Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Urban Food Thoughts

Neal Pierce had an excellent piece of the subject of local food and the rise of cities this past Sunday.

We think of hunger – global hunger – as a third world problem yet of the millions who go to bed hungry each night, more and more of them are in cities. The bigger the city, the bigger the number of unfed.

As Pierce points out, over the next 40 years our planet will have to produce as much food as we have ever produced and I, for one, am worried about its quality. I am also reasonably sure that a majority of it will not be local food.

Cities, by their very nature, develop in the same locations and utilize the same type of land which is ideal to grow food crops. As cities grow they expand across the very land which they may need to feed themselves, devouring acre after acre in non-agricultural and resource consuming urban development.

There are those who stress that cities are where brilliant minds are more likely to intersect with others of like bent and innovations can spring forth. So, where are we going to find the innovations for feeding our ever growing urban areas? The University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Urban Research recently held a “Feeding Cities” conference looking for answers.

Historically, with all of our cities swallowing up so much fertile farm land and creating climate altering “heat islands” in the process, our family farms have been evolving into massive industrial operations which are highly susceptible to floods and droughts. Scientists say that the altering climate will see many more of these floods and droughts. Did this conference have any good answers?

One suggestion was that cities can try to toughen themselves by assembling disaster emergency funds, strengthening their infrastructure and building their resilience. WOW – whose idea was this? When we cannot even maintain our pension funds or our roads, bridges and sewers adequately we need to establish a massive rainy day fund (which will probably be blown on the first event)? Not my idea of a complete solution.

Other conferees stressed the preservation of land for agriculture, either within their borders or in surrounding regions, apparently similar to our Rural Service Area (RSA). Lexington has already done that but the majority of crops being grown in the RSA will not feed our local population, since we don’t eat horses. Some conferees saw this as a food buffer and a flood buffer – two public goods, but our experience may say otherwise. In a free market no one can tell the farm owners to actually grow food for people and not commodity crops or inedible animals.

It was mentioned that fending off powerful business or political forces to preserve agricultural lands may be a tremendously difficult task. From gated communities and golf courses to the starter homes evolving into suburban slums amid a food desert, Lexington needs to think about better access to local food production on what remaining land we have.

In the developing third world nations it is estimated that 40% of the food produced annually is lost due to improper storage or delivery systems. Yet, in America we waste nearly 650 pounds per person a year, more than any other country in the world. The losses by careless farming, inefficient food processing or from retail stores simply discarding foods that are past their sell-by dates probably trail our own personal inability to control what we buy and fail to eat. It hurts me to see what remains from many restaurant meals and I don’t see what is discarded from the kitchens themselves.

Did we always have this waste? Could we feed all of the estimated 9 billion people anticipated by 2050 with more local production and less transportation related product spoilage? There is a joy to greater self-sufficiency and local food production which Lexington is beginning to understand, yet we still fail to create real community gardens in our communities. I get the feeling that community gardens are thought to be only for the poorer sections of town. The HOA where I live will only allow a few tomato or pepper plants in pots and less obvious herbs.

Pierce concludes his article with this: 
“To date, city-produced foods account for a tiny share of urban food needs. But one is led to wonder: If city food demand is a top 21st-century concern, perhaps city ingenuity – and spirit – can also help to forge answers.”

For Lexington, those answers are not forthcoming. Nor do they seem to be in other larger communities, since Pierce is still looking for them. That would indicate that we have not achieved a critical mass of intersecting thinkers on this part of Lexington's problem – though there are a handful of pioneers.

That Lexington developed, in part, where crops are known to do well and parts of that development has proven to be a detriment to the whole, just may be a hint toward an answer.

Over the last decade or so, our city has purchased property which was adversely affected or, by its placement, caused that adverse affect on others. Said property has neither been re-purposed for suitable urban use nor been reverted to the other job for which the land is quite well suited – growing food crops.

Do some of these properties fall within an area which can be called a “food desert” or could become one should the nation's transportation costs skyrocket? Could producing healthier food closer to the mouths which need it help? Could production of such food be coordinated under the auspices of a “Local Foods Policy Advisory Group” go a long way in averting urban hunger? Maybe.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Perceptions Pervade Planning Public Parking

As I said in my last parking post, “...public perceptions will always trail the reality of most situations”.  It appears that the perceptions of Debbie Long, owner of Dudley’s on Short, did not live up to the reality as it relates to the parking situation in downtown Lexington.

“We found that my guests really adapted easily to our downtown parking,” Long said in the recent Business Lexington article. 

Parking should not be a complicated process, but to many of the suburban mindset downtown parking is never as easy as it is in the shopping malls like Fayette Mall or Hamburg.  There one can park within a few hundred feet of a store's front door, walk for a mile and a half until exhausting the store's selection, go back to the car and move it a half mile and do it all over again, until tired.

Long says it’s not the concept of paying for parking or the short walk to the restaurant that creates a problem for her patrons.  The hard part is the confusion which comes from the inconsistent marking of visitor parking and employee/event or even the resident parking.

I have long been of the persuasion that on-street parking should be for those using it less than an hour at a time.  That probably comes from the historical 1-hour limit on most parking meters.  Surface parking (hopefully tucked in a block interior and a simple entrance) should be for several hours of usage (typically less than 3) and structured parking for all day and residential patrons.  Hence, on-street = highly visible, surface = basically hidden and structured = part of the office/residential complex.

It does appear that progress is being made of arriving at a standard identification symbol for parking facilities and there is a working group of parking operators which meets regularly.  But settling on a logo and some other embellishments does not solve the problem quickly. Gary Means, LexPark Executive Director, admits “The new signage will be phased in as budgets allow” since the group is still discussing how the new signage will be funded.

The other side of the coin in any discussion of downtown parking is; How are we going to continue to accommodate our need for parking?  Planners and developers first look at what and how much parking will be needed, usually by looking at what was required in the past.  It is a standard practice that they have been taught.

Past experiences and trends do not always allow for the good prediction of future events. 

Take a look at the “predictions” of Lexington's 1930 Comprehensive Plan.  Public transportation consisted of a mix of streetcars and auto-buses running routes which covered pretty much all of the city limits.  The Plan called for systematically extending the streetcar lines into the establishing neighborhoods, but due to the Great Depression and some Congressional acts meant to counteract the poor economic times by 1938 the streetcars had all been removed.  I don't think anybody saw it coming.

Take a look at the “predictions” of Lexington's 1947 Comprehensive Plan.  Gearing up for and fighting World War II had brought us out of the Depression, the GI's were coming home and ,with the streetcars gone, everybody had a car these days.  The Plan called for a certain percentage increase in auto ownership by 1970, but we blew through that estimate by the early '50s.  The roads that we planned to build like the By-Pass, now New Circle Rd, were undersized and crowded by the time they opened.  I don't think anybody saw it coming.

It seems that we are always planning for the existing situations or for those of the recent past since that is what we can justify through statistics.  Experience should show that we have very little to look back on and say that we got it right.  Who planned for the use of personal computers, either in the workplace or at home, or predicted the explosion of the use of smart phones so that our community would be ready for them when it happened?

Downtown retailers and developers do listen intently to their existing and potential clients in terms of what the parking needs are expected to be, but how many of them or their predecessors were unprepared for the surprises cited above?  Many cities are looking at TOD (Transportation Oriented Development) but it doesn't come up in any news reports or announcements about our downtown.  Not even the much ballyhooed Rupp Arena redesign or the Town Branch project.  Will Lexington be skipping that part of following the trends in other “world class” cities?

There are some other trends to which we should be paying attention.

Since 2008, the number of miles driven nationally has fallen markedly.  This was first attributed to the onset of the recent economic recession and the housing crisis.  That statistic continues to decline even after we have entered the “recovery” phase and we return to what was normalcy.  People, and young people in particular, are just driving less miles and not always in their own vehicle.  Car-sharing is a recent urban phenomenon to which the suburbanite mind does not relate.

Suburbanites can really grok the idea of a flashy car and the open road.  This must be what sells cars because it is in almost all of the new car ads on TV.  Even the ones showing downtown driving have the subject auto as the only car on the street.  If this were reality, then there is no parking problem.  Crowded roads and urban gridlock is not meshing well with the alleged purposes of buying a new car.

The main reason that suburbanites need an auto in the first place is to get to a job.  Jobs in which wages have generally not kept up with the family needs.  New roads and cheap oil have allowed past home buyers to drive until they qualified for a mortgage.  Now that need for a car is more pronounced than ever but the new roads, the cheap oil and the quality mortgages are fading from most household's view.

More and more of today's new automobile commercials are promoting extras like navigation systems and Wi-Fi hot spots with live streaming of video or Bluetooth communications instead of 4-wheel drive and snappy handling.  These are all aimed at the youth market and that market is remarkably shunning the auto either by choice or economic necessity.

The just released 2013 Car Affordability Study, from measures how much the households in our top metro areas should pay for a car that they can afford.  The formula is simple, a down payment of at least 20%; auto financing lasting no longer than four years; and principal, interest and insurance not exceeding 10% of a household’s gross income.  Mike Sante, managing editor of, in a statement said "Car costs are one of the most controllable parts of a household's budget." 

The top 25 metro areas were compared by median household income and this formula and then ranked.  How do you think that Lexington fared?  I, for one, was surprised.

Lexington's median income is $48,306, which places us right between the last two communities on the study's list.  It nestles us right between Miami and Tampa.  Of course the “affordable” range of auto in Tampa was $14,516,  that is 52.48% less than the median price of a 2013 vehicle.  The typical two car household of the Lexington suburbs can now safely afford about half of a new car.  That, my friends, is without considering any commuting costs or maintenance.  Our recent college graduates, with their high student loan debt, cannot afford to drive until they qualify to live in the suburbs.

Wages, as a percentage of GDP, have been declining since 1970.  Lexington's population since merger has nearly doubled and what looked to be a large suburban growth was a great migration from the inner city.  Indications are that this migration will reverse itself as it has in other cities.

We also need to hold on to our values when we choose a direction and avoid the traps of other cities. 

In Philadelphia, the administration has spent years talking up the value of lively, walkable streets.  Their Convention Center was purposely built without parking to discourage hordes of motorists from jamming the streets around the building, and to encourage visitors to use transit. Their 1991 Center City Plan prohibits parking next door on the adjacent Arch Street, specifically in the belief that Philadelphia's downtown activity should not be broken up by garages.

In 2010, a developer argued that parking was in short supply in the area and proposed that he build a parking garage, the problem was that his site wasn't zoned for a garage.  Fearing the loss job opportunities, the permitting process was eased, an excellent design team brought in to design and build it.  As of now, and many of you may draw parallels to our CentrePointe project, the Arch Street garage has brought no development, no new shops or restaurants, and no good design.

Inga Saffron, the Philadelphia Inquirer Architecture Critic, put it well, “… design will not save us from what's wrong with garages. The real problem with these utilitarian structures - and we're talking about the free-standing, aboveground kind, located in downtown settings - is that they distort how the city functions.

Saffron goes on, “When you insert a garage on a dense, pedestrian-friendly block, you can't help but dilute the mix by widening the distance between people and their destinations. Meanwhile, new parking encourages people to drive instead of taking transit, which only further increases the demand for more parking. Putting garages underground, below mixed-use buildings, is expensive, but at least it minimizes the harm.”

What does any of this mean in our preparing to plan for our downtown's future?  We are approaching that point in the life of the 2007 Plan where, in past plans, the reality completely obliterates some of the major assumptions of earlier proposals.  Are we about to lose a concept of urban life that we have counted on or is it already gone and we believe it dormant?  Is there something that we should be, or have been, planning for that will appear an oversight? 

We can, as most other cities have, continue to plan for how we think that life will remain in our fair city, or we can plan for how we would like for Lexington to be.  We often promote Lexington as “unique” and it definitely is, actually despite the repeated attempts to transplant ideas from other communities.  Progressive cities will ask “What can we do that no other city has?” while we ask “Why can't we have that in our city?”  Are we willing to join the progressive cities and ask the correct question?

I can understand our downtown developers using the conventional wisdom of looking to the city government to build their structured parking, but government is not building the parking lots of the suburban retail stores.  Cities used to believe that they HAD to do this to aide in downtown revitalization.  Our city is in the process of divesting itself of all its parking garages and getting out of the parking business.  To that I say a big “hooray”.  Now the questions arise, “Should the Parking Authority, the agency now in control of the downtown garages, consider building expensive spaces for a society which may be trending away from requiring them?  Should the Parking Authority take the gamble that a developer will not?

I guess, in the end, it all comes down to perceptions, mostly based on past experiences.  The public believes that available downtown parking is hard to find or inconveniently placed.  The retailers believe that parking should be provided for them.  Developers and landlords believe that they need assistance to serve their clients. So, now I ask you; Do these perceptions trail the reality and will these perceptions change with reality?

p.s. For further thoughts on parking planning go here

Sunday, March 3, 2013

True Urban Mixed Use.

I have not decided yet whether this emerging trend from the DC area is merely interesting or somewhat disturbing. Churches in that region have had to come to grips with their financial situations and some of the more cash-strapped are looking to become mixed-use developments in order to remain in existence.

The First Baptist Church of Silver Spring, Md. is asking to replace their current facility with apartments, shopping and a new church building. To be truthful, it is in a neighborhood which has a good transit presence, great walkability, a proposed Metro line stop and is transitioning toward higher density. What the area does not need is a wide expanse of parking and the setbacks off of the streets which presently exist.

Whether due to declining attendance or growing ambitions, other area churches are pursuing similar tactics. A church in downtown DC has been given permission to demolish their old Brutalist style building to erect an office building and church. In Arlington, Va., a church sold the air rights so as to construct several floor of apartments above.

This scenario brings to mind the recent removal of the Faith Covenant (formerly the Woodland Ave Baptist and originally the Immanuel Baptist) Church building for the High Point Condominiums. Though built on a much smaller scale the idea is much the same. The small church, which was losing its congregation and financially unable to adequately maintain the structure, opted to sell and re-establish elsewhere.

The theme which ties most of these instances together appears to be the involvement of the historic preservationists and their claims that these building are “significant”, either historically or architecturally, and should be saved. I guess that it could be argued that ecclesiastical buildings may be “community” or civic properties in a visual sense and therefore merit saving. I tend to weigh the value of what may replace the existing, visually and not economically, for my opinions.

What makes this interesting is that it is happening in quite a few localities, many of which are rapidly intensifying in density or transitioning to more urban uses. This intensifying is something which the Planning staff has urged for many years, through several comprehensive plans and when combined with the reluctance to expand the Urban Service Area mean that we could be facing similar issues.

We have some history of removing a few of our older churches over the years. The University took the Porter Memorial location on S Limestone and Baptist Healthcare (Central Baptist Hospital) took both the Centenary Methodist and the Central Baptist structures for more intense uses. Still others remain on highly traveled arteries at the edges of neighborhoods where “real mixed use” could be used as a catalyst for a transformational moment.

Given the general feeling toward downtown preservation, I think that our oldest church facilities will not consider such options at this time but there are a few which could see economic sense in such an endeavor. That is where the disturbing aspect of this trend may emerge.

I do not pretend to understand the congregational or financial health of our inner ring churches, but I do see when they add property (usually for parking). There is always the possibility of being land rich and congregant poor which can only be exacerbated during times of economic downturn. In times when folks cannot travel to services it may be advantageous build something where they don't have to drive.

A true mixed use.