best points out, correctly, that the necessary skill sets are not being handed down from the grandparents, who eked out a living on poor land, or the parents, many of whom could not wait to leave the area, or the education community, which is preparing our youth for global competition. The idea that having a place to call home and having it be able to sustain its residents simply escapes many of us these days.

If east coast investors were the foundation of the coal companies that caused such damage, could it be farm investors that will begin the turn around? A Lexington based company, American Farm Investors, has been purchasing farm properties in Central Kentucky, then utilizing Kentucky farmers and selling grain to Kentucky end-users. What would prevent a similar group of investors from making agricultural land out of reclaimed land?

It may be time to redefine the box that is the concept of Eastern Kentucky agriculture.

Friday, December 6, 2013

When Marketing Can Sacrifice Public Safety

I was talking to an infrequent reader the other day and she told me that the subjects of my quiz photos are often too difficult for her. I really do understand this but I just want to get some dialogue going. In the last quiz we can clearly see the beginnings of Todds Trace Apartments and the final interchange of New Circle Road being built in the late '60s.
It was on this same interchange ramp that I commented to Mrs. Sweeper, while we were out running errands, that the renovation of the apartments was looking quite good. Having watched the work on the old Sonnet Cove, now Lakewood Park, I know how much it has helped the neighborhood. I have posted earlier about how the Southland Christian Church should have taken this location and begun the transformation of the area not only physically, but spiritually. Alas, that did not happen.
Over the years, I have known friends and acquaintances who have lived in the varying iterations of the complex. From Todds Trace to Appletree and Saddlebrook (or as it became called, Saddle-dump) on down to its Pennington Place demise. The apartments and the neighborhood have not aged well. In my opinion, few of the developments done during the late '60s through mid-to-late '70s have fared well at all, if any.
Still, the renovation work does look good and Mrs. Sweeper and I have been discussing moving, now that our guys have graduated high school, entered college and we don't need to be within walking distance of Henry Clay. It was suggested that I take a look at the 300 At The Circle since the location is still close to work and the transit lines. Maybe we could stay there until we found a better house.
The web site  is beautiful, but most marketing web sites are well done to get you to look closer. What caught my eye was the mailing address of the apartments, 300 Quinton Ct. Could that be right? Quinton Court was the name given to the section of the Todds Road that had to be truncated when the KYDOT began upgrading Richmond Road nearly 30 years ago. Quinton Ct is a short cul-de-sac which basically serves one office building and back side entry of a restaurant.
I was also quite confused since the office building, on the east side of the road, is addressed as 120 Quinton and the apartments, on the other side of the street, is labeled as 300. I didn't think that it was possible to have even numbers on opposite sides of the same street. It certainly does not follow any type of local or national norm.
In 1902 the City of Lexington implemented a new addressing scheme which, among other things, established that even numbers be located on the South and East sides of streets and thoroughfares. Odd number would be on the North and West. It is simpler to do on a grid, or a modified grid, pattern of streets which was typical at the time. On curvilinear streets, it all stems from its beginning point and its general, overall direction. Roads like New Circle will play pure havoc with that rule.
During the past decade or so, Lexington has systemically attempted to correct any anomalies which may have developed between the former city and county governments and some just plain quirkiness out of the past. The stated intent was to aid the Enhanced 911 emergency response times. 300 Quinton Ct looks to be a new quirk.
Once again looking to the website, the page which directs you to apply and choose your desired apartment shows all of the access driveways connecting to Codell Dr and no possible access from Quinton Ct. The main entry to the clubhouse and pool area appears to be a security check point and come in off of Codell Dr. It is entirely possible that an access point can be created on the court, but that does not appear to be their intention. A quick look at the PVA site reveals an account for 109 Quinton Ct which correlates to the “Future Development” portion of their site plan. There appears to be NO official record of a 300 Quinton Ct in Fayette County records.
But wait, again the Internet to the rescue, on the page showing the location of the development is a link to Google Maps and the app to get directions. Google Maps does have 300 Quinton Ct but the source their data from many places. It is also ironic that Google will give you the Streetview of the area but the photos are nearly 2 years old and this property is not very appealing in those images.
It should be fairly obvious to all that the intent of this development's address is to remove any identity connection to Codell Dr as that street name carries much baggage. We have seen this in other sections of town in the past. In an effort to change the perceptions of possible tenants, Jennifer Ct was renamed to Eastwyck Ct and then renamed again to Meade Ct about 20 years ago. I don't think that the general impressions of that area have changed all that much. Making real change in a neighborhood takes much more than some slick marketing moves and I think that the church had the better shot at real change.
It may be that this is just a slick marketing ploy but the weak effort displayed by the website falls far short of the mark. If I have to do some sort of mental gymnastics to find the front door, be I a pizza delivery person or a visitor from out-of-town, then the thought of having a logical, standardized system is out the window. Will this also be necessary of first responders to the point of making it an issue of public safety?
I think I will have to tell Mrs. Sweeper that, as nice as it looks, to seek some other place. I think that she will agree.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Has CommerceLex Looked At This From Past Trips?

Lexington is repeatedly compared and contrasted with Madison, Wisconsin. Both are big, small towns with major universities. Both are also cities without an interstate highway slicing through town. In both cases it was a conscious decision to leave the interstate out.

What is different is that the local officials in Madison realized that their residents and visitors still needed to have local access. Madison's city planners began to plan for (and implement) a much more multi-modal transportation network. Those investments are still paying off.

When the attitudes about transportation and urban living shifted, as they have over the past decade, there was not a mad scramble get a solution in place. There were several options already available. Not so in Lexington, the attitudes are changing but the viable options are not there. 

The average Madison city resident drove 18 percent fewer miles in 2011 than in 2006 — from 8,900 miles down to 7,300. It would be nice to know the comparable statistic for the Lexington area. Bus ridership is up and I do see many more cyclists than I used to, but just imagine if we had the foresight that they displayed in Madison.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

LFUCG To Get A "New" Building?

The Mayor has a plan to build a new city hall. Just like the previous administration and the one before that. Actually, such plans have been around since the birth of the LFUCG.

The Gray administration says that it sees the need, or “a” need to build a new city hall. The cost of necessary repairs is set at $6.3 million, which looks to be down from the $30 million cited during the Newberry days. Important government offices are currently spread between several buildings and along what should be “prime” Main Street frontage. What I think is the greatest need is that an aging hotel should never have been made into an office building in the first place.

I can remember back when Lexington was preparing to bring the City and County governments together, a contingent of local officials took a trip to Indianapolis, itself recently merged, for ideas and examples. First off, there was a new 25 story government center from which to guide all services – Lexington did not take that track.

That is not to say that we did not look at doing so, because we did do a space study on all of the buildings then in use by government. How and where to join the police and fire departments. Bringing the streets and roads folks together. And then there was the expanding administrative staff just to pull it all off. We needed one building but it would have to wait.

Recall that this was less than a dozen years after Urban Renewal and downtown blocks were being developed by others (we had the new Rupp Arena complex to prepare and complete) like Garvice Kinkaid and Kentucky Central Insurance. Their new building would leave a vacant former hotel available and Lexington took an option on it while researching a new complex in the Rose/Main/Vine triangle.

One year later, hoping to get their own new building, the city sold the property to Ashland Oil and their Valvoline subsidiary for an interim space. Alas, no new space was forthcoming for the city and they again looked at the aging, inadequately altered hotel before finally buying it in 1982.

Early on in the LFUCG's occupancy it began to show just how much the building was aging. The air conditioning cooling tower on the roof caught fire on workday and that prompted a review of all safety and evacuation measures. Roofing leaks and other system overhauls became more and more common. Fire alarms and stuck elevators were a weekly occurrence. Meeting and providing service to the public proved challenging.

It seems to me that high interest rates, inflation or recession have been highly prevalent during or immediately after discussions of a new city hall come to light. In times of true government surpluses, it looks to me that there was no discussion of a new government home place.

Forty years down the road from the beginning of merger and the prospects of a modern, fully functional office building seem no closer than in 1974.

The move of Lexington's Municipal Building from 136 Walnut St to Main St did not cause the decline in viable storefront businesses but it could not halt it either. It may have been the implementation of one-way streets through downtown or simply the lure of suburban free parking for the retail, but the foot traffic has gone. The Mayor sees this latest move as a way to revitalize this block.

A claim has been put forth that the city “monopolizes” 200 feet or more of prime retail space on that one block, yet the remainder of the storefronts there have the primary entrance onto Water St, a sidewalk-less wide alleyway. Even the electronics store, Barney Miller's, easily the most active retail location on that side of the street, has most customers enter from the rear. If I recall correctly, it was the heralded conversion from retail to office of the Wolf Wile building by Gray Construction that kicked off this trend.

The Chase bank building, when built as the new home of First Security Bank, wiped out an entire block of older (and maybe historic) structures which contained viable retail spaces. Nary a word was raised in protest if I recall and Phoenix Park held three good sized retail establishments in the old hotel building. All of that “prime retail” Main St space gone and the general public seems to be fighting the ability of CentrePointe to try to re-establish it.

If the City is successful this time and a new government center is raised atop one side of the Lextran garage, will the main entry come off of E. High St or Martin Luther King? Will we see a more traditionally styled city hall or a modern take like Toronto, Ca.? In a project of such a civic nature will we have as much controversy over the look of the building as we have had on CentrePointe? Only time will tell.

One last observation. In the ongoing discussions about bringing the University and downtown closer together, is this the next move since the University has begun the massive dorm project a little more than a block away?

Parts of downtown are flourishing and other parts are taking note and learning. As has been pointed out here and elsewhere, the growing, revitalization of Lexington's downtown is not government led. It may be that efforts of government control can hinder the natural course of what Lexington residents and business owners can accomplish on their own.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

More on "Black Boxes"

Nearly a year ago I blogged about the upcoming rules for “event data recorders” in automobiles and some of the rousing comments that I had seen. Just last week it was the LA Times's turn to go beating the beehive with a broomstick and with an eerily similar title. The comments that they received (some are given below) are wildly amusing.

Cash-strapped communities and states are looking for new ways of generating revenue to repair and expand the crumbling highway system without appearing to raise taxes. The income from our present federal gas tax structure, set at 18.4 cents per gallon over 20 year ago, will not keep pace with the rate of decay seen in our roads and bridges. Kentucky's gas tax rate is tied to the rate of inflation but even that is falling behind. These states are now looking at a vehicle-miles-traveled or VMT structure to REPLACE the gas tax.

The reaction of the Tea Party is predictable and the American Civil Liberties Union is nearly beside itself raising a variety of privacy issues. Mostly, the complaints are concerning the ability of a government to monitor and track any individual's movements on a 24-7-365 basis. Are they not the same high-tech customers who will wait in line for hours to get the latest smart phone for the wi-fi connectivity and connectedness which lies at the root of this monitoring technology?

In fact, they are the savvy consumer who has found an automobile which get amazing gas mileage and comes equipped with the OnStar or Sync service as an anti-theft device. They are the drivers who utilize the Sirius radio and Pandora streaming music service, linked with Bluetooth. Are they even aware that those packages are what Google employs to determine real-time traffic counts? State DOT”s are not that well connected.

Like many other subjects, Congress cannot agree on whether to proceed in this direction. The Senate had approved a trial project but he House leadership killed it (anybody surprised?) despite two former U.S. Transportation secretaries urging for it. But, without federal guidance it is left to the states to move forward and some are doing so. Oregon, Nevada, Illinois and the states which are members of the I-95 Coalition along the Eastern Seaboard together with New York City are studying how the change may be made.

Are you like one of those residents from Oregon who will opt instead to pay a flat fee based on the average number of miles driven by all state residents rather that a recording device. Not quite fair to the urban dweller who seldom drives but has to pay near what the suburbanite or rural farmer drives.

Maybe you are an app happy Gen Xer who is looking for a device to ease all of your driving woes. Not just keeping track of your miles driven, but in which part of your metro area you traveled. It also finds the closest, cheapest parking meter, pays for it and may have “reserve” it until you can get through the last traffic light. That may save you the price of a gallon of gas.

The problem (or solution) is that this is very doable with current technology, and could be put in place very quietly. If they need money to fix the roads then raise the gas tax. It isn't that I don't want Big Brother knowing where I go (even if I don't). It's that where I go is none of his damn business.
Such tools do not belong in a free state.” Ronald Baker

This sounds like a very American thing to say, that we do not want any semblance of Big Brother unless it is on network TV. The facts are that such tools have been developed and used by the corporate world for a much more sinister use than government surveillance. The monetary cost of business surveillance far exceeds the individual's supposed additional tax burden.

Currently, a Prius driver pays less in gas taxes than a Hummer driver over the same mileage. This is exceptionally fair because a lighter Prius does less damage to the road and pollutes less.
Changing to a miles-driven tax system makes so little sense that the tea party and the ACLU are united in opposition. It would raise taxes, cost a lot to develop and create a government database of information about our driving habits.
What is there to like about this?” Terrence R. Dunn

Yes, the Prius driver does pay less and a Tesla driver pays nothing but they both need the roads and bridges to be there regardless of damage or pollution. Mr. Dunn, the system already exists and does not need to be developed.

Corporations to which you already pay tribute have a current database of your driving habits. They already know when you stop at the coffee drive thru on the way to work or the bar on the way home. They are profiting from such information and you are willingly giving it to them.

What the governments would like to know is if you are driving in their jurisdiction or somewhere else. If you live (and buy gas) in Northern Ky. and do 85% of your driving in Cincinnati, then the state of Ohio is unable to anticipate your road usage, or vice versa.

Ah, so very nice for the entrepreneurs to do the work of the government for it. I have absolutely no desire to have my whereabouts and comings and goings tracked.
If Ryan Morrison, chief executive of the California start-up developing a vehicle black box had thought this through, he would have seen the error in his approach. Trusting the government not to overreach and spy is naive.
Instead of thinking of the money they could be making, CEOs like Morrison should consider the large-scale impacts they could have on their fellow Americans.”
Chris Sarvis
Does anyone see a pattern here? It is always the government that is doing the overreaching or spying. Is there no one who believes that the corporations are not reaching for more than they may be entitled? At a time when the 1 (or 2)% are looking for more money from you packet, so many of the naïve are willing to believe that it is the government which may be in the wrong.

The time is approaching when the Departments of Transportation in many states (some very near Kentucky) will begin to allow some lesser traveled roads to revert to gravel or dirt roads. The funding will not be available to continue maintenance duties in addition to the responsibilities toward our primary traffic routes. Our city's struggles on paving issues grow larger each passing year, so we will all have to find a workable solution.

Is your expectation of privacy in regard to mobility, that which you seem to willingly give to corporations, greater than your expectations for receiving adequate transportation facilities? The answer here may shock many people.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

How Does Lexington Look At Urban Farming?

American cities probably don't have as much agriculture as other countries with less developed food systems, but things are looking up. When people talk about local food, they usually mean crops grown in nearby rural counties...but there's also an untapped agricultural potential in just about any city's urban core. Seedleaf and Foodchain are excellent examples of how just a small portion of that potential is being demonstrated locally. But wait, there is more going on around the country.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted in April of 2011 to amend the zoning code to allow small-scale commercial farming in areas previously deemed residential.  

Measures that would expand the city's urban farm code, potentially boost the local foods movement and put an East Austin urban farm HausBar Farms back in business went before a city board in late September 2013

Homegrown Baltimore: Grow Local is an ambitious plan to support and expand the production of locally grown food in Baltimore City, Md. All types of food production, from backyard gardening to commercial farming, are being considered.

University Of Illinois agriculture researchers look at the tremendous potential for growing food in urban spaces in Chicago. “That’s our role as a land-grant university to help grow the urban agriculture movement through science-based research and information,” U of I professors Sam Wortman and Sarah Taylor Lovell believe that the lack of funding sources for community gardening programs and individual urban farmers blocks the growth of urban agriculture. 

Sacramento – with its location in the fertile Central Valley of California – claims to be the nation’s “farm-to-fork” capital. It’s a bit pretentious and contrived perhaps, but no more so than “Horse Capital of the World”.

An increasing consumer desire for organic produce in concert with advances in hydroponic growing techniques, low-cost greenhouse systems, and actions like those undertaken by the cities cited above have helped redefine the term locally grown.

I have lately concerned myself with looking at ways our neighborhoods can become both more diversified and more connected. I believe that it can best be done through the easing of our land use and zoning restrictions toward neighborhood level non-residential parcels. Urban agriculture may be a way to bring that about.

Typical urban agriculture

Lexington has known since the 1980s that some housing units were allowed to be built in entirely wrong places. These houses flooded during minimal storm events due to a lack of a proper drainage study. With rare exceptions, these houses were built in the post war rush to house Baby Boomers and an IBM driven, clean industrialization of the '60s. 

The city has established a program to acquire and remove those houses both to reduce flooding damage and additional flooding but that has left land which has no beneficial use other than esthetic. Seedleaf has made inroads into some limited use of these properties but the results have been haphazard and spotty at best.
Remember the above comment by the University of Illinois professors? News out of the west coast may bring us some hope. A new California law recently signed by Gov. Jerry Brown makes it easier for cities to create "urban agriculture incentive zones". Cities hoping to promote community gardens and small-scale farms in urban areas may create such zones on a voluntary basis.

The law allows municipalities lower the assessed value — and property taxes — on plots of three acres or less if owners dedicate them to growing food for at least five years. The thought is that if a city wanted urban farms that didn't rely on public land, or heavy philanthropic support, "we needed to see some change in the tax law that would recognize a different use — that this wasn't a residential or commercial use but an agricultural one.

Extreme urban agriculture?

There is a concept called vertical farming which involves growing food in high rise buildings or even multi-story warehouses using artificial light and organic growing materials. Now, there is the opportunity to produce some innovative, landmark, skyline architecture for Lexington.

Theoretically, a 30-story, block sized farm could yield as much food as 2,400 outdoor acres, with less spoilage because it would travel less distance. With all of the fertile land around Fayette County, this is an option which makes little sense other than remaining free from airborne glyphosate related pesticides or pollen.

I do not see either method of bulk urban farming coming to Lexington very soon.

The other side of the story.

But there is the other end of the spectrum, a total prohibition of urban farming and that is something that we should not allow to show here. 

Urban farmers Joshua and Anna EldenBrady own several residential lots near their home on which they'd like to farm. They'd also like to open a farmers market on two lots they own that are zoned for business. The Muskegon, Mich. zoning board, where they live, has refused to issue a business license to the EldenBradys on the grounds that urban farmers aren't allowed to make money.

The city of Muskegon created a provision in its zoning ordinance in 2010 to allow for “community gardens” but such community gardens can only be operated by community groups, non-profits or groups of citizens living near the garden site. Why would a non-profit work a community garden except to make money to expand its services.

Forget for a moment, that the whole point of urban farming is to grow fresh produce among the residents and businesses who will consume it. Should charging money for that produce make the goals of the urban farming movement any less admirable or achievable? This is a route that we must avoid.

Today’s world is characterized by urbanization and challenges posed by climate change, by growing urban markets and urban poverty, by a growing dependence on food imports and food insecurity due to rising food prices. Cities can present constraints but also opportunities for building sustainable urban food systems. Have the previously referenced cities found a start to their solution?

Finding Lexington's path to a local food solution will require new levels of attention from actors who have been traditionally less engaged in food and agriculture decisions, including professional planners and local and regional authorities. Lets face it, we are planning for some major changes in downtown so why should local food be left out?

Late this summer, Chicago turned a green roof into its first major rooftop farm. The “farm” sits atop McCormick Place, the largest convention center in North America. The goal is for it to supply the center’s food service company, SAVOR… Chicago with more than 10,000 servings of local herb and vegetables. At 20,000 square feet, it’s the largest soil-based rooftop farm in the Midwest.

How is Lexington looking at expanding urban farming?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What Will Our Future Neighborhoods Look Like?

Like all cities, the suburbs are where most of us live and as a general rule we do not spend all of our time there. I can almost equate that with remaining inside your bedroom or man-cave when there are other parts of the house to explore and use. We entertain in the formal living room or dine in the the kitchen if it is informal and the dining room if it is not. Today's housing is a much more mixed blend of uses but our neighborhoods and suburbs are not. I, and others, believe that that may soon change.

I have lived outside of Man o' War for only two years. Those 2 years were over two decades ago and are still the dullest times of my life. Getting to work and anyplace remotely interesting to me was more effort than I usually want to put into something. Therefore, the idea of making Lexington's suburban neighborhoods more like their “first ring” older brothers and sisters is something on which I fixate. I am always looking for ways to help make that change happen.

Suburbs, or at least those which follow the American-style model, have been called obesogenic , that is inducing its inhabitants to become fat. Along the way, they have been called sterile, homogeneous, anti-social simply because they are auto-centric and, for the most part, very inefficient. Is there any hope for an urban form so maligned to transition into someplace more desirable? Some experts think so and I believe that they may be right.

Many places in the U.S. the suburbs are beginning to emulate the patterns of cosmopolitan city centers, becoming more dense, taking on new forms and practices and responding to economic and cultural changes in our world. I am looking for ways to get Lexington moving in such a direction. Maybe we can grow the city and protect the rural area in doing so.

Without a doubt, the ideas which develop in American suburbs end up influencing at least the affluent suburbs around the world. In a recent article in Planning Theory & Practice, Arthur C. Nelson and others discuss the demographic changes and shifting consumer preferences that are likely to have dramatic implications on suburban design in the next few decades.

Government subsidies, economic prosperity and demographic shifts since the end of World War II have led to generations of low density suburban growth which continue in Lexington to this day. Could it be that current economic conditions will begin to alter our development practices toward denser and better connected neighborhoods/communities. Will we see a re-commitment to urban and urbane living?

One place where w could begin that re-commitment is in our public investment and financing strategies to keep up with expectations for services such as public transit. Our regulations and development financing need to shift away from contemporary practices to support re-urbanization policies.

The process of “fracking” has led to the recent growth in petro-carbon production and the proposals to build pipelines from Canadian tar-sands to southern refineries may signal that “peak oil” has not yet arrived. But to assume that the return to the era of cheap energy may be sheer folly. We still need to shift away from the reliance on the private automobile. Despite consumer preference surveys which indicate that people say they would choose cosmopolitan options, those options need to in place before the choice can be made.

The suburban landscape needs to be able to transition in form, function, and pattern as quickly as community needs change. Financing practices, community attitudes and, above all, our zoning regulations currently restrict that transition flexibility. Zoning codes and covenants enforced by developers, neighborhood and homeowners’ associations have increasingly limited the potential for ready physical adaptation. 

How will we find ways to address the needs of the less affluent when the market producing our housing has other priorities? Jill L. Grant, Professor of Planning at Dalhousie University (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), said it best “In trying to address the problems of homogeneity and inefficiency which we regret in our old suburbs, how can we avoid stimulating gentrification processes that suburbanize poverty and disadvantage?”
Nelson is Director of the Metropolitan Research Center, City & Metropolitan Planning at University of Utah so he probably understands the subject of urban sprawl as well as anyone. Having grown up in a suburb of Portland, Ore. and having to drive everywhere, I believe that he seen the beast that sprawl has become firsthand. He has also recognized the American suburbs are a unique development form that may be replicated in some fashion around the world although not to the extent that they are here at home.

American planners have built our suburbs as mostly low density, with uniformly developed landscapes of few land-use interactions and an intentional dependency on the automobile. At about 14,500 individuals per square mile, the suburbs of London, England are more densely settled than such central cities as Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. The actual City of London has under 10,000 residents of its own. It really becomes easy to see that we have planned the very urban vibrancy we seek out of our neighborhoods.

“Unlike suburbs in much of the rest of the world... ... American suburbs do not have mixed land uses or a range of housing options, and lack densities to support public transit.”

Nelson has identified three reasons as to why suburbs in America are different. 

First, Americans have an entrenched anti-urban sentiment with strong libertarian undercurrents to the point that an individuals property rights are above the community's interests. Outside of Lexington and a few other communities, few impediments exist to developing open land and that facilitates the low density environment which encourages sprawl.

Second, government (and financial institutional policies) since the Depression favor new construction over rehabilitation, new highways over public transit, construction of owner-occupied and detached homes over rented and attached homes and converting farmland/open space into low-density suburban development over sustaining working or passive landscapes.

Prior to World War II, the worries in housing were from urban pollution brought about by over-crowding and lack of sufficient daylight. After the war, the plans actively sought to reduce the residential densities for public health reasons. Section 701 of the 1954 Federal Housing Act provided grants for land-use planning templates which separated residential subdivisions from retail uses, employment centers and civic institutions. All of the things which make a neighborhood and community a vibrant and desirable place to live.

The third reason is a direct result of the preceding two. Subsidized road projects and subsidized energy costs helped to inflate the value of land for suburban development. More efficient development was economically punished while less efficient development was rewarded. More suburban uses imposed negative externalities on adjacent farmland which depressed the farm land's value and virtually assuring far more land was converted than would otherwise occur.

There is little doubt that suburban America will continue to dominate growth and settlement, but one should expect it to become more urban along the way. Recent preference surveys and projections of demographic trends hint that America’s suburban future may be quite different. Lexington has embarked on a path of infill and redevelopment which may need to achieve a certain level of neighborhood urbanity to work.
So, what are these emerging trends that Nelson has identified?

1 Rising energy costs

From World War II until the early '70s there was a vast supply of cheap gasoline and being able to drive out to the inexpensive land available for home building took home ownership rates from 55% in 1950 to 69% in 2004. Rising fuel prices may dampen the appeal of the suburban fringe for home buying, with or without self driving cars.

2 Lagging employment

The structure of the American labor force has made it prone to high unemployment as may be evidenced by the dismal recovery from the Great Recession. A key component of employment and income recovery is educational preparedness and in many cases America trails in many categories. A rapid population growth among those who are less prepared to succeed, could lead to lower wages and higher unemployment rates. Without falling home prices and and a return to the previous mortgage underwriting policies there may be lower home ownership rates in 2035 than in 2010.

3 Falling incomes

Median household incomes for ALL age groups in EACH income category ended the decade lower than in 2000. Suburbs have accounted for nearly half the increase in the population in poverty. Add this with trends 1 & 2 and the effects may further lower demand for owner-occupied homes over the next decades.

4 Shifting wealth

Nearly 99% of America’s wealth was held by the highest fifth of households. Well higher than most of the last century. The shifting of wealth in the US means that America has become a nation where wealth inequality is greater than in many emerging countries. It is now more difficult to rise above poverty than in nearly any developed country.

5 Tighter home financing

In the wake of our recent financial disaster, lending institutions have increased their underwriting requirements, thereby reducing the number of people who can buy a home. Conventional mortgages now need higher credit scores, longer and more stable work histories, and 20% down payments. Those changes alone may disqualify about five million potential home buyers, resulting in 250,000 fewer home sales and 50,000 fewer new homes built per year. 

6 Changing housing and community preferences

Americans are looking for something different in their homes, neighborhoods and communities than they have had in the past.

The latest period of suburbanization, what we generally call the “era of sprawl” began in 1948 and is basically a “parasitic” version of suburbanization since it fed of off resources not generated by the growth itself. Fiscal policies, both State and Federal, transferred wealth from cities to suburbs though subsidization of roads and energy. Taxes on existing infrastructure and property allowed for reduced levies on developing land. Land-use and zoning codes socially engineered many a community composition. 

The bursting of the “housing bubble” and, for Lexington, the EPA consent decree are some evidence of the price which has now come due.

Robert Fishman, as an Associate Editor of the Journal of the American Planning Association, has suggested a fifth migration emerged during the 2000s. Since 2005, we have seen a re-urbanization of the inner city and our older suburban areas. It has been led by the young professionals, many an empty-nester senior, and and even immigrants. 

It is exactly the disadvantages of our inner-city districts, the “obsolete” retail and manufacturing facilities (Bread Box, Distillery District, et. al.), the pedestrian scale, an ability to rely on mass transit and even the aging housing stock which are being turned into advantages in this fifth migration. I think that we may need to extend or replicate some, if not all, of these new “advantages”into the suburbs once held by the “fourth migration”. That area we now call sprawl.

The challenge in making this transition is to change attitudes of suburbanites. This is a tall order. Nelson suggests that “local governments will need to become proactive in applying affordable housing tools such as density bonuses, subsidized low and moderate income housing, and inclusionary zoning.”

Older and closer-in suburbs, those built at low densities, may find retrofitting them a bit difficult but higher density redevelopment can be accomplished by using parking lots and low rise, low intensity nonresidential property along commercial corridors. Neighborhood opposition and disagreements along these commercial corridors pass may undermine any opportunity of transition.

As Nelson ends his piece “Successful American suburbs of the future will be resettled by very different kinds of households.” I ask, when will we see it here?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Look At The New Comprehensive Plan - Part 2

Continuing the look at the 2013 Comprehensive Plan.  Today we will look at some of the tools being considered.

The concept of Complete Streets has found a home among the Planning staff if not in the hearts and minds of most neighborhood residents. The Complete Streets program encourages our city streets to become what they have been for centuries – except this last one – a place for all of our residents to use for getting around town. A good design can reduce auto trips by allowing access by foot or other means. That same good design also means that there is someplace of necessity/desire within a reasonable traveling distance, otherwise the usefulness declines.

Complete Streets should not be solely about including transportation and beautification amenities. They need to include convenient neighborhood destinations which allow residents with one another in ways beyond a wave as they speed to work or collect the mail from the street side box. Walking to a corner diner or tavern bound many a neighborhood together that few understand today.

The Plan does speak to the issue of traffic speed and pedestrian safety. “Traffic speeds dramatically affect a pedestrian’s actual and perceived sense of safety...” only states one side of the equation. Pedestrian activity and resident attention can also dramatically influence the care that motorists need to exhibit for safe operation of their vehicle. Many neighborhoods have abdicated their streets to the motoring public since they need their cars to anywhere themselves. If you want to create a successful neighborhood, create a series of places for the residents to go and a way for them to get there safely.

Successful neighborhoods can have a variety of housing types.

Take Ashland Park as an example. For years the typical image of Ashland Park was of a single family subdivision built from the early 20th century but the area is riddled with duplexes, apartments and mother-in-law suites. They are all hiding in plain sight and designed so as to not call attention to their different purposes. Driving by, one would be hard pressed to tell the difference until you get to the sections built after the '30s.

Why do today's apartments have to look so different from any other housing style? By the same token, why do renters seem to care so little about their dwelling place be it an apartment or a house? Is a walkable, connecting focal point someplace where renters can blend with the neighborhood? Today's method of relegating apartments to the massive complexes on the major corridors removes valuable intra-neighborhood cohesiveness as well as diluting what could be a vibrant focal point or two.

The Plan text is not wrong when it says,
These neighborhoods will have a clear sense of place when the following standards are met:
Inviting streetscape
Varied housing choice
Abundant private and public open space
Neighborhood focal points
Quality connections with parks, schools, and stores
The question is- How do we strengthen the fabric by reweaving from the existing thread rather than trimming back to apply a possibly ill fitting or mismatched patch?

With that in mind, take a look at what the Plan says about the focal points of a neighborhood.
Neighborhood Focal Points
The character of a neighborhood is made of more than a collection of bricks and shingles. Character encompasses a broad array of qualities. A focal point can be a gathering point such as a park, a shopping center, a community center, or public square. To the extent possible, new residential development should be developed to accommodate future sites by allowing for easy integration into the neighborhood and allowing for easy, multimodal access from the neighborhood instead of development that turns its back on a community center.
The last sentence, again, is written from the perspective of whole new developments, but the thoughts expressed in the first part apply full well to aiding in the strengthening of existing neighborhoods.

I have only come to realize lately (and it may have been the Kroger zone change) that stores in the shopping centers on corridors may wish to engage the neighborhood, but turn their dirtier side to those they wish to engage. By catering to the auto-bound shopper, they have lumped all of their customers in a single, lone category. I wish that I knew how to begin reversing the situation.

Small area planning

The use of small area plans has been around since the 1973 Plan even though planning areas have existed from the 1963 version. The '63 areas were divisions of the urban area and split by the city limits boundary which made planning for logical unit quite difficult. The 1973 plan, being post merger, allowed greater continuity in looking at whole neighborhoods under one legislative jurisdiction. Most of the small areas planned then were for developing subdivisions and leaving many a transition of uses to go uncontrolled.

Small area planning is now going to be applied to strengthening our declining or transitional neighborhoods to bring about neighborhood stabilization and revitalization rather than guiding growth and development. Surely there must be growth of some sort to make some of these areas desirable.
Desirable communities in Lexington possess a number of characteristics, including access to transportation, jobs, and quality food.
The above statement about desirable areas is basically true but the access described is mostly resident provided and areas which lack it fall into the candidacy for an area plan.

I think that it should be noted that three of the recommended areas for small area plans were developed between the planning areas of the '63 Plan and the SAP's of the '73 Plan. That could indicate a failure to do better implementation of those plans.

Development Incentives

There is included in this draft text some development incentives which, currently not adopted or in force, could allow great neighborhoods to be built (or rebuilt) where we now see just subdivisions.
Review the zoning ordinance for impediments to the development of successful neighborhoods with an eye towards retooling zoning categories that are not fulfilling their potential.
This could go a long way toward allowing and encouraging the natural development of neighborhood local focal points, which in turn can create more walkable communities.
Establish an objective and standardized process to evaluate new developments for neighborhood character that, if met, would expedite approval of the development.
While not saying so, I expect that NOT meeting such a standardized character criteria will delay or prevent any approval of projects. This is not out of line with my thinking on CentrePointe since there is no established standardized process, now or 5 years ago.
Enable the Division of Planning staff to approve final record plats.
This, when used in concert with the above, will remove the Planning Commission from considering where the property line will go and may shorten the time necessary to implement approved plans. It should also be used to prohibit a lot pattern which does not assure true connectivity or density.
Convene a summit of financial and neighborhood development leaders in order to increase understanding of the financial costs and challenges to funding mixed-use, multi-family, and innovative developments.
Ensure that exaction fees are reviewed and revised to meet the infrastructure needs of the Expansion Area.
Establish partnership opportunities by funding the Land Bank and creating an affordable housing trust fund.
Pursue Federal and state funding for high-cost projects of a community interest, such as bridges and community centers.
Next, we will look at the environmental concerns

Monday, September 2, 2013

A Look At The New Comprehensive Plan

The draft text of the 2013 Comprehensive Plan is now online. I am inviting you to go and read it, not only to understand the intentions of the leaders of our community but to also see how far that they do NOT go. I, lately, have been thinking about just how connected our city's residents are to those facilities and services that we use (or have available to us) every day.

The first part of the text is the list of adopted goals and objectives which are set by our elected Urban County council and are intended to be used for guiding plans and policies. If we have any beef with these goal statements, our comments should directed there.

Chapter 2 is titled Statements, Policies, and Data and after a brief section on the history and purpose of the plan document, a series of tables illustrating the current statistical realities of Lexington's state, there are detailed comments on what is intended to be done.

Right off the bat is the subject of accessibility. Some of my thoughts and posts over the last few years have been about just how much our recreation facilities are available to those with limited mobility. Here I do not speak of those with physical impairments like blindness or crippling diseases, but those who lack the ability to reach our parks and playgrounds with ease. I recently spoke of being able to access good, local food (or any food) without expending limited funds, time and energy to do so.

Below is that section to do with accessibility:
The 2013 Comprehensive Plan meets accessibility head on in the Goals and Objectives {A.1.c., D.1.b., and D.2.} and throughout the Plan to state without question that Lexington will strive to be a city that is accessible to all people in all areas of our community.  While we will achieve the standards set by federal regulations such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act, and any other related regulations, we also value and intend to accommodate all of our citizens beyond what is required and set Lexington apart as one that welcomes all people to our city.
Below are goals which apply:
A. Growing Successful Neighborhoods
Goal 1) Expand housing choices c.) Plan for safe, affordable, and accessible housing to meet the needs of older and/or disadvantaged residents.
D. Improving a Desirable Community
Goal 1.) Work to achieve an effective and comprehensive transportation system. b.) Develop a viable network of accessible transportation alternatives for residents and commuters, which may include the use of mass transit, bicycles, walkways, ridesharing, greenways, and other strategies.
Goal 2.) Provide for accessible community facilities and services to meet the health, safety, and quality of life needs of Lexington-Fayette County’s residents and visitors.
Results of these efforts include but are not limited to the following:
  • Good accessibility to buildings through parking lots and transit stops by adding through-sidewalks (or protected pathways) wherever possible and curb ramps to sidewalks and into buildings
  • Access ramps into buildings above the minimum ADA requirements
  • Wider sidewalks (with curb ramps to roadways) wherever possible
While the Goals and Objectives, as adopted by the Council, are worded broadly enough to include all residents of whatever age or disadvantage, the text and list of action efforts appear aimed toward the 32,691 disabled persons living outside of institutions who are currently covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act and its amendments.

Growing a successful neighborhood is not just creating houses which can be considered meeting the needs of those in wheelchairs or with facilities on single levels and such. It also means being able to get to adequate shopping and social services with out requiring outside assistance or excessive travel distances. Successful neighborhoods, like the walkable and desirable ones which developed closer to downtown, and ironically without strict zoning in place, have much of what is desired in Goal D.2, yet we are currently not willing to attempt to duplicate them in the rest of the Urban Services Area. That makes me stop to wonder why the definition and interpretation of accessibility is not as broad as the goal seems to imply.

Chapter 3 begins to detail how to grow a successful neighborhood.
Lexington’s neighborhoods are lively and diverse places with histories, personalities, stories, famous residents, unique businesses, local restaurants, and ethnicities. People choose their neighborhood for many reasons, including housing affordability and the test scores of nearby schools.
Not all of Lexington's neighborhoods are what you consider “lively” and those more recent ones not only lack a long history or real personality, but exhibit a strong sense of diverse colors of sameness. Local restaurants and unique businesses are seldom seen in many of our suburban neighborhoods but rather in the intense shopping areas which buffer our neighborhoods from each other. Many of our unique, local restaurants need to draw from much more than one or two nearby neighborhoods.

So too is the similar story of the local or nearby school. Seldom is the neighborhood school in a position to facilitate walking or biking to class without involving massive auto traffic, which only exacerbates said traffic when parents cannot rely of school (or Lextran) bus service. Often the housing affordability of the neighborhoods near a “good” testing local school will exclude the very ones which will make the neighborhood diverse.
The physical layout and visual cues that make a neighborhood unique start with its form. The ideal structure of a neighborhood is composed of places to reside, work, shop, learn, and play. How these spaces are organized and relate to one another influences public health, cultural expression, environmental health, safety, and economic vitality.

It takes a community effort to build and maintain a successful neighborhood...
As much as I take exception to the previous plan paragraph, I can agree with this one. Today's suburban neighborhoods are not “reside and work” or “reside and shop”places. We Americans seem to desire to work and shop some distance from where we call home. It is that organization and relationship juxtaposition that has influenced our public health, environmental health and our economic vitality, and not for the better. As yet the community effort is not in it.

Interestingly enough, since the discussions leading up to the 2007 Plan, actions have led to a revision to the criteria used to “create Great Neighborhoods in newly developing or redeveloping areas”. In that same time frame, we have had a drastic recession and a slow, barely perceptible recovery. There are no real, newly developing or redeveloping areas to speak of but there are quite a few neighborhoods, built in the '60s and '70s, which could use some help to become Great Neighborhoods. Should we really have to wait until we have to redevelop the whole area? Why can't we do it over time, as the “model” neighborhoods did?

Place-making and walkability are important to the success of Lexington and its neighborhoods. They have been for the first ring subdivisions of the late 19th century and will be for the subdivisions of the early 21st , but what about all that came in between? Is there nothing to be done for them?

Fortunately, yes. I will look over those possibilities in the next week or so.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Dirty Streets And What We Should Do About Them

It would be hard not to notice the dramatic uptick in the number and level of new restaurants or bars in the downtown area. I have mentioned so many in posts here over the years. Some of them have failed or closed in the difficult first few months but so many more are thriving and the vitality of downtown is showing it.

Along with the brick and mortar locations we have seen the reluctant acceptance of our mobile vendors in the noontime and overnight hours. I have to admit that at first I was somewhat concerned about the residual mess which can be left behind once they have moved on. In some cases the fault lies with the vendor but mostly I believe that the patrons are most at blame. Generally, if we make a mess of our city, we are reluctant to clean it up and this is not the first time that I have mentioned it.

Making a mess on our streets (or sidewalks) and leaving it for others to clean up apparently comes as second nature to most of us. Why else would there have to be public service announcements on litter control or blowing our grass clipping into the street and subsequently into the storm sewer system. Did we not learn to be good stewards of our planet in church or school?

There are several city agencies which have enforcement jurisdiction over these events but often they can only document the infraction well after it has occurred. A friend today told me of one instance where they were photographing mud in the street from a construction site. Being that it was on Friday, will it be Monday until something is done?
Mill Street @ Goodfella's

All of this is prolog to something that I have seen more of this summer than I believe I have before. I have numerous photos of situations along our downtown sidewalks where the garbage receptacles either crowd the walkway or are in close proximity to sidewalk cafe diners. In each case a less than acceptable condition, but this year what I am seeing is IN the street.

Maybe it is the above normal rainfall which has occurred this year or failure to fully close the Herbies on the curb but excess moisture is infiltrating the waste collection system, and spilling onto the street itself. Some days, usually after a heavy rainfall, the streets where the garbage truck collects the waste will have a smelly residue of greasy, leached water from the Herbies of our restaurants and even our day cares. 

Below are several typical images.

Market Street just north of Short
Detail of leachate

Morton Alley@ Natasha's
Storm Drain In Morton Alley

This problem is also seen at sites with dumpsters and particularly older dumpsters. In fact, City Hall had a similar situation with its waste removal. Where a dumpster or two used to sit behind the building on Water Street, they have now located one of their own refuse trucks so that when it is full they can just drive it away. It has recently been enclosed in a manner required of any other development in Lexington, as seen here.

Someplace to place a nice mural before long
Before this truck was hidden from view, I can recall seeing a molded tray-like apparatus on the ground under the refuse hopper at the back of the truck. It appeared to be there to catch the drippings of leachate from the truck since they are not watertight.

The city seems to be able to control the problem in its own back yard where it is generally out of view, but falls flat when it comes to the quite public streets and sidewalks of our blossoming downtown. I do not think for one second that this is unique to Lexington or for urban areas in general, so someone must be working on a solution somewhere. To leave this detritus on our streets is not only unsightly and foul smelling but also contrary to the PSA's aimed toward the general population. Given a good rain, all of this stuff will end up in our storm sewers and creeks.

I have had people ask me why the city picks up the downtown garbage at - what appears to them - the height of the evening rush hour.  I also have been caught behind a city truck while trying to leave downtown once or twice.  My answer is that I don't know, but if some of these collection points are very near the established outdoor cafe seating that it just exacerbates the problem on hot summer nights.

So, from where does this problem stem?  Are we throwing away too much uneaten food (always a problem with the restaurant business) and are we mixing it with the rest of the disposables as garbage?  Can more of it be composted without adding extra burden on the kitchen and wait staff?  Is the flaw in the design of the compactor trucks in the city's fleet or the collection methods employed by personnel operating these trucks?  Are there some safe, ecological, sanitizing procedures with which to target such sites when they are identified?

Is this a government issue, a Health Department issue and don't let the EPA find out about this or it will be their issue?  I think that this is a "Lexington has an image problem" issue and we all need to try to do what we can.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Fading Of Food Access In The Suburbs

I read recently that, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approximately twenty-nine million Americans live in urban and rural food deserts.

That definition means that Lexington residents from low-income neighborhoods have to travel a mile or more to a grocery store. With poverty levels being demonstrated to be growing in suburbs across the country, it could only be a short time until those food deserts become extremely evident here. From what I hear, our planning staff believes that it has already started.

It has long been known that the near north side of Lexington has been home to an almost ever present community of working class poor. There are pockets of more well to do neighborhoods but they are the exception. Many streets which once saw the fine houses of our city's doctors and lawyers or other entrepreneurs are now home to the apartment dwelling, lower class. Our ever mobile elite moved on to the newer subdivisions, chasing that American dream of living “in the country”or acting like it.

Today it is the pockets of poverty which seem to be growing in our cul-de-sac patchwork of subdivisions that we have developed over the last half century or more. Many of them began as “starter homes” under HUD's “236” or “238” programs and actually did allow young families to enter the housing market and become upwardly mobile. Lately, the newer, non programed, version of starter houses appear to be financial traps for new home owners. Their upward mobility is still stuck in the '70s.

Stories abound from some of the better known low income districts of larger cities, where food banks and food pantries see more and more of the newly impoverished. There are more than likely as many right here in Lexington and maybe you know of one or more. Retelling of stories and raising awareness is not a solution, changing what brings on or exacerbates the situation is.

I have long stated that “retail follows the population” and, up until the 1930s and a wide acceptance of zoning, the food market section of retail led in that regard. One of the initial retail establishments in any new residential area was a grocer or butcher. That is why we saw so many corner markets in neighborhoods and often in converted residences.

A while, I chronicled the actions of a retail business in a small part of a narrow wedge of Lexington. It was not complete by any means, but does illustrate what I believe to be a part of our problem. As I pointed out, Kroger Co entered the Lexington market with two stores in 1925, going up against a few local chains like S.A Glass and his 6 or so stores. Kroger had 60 such corner markets in Cincinnati at the time and there was no such thing as a “super market”

Zoning is usually employed to separate noxious uses from neighborhood or other community institutions. The corner grocery, church or barbershop beside a small drug store were the mainstays of neighborhood life, hardly uses that folks wanted to get rid of. To many, that was the embodiment of the small town life they left behind when they moved to town. Sadly, the regimented nature of zoning does not allow the time tested evolution of human interaction having replaced it with something I find hard to explain.

Grocery stores of today are required to fit into a specific “zone” and since those zones will also allow many more uses, some of them noxious, they need to be sited away from the residences that they have historically served. This, I believe, is what has opened the door for food deserts.

One of my favorite scenes from Driving Miss Daisy is where Daisy Werthan's son has hired a chauffeur since she had wrecked her car. Ever the independent woman, Daisy intends to do the weekly shopping alone until she discovers that you need to arrange a cab well in advance and walking to the store or using the streetcar have their own problems. Daisy is a well of widow living in a changing world and yet blind to those changes.

The Driving Miss Daisy story began in the late '40s when going to the grocery, though a special trip, did not involve a large amount of logistics. Store locations at that time were determined by residential units / population in a mile or two radius and the store management knew customer's families by name as well as what they bought. The grocery business in those days was a real service oriented industry, much unlike today.

A grocery superstore of 85, 000 to 200,000 square feet will require the population of 3 to 5 mile radius to make it profitable. In subdivisions containing massive numbers of cul-de-sacs the driving distance could easily be three times that. When neighborhoods like that begin to fall the poverty line our food deserts begin to emerge. Factor in the lack of adequate public transportation and the effect of the food desert grows. It begins to look like we either failed to plan or planned to fail, but we did it to ourselves.

Much of my observations and opinions here have come from growing up in a grocery oriented family. My father was a well known and respected grocery manager/owner during the '40s-'70s. Corporate marketing decisions have replaced the hands-on customer service actions of the old time grocery man and convinced the buying public that it is in their best interest. It is no longer about what is best for the customer but what is best for the corporate bottom line.

In an industry that made more than $600 billion in 2012, the corporate perception is that low-income people don't spend money unless they're at a high enough density, then there's a market. Our easily identified food deserts in the near north side do not approach that density. The National Campaign for Healthy Food Access at The Food Trust says supermarkets stay away because urban settings force them to rethink the shape and size of their stores. I think that we are seeing that with the Kroger on Euclid, but under duress. Operating in low-income areas, the employees who tend to live very nearby are less work-ready and may cost more to train and insure.
On the local front, we have our own group which is active in bringing better food choices to the low income areas. It will also involve teaching the residents of these areas how to make the better choices. Anita Courtney of the Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Coalition has initiated a program which has seen some success in other communities. Here it goes by the name The Good Neighbor Store (GNS) Network. They have realized that small neighborhood stores play an important role in communities and if stores can enhance their business model, it’s good for the community, as well as the store’s bottom line.

Currently there are 2 stores working to become Good Neighbor Stores, all in the East End of Lexington. They are hoping to have grand re-openings this fall:
  • Sammy’s Market and Deli at 651 Breckinridge Street on the corner of Breckenridge and Sixth Street
  • Pak-N-Save at 503 East Third Street on the corner of Third and Race
The Pak-N-Save will have a new produce cooler, new flooring and new exterior paint and a mural is to be painted on the Race Street side of the store. There are ongoing efforts to engage other inner city corner stores.
It is not all about teaching the inner city youth and their parents. Since we are seeing food deserts develop in our suburban areas also, we need to spread the awareness there. Mrs. Sweeper has related to me an incident which played out before her and to which she could not keep herself apart from. I will let her tell the story,
I came up to the registers and began to stand in line at the Kroger on Richmond Road. “I had a small hand basket of goods.  I believe it was a Friday that I had to work and I was picking up a couple of things for the weekend.  In front of me was a black woman dressed conservatively and wearing a beautiful headscarf in the style that Sephardi women often wear them. (And I myself have done on more than one occasion.) That was what drew my attention at first.

Then I noticed she was in distress, nearly in tears and trying to say something to the cashier. Her English was very poor, she was clearly a recent immigrant. The cashier was not really interested in listening to this woman, she was instead waving a loaf of quality (possibly organic) whole grain bread. The rest of the woman's cart was filled with fresh vegetables and fruits, organic dairy products, and other healthy items – things I buy for my own family on a regular basis.

There was not a single item of junk food in her cart, not a bit of unhealthy processed food. I was almost ashamed of how often we cheat on our “healthy” diet looking at her cart.

The cashier was waving the bread at her and gestured to the healthy organic dairy products and a few other good quality products saying, loudly and rudely, “You can't buy these.”

It took me a few seconds to realize the problem – the woman was using a SNAP card (the program most of us know as food stamps). The card would not take the healthy products. The cashier was telling the woman she would have to pay for the healthy items out of pocket. Total amount was approximately $30.

The woman was scrounging around in her purse at this point, understanding what, if not why.  She said she had no more money. The cashier told her she would take the things off her ticket.

I said, “No, you won't,” or something like that. At this point I was angry, suddenly understanding that this woman's purchase was being rejected because it wasn't crappy low quality food – you know, the stuff they're always griping that poor people buy that makes their kids fat? Well, that stuff is accepted by SNAP. Decent hormone-free chemical-free items aren't, apparently.

The cashier turned to me and said, “She will have to put these back.” And I said again, “No, she won't,” and I reached over with my own credit union debit card and swiped it through the machine before the cashier could complete the action of picking up her hand-scanner to remove the items. As I was putting in my pin number, the cashier said to me in a nasty tone of voice, “you can't do that,”

By now I was pretty much in a spitting rage, but I didn't want to make a scene or embarrass the immigrant woman any further than she very clearly already was, so all I replied was something like “Yes I can, and I did. Give the woman her receipt.” At a loss as to what to do about it, the cashier did as I told her.

She then rang up my few items with me glaring at her. She didn't speak to me again. That's probably a good thing, because I am a bit high-strung by nature and it's hard to say what would have come out of my mouth. It's not the cashier's fault the system is set up to benefit corporations who make sure their processed products are on SNAP's accepted product list. I'm sure plenty of money changes hands to make sure that happens.

I imagine it is also likely that the SNAP administrators put some sort of cap on product prices to make sure that quality products don't qualify. After all, apparently, the poor don't deserve organic, hormone-free, chemical free products.

For some reason, we'd rather pay higher prices for obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and other costs conveniently covered by Medicaid but entirely preventable through eating healthy food instead of the processed crap being foisted off on the poor by SNAP.

As I have said, I am the son of a grocery man. He saw his job as providing the best product for the best price and doing it as a service to his fellow man. I cannot see this ever happening in his store.