Monday, February 25, 2013

A Question About Parking

I believe that it would surprise most folks to know that a machine, developed nearly ninety years ago, was first used to ease the parking situation of the day. The hated parking meter.

There are some in my own family who will not think about venturing downtown simply because they feel that finding a place to park is too big of a chore with which to deal. However simple the task to accomplish, finding a parking spot is much more difficult. Between the traffic on the one way streets and the supposedly endless searching for a close parking space, they would rather go to the mall. I think that they typify the opinion of many in the neighborhoods outside New Circle Rd. and a good many within.

Conventional thought of the past 50 years or so has been that it is no problem just to hop in the car and run to the store. You could park at the front door, quickly get in and get out and be home in no time flat. The roads to the store are now wider and carry more cars, the parking lots are bigger as are the stores but it still does not cost you to make the trip. It is always free parking, for you.

The rise of the automobile in America led to more than the freedom of the open road, it led to chaos in the streets of eastern cities which were not designed for them. Cities were built to accommodate rather than integrate cars. According to Kerry Segrave in “Parking Cars in America, 1910-1945”, The idea in force in American law at the start of the 20th century, that thoroughfares were for the movement of traffic—with certain specific exceptions such as the loading and unloading of goods and passengers—gave way fairly quickly to the idea that took root in the popular mind that parking of vehicles on the street was a right and not a privilege. In response, ill-conceived regulations helped cement the concept of free parking as a public good across America, fueling our dependence on automobiles.

Unlimited free parking, without legal restrictions to encourage turnover, soon led to commonplace traffic jams on many city streets, complete with double parking, traffic at a crawl and employees hogging the prime spots all day. I doubt that it helped when turning movements at intersections, with or without traffic control, was added into the equation. Thus the parking meter was devised.

In 1933, Carl C Magee, a Oklahoma newspaper man and entrepreneur, engaged two engineering professors at Oklahoma State University to design and build a control devise. Two years later, Holger George Thuesen and Gerald A. Hale had their first working parking meter, the Black Maria. Magee, having been named to Oklahoma City's Chamber of Commerce Traffic Committee, chose the corner of First Street and Robinson Avenue as a starting point and installed a series of meters along a whole block face. The date was July 16, 1935. Lexington would wait ten more years, July 22, 1946 for their first meters and thus proving Mark Twain wrong.

Each devise cost of $23 apiece but were installed gratis with the understanding that their initial capital cost would be repaid by the five-cent hourly rate, after which the city would reap all parking fees.

Ironically, the world's first parking ticket occurred about one month after the Oklahoma installation when the Rev. C.H. North received a citation while he had gone inside a grocery store to get change for the meter. The judge dismissed the case.

Regardless, the parking did its job and business picked up so dramatically in the first week that the other side of the street demanded that they also have meters installed. Word spread quickly and so did the meters. Lexington, when we did get meters (see above), made a gutsy move and installed 700 meters, on a trial basis.
The reported first days collection of parking meter coins amounted to $451.47 and by the end of 1948 revenues totaled $64,708 for the year.

How did this apparent panacea for all of parking's ills go from being loved in the late '30s to being basically despised two decades later? Can the same thing be said for the stoplights too?

As towns became cities and urban centers, more street space was filled with the parked cars rather than moving ones. Unlike our larger east coast communities, most city's leaders didn’t turn to mass transit as a solution to the increased congestion, but found it to be a convenient excuse to remove what efficient commuter tracks and inner-city rail systems that were in place. Lexington's residents who bought in the neighborhoods designed around the streetcar soon found themselves needing an automobile and a place to put it at home. All of this right in the middle of the Great Depression.

The resulting increase in traffic and its need for parking should have enticed any enterprising property owner to build multi-level, covered parking spaces, much like the older livery stables which could be found dotting downtown at the turn of the century. The building of and maintenance of parking garages can be an expensive proposition, which is why many property owners today look to the local government for assistance.

Probably the best reason for the reversal in thought is “... decades of poor meter implementation, inane off-street parking requirements, and [a] technological stasis [which] slowly turned our city streets into a driver’s nightmare.” according to Hunter Oatman-Stanford in a Collector's Weekly article from January of this year. This could be as a simple as overuse of the meters or just poor placement, which when it did not work as expected was supplemented by equally bad implementations of parking requirements. In typical American response to these ill-conceived regulations, drivers soon began to see the concept of free parking as a public good.

I personally believe that government should not be in the parking business. Provide for their employees and customers, like private enterprise, but that is as far as it should go. Instead of NOT providing free parking, how about encouraging FREE public transit..

Donald Shoup, professor of Urban Planning at UCLA, explains that minimum parking requirements “led planners and developers to think that parking is a problem only when there isn’t enough of it.” All across America today's legally required lots are, more often than not, half-empty since they are designed for the maximum peak use. Parking is kind of like dark matter in the universe, we know it’s there, but we don’t have any idea how much there is.” Today parking lots cover more of urban America than any other single-use of space and it is estimated that the U.S. has as many as eight parking spaces per car.

As the suburban lots are underused for typically short length stays and the downtown spaces are overused for typically day long stays, where is the balance point? When will we begin to mandate “right-sized” parking for particular parts of town rather than continuing a “one size fits all” approach? I can see the developing Design Excellence Guidelines having some input in this regard, but they need to be for all of Lexington and not just the B-2 family of zones downtown.

So, what is lacking in the way of downtown parking? The quantity or quality of inexpensive parking? Or just the lack of free parking where you want it? I think that there should be a definite private participation in our structured parking solutions

The right sizing of parking to our development types and locations along with better public transit access should play a more important in the success of downtown retail, entertainment, offices and residency. But public perceptions will always trail the reality of most situations and as more Millinenials adjust their perceptions, I think that we will see the need for downtown parking wane.

Now, if I were in total control of downtown parking; For the visitor, it would be visible, For the local, it would be there but hidden and Public transit would make it superfluous.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Facade/Sidewalk Porosity?

I have been asked to consider putting forth my ideas on the state of downtown Lexington's parking. That is taking some research and maybe a little history as to how we got to where we are. I am feeling something in the wind and hope that it is not some “lets solve our problem like name a city did it”, because I always find that we only go about half way and then look for better things. Until then I am continuing to think about urban walkability.

One of the most common complaints about Lexington, and its downtown in particular, is the blandness of the architecture since the 1960s. We do have our share of windowless, rough concrete panels or tinted windows hiding who knows what from the passing public. These building may be right up on the sidewalk but they do not engage the public or any pedestrians – they do not help in creating any sense of street life. Even the ones which set back and have their semi-public plaza spaces are not relieved of guilt.

My main objection to the downtown CVS project was not the location but the design of the face which they chose to show to the street and the public. The Board of Adjustment had already cast their lot against the pharmacy drive thru before it became a controversial subject and that opened the subject of facade design. We need no more dead walls looking out on our streets.

If there is one more thing that we should have learned ,since we began to reverse the trend from bland Brutalist architecture, is that the typical pedestrian needs to also be entertained on their walk. One of the common jokes in my family was that we were taking the kids on a “march through the Sahara” whenever we went on walks – and especially through uninteresting areas. Long stretches of treeless streets were quite stressing for us and them - because there was just nothing mildly entertaining about it.

The mildly entertaining aspect of downtown pedestrian life, historically, was the ever changing facades and display windows of the buildings there. Every 16 to 20 feet, certainly no more than 40, there was an apparent change or difference in the periphery of ones vision. It was these changes and differences which gave the pedestrian reference points as to the distance traveled or an estimation of how much farther it is to go. The blind can still use the sounds and smells which usually accompany these changes for the same reference points. Long stretches of dead walls or open expanses of empty parking leave very few of these points.

I have begun to understand the concept put forward in Walkable City about the need for porous and deep edges between our public (pedestrian) space and the private (commercial) space. Jeff Speck's definition of porous refers to the number and size of the windows and doors which allow proper lighting and otherwise engage the two spaces in a lively relationship. The idea of depth is simply the degree to which edge allows for the space to blend or blur area of the said relationship of activity. These opportunities can include; awnings, ledges, columns, recessed doorways, etc. All the things that our older stores had in abundance.

Too few doors or windows, such as the backs and sides of commercial buildings, give absolutely no chance for any relationship – lively or otherwise. Likewise the distance setback from the sidewalk, anything in excess of a few small steps, allows no blurring or blending to occur at all. Does it make sense that developments at our sidewalk edges tend to repel the pedestrian these days rather than encourage them?

It seems possible that, from what I have put forward, a formula could be devised and refined with which to rate our commercial streets as to the potential of pedestrian activity. A residential formula may also be created with similar or adjusted values applied. I really want to see how the “stand alone” re-figuring of Rupp Arena would fare in this “urban sidewalk porosity” rating for lack of a better moniker. It would be my hope that this is something which could be included in the Design Excellence Guidelines whenever they are written.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Is It To Be Or Not To Be --- An Urban Market?

Kroger has announced plans to not just renovate the Euclid Ave store, but to replace it with a larger, ”urban lifestyle market”. That was the phrase that Danny Lethco, a real estate manager for Kroger, used repeatedly during a gathering with neighborhood residents and interested parties. Maybe we just need to look at just what is an “urban market”

Though not exactly super markets, these smallish grocery stores strive to provide our cities with fresh food, meat and cooking staples within reasonable walking distance. Corner stores like these became passe after super stores like Walmart, Winn-Dixie, Kroger and Meijer came to suburbia. However there’s been a new push toward walkability and sustainable growth within our cities and we again need accessible food in our urban areas.

This Euclid Ave. store has been called a "university store" and dubbed the "disco" Kroger by Ace magazine since it serves a large number of eclectic students in the overnight hours, but it also serves as an oasis in the food desert of the less well off of the 40508 and 40502 zipcodes. Many of them are faced with carrying their groceries on long public transit rides, buying a car or relying on convenience stores to purchase their necessities. Will they be better served by making this an urban store?

The confined space of a site for an urban style store will demand the right balance of urban design and will present some challenges. These grocery stores have to use a fraction of the space that super stores have, prioritize the goods they will provide and consider parking in an area unable to accommodate a super-parking-lot. With these challenges in mind, many other cities and entrepreneurs have taken the risk and opened such grocery stores. It may be helpful to examine how they did it.

First, I looked at the basic history of the seemingly ever increasing size of suburban grocery stores. After the sprawl explosion of the 1950s and ‘60s, supermarket chains have focused primarily on the suburbs. The business model involved rolling out the same store with parking in front, again and again. When supermarkets did build in cities, they plunked down the same suburban box whenever possible. This approach works as long as new growth is taking place primarily in the suburbs and the cities languish.

Kroger, in its history, is not a stranger to the Chevy Chase area and many will remember when it occupied the space where Shoppers Village Liquor through Josie’s sets today. Well, they even pre-date that if what some of the old-timers told me is true when I was growing up. I have been told that the now gone Ben Franklin five and dime, which stood approximately where the drive entry is to the Ashland Plaza, was built as a Kroger before they moved around the corner.

Kroger also shared the Aylesford/Ashland Park/Chevy Chase shoppers up until the late “60s with the Parkes Bestway (High St where Great Clips is now) and the Colonial Albers (on the Kroger current site) stores and a Minit Mart (now Sew Fine). I almost forgot the small corner grocery where Architectural Kitchens & Bath now occupies. Most all of them had good walk-up traffic until pantry and refrigerator sizes grew, working mothers and time schedules dictated a large weekly shopping trip rather than daily checks of what was fresh.

How others have succeeded

When looking at how others have succeeded, I turned to the Urban Land Institute and took information from their 2011 Fall Meeting's session on “Developing Walkable Urban Groceries in Mixed-Use Environments”.

Chevy Chase is very definitely a walkable, mixed use area, therefore I believe that their recommendations should apply. Chevy Chase is also urban, not quite urban core but firmly, in the minds of most, a downtown area and ripe for infill or redevelopment. Kroger is choosing the redevelopment path.

Parking is absolutely necessary. Nearly all urban-format grocery stores need parking, even in transit rich neighborhoods, and it must be separated from residential parking. Often, grocers require five spaces per 1,000 square feet (93 sq m) of store. In the substantially denser urban locations where significant percentages of customers walk, sufficient parking is still required, although the allotment can be as low as two or three spaces per 1,000 square feet. With the credits allowed for bike racks and the transit stop, I believe that Kroger should have this covered.

Pedestrian entrance. With a split between customers arriving on foot or by car, a key for the design of the store is to get one entrance to face the parking lot and the other to be an attractive pedestrian entrance off the street. A store’s pedestrian entrance is critical in an urban area. It requires a welcoming access point from the sidewalk.. Grocers don’t necessarily want too much exposure and light, as natural sunlight and windows can negatively affect HVAC systems and refrigerated goods. In this case, an artist will tell you that the northern light is more pure light with lower UV effects. Here, Kroger has shunned the sidewalk/street and the lower UV light by catering to the auto traffic.

Not listed by the ULI is the inclusion of a drive-thru pharmacy window for an urban market. Walkable urban neighborhoods tend not to need such amenities. Rite-aid, just a block or so away, has no need of one nor does Wheeler's Pharmacy on Romany Road. Just a few years ago the CVS proposal at the Main and Vine intersection went through a long, torturous struggle because of a drive through window. That project failed.

The location of the proposed drive through on this plan presents some really troublesome thoughts. Firstly, it is hidden at the very back of the structure and under the similarly hidden auto ramp to the rooftop parking. If that was not enough, the loading dock ramp is arranged immediately adjacent to the pharmacy window or at least close enough to present possible traffic hazards. Add to that the traffic movements into or out of the Marquis access point and I see a real possibility of a SNAFU or worse.

Kroger seems to have made one concession to their standard floor plan in that the deli will occupy a portion of the space usually reserved for the produce section. Ostensibly this is to allow the pedestrian entrance to the “relaxing patio” behind the transit stop feature. Of course this transit feature may be omitted since they donated a considerable sum to the “Bank stop” across the street.

On the idea of this “patio” or sidewalk seating, it is unclear if this area will be like the seating at the Beer Trappe, Bourbon n' Toulouse or Charlie Brown's. These cited seating areas work well in the mild weather, but are primarily used by smokers due to the city's ban. Will this really be relaxing if it is all smokers? Will pedestrians want to use this as an entry point to the store if it is filled with smoke?

One of the details pointed out in Jeff Speck's book Walkable Cities is that the frequency and proximity of a building's entries to the sidewalk/street will raise the perception of an area as walkable. I have not heard of anyone devising a rating system or creating an algorithm to chart such perceptions but one cannot be far off. Positioning a building up to the street/sidewalk, or even within 20 feet of it, gives a more cozy feeling to the pedestrian but omitting any entry options of personally relating to it or its occupants turns those feelings to dread.

Our recent snowfall and the current Northeast storm brings up a seasonal complaint of mine. Kroger is, by far, not the only scofflaw in the clearing of the sidewalks which adjoin their property. While it is their duty and responsibility, by being farther removed from the sidewalk there are many who will give them a ”pass” but it really is a liability issue. By moving the building closer to the street, it would seem to make the duty imperative, but if it is the side or back of the building, that duty evaporates from the minds of management since there are no employee access points there. The suburban stores will never expect their customers to be to the rear of their facilities, but in this situation it is where they are forcing them to be.

The larger picture

Just what is the larger picture? At least one of the audience members started off with the big picture agenda questions. “When this store is expanded, will Kroger close the Romany Road store?” Very direct and to the point but also quickly shunted to the side as too far down the road. So, is Kroger not thinking in a long term frame of mind? I doubt that very much.

The very positioning of the proposed building hints that they are looking at the older office buildings along Ashland Ave and the rest of the property on the block, though they stated that they “have no plan to purchase more property” at this time. Granted the PNC bank is unlikely to sell as they would lose their visual street presence opposite the very active Chase bank facility, but with the rise of online banking neither is doing the volume they once did.

Speaking of the Romany road store, is it so under-performing that it need to be combined with another store or eliminated altogether? This store functions as a reliable “third place” in the lives of the neighborhood residents as do the aforementioned Wheeler's and the several restaurants in the area. They have been woven into the social fabric of the families there for several generations. In my mind, the Romany Road store is a better example of an urban grocery than what is proposed on Euclid.

One last point taken from the ULI report is that Grocery stores transform neighborhoods”. I would take that as both the addition to and the removal from a neighborhood. John Given, who helped develop a Ralph’s grocery store in South Park in downtown Los Angeles, described urban grocery stores as providing an essential element of street life for neighborhoods. The neighborhood grocery store, an urban market or not, it is more important to the everyday life of downtown than Rupp Arena or Keeneland.

To quote Seth Harry, an architect in Woodbine, Maryland, who has retail expertise “As long as walkable urban places are built from scratch or revitalized, more urban-format stores will follow”. In his view, the design of the store is driven by the urban fabric. Kroger may now realize that they had to rethink the placement of the parking in an urban location but it will still takes an urbanist architect to convince most operators to accept other design refinements.

Furthermore, Kroger's goals here may be diametrically opposed to both the purpose and function of urban markets. They stated that they wanted people to “buy more” when they shopped at the Euclid Kroger, but people who walk, bike, or use transit to arrive are not going to “buy more.” They already buy what they can carry. Kroger is using suburban thinking and trying to place it in an urban environment. That formula will not work.

There is also some question as to whether the very idea of acres of shopping in under one roof is even viable anymore. Malls are failing, or redefining themselves and Walmart type stores are shunned by the wealthier classes who would rather make trips to several boutique-style stores than one giant conglomerate comprised largely of products they don't want. Malls and superstores were originally meant to replace the old-world style village markets, suks and bazaars. For a while this worked, but shoppers today are more sophisticated than ever. They are not interested in fake village markets, they want real village markets – an experience that is simply not going to happen in any superstore or superstore mini-version. Quality, unique products are not usually to be found in such places.

So, an "urban" market?  Is it to be or not be, that is the question.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

“Neighborhood” Options

I kind of wish that I had written this.
There are a handful of ways in which you can tell FILL IN THE BLANK is still just a small town on the cusp of being a big city. Restaurants that close at 9 p.m. and don’t open on Sundays is one. Another is the attitude many FILL IN THE BLANK'S RESIDENTS have toward parking.
Parking has been a constant topic of discussion – and outrage for some – lately. Neighbors seem to spring into action over the idea of a cafĂ© or bar around the corner, lamenting that they don’t want cars parked on their streets. Others think the City of FILL IN THE BLANK should provide free parking downtown and in destination areas like FILL IN THE LOCATION . I think everyone should just get over it.
FILL IN THE BLANK is a developing city thanks to the unique personalities and businesses that are already here (and have been developing here for decades) and to the encouragement of the state and local government. People like FILL IN THE BLANK for its weather, its local businesses and its quirkiness. People moving to this city are helping improve this city.
I find in this writer a somewhat kindred spirit. Someone who feels about cities in the same way that I do. Reading farther, it just gets better.

She talks about the new and exciting restaurants which have opened and the many recent arrivals who are bringing increased vibrancy to her city's scene. And who can leave out the rise of the creative classes which throng to exciting places.

I think that she really strikes a chord when she says of the attitudes of the established locals;
I want to enjoy all FILL IN THE BLANK has to offer, but not within walking distance of my house.”
Is this not the attitude we see in the many comments against what some could call the natural evolution of a city? Apparently it is not just our city, because it is happening elsewhere. Many forms of NIMBYism are alive and well all across America.
A vibrant, diverse and creative city doesn’t have a single “business district” – that model of city planning, where a large central business district is surrounded by housing developments, is a failed idea that creates car dependency, pockets of crime and overweight people.
Don't you just want to shout this from the top of the Lexington Financial Building (Big Blue, to a lot of us)? This wildly suburban attitude may be just the thing that is keeping us from reaching that next step up the city evolutionary ladder.

Multiple or distributed business districts can, and should be, more than extended shopping corridors along the primary thoroughfares leading onto or out of town and large commercial centers. It is the presence of these distributed business districts which helps to describe real neighborhoods. In order for non-residential uses to consider anything other than the extended corridors or centers, the impact of traffic and parking is always discussed, - no argued.

Increasing levels of traffic are indicators of the vitality of an area but are usually also looked at as markers to the diminished safety of a residential section. I choose to believe that the quietest streets are not always the safest and not all traffic activity is vehicular. A cul-de-sac far from a commercial district can be as lonely as living on the moon.

Parking, on the other hand, really only becomes a major headache when the activity or retail endeavor has to draw clientele from more that a comfortable walking distance. Unfortunately for many people, that comfortable distance is growing shorter every year. Turns out people are not very good at conceiving of the distances they walk with any accuracy, according to Kevin Krizek, a planning and civil engineering professor at the University of Colorado. An evening walk to the corner pub or bistro-like dining is something our suburbanites may never know.

A solution to the traffic and parking questions could, or I think should, be more “neighborhood” options. The more “neighborhood” options in an area, away from major, busy traffic corridors, the greater likelihood of people living within that “comfortable distance” of those multiple options to ditch automobile and walk. Voila, cleaner air, healthier people and a more vibrant neighborhood and city.

Some of us are old enough to remember when there were more of these “neighborhood” options and they were located in a somewhat organic manner. They did seem to just grow there, “naturally”, neither forced nor constrained.

Did the strong survive? Did the survivors adapt? Both are good evolution questions but the real question is: Why have more of them not sprouted in our newer neighborhoods? That would take us back to the topics of traffic and parking. While the older “neighborhood” options got along without one or the other, any new ones will be required to have both. Maybe these could be classified as a GMO strain of local retail, but they have definitely been rejected.

So, does anyone recognize the city about which my kindred spirit writes? It surprised me to see that it is also a State University city with many college students. It is a center of politics and economics and if you would like to read more of her work, Stephanie Myers can tell you all about Getting Around the city of Austin, Texas.