Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Opportunity For A Local Neighborhood Option

Back around the first of the year I wrote about the need for more neighborhood options and decried the lack of walkable local shopping areas in our subdivisions. I also have a history of wailing against the suburban shopping layout when I comes to those missing options. That may be about to change.

Many people look at the Romany Road Shoppes as a prime example of a walkable shopping area which went out of favor somewhere in the late '40s. It has buildings which sit right up on the street and parking behind the stores. It may not have the required parking but it seldom is necessary to walk an excessive distance to do your shopping. In short, it serves the neighborhood to their satisfaction.

Today's developers are working on a whole different mindset. Shopping areas of that size and nature are considered too small to be successful and the traffic arrangement is not to the shoppers liking. These and other reason are always trotted out as to why such an area will fail, therefore not one such area has been attempted in over 50 years.

Think about it, no suburban shopper has been given the choice of such a layout for generations. Walking to a grocery is nearly unheard of in much of suburbia, simply because they never did.

The Millienial generation of today seems to have decided to avoid the suburbs of today and is seeking the most walkable areas of most cities. This generation is just beginning to enter the home buying phase of their lives, yet the still want the walkability when they do. They are driving less – we are driving less and the walkable shopping areas are not being built.

This coming month there is a plan before the Planning Commission for the long delayed Greendale Hills Shopping Area toward the back side of the Masterson Station development. It will be off the proposed Citaton Blvd/Greendale Rd intersection yet still walkable to a large number of residential units.

As proposed, it is laid out just like the typical model even though it lends itself to mimic the Romany Road style with only a few minor tweaks. The number of curb cuts/driveway access points could be reduced greatly with better inter-connectivity at the rear of the properties, yielding a better pedestrian experience for the shoppers.

It appears to me that the design is being driven by a generic CVS/Rite-Aid/Walgreens style building, with a drive through, on the sole prominent corner. The drive through is basically hidden toward the rear, while all other parking is displayed out front as if it was on sale. The rest of the proposed structures appear to be purely speculative. Even the apartment over retail - typical of new Urbanism – buildings are out of place along the rear property line.

This property still has a window of opportunity to make this a walkable destination, a local option worth making the trip by foot.

The B-1 zone, like literally all zones, has no recommendations for placement of buildings but the B-1 really sets the tone for a whole neighborhood. Thoughts like this were not included in the latest re-write of the B-1 zone, and perhaps that ship has sailed. Royal Caribbean thought that their Granduer of the Seas was prepared for many more cruises after it latest refurbishment last year, only to do it again.

The window is open for a better shopping area. Is there a breath of fresh air?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Does Jeff Ruby Think That He Is Being Left Behind?

Last week there was a Twitter report by Jeff Ruby, the steakhouse guy from Cincinnati, right out of the blue (?) which announced that he would open his Lexington location, in CentrePointe, in 2015. That was picked up and reported by the local press, much to the amusement to the myriad of people who have scoffed and derided the numerous stories of the long delayed project.

Many were the people worked to save the decaying, but popular, The Dame nightclub and the lesser used pool hall next door. Preservationist, more than a few of them amateurs, climbed on board aiming to save one of the oldest commercial structures downtown. And once it became clear that the building would not be saved, the jumped at anything that looked like it could delay the plan going forward. Finally, it was the global economy that did what so many locals could not – bring things to a standstill.

Although the “Great Recession” could delay an announced 40 story building, it could not delay the grass roots refurbishment of major parts of West Short St, Jefferson St or stretches of N. Limestone.  The failure to build a $250 million project with private money did not dampen the desire to use more than twice as much in public funds just a few blocks away.

Throw into this mix, the reluctance to allow food trucks and to revert to two-way streets and there you have Lexington's perception of the future.

I, on the other hand, do believe that the Ruby Steak House tweet is for real.

Several years ago an engineer friend showed me a Plat of Consolidation for the CentrePointe block. There are currently approximately 20 separate parcels under various ownership names which will have to be combined in order to allow the project to proceed. True, it may have been when the project was a large, single unit structure but it would not have been allowed to be built across lot lines.

He and I were hopeful that the filing and recording process could be accomplished quickly. After several design changes occurred (some at the hands of noted architects) the design reached the point that there are now multiple buildings, each needing a separate lot - such a plat has not been filed....yet.

Last Wednesday, the CHDRB meeting re-approved the permit for CentrePointe and the Taste of Thai building across the street and unless they revise the TIF boundary and purpose (which they may) there are fewer obstacles in their way.

The Ruby tweet came on Friday – two days after the re-authorization vote. Published comments from Dudley Webb seem to indicate that those TIF changes are forthcoming.

Are my hope up - again, maybe but I have long been hopeful about downtown, in spite of the recent economic climate.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Help See The Future?

What will Lexington look like when we get to the middle of the century?

Now, what did you just think of when that question flashed through your mind? Was you first thought of how downtown would look and did you wonder if there would be many new buildings? We will have to accommodate several thousand new residents, so did you imagine a wider expanse of suburban housing developments? Maybe you thought of a community where just about everything you could need was close and available, but I doubt it.

For those of you who thought strictly of downtown, I am not surprised because most people do. The traditional method of gauging modernity of a city is to look at its downtown. Progress is measured by the number of striking new and wonderful buildings. How many of them will we have in the next 20 years? Will it be more or less than in the past 20?

Actually, it has been over 25 years since a tower crane graced the skyline of downtown for the construction of a new high-rise. That my friends is a pretty stagnant rate of progress in anybody's book. What has been proposed has been fought, tooth and nail, by just about every faction. Now, with a few select areas gentrifying at an ever increasing rate and more people desiring to live downtown, will we make all of it livable?

Lexington is considered to be very lucky to have its most historic buildings in the the downtown area and the problem continues as to how to preserve them and allow new progress to proceed. We, and many other progressive cities, have arrived at our current status by both allowing and decrying the loss of our older building stock. How we achieve a continuing balance there will take a lot of hard work.

How we handle the way in which we travel to and from downtown will play a big part in Lexington's future. So far we have been able to bypass the temptation to follow other cities and their urban expressways that they are now removing.

Our surface parking situation pales proportionately in comparison to cities twice our size. Our closest neighbor, Louisville, leads the nation in average temperature rise between urban and rural land use environments. The difference between their urban heat island and their outskirts will average nearly 2 degrees throughout all seasons. Surely, we can continue to do better.

Still, downtown is not the only place that will have to make a change for the better. Eventually the close-in suburbs will undergo a familiar transformation from dullsville to walkable and inviting places.

I call it a familiar transformation because it has happened in Lexington previously. A number of well known retail clusters retain vestiges of their residential roots as single family houses.

Take the Woodland Triangle as an example. The initial Woodland subdivision plat of 1884 laid out strictly residential lots. By 1906, only the school, the fire station and two small shops (one at High and Woodland and one at High and Kentucky) interrupted the housing stock. It would be another 10 years or so until the commercial structures typical of the '20s made their appearance in the triangle and bring the goods and services the people needed. Again, retail follows residential.

Or, consider the beginnings of the Chevy Chase shopping area which developed well before the residential subdivision of the same name farther out Tates Creek Rd. The block bounded by Ashland, E. High and Euclid was full of the frame houses typical of the early 20th century and some of them remain though greatly altered. Just slip behind the storefronts on the south side of Euclid and check out the backsides of those places.

How about the stretch of E Main from Walton to Ashland or Mentelle? At approximately the time when the school board built the Henry Clay High School (1928) several businesses were converting houses for retail/mixed use.

These three locations are barely half a mile from each other, in easily walkable neighborhoods and on the streetcar line. They are not by any means the only examples since the commercial cluster at Sixth and N. Limestone or Third and Jefferson appear to have happened around the same period. But will the bland expanses of Lansdowne, Kirklevington or Opengate have this opportunity of variety and vibrancy?

Current suburbs are an accumulation of the past 60 years of spread-out development standards brought about primarily by the institution of a zoning code. The “evils” of urbanism creeping into a neighborhood have replaced the “fears” of communism regulating the permissible options of a landowner. Our freedom from unnecessary intrusion has led us into a self-imposed isolation of sorts over a wider and wider area of our lives. Such a freedom has exacted a high price on society.

Some parts of downtown are still pockets of isolation but truly urban neighborhoods are beginning to chip away at that.

One condition that concerns me is the prevalence, since the early '50s, of arterial and other major streets defining a neighborhood boundary. These roads are the prime candidates for widening, thereby separating some folks from others rather than aiding in the coalescing of neighborhood vitality in a sense of community. Today's neighborhoods have no identifiable center and no community asset to which they can be solely connected. It is little wonder that we have transient owners with little willingness to put down roots.

Lexington is not just our downtown for which we need to plan a future. Lexington is a series of neighborhoods and they need to be connected and planned for too. So, I ask you:
  • If you could make one change in your own community what would it be?
  • What’s the best way for individuals to advocate for change in their communities?
  • What do you see as the future of real estate and owning residential real estate going forward?
  • How do you think technological advances will contribute toward changes in suburban infrastructure?
These and other questions were put to June Williamson, author of Designing Suburban Features: New Model From Build A Better Burb, it may interest some of you to look into what she said.  Other thoughts on this can be found here,

As always, you can let me know how you feel.