Monday, January 21, 2013

How Can We Fix The "Non-Downtown" Walkability Problem

The good reviews continue to stack up for the book ”Walkable City”, Jeff Speck's book that I am in the process of reading. Even some of our city's leaders are commenting on the columns written in support of the book. Alas, the subtitle, How downtown can save America, one step at a time, can still mislead some of them into thinking that this is about fixing our collective downtown areas.

The general state of our own downtown is in need of more repair, but the trick is to stop bringing suburban influenced regulations to bear on very urban developments. Better yet, to remove such influences from the projects built from, say the Urban Renewal devastation forward, and continue to create a dense urban area. The residential framework surrounding the commercial core, our Infill/Redevelopment area, is receiving careful attention in regard to such regulations being applied to new projects there. Those parts of Lexington which should be considered “walkable” are getting the attention that they deserve. It is the rest of the city that we should be beginning to think about.

One of the little personal asides in Jeff's book concern his efforts to build a new house in Washington, D.C. and the regulations which demanded that he provide an off-street parking space – even though he did not own a car. The zoning code for Washington, D.C. had last been updated 1958, when they were trying to cater to the automobile and public transit looked to be a thing of the past.

Very few people gave more than a passing thought to the effect that these regulations had on a now extremely transit oriented part of the district. Was there a pressing need for off street parking spaces in a population where nearly three quarters of them owned no cars. Fortunately, cooler heads did prevail and permission was granted for the omission of the spot, especially since it was so close to a Metro stop and several bus routes, or a “transit zone”.

1958 was about the same time that Lexington began to hit its stride in growth and in growth control. We had received our share of “baby boomers” and worked hard to attract industry. Clean industry like IBM and Trane or others where a smokestack was not necessary. And they did come with all of their automobiles and car-centric attitudes plus a bias against public transit. Some of them became civic leaders and probably felt that, if it was good enough for the nation's capital – then we should be close behind. Close, but within reason.

I am aware that we cannot be favorably compared to D.C. in any way because of urban density, transit options or civic amenities, but due to those mid century regulations, some portions of the district did develop just like Lexington's subdivisions and have the same car-centric attitudes. In a 21st century world, those attitudes should be and are beginning to crack and fade.

Soon, Washington D.C. will be introducing the first update to its zoning code, after four years of development, and included in this new code are some of the ideas which Speck endorses as a way to make a city walkable. One change is that corner stores could be made legal for the first time in a half-decade, but only in the denser, rowhouse-style developments in order to discourage short car trips. Even the elimination of minimum parking requirements for parcels in “transit zones”

And, according to the Washington Post, “D.C. is only the latest American city to revise zoning rules dating to the 1950s and 1960s to reflect a new planning consensus that the car is, at best, only one player in the urban ecosystem. New York, Baltimore and Buffalo have rewrites underway.”

But it is not just about Lexington re-writing the regulations for development. It is also about re-writing the concepts on density that people have for their neighborhoods. Most often, an increase in density will imply more transients (apartment dwellers), more auto traffic and more prying eyes. What would your basic concern be with higher densities where you live.

I have tended to live where the houses are a little bit closer together, the streets are a little narrower and I don't mind the occasional multiple unit building (as long as it is in character to the neighborhood). Three story concrete block boxes with their attendant paved parking do not belong anywhere inside the limits of the mid-fifties era development. (Nor do their vinyl clad frame cousins)

This complimentary size and scale is what helps to make up a vibrant neighborhood. The density and activity of those diverse occupants coming and going on different schedules and errands. It also makes for safer neighborhoods as long as everyone keeps their eye out for the incompatibilities. The fact remains that this style is still out of favor with the developers and home builders and by extension, most of our suburban dwellers.

Walkability is not coming to our outskirts any time soon, and more is the pity.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Upgrade A Downtown Park?

Phoenix Park has been an issue of concern for years.  That is what the article in the Herald – Leader had to say this morning.  The problem is nobody really seems to know just what to do about the issue.

The Parks and Recreation department is looking to do some "heavy maintenance", whatever that is, on the park in the coming year.  $75,000 worth of heavy maintenance, which compared to all of the other downtown proposals lately, does not sound very heavy. 

Jeff Fugate, president of the Downtown Development Authority, says that the government does not have the money to do a full blown renovation so the work to be done will seem like repainting in a brighter color what you really want is a new kitchen.  This job may well be just putting lipstick on a pig.

The Park Plaza apartment building next door is making an addition of 5,000 square feet of street-level retail space part of their $2 million renovation, so removing some dead trees and replacing some park furniture sounds pretty minimal.

Fugate also called the park “tired”, actually “very tired”, but then it is our only public space which get used nearly 24/7 for 9-10 months a year.  When it serves as living quarters for a segment of our less affluent residents and acts as living room, dorm room, dining room and sometimes bathroom to an ever changing gaggle of people, what would one expect?

There are a lot of folks in town who would like to rid the park of its constant visitors or semi-permanent residents but others believe that to be quite cruel.  There is even a certain segment which will avoid passing through the park because of a fear of harassment or pan-handlers, though I have never seen such occurrences of that activity. 

LFUCG Commissioner of General Services, (soon to be CAO) Sally Hamilton, claims that this “maintenance” is in no way an effort to force the “homeless”, for lack of a better description, out of the park but subtle efforts have been used before.  I do realize that the Park Place residents do find the park denizens annoying and off-putting but they should have some alternative place to go. The Phoenix Park Homeless Initiative, an effort begun in 2009 is probably still looking for a long-term solution and this is not it.

Now, I do feel that the placement of different seating could go a long way in discouraging the sleeping on the park benches.  Maybe some style of singular seating with substantial armrests between would prevent the appearance of “overnight” accommodations.  I still have trouble seeing sidewalk dining should there be a food place in the Park Place retail since the former restaurants have tried and failed to make it work.

Another common thread of complaint about Phoenix Park is the haze or cloud of smoke, be it the legal stuff or not.  Since it is a “low lying” park, should smoking be allowed there at all?  Or should smoking be restricted to well beyond the entryways to all buildings?

These may all be moot points if the funds are not included in the new FY2014 budget or the money may well be misspent if the park is included in the plans for the “day-lighting” of Town Branch and the creation of what will mimic the old idea of a “Commons” as depicted on the original town plat.

Or it could be a whitewashing of an old fence and re-arranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Even More On Kentucky Proud

How many of us local folks (those who grew up here in Lexington) have had the impression that the tobacco industry and the thoroughbred horse industry were the two mainstays of Lexington's economy?

Since I was a small lad, the annual Blue Grass Review, a section of a January Herald – Leader Sunday edition, made grand statements and projections about all of the recent sales or the upcoming season for both industries. These were can't miss fields to be in.

Therefore, I was quite surprised to see this clipping from the June 30, 1938 Lexington paper:
In 1888, the largest crop grown in this county was hemp.
Twenty-four percent of the world's output was produced here.
Now we grow only about forty acres of hemp. Formerly the hemp house was as much a part of the farm equipment as the dairy or the stable. Now, the hemp house has given away to the larger tobacco barn and the horse barns.
In 40 years and two significant wars, Fayette County would abdicate its place as a world leader of beneficial raw goods and replace it with products associated with vice and addiction. Yes, I do know that local farmers have been raising horses and racing horses since before the Civil War but horses were not the only line of work. The modern thoroughbred operation of today began with the introduction of corporate style funding (syndicates and the like).

Hemp, basically a weed, is about as easy to grow as hay or sod and without the extensive level land requirement. The hard part is in the harvesting and processing of the fibers. Did it make a lot of sense to switch to tobacco, a much more labor intensive production process and susceptible to more blights or diseases?

The decline in production may have its roots in the The Marihuana Tax Act Of 1937, which did not directly outlaw the growing of hemp but put a tax on every entity who dealt with the raw material. Although the tax was just $1 a year in most cases, the penalties of not registering and paying were substantial.

Given the quote from the newspaper account, the tax was be placed on a sizable number of Fayette County farmers during a time when they were trying to climb out of the Great Depression. Not a good economic move there Congress.

There may be some defense for Congress since it was thought, at the time, that hemp fibers could replace wood chip fibers in paper production. Such a move could have threatened the powerful William Randolph Hearst and his vast timber holdings from which he got his newsprint.

Further complicating the economic landscape was the inclusion of the Cannabis family of plants in the 1925 revision of the International Opium Convention as a drug. The Boggs Act of 1952 is the first time in federal drug legislation that marihuana and narcotic drugs were lumped together, but the damage had already been done.  In 1970 any cultivation of Cannabis plants what-so-ever was banned in the U.S.

More recently, at least since the mid-1990s, automobile parts manufacturers in Europe have been developing a process to use bio-mass fibers as a raw material. These fibers have included soy, switchgrass and hemp. The technology has been around since the late '30s so it is nothing new.

In 1941, Henry Ford made an experimental car body out of organic fibers that included hemp. As a demonstration, it was struck with an ax handle without damage to anything but the ax handle – it broke. Sadly, production costs proved to be too high, raw materials in short supply and World War II intervened, or we may have had many more lighter weight, auto-bodies when the “muscle car” engines developed. Imagine the Corvette with a bio-fiber shell rather than fiberglass or the polycarbonate shell of the old Saturn line which tended to shatter in colder climes.

Hemp is legally grown by 29 countries around the world at present and most will export many products made from that hemp. China, Russia and Korea produce a lion's share of those exports yet each year the U.S. government identifies those countries that it considers to be drug-exporting nations and they are not on the list. We Americans can legally import hemp products from as close as Canada but we cannot join the global market place or become hemp independent or export our own.

A number of our state's leaders wish to change the status quo and position Kentucky  to proudly return to leading the world in hemp production, employing many farmers in the process.  This week the The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce joined Agriculture Commissioner James Comer in supporting legislation allowing hemp production.  Federal law still stands in the way, yet fully half of the our state's Congressional delegation have stated support of efforts to legalize growing hemp.

Not all farmers can get in the horse business and the tobacco business has just about dried up. Our produce farmers and remaining dairy/cattle farmers are scrapping for what tillable land there is left.  Hemp can be grown on more marginal land and we still have some of that, especially in the more eastern region where they need the help.

Hemp legislation can be done in a reasonable and safe manner if we try.  Let us all try to be proud Kentuckians, employed proud Kentuckians.

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