Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Look At The New Comprehensive Plan - Part 2

Continuing the look at the 2013 Comprehensive Plan.  Today we will look at some of the tools being considered.

The concept of Complete Streets has found a home among the Planning staff if not in the hearts and minds of most neighborhood residents. The Complete Streets program encourages our city streets to become what they have been for centuries – except this last one – a place for all of our residents to use for getting around town. A good design can reduce auto trips by allowing access by foot or other means. That same good design also means that there is someplace of necessity/desire within a reasonable traveling distance, otherwise the usefulness declines.

Complete Streets should not be solely about including transportation and beautification amenities. They need to include convenient neighborhood destinations which allow residents with one another in ways beyond a wave as they speed to work or collect the mail from the street side box. Walking to a corner diner or tavern bound many a neighborhood together that few understand today.

The Plan does speak to the issue of traffic speed and pedestrian safety. “Traffic speeds dramatically affect a pedestrian’s actual and perceived sense of safety...” only states one side of the equation. Pedestrian activity and resident attention can also dramatically influence the care that motorists need to exhibit for safe operation of their vehicle. Many neighborhoods have abdicated their streets to the motoring public since they need their cars to anywhere themselves. If you want to create a successful neighborhood, create a series of places for the residents to go and a way for them to get there safely.

Successful neighborhoods can have a variety of housing types.

Take Ashland Park as an example. For years the typical image of Ashland Park was of a single family subdivision built from the early 20th century but the area is riddled with duplexes, apartments and mother-in-law suites. They are all hiding in plain sight and designed so as to not call attention to their different purposes. Driving by, one would be hard pressed to tell the difference until you get to the sections built after the '30s.

Why do today's apartments have to look so different from any other housing style? By the same token, why do renters seem to care so little about their dwelling place be it an apartment or a house? Is a walkable, connecting focal point someplace where renters can blend with the neighborhood? Today's method of relegating apartments to the massive complexes on the major corridors removes valuable intra-neighborhood cohesiveness as well as diluting what could be a vibrant focal point or two.

The Plan text is not wrong when it says,
These neighborhoods will have a clear sense of place when the following standards are met:
Inviting streetscape
Varied housing choice
Abundant private and public open space
Neighborhood focal points
Quality connections with parks, schools, and stores
The question is- How do we strengthen the fabric by reweaving from the existing thread rather than trimming back to apply a possibly ill fitting or mismatched patch?

With that in mind, take a look at what the Plan says about the focal points of a neighborhood.
Neighborhood Focal Points
The character of a neighborhood is made of more than a collection of bricks and shingles. Character encompasses a broad array of qualities. A focal point can be a gathering point such as a park, a shopping center, a community center, or public square. To the extent possible, new residential development should be developed to accommodate future sites by allowing for easy integration into the neighborhood and allowing for easy, multimodal access from the neighborhood instead of development that turns its back on a community center.
The last sentence, again, is written from the perspective of whole new developments, but the thoughts expressed in the first part apply full well to aiding in the strengthening of existing neighborhoods.

I have only come to realize lately (and it may have been the Kroger zone change) that stores in the shopping centers on corridors may wish to engage the neighborhood, but turn their dirtier side to those they wish to engage. By catering to the auto-bound shopper, they have lumped all of their customers in a single, lone category. I wish that I knew how to begin reversing the situation.

Small area planning

The use of small area plans has been around since the 1973 Plan even though planning areas have existed from the 1963 version. The '63 areas were divisions of the urban area and split by the city limits boundary which made planning for logical unit quite difficult. The 1973 plan, being post merger, allowed greater continuity in looking at whole neighborhoods under one legislative jurisdiction. Most of the small areas planned then were for developing subdivisions and leaving many a transition of uses to go uncontrolled.

Small area planning is now going to be applied to strengthening our declining or transitional neighborhoods to bring about neighborhood stabilization and revitalization rather than guiding growth and development. Surely there must be growth of some sort to make some of these areas desirable.
Desirable communities in Lexington possess a number of characteristics, including access to transportation, jobs, and quality food.
The above statement about desirable areas is basically true but the access described is mostly resident provided and areas which lack it fall into the candidacy for an area plan.

I think that it should be noted that three of the recommended areas for small area plans were developed between the planning areas of the '63 Plan and the SAP's of the '73 Plan. That could indicate a failure to do better implementation of those plans.

Development Incentives

There is included in this draft text some development incentives which, currently not adopted or in force, could allow great neighborhoods to be built (or rebuilt) where we now see just subdivisions.
Review the zoning ordinance for impediments to the development of successful neighborhoods with an eye towards retooling zoning categories that are not fulfilling their potential.
This could go a long way toward allowing and encouraging the natural development of neighborhood local focal points, which in turn can create more walkable communities.
Establish an objective and standardized process to evaluate new developments for neighborhood character that, if met, would expedite approval of the development.
While not saying so, I expect that NOT meeting such a standardized character criteria will delay or prevent any approval of projects. This is not out of line with my thinking on CentrePointe since there is no established standardized process, now or 5 years ago.
Enable the Division of Planning staff to approve final record plats.
This, when used in concert with the above, will remove the Planning Commission from considering where the property line will go and may shorten the time necessary to implement approved plans. It should also be used to prohibit a lot pattern which does not assure true connectivity or density.
Convene a summit of financial and neighborhood development leaders in order to increase understanding of the financial costs and challenges to funding mixed-use, multi-family, and innovative developments.
Ensure that exaction fees are reviewed and revised to meet the infrastructure needs of the Expansion Area.
Establish partnership opportunities by funding the Land Bank and creating an affordable housing trust fund.
Pursue Federal and state funding for high-cost projects of a community interest, such as bridges and community centers.
Next, we will look at the environmental concerns

Monday, September 2, 2013

A Look At The New Comprehensive Plan

The draft text of the 2013 Comprehensive Plan is now online. I am inviting you to go and read it, not only to understand the intentions of the leaders of our community but to also see how far that they do NOT go. I, lately, have been thinking about just how connected our city's residents are to those facilities and services that we use (or have available to us) every day.

The first part of the text is the list of adopted goals and objectives which are set by our elected Urban County council and are intended to be used for guiding plans and policies. If we have any beef with these goal statements, our comments should directed there.

Chapter 2 is titled Statements, Policies, and Data and after a brief section on the history and purpose of the plan document, a series of tables illustrating the current statistical realities of Lexington's state, there are detailed comments on what is intended to be done.

Right off the bat is the subject of accessibility. Some of my thoughts and posts over the last few years have been about just how much our recreation facilities are available to those with limited mobility. Here I do not speak of those with physical impairments like blindness or crippling diseases, but those who lack the ability to reach our parks and playgrounds with ease. I recently spoke of being able to access good, local food (or any food) without expending limited funds, time and energy to do so.

Below is that section to do with accessibility:
The 2013 Comprehensive Plan meets accessibility head on in the Goals and Objectives {A.1.c., D.1.b., and D.2.} and throughout the Plan to state without question that Lexington will strive to be a city that is accessible to all people in all areas of our community.  While we will achieve the standards set by federal regulations such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act, and any other related regulations, we also value and intend to accommodate all of our citizens beyond what is required and set Lexington apart as one that welcomes all people to our city.
Below are goals which apply:
A. Growing Successful Neighborhoods
Goal 1) Expand housing choices c.) Plan for safe, affordable, and accessible housing to meet the needs of older and/or disadvantaged residents.
D. Improving a Desirable Community
Goal 1.) Work to achieve an effective and comprehensive transportation system. b.) Develop a viable network of accessible transportation alternatives for residents and commuters, which may include the use of mass transit, bicycles, walkways, ridesharing, greenways, and other strategies.
Goal 2.) Provide for accessible community facilities and services to meet the health, safety, and quality of life needs of Lexington-Fayette County’s residents and visitors.
Results of these efforts include but are not limited to the following:
  • Good accessibility to buildings through parking lots and transit stops by adding through-sidewalks (or protected pathways) wherever possible and curb ramps to sidewalks and into buildings
  • Access ramps into buildings above the minimum ADA requirements
  • Wider sidewalks (with curb ramps to roadways) wherever possible
While the Goals and Objectives, as adopted by the Council, are worded broadly enough to include all residents of whatever age or disadvantage, the text and list of action efforts appear aimed toward the 32,691 disabled persons living outside of institutions who are currently covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act and its amendments.

Growing a successful neighborhood is not just creating houses which can be considered meeting the needs of those in wheelchairs or with facilities on single levels and such. It also means being able to get to adequate shopping and social services with out requiring outside assistance or excessive travel distances. Successful neighborhoods, like the walkable and desirable ones which developed closer to downtown, and ironically without strict zoning in place, have much of what is desired in Goal D.2, yet we are currently not willing to attempt to duplicate them in the rest of the Urban Services Area. That makes me stop to wonder why the definition and interpretation of accessibility is not as broad as the goal seems to imply.

Chapter 3 begins to detail how to grow a successful neighborhood.
Lexington’s neighborhoods are lively and diverse places with histories, personalities, stories, famous residents, unique businesses, local restaurants, and ethnicities. People choose their neighborhood for many reasons, including housing affordability and the test scores of nearby schools.
Not all of Lexington's neighborhoods are what you consider “lively” and those more recent ones not only lack a long history or real personality, but exhibit a strong sense of diverse colors of sameness. Local restaurants and unique businesses are seldom seen in many of our suburban neighborhoods but rather in the intense shopping areas which buffer our neighborhoods from each other. Many of our unique, local restaurants need to draw from much more than one or two nearby neighborhoods.

So too is the similar story of the local or nearby school. Seldom is the neighborhood school in a position to facilitate walking or biking to class without involving massive auto traffic, which only exacerbates said traffic when parents cannot rely of school (or Lextran) bus service. Often the housing affordability of the neighborhoods near a “good” testing local school will exclude the very ones which will make the neighborhood diverse.
The physical layout and visual cues that make a neighborhood unique start with its form. The ideal structure of a neighborhood is composed of places to reside, work, shop, learn, and play. How these spaces are organized and relate to one another influences public health, cultural expression, environmental health, safety, and economic vitality.

It takes a community effort to build and maintain a successful neighborhood...
As much as I take exception to the previous plan paragraph, I can agree with this one. Today's suburban neighborhoods are not “reside and work” or “reside and shop”places. We Americans seem to desire to work and shop some distance from where we call home. It is that organization and relationship juxtaposition that has influenced our public health, environmental health and our economic vitality, and not for the better. As yet the community effort is not in it.

Interestingly enough, since the discussions leading up to the 2007 Plan, actions have led to a revision to the criteria used to “create Great Neighborhoods in newly developing or redeveloping areas”. In that same time frame, we have had a drastic recession and a slow, barely perceptible recovery. There are no real, newly developing or redeveloping areas to speak of but there are quite a few neighborhoods, built in the '60s and '70s, which could use some help to become Great Neighborhoods. Should we really have to wait until we have to redevelop the whole area? Why can't we do it over time, as the “model” neighborhoods did?

Place-making and walkability are important to the success of Lexington and its neighborhoods. They have been for the first ring subdivisions of the late 19th century and will be for the subdivisions of the early 21st , but what about all that came in between? Is there nothing to be done for them?

Fortunately, yes. I will look over those possibilities in the next week or so.