Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Weekly Photo Contest

No one guessed the Photo of the Month which I put up last week although there were some good tries.  I have decided to adjust the format and go with a weekly puzzler.  I think that you will be surprised as to how some of these old photo location look today.

Last weeks location was, of course, the Davidson School which was built on the foundation of the old City Work House on the corner of South Upper and Bolivar. Seen here looking in the other direction.

Lets see how many will know the next location.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Past Images - Future Hopes

There is a lot going on in the area of food production, both on a national level and at the local level. More and more of us are beginning to think about the quality of the food that we put into our bodies and what we can do to improve it. Still others are looking for a way to grow our own food, a very difficult task in our urban environment.

I wrote about some of the obstacles in urban agriculture nearly 2 ½ years ago and questioned why some of our improperly developed subdivision properties could not be reclaimed for agriculture as they have done in Detroit. I heard many explanations about farming practices, both conventional and organic, not being a good fit for parcels where the buildings have been removed to prevent continued flooding. Still, it is allowed on non-flood prone parcels not 400 feet away, along with the residential laws which get treated regularly during the year.

I think that it is such a reasonable idea that, despite being rejected by many, I still support it. At today's lunch I was told that discussions are underway to develop a policy for location of community garden in Lexington's green spaces.

The Lexington Greenspace Commission is undertaking an inventory of existing (and past) community gardens with an eye toward other community facilities may have available land. Schools, churches and group residential which do not use all of their parcels are looked at for potential use.

But what about the smaller lot residential areas which are some distance from large scale shopping centers, transit lines and the above referenced facilities? These are areas which were developed as “starter homes” that residents just could not get out of due a) the recession, b) leveling/declining wages or c) the rising cost of living. This is the realm of the suburban poor. Where is their community garden space?

Following a few inquiries, I did find someone who is a little closer to the Greenspace folks than I. Their position is that the policy recommendation being discussed is to not allow the government owned land to be used for community gardens at all. In essence, land that formerly had a productive use, was re-purposed to house families, though without adequate safety, will now be “retired” to aesthetic use when it can be adaptively reused for a community garden.

I guess the good news is that this is just a recommended policy for the use of Lexington's green space and may, at the administration's discretion, be followed or amended. It may also come under the watchful eyes of the forthcoming Local Food Policy Coordinator position being tested during the next year. I do hope that they will fare as well as the Bike/Ped Coordinator slot has over the past several years.

I like where the local food movement is heading and see some exciting things on the horizon (hemp production being one of them) and hope to live to see them all.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Will "We" Do It Every Time?

“A middle-class urban planner sees a working-class neighborhood and says, 'I wouldn’t want to live there. That neighborhood must be blighted.' So the planner convinces the city to spend hundreds of millions of dollars revitalizing the neighborhood: clearing older buildings and replacing them with new high-density, mixed-use developments that the middle-class urban planner wouldn’t want to live in but thinks others should enjoy, often tying such neighborhoods together with a billion-dollar rail line.”
When is the last time that you saw that happen in Lexington?

You might say it was the Newtown Pike extension, now known as Oliver Lewis Way., which is currently grinding its way through Davistown Bottoms and aiming at the University campus area. I think that even that is wrong.

The quote above is from the Antiplanner, a blog by Randall O'Toole, looking to lay the blame for all gentrifying neighborhoods at the feet of urban planners – government urban planners. It is just these liberal government lackeys who are removing vast blocks of work-a-day resident's housing and replacing it with an unaffordable something.

Here in Lexington many of the developments which I see as displacing large blocks of blue collar families and gentrifying an area have not come from any government report or plan. The most recent government-led one which I can recall is the construction of Rupp Arena and its adjacent parking lots, nearly 40 years ago.

One current area, for which planning is ongoing, is the Distillery District and its associated TIF boundary. Within this boundary are more than a few residential units, from which the present occupants will be displaced should this project come to fruition. Since it is a portion of the increased tax base which will pay for infrastructure requested to make this project work, affordable housing for the present residents will be hard to come by.

The Distillery District idea did not spring from any government bureaucrat or official's pen, yet it has won favor from the legislative body and city planners are working to help make it happen.

Another instance of a gentrifying a neighborhood would be the renaissance of Jefferson Street on the north side. No one can deny the almost complete turn around of the neighborhood and the enthusiasm for what more may come. Again, I point out that no city funds went toward designing any of the improvements which have come about. Assistance was given in the land swap deal concerning BCTC getting a new campus. Private corporations and Transylvania University are playing the largest part in removing lower income housing here.

Will we be seeing the same thing play out with the activity on North Limestone as small entrepreneurs attempt to duplicate the Jefferson Street experience? I expect so, but it will not be the “middle-class urban planner” who will be driving the bus. That would fall to the middle-class (are there any of them left?) city residents who will frequent the gentrifying pioneers and thus making it “trendy.”

If we are looking for a local boondoggle, a la the Antiplanner, we should look no further than the up-coming TIF discussion requested by the company proposing the development at Man o' War Blvd and Nicholasville Rd. Called “The Summit,” they are proposing a near Hamburg style shopping area on what planners call a “greenfield” and asking for relief in a “blighted area,” which is the primary use of a TIF.

Blighted area? Really?

Am I blind? Where are the fingerprints of middle-class government urban planners all over these doings?

Is Lexington out of touch or just 20 years behind like Mark Twain said? We may have a real problem of realizing just what image we may be projecting to the world, but it is not coming from the government's urban planners. I can see that.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Lexington Has An Image Problem !

Believe it or not, Lexington has an image problem.

The problem does not lie in whether we are the home of a high caliber basketball program or the capital of thoroughbred horse breeding. No, our stumbling block is that we either cannot see or refuse to see our city as others see us.  This is something that we NEED to fix - soon.

Events of the last week seem to have gone out of their way to drive this realization home to me.

First, were a few quotes from Erik Carlson, the new editor for Business Lexington, as a way of introduction. He said, “We’re fans of Lexington and want the city to succeed economically... But we’re not a cheerleader. We can’t be. … Dissension is necessary for proper growth. It must be respectful, but being polite and keeping everyone happy all the time cannot trump Lexington’s desire to advance as a city.”

Second, was the discussions of the Planning Commission's work session, where I understand the staff's proposed wording of plan elements appear to paint Lexington in a bad light. Having worked closely with planning staff members for over 40 years, I feel that I know the city's shortcomings and the staff's desire to overcome them. Identifying our many problems and proposing reasonable solutions should be the very starting point for a 20 year plan. Like Business Lexington, the Commission should not be a cheerleader. They should be the leaders in pushing the good solutions.

Back in 1929, when Lexington's first Comprehensive Plan was being written, the planners looked at what the existing conditions were and looked to remedy the problematic ones. They proposed a city in which they wanted their children (and others) to live. Subsequent plans seem to have backed off the identification of problem areas and more emphasis of making what we have available to more of the population. Strange, have we not seen the growing disparity in our economic classes both here, nationally and globally?

When the staff speaks of growing suburban poverty levels and a lack of adequate basic services like food and healthcare within an easily traveled distance, should that be ignored or downplayed? When the need for affordable housing is demonstrated, should certain factions on the Commission question the authenticity of the demonstration? It may be time for those making the guiding decisions for Lexington's future to take off the rose colored glasses.

From a post by Carl Schramm, a well respected economist comes a different view pertaining to urban planning. It does have some nuggets of truth and maybe some elements which Lexington can consider in future plans.

Several things are almost never spoken of when perusing a community's comprehensive plan. These items may also be considered benchmarks as to the success of following such a plan.

Plans seldom speak of what the city’s population might be at the end of the planning period. They may have varying, wide ranges of population but nothing specific for having followed the plans recommendations. A good measure of success is how many people chose to live there or have the jobs to keep them in a particular place.

Plans have no answer to the question of what the profile of persons in poverty will be by the target year. Since the usual goal of a plan is to toward success for all of a community's residents then the change in poverty profile should me measurable or predicted. Any plan should have goals and recommendations to stabilize and grow the local economy, with the ultimate purpose of making it sustainable for all.

I don't think that I have ever seen a plan which discussed measures concerning the day to day operations of running a municipality. Most plans never relate the location or timing of land use decisions to the true cost of providing city services. Should a plan be as cognizant of where city employment goes as it is how it affects the long term pension and retirement programs.

So, what do these plans speak of? 

Many cities give themselves high marks on their diversity of population, the cultural mix evident in their public schools, yet the US education system is behind just about all of the component countries. They trumpet the stability of most neighborhoods and praise the strength neighborhood fabric while ignoring the frayed edges and the sometime missing elements that are so desperately needed.

Environmental sustainability is spoken of strictly in terms of the natural environment while leaving the talk of sustainable infrastructure investments to the whims of politics. Are the green, environmentally friendly buses or high mileage city vehicles any more important than the lower wattage LED street lighting which is available? Would our city streets last longer if we restricted the weight of not only our own city vehicles but many private ones to boot?

How about the changing nature of our economy? We set goals for increasing employment but rarely lay out the steps for reducing the current unemployment levels. When we talk of creating new neighborhoods, why are they centered around the creative class and called “Arts” or “Entertainment” districts? Can the creative class not build a district that they want for themselves? 

If a plan is to be useful it may need to see cities first as the economic communities that they are and have been from their beginning. “Build it and an economy will come” is proving to be a fallacy , it was the other way around. People came and the city followed later. It was the commerce which the people brought that enabled the city to grow. Neighborhoods, like cities, that no longer produce sufficient commerce to sustain themselves become dependent on others. 

But can a neighborhood produce more than it consumes?

New technology in residential solar and wind generation can,under certain conditions, produce a reverse flow on electric meters. Combine that with lower wattage, yet brighter, LED lamps and you will aid in the power part of that question.

Increased connectivity, both vehicular and pedestrian, will reduce the consumption levels of outside resources, raising sustainability chances.

Home or community gardens will reduce the dependence on external food production.

So, WHY do our plans not encompass the discussions which can bring about a real progress in Lexington?

I surmise that it may be the above referenced growing disparity in our population classes. Our Planning Commission members serve in a purely voluntary role, and are supposed to represent the various interests of the whole community. Many will say that they came from humble beginnings and have worked hard to achieve some level of success. But who now represents those who have failed, for whatever reason, to escape that humble situation, or fallen through no fault of their own.

I see on our Commission, representatives of the farmers and downtown, our home builders and developers, our neighborhoods and even racial issues. I do not see an advocate for the homeless or housing challenged. I do not see truly innovative entrepreneurs pressing for alternative methods of progressive development.

Planners do not get off Scot free either. The planning field has a serious flaw. They have no reliable source for the candid, consistent critique of their plans. We award great plans but we don’t scold bad ones. Why is that? It’s because planners don’t have a consistent logic for what makes a great plan (and conversely, a bad one).

So, is there some which can be done to change out image problem?