Sunday, December 7, 2014

Approach To Commonwealth's Image In The Coming Years

I, as many others as well, have noticed over the past few years that the University of Kentucky has greatly enhanced their sports facilities. The new softball field for the ladies and the new soccer complex along Alumni Dr brightly advertise the UK logo both day and night. And prior the this year's football season, the relocated tail-gating lot which cleverly hides an underground rainwater runoff control system was completed, but there is much more to do.

The City is currently in the process of constructing an enlarged and more modern senior citizens center on a portion of the Idle Hour Park property. This should allow the City to transfer, back to the University, the present site which they received in a land swap for the right-of-way of College View years ago.

From my memory, College View was a street of modest to small frames houses running from Lexington Avenue to Rose St. The present entry to the parking lot for the Joe Craft Center and the Coal Lodge is the sole remaining vestige of the this roadway. There was small confectionery store on the northwest corner with Rose and a storefront addition to a house anchoring the other end at Lexington Ave in my youth.

What I cannot recall is the section of deteriorating shotgun houses that lined Adams St, which paralleled College View on the south nor the ones which lined Euclid Ave. They were built when this area was developed as Adamstown and faced a city park. This city park was traded for the University's predecessor, the Kentucky Agricultural and Mechanical College's, interests in Woodland Park The only remaining evidence that this street ever existed is the driveway along the south side of Blazer Hall and the access to the rear of the Papa Johns/Qudoba lot off of Rose St.

Concerning the little storefront at College View and Lexington Avenue, the Lafayette studios collection at the has a couple of images and the 1934 Sanborn Fire insurance map clearly shows a retail space. Owned by a man named Johnson, he merely called it Sampy's

In November of 1946, G.L.“Sampy” Johnson applied to the City and County Planning and Zoning Commission for a change in the zoning for 200 College View. The request was from a Residence “B” district to a Business “B” district and I can only assume that his reason was to make his existing store comply with the rules. The Commission's Zoning Committee also concurred and the item was moved to a public hearing.

Objectors at this hearing were led by Dr McVey, the University president, who “offered objections on behalf of the university -- not to the operation of a grocery store...” since the store served the existing residents, “but to the changing of the entire area as set out by this Commission because of the probability businesses being established there over which the University have no jurisdiction.

Strangely enough, in this time period the Planning Commission was of the habit (or proclivity) of suggesting and recommending additional properties besides the requested area. In this case they may have included the whole street but, since there is no attached map, the entirety is unclear. Was this the University using its influence beyond it's campus borders?

A Mr. H. B. McGregor also appeared before the Commission saying that he “objected to such change because he would dislike seeing any homes being torn down and converted or built into businesses.” An early preservationist obviously. Upon consideration of evidence the petition was refused.

I an only wonder how Mr McGreror felt just two years later when the University called upon the City to assist in clearing the “slums” of Adamstown and allow the school to erect their new sports arena, Memorial Coliseum on that spot. Dr McVey and his successors now had jurisdiction of the area.

What does this have to do with my opening remarks? Little more than that the University is not shy about using its influence to “improve” their jurisdiction's image, be it by removing outdated structures or skillfully landscaping its grounds as it sees fit. Of all the improvements around their part of Alumni Dr, the road itself is an aging (deteriorating) two lane facility for the most part and leads to what will be a “showcase” Commonwealth Stadium before next season.

When Commonwealth Stadium was planned in the early '70s, the University provided two access points on the southern boundary of its shrinking research farm. This road, connecting those two points, was labeled as “Farm Road D” and wound itself through the rolling fields. It looked to be a lot of pavement to only used for a few football games a year.

At this same time the City was wrestling with suburban traffic and looking to implement a long planned connector road between the Mt Tabor/Tates Creek Rd intersection and Rosemont Garden/Nicholasville Rd intersection. Envisioned in the 1930 Comprehensive Plan prior to any suburban development, to push through established neighborhoods as other communities were doing, Lexington found very stiff resistance.

Farm Road D provided a reasonable alternative in terms of traffic movement and allowed the contested connector road to be put to rest, except. Most of the non game day type traffic would be coming from the residents and taxpayers of the City, therefore the City should bear the cost of maintenance became the University's position. Therefore a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was hammered out and I believe is still in effect today.

Th MoU and the alignment of the roadway have impact on issues such as traffic control, snow removal, out of county emergency medical access and even the joint Arboretum venture which is so successful. What appears to not be covered is the now needed upgrade and landscaping of a primary approach to the SEC class (and pride of the Commonwealth) football stadium.

I realize that the Town-Gown discussions were primarily to bridge the gap from downtown to campus, but I hope that this is not too far afield to create a better image for our visitors and a point of pride for our residents. The impending shuttering of the existing senior citizens center will allow the final campus access point to be brought in line with the rest and reinforce the University's overall image.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Mile Stones Of The Past? Threatened In The Future?

I received an email from a friend just after the work on the Woodland Triangle began. He was concerned that they crew replacing the sidewalk along High St has also removed the historic white milestone. It was something that both of us thought would be a travesty.

When I drove home that night, I went out of my way to check and it is still there. This time luck was on our side.

There is a description in George Ranck's History of Lexington,of a survey ordered by the town's trustees in the spring of 1791 and taken verbatim from the Trustee's Book.
"Surveyed by order of the trustees of the town of Lexington, 204 acres of land, including the court-house of Fayette county in the center, in a circular figure of two miles in diameter. Beginning at A (a point), one mile southeast from the said court-house, at a post on the northeast side of the road, running thence south 56 (degrees) west 125 poles to a post crossing Tate's creek road at 85 poles;”
The Lexington Press, in their edition of May 5, 1871, reported that the City council proposed to mark the city boundary with a ring of stones placed 500 feet apart. A week later a crew under the direction of Col. De La Pradele were busy setting the stones to mark the boundaries of City at one mile from Court House. This came just two months after a proposal to make the city limits a square rather that a circle.

Work was still progressing in November of the following year. By 1873 the City Council voted to leave the city boundaries the same and new stones be put up at appropriate distances.

Now, if you take a one mile radius from the old Court House and superimpose it on a map, that point A is almost exactly where Walton Ave intersects E Main St. Following that sweeping arc to the southwest toward E High St., or what would have been called the road to Tate's creek in those days, you will find a white stone set in the ground. It is about 10 to 12 inches to a side and well weathered. It is also one mile from the old Court House.

One mile in the other direction from the Court House on Leestown Rd, just opposite the entrance to the Calvary cemetery, is a similar stone, also set well in the ground and weathered. Neither of these stones have any plaques or markings to tell what they are (or what I suspect them to be.) I believe them to be the two remaining stones from that project of over 140 years ago.

When I spoke to the city's construction manager, overseeing the work at the Woodland Triangle, he had no idea that the stone was even there. I also found out the the city's Division of Historic Preservation was requiring an application for a Certificate of Appropriateness for replacing the sidewalk, even after the work was completed. This is required for all historic overlay zones, yet no one is looking out for a possibly 145 year old stone marker?

Are these the only remaining stones? Have the others been carelessly removed because someone did not know (or care) what they were? It would stand to reason that other stones would appear along the aforementioned arc at 500 foot intervals.

In 1871 the Woodland Park did not exist nor did any of the adjacent neighborhoods and that interval would span approximately half way through the future park. The fall of 1884 saw several crews of men construct a large lake of no more than 3 acres. This lake, called Lake Chenosa, was placed squarely on the city boundary. Surely, someone remembered the boundary stone placement of a dozen years previous so as to avoid them.

By my calculations, a stone 500 feet along the arc would appear near the existing first base dugout structure of the ball-field which occupies the former “lake” site. Approximately twenty or so feet past and ten or so feet behind. I have not been there lately to look for it and it does not show up in any recent aerials. Also, some years ago the Parks maintenance crews reworked that hillside for drainage issues.

It puzzles me as to why these stones, if they are what I think they are, are not identified. This town is so quick to claim anything old as historic and they have rushed to protect items of lesser age. We have even been known to remove major historical artifacts from their original context, thereby diminishing their true worth. This has happened to at least two county boundary markers.

I repeat, I believe that we dodged a travesty recently and I hope that we can prevent it in the future.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

1 Out Of 4 ?

By some counts the Mayor is now 1 out of 4 for big downtown projects. He has not stopped or greatly altered he CentrePointe block. South Limestone, for all its expense ($7000 a foot?), is working out well. Rupp Arena's redesign has fallen to University's re-emphasis on education if not lack of statewide public interest. The 21c hotel may be his one bright spot.

The Mayor and Council have now declared the Rupp remodel to be in a state of suspended development. That does not mean the the rest of the Arts and Entertainment district, of which Rupp Arena's re-do was initially a minor part, cannot proceed. The 20 acre High St parking lot should be developed and with an emphasis on residential spaces for families.

The property taken for the High St lot was once home to many families. The fact that they were of a lower economic status made it easy to target them for removal or relocation. That much land being used so infrequently is a greater waste than bailing out certain developers. If we desire to expand our downtown's central core, that would be an excellent direction and place to start.

Being that the property is owned by the government, or at least a quasi-government agency, and the desire is to encourage private development whenever possible, the City should “jump-start” the process by lowering the acquisition costs in the downtown area. Developing smaller, individual buildings rather than massive, CentrePointe sized projects and including welcoming street facades to enhance the walkability of the area will work here – as it has in other locations. (Can you say JDI?)

What happens to the seldom mentioned Town Branch Trail and the amphitheater/park to replace the Cox Street lot should take a back seat to reviving our downtown residential scene so that someone is downtown to enjoy those amenities. Driving downtown to walk along a reconstructed stream bed or rebuilt rolling hills just does not do it for me.

So, where are the other glimmers of hope for downtown?

The Main & Vine project may be getting its parking garage (yea?) but it is very quiet down there.

The competing IMAX style theaters show little signs of progress as we near the end of June.

The Kickstarter campaign for a restaurant in the Distillery District grabbed some press.

I am keeping my eye on West Short St. The parking lot beside and between the Village Idiot and Church Street. Some recent property transactions over the last three years which coincide with the creation of LLC's of the new owners lends credence to the rumors of major players inquiring about the space. I need to look more closely for recent survey markings and I will look.

I also hope that the Food Truck days at the newspaper, Cup of Commonwealth and Dad's Favorites will continue the offerings that a goodly number of our young professionals appear to partake.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Not Easy Being Green

Kermit, the frog, may have said it best. “It is not easy being green”, especially in Lexington, Ky.

Take the issue of recycling your household materials. There are a lot of items on the approved list but not everything with the international recycling symbol is acceptable. I know that, for my family, we put out nearly 3 times as much recycling material as we do waste material. I hope that that is pretty much standard.

It takes way more effort to recycle the household electronic stuff than usual. You have to make special trips across town and you have a limited number of times per year per household. Certain items are allowed and others are not (CFL bulbs are not).

Then we have the community drop-off locations for those who do not have individual or adequate residential service. You know, the ones with the blue roll-off boxes with the small black doors, where you place all recyclable materials in the container, without separating. The map below shows the LFUCG managed locations as of this morning.

Last week the map also presented a spot (No. 2) at Sam's Club on New Circle Rd, between Liberty and Winchester Rds. Apparently the site was being either well used or vastly misused as the ground around it became a repository for things that would not fit in the container. Being a nuisance for the property owner, they asked for it to be removed.

One cannot help but notice that it results in a massive hole in the northeast quadrant of the older part of town. Compared to the rest of the community, should we be surprised that it could be so well used? Do we expect the residents there to be the type which will not recycle?

I do understand the type of corporate citizen Sam's Club wishes to be, but this may have been the wrong approach. Perhaps Costco could step in and demonstrate more of their business leadership.

In a city that touts itself as forward thinking and urging it residents to “Live Green”, this map nearly shouts that the stratified economic class living on the south and west sides of town are getting the service intended for all. The actions taken by Sam's Club and the City just appear to reinforce that notion.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Can We Change The Current Supermarket Model?

I put up a post not long ago that detailed the progression of Kroger stores in the developing Chevy Chase section of town. It mirrors in some ways an article published by Sustainable Food Trust on Apr 1, 2014. Let me look at some of the similarities.

Kroger began life in Cincinnati as a series of markets designed to aide the convenience of homeowners, many of which would need to make multiple stops on daily shopping trips. These “economy” shops carried mainly canned goods, some general staples and rarely any fruits or vegetables. The fresh meats and fish or other farm produce were handled by specialty stores and carried strictly local fare.

To be sure, Kroger was not the only brand of these types of stores since Lexington had its own chain of S. A. Glass stores and to some extent their service areas overlapped. What is significant is the timing of Kroger's arrival and the implementation of zoning in Lexington. It was the “Roaring Twenties.”

Zoning brought with it the progressive concept of isolating commercial interests into “planned” areas rather than allow them to evolve naturally within the normal flow of neighborhood life. The stores themselves found the need to grow in size to accommodate the larger volume, yet less frequent visits of shoppers. Americans, whether they will admit it or not, were socially engineered into believing in the benefits of modern corporate food merchandising and production.

Today, the typical supermarket is filled with more that 47,000 products across a wide range of food, and non food, selections. WalMart, while not known for being a grocery, makes 55% of its total profits from the sale of food. The availability of items 24 / 7 / 365, be they fresh, frozen, canned, processed or microwavable allows us to escape both time and season.

A century ago, people would have known exactly by whom and where their grocery items originated. There was a relationship between the housewife and the butcher, or the greengrocer, where each understood the desires of the other. Such social interactions today are few and far between though many of us are looking for them more often.

How many of us were appalled when we heard of the horse meat scandal or surprised at the size and coverage of the latest beef/vegetable/snack recall? Do any of us really know the supplier of the “better ingredients” in those “better pizzas” from Papa Johns? Did any of us recoil when we learned that the elasticizing agent in Subways bread dough was also used in yoga mats and auto tires?

The increased availability of produce has also led to the socially engineered desire for standardization and uniformity. Breeding in a consistent size and color may enhance the marketability of produce but it also allows for the rejection of entire crops for some farmers, leading to waste levels approaching 50%. Will the rising interest in heirloom varieties stem some of this waste?

Just a little research will reveal that despite the vast number of supermarket products available, a majority of these are produced and controlled by only a handful of industrial food and pharmaceutical companies. The choice that you see is only the choice that they want to see, and usually not much of a choice at all.

That choice, or lack thereof, also impacts our food policies and agricultural practices, driven by the statistics which the corporations collect. How do you want to define a “value meal?” For whom is the value the greatest, you or the supermarket? 
Our trust in the supermarket model to provide us with fresh, healthy, transparently produced food, is at an all-time low.” wrote Rebecca Roberts, in her piece and Joanna Blythman wrote “We are sick of being hoodwinked by the smoke-and-mirrors promotions of the big chains.” in The Guardian. How do you feel about it?

Is today's supermarket your only choice for grocery shopping? If so, here are some tools that you can use for better eating experience. Try following the first three of Brazil's 10 new rules for healthy eating:

1 Prepare meals from staple and fresh foods. 
Today's supermarket is laid out quite diabolically. All of the cheap processed products are in the center. The really fresh and lightly processed stuff is in the back or along the sides, so fringe shop around the edges. Buy only foods that your grandmother and great-grandmother would recognize. Eat fresh. Try to only buy products with five ingredients or less (ideally ingredients that sound like food and not something you’d find in a science-lab.)

2 Use oils, fats, sugar and salt in moderation.

3 Limit consumption of ready-to-consume food and drink products. 
Venture into the center for the items in number 2 only when you need them and try to limit number 3

Lastly, be very critical of the commercial advertisement of food products. They are NOT designed to inform you, either of the nutritional content or the benefit to your health. They are intended to separate you from your money. Take time to reflect on your food choices. Realize the power that each and everyone of us has in voting with our food. Spend to create a better food system and perhaps Kroger will notice.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Suburban Changes, But Nothing New - Again

Following up on the commentary from my last entry about all of the fun new doings in downtown, I thought that I would see what our suburbanite neighbors have to amuse them.

A few weeks ago it as announced that the UK HealthCare folks would occupy the former Dillard's portion of the shuttered Turfland Mall, while the remainder is to be removed. Once again, Lexington will experience a partial redevelopment a property which exemplifies the problems that brought about the EPA Consent Decree. The hundreds of parking spaces here and those retained by the Southland Christian Church on the former Lexington Mall site do precious little to reduce our storm water runoff problem.

At the corner of Lane Allen and Harrodsburg Roads, on a parcel not part of the original Turfland Mall, they are demolishing the former Verizon (General Telephone) building, to be replaced by a new Walgreen's pharmacy. It does not matter that there is a recently built CVS directly across the street or an existing Walgreen's in the former McAlpin's Home store just about 600 yards farther out the road.

This area was, at the time that the mall was constructed, a thriving blend of subdivisions with young families needing a wide range of goods and services. Apparently, now the demographics say that they are aging boomers in need of health care and pharmaceutical assistance. I still believe that a balanced mix of uses directed at the immediate neighborhoods would do everybody good.

Mayor Gray, in his statements praising the UK HealthCare decision said “UK is making health-care services more convenient for Lexington citizens, while bringing new life to Turfland Mall.” But the mall is still dead. Similar comments were also made about the Southland Christian Church and Lexington Mall and until the outlots there become developed, it too will still be dead.

In concept, the mall was never entirely about shopping or retailing, it was supposed to be about interacting with other living human beings. Victor Gruen, the man who originated the mall concept was a sociologist, not a merchant. Gruen was attempting to recreate the feel of the downtown commercial district amongst the spreading neighborhoods of suburbia, with all of its vitality and human connections. Lexington, as in most places, chose to segregate shopping from most other forms of urban vitality so that both the downtowns and the malls died.

One of the prime draws of the malls here in Lexington would have to be the cafeteria style dining places like The Blue Boar, Morrison'sCafeteria and, to a lesser degree, York Steak House. For the elderly, these mall staples were a place to gather socially and even get some exercise. As the shift, from a mix of uses toward strictly retail, neared its completion, the lack of social vibrancy drove off much of the clientele and many chances for impulse buying.

It is hard for me to understand that the rival pharmacy companies can justify being located so closely to each other when all of the stores carry essentially identical product variety and lines. When did the old style drug store advance beyond the “over the counter” first aid remedies, cosmetics and candy counter to the liquor, small hardware and snack groceries of today's big box pharmacy? What sets Rite-Aid apart from CVS or Walgreen's when they all appear so similar in building shape and layout?

At one time it was the local drug store and the neighborhood pharmacist, the image that these big chains want to project about themselves today, that occupied a prime, central spot within a residential cluster. It would have been considered an anchor business along with a barber, small grocer and civic entities like a school, firehouse or church. I may, ideally, have included a local centralized streetcar stop in order to connect with other residential clusters making up an urban area.

Since the mid twentieth century, after living that way for so long, we Americans decided that we could not continue and began to shift our style of living. We can still remember or fantasize about how it was. We can use images of the past to evoke feelings of connectedness with our present. We can repeatedly convince ourselves that our present situation is “so much better that before” while clinging tightly to those mental images of our parents' childhood. What we cannot, will not do, is duplicate the conditions which will allow our future to recreate those fading memories.

Why do our suburbanites cling so tightly to those images, more tightly than the in-town dweller, and yet not do anything that would bring reality to those memories? It may be that those who live within walking distance of downtown, and for some that varies, believe that they currently have such memories – as a reality. To them I say, your lack of action may allow your reality to quickly dissolve into equally fading images, so be vigilant and active in order to retain them.

Across town, Richmond Road has also seen its share of shifting or moving uses. From the major grocery chains moving farther out of town, while gaining up to 50% in floor area each time to the smaller structures designed specifically for fast food retailers, flipping from one chain to another. It is the rarity that any retailer will become so synonymous with the road or a neighborhood out there.

I believe that in no time before the aforementioned shift in our style of living did the primary roads connecting population centers become the hubs of commerce. To be sure, in some regions, many small communities became established and incorporated and, in time, grew to the point that they adjoined each other so as to become a population center. It is only now that those connecting roads are commercial corridors. They do not compare in scale or scope to our recent ones and often serve to unite neighborhoods rather than separate them.

Subdivisions of today bear little resemblance to those of a century ago despite the bucolic street names and the nature related neighborhood monikers. In the past 50 years we have fallen victim to the silver tongued marketing specialists not only in our increasingly dehumanized food supply, but what may be called a similarly dehumanized residence supply. After giving that game a try nearly 20 years ago, I do not want to play that game again. They do not really want what they think that they are buying.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Reasons Why Living Downtown Is Fun

Last week was an interesting week to say the least.

First off, there was the typical fall out over the Look IMAX theater presentation before the Board of Architectural Review. Without making a formal application on the property at the corner of W High St and S Broadway, the developers spoke only get some feedback as to the sentiments of the South Hill Historic District residents. I think that they found out fairly quickly that Lexington is not Dallas and, though we may be a RED state politically, we are nothing like Texas when it comes to preservation.

The problems of working with this location are many. Moving a large, historic home from its original site may save it from destruction but will alter our city's urban fabric in a way much greater than the removal of a few downtown buildings on the CentrePointe block. The earthwork of removing an outcrop of rock, just to allow a parking garage, means blasting in close proximity to numerous 150 year old buildings. That tends to make folks nervous.

A general consensus of people that I talked to felt that the development should go on the other side of Broadway – on the block that is identified as the Rupp Arena Arts and Entertainment District's prime site. Would it not be better to have private money begin the block's redevelopment than expand the $325 million that the taxpayers have yet found a way to pony up? Can the Look project folk not crack the administration's circle of planners to be part of a branded entertainment district?

To continue the topic of blasting out foundations, it was announced that we now have a daily scheduled detonation for the CentrePointe work. There will be traffic stoppage all around the block for 10 minutes while they blast, but beside that most folks will not even notice. For anyone concerned, I watched the foundation work for the Transit Garage, where they blasted twice a day, and felt barely anything.

I found an article titled 12 Strategies That Will Transform Your City’s Downtown, from Of the 12 strategies listed we are doing quite well.

We are seriously looking at changing our one-way streets to two-way and we have at least one regularly scheduled public event showcasing downtown merchants, music, and food. These two items were numbers 1 and 2.

Make under-utilized public land available to private developers” came in at #4 and the Rupp project will do that, although it seems that for the past few years some have been looking to private land to create more under-utilized public space on the CentrePointe block. Number six calls for establishing a permanent public market. Not just spaces to allow for the weekly Farmers Market to set up on set days, but a full-time market house like we used to have with Jackson Hall.

Since our local universities are downtown, we can skip to #8 and talk about a streetcar line to an adjacent urban neighborhood. The trolleys seem to be doing an adequate job at present but the permanence of the streetcar is what is intended. Does it strike anybody odd that when we did have streetcars, commercial areas sprang up along them at regular intervals? They helped to create neighborhoods.

An awesome kids playground and the branded entertainment district look to be still some way off, but they are going to take some effort.

The last two strategies of establishing parking maximums for downtown projects and some type of bike or car sharing programs are so foreign to Lexington residents that I will not hold my breath. Any strategy that results in more transportation choices available within a downtown is a good thing and the trolleys may be proving that. Certainly any effort that also provides indirect marketing and branding services for downtown is a valuable one.

Then I hear talk of a proposed rezoning along Newtown Pike between Third and Fourth for a fairly dense development of market rate housing and retail. If all of the rumors are true then what I said about Blue Stallion choosing a very good location looks prophetic. The combination of Transylvania University and BCTC building along Fourth St., the change from one-way to two-way (sound familiar?) by the state DOT and some pioneering retail can begin to make this area really surge. Other than Fourth St was any public money used here?

Look also for rezoning to expand the drinking and dining choices in the Second and Jefferson St area ( I wonder if it will have a fowl theme too) and maybe the Apiary will take flight this summer. Yes, there is more stuff coming.

And lastly, we return to the “downtown cinema wars” where Kirkorian allowed the Look theater group to show their hand, to which he promptly trumped it with a signed agreement for the property where we all knew that it should go. No rezoning, no BOAR, existing parking facilities and the ability to begin this summer - game over.

What will happen in the next few weeks?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

When Will Lexington Cool Off Its Auto Love Affair?

In April of last year it was reported that European car sales were continuing their slide to a 20-year low. 

“The car boom in Germany has come to an end,” said Hans-Peter Wodniok, an analyst at Fairesearch GmbH & Co. “People have stopped buying cars as consumers are much less confident of the future. It was said that the western European passenger-car market was on track last year to hit levels last seen in 1993. This was also about the time that some folks were trying to convince me that our car driving habits were being adopted by the Europeans.

If things have not improved since then, I ask you, just what are the Europeans doing instead of buying cars? The Germans have a long history of being ardent automobile enthusiasts and some of the finest driving machines have been produced by the Germans, but if they are not buying cars to drive, what are they doing?

Germany has become the world's biggest user of one-way car sharing plans. That is where people can find a vehicle using their smart-phone, drive it across town and leave it there without having to return it to a central base, much like the bike sharing programs being started in Washington DC and New York.

In America, we have other alternatives to auto ownership which are emerging. A ride-sharing company called Zipcar and a ride-booking service named Uber Technologies are beginning to appeal to a new generation of drivers, or in many cases riders. Many more young people just aren't pursuing drivers' licenses these days.

In 1983, 87.3 percent of 19-year-olds in the U.S. held a drivers license, by 2010 it had fallen to 69.5%. Automobile ownership, which once equated to a “rite of passage” has dropped to the point that almost one in 10 households don't have a car.

Some of this shift comes from changing attitudes on oil consumption for environmental, political and economic reasons. A new survey from Intel has found that 44 percent of people would prefer to live in a city with automated "driverless" cars than to have some car makers' high-cost product.

The transportation mode which ushered in an era of personal mobility in the last century may now no longer the most convenient conveyance. "The key question is: Do you sell cars or do you sell mobility?" said Tim Ryan, New York-based vice chairman of markets and strategy for consultant PricewaterhouseCoopers. 

Although Germany's new vehicle registrations fell below 3 million last year, continuing a two-decade decline, Chinese consumers continue to have a voracious appetite for automobiles, as more of the country's 1.3 billion people climb the economic ladder. China, in 2009, surpassed the U.S. as the world's largest auto market while struggling with urban gridlock and growing pollution that has created a brown haze over many large cities. In Shanghai, new license plates are auctioned off for an average of $13,400 per tag to slow auto sales and cut pollution..

So, somewhere between the German automotive market and culture and the Chinese market and desires is the U.S., wavering between falling miles traveled per person and a recovering auto economy. The sad fact is that the recovery may be losing steam before rebounding fully. Ford and GM are expecting a basically flat 2014, with low single-digit growth in revenue. Their Oriental competitors may actually see a slight decline.

Will our Millenials follow the lead of their counterparts in Europe and embrace the car-sharing and transit oriented lifestyle? Many indicators say that they will, especially in America's major cities. It will not be easy since many states and communities are still working under antiquated Public Services Commission rules. Pittsburgh's mayor is now asking that the Pennsylvania PSC allow for car-sharing in his city.

The for-hire ride market has been raising tensions between cities or states and the changing Millenial attitudes. The auto industry may also be applying some pressure since it is estimated that for every car that is part of a vehicle-sharing program, the auto industry misses out on 32 sales. Perhaps based on their two decade experience, Germany's powerful auto industry now is betting big on the car sharing idea and not just for short trips within cities.

America's century-long love affair with the car is cooling and young people are three times more likely than older generations to abandon their vehicle if costs increase. Some in our community will rush toward the new technology and many will stay with the old stand-by modes. The question remains as to how do we plan for the results of this trend and how soon will its effects reach Lexington?

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

When This “New Era” Of Retailing Arrives

The next era in retail is coming and it may well involve fewer and smaller stores. The days of the “big box” stores look to have a diminishing luster to them. Sears has closed nearly 300 stores since 2010 and that includes their flagship store in Chicago this coming April. J. C. Penney's, Macy's and Target are all reducing stores and personnel and this is just the beginning. 
There is an indication that there is a shift in the retail environment and it's one that will continue. According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, 44 percent of annual store closings announced since 2010 have occurred in the first quarter. Will this year's closings indicate or confirm the emergence of a new trend?
The Internet and online shopping is the usually identified as the reason for fewer and fewer visits to the local mall. This past holiday season saw a 12% increase online and around 15% decrease in mall foot traffic, so is the mall concept dying? 
"Any time you stop building a product, that's usually the best indication that the customer doesn't want it anymore," said Rick Caruso. You do know that there has not been a new indoor mall built in America since 2006. 
That's not to say there aren't a number of ways to grow new retail business. Retailers just need a new approach. An approach that looks to the lifestyle of its customers. More than three quarters of retail transactions are still made at brick-and- mortar locations, but how was your last in-store experience? Did it involve anything more than you and a transaction device, which may or may not have been attended to by a cogent individual? Retail is far more than just a pure transaction

Experts say that shopping needs to be “an experience”. That experience is what builds a connection between consumers and a retailer's brand. Many of us aging “boomers” can still recall the shopping experiences of old most fondly. Retailers need to lose the boring physical store experiences .


Some large retailers are exploring the technology to track shoppers within the store itself. There are apps which will send tailored offers to smart phones as shoppers reach a certain section of the store; recommending items based on past purchases; or allowing shoppers to program an automated shopping list. Is there a line between helpful and creepy, and when does one cross it? 
What are the key factors that determine how much information a shopper is willing to share? 52 percent of shoppers are willing to share information with retailers if they get a discount on their next purchase and shoppers are more willing to share information with high-end stores. Just remember that Nieman Marcus has had their digital network hacked lately. When will shopper rethink their privacy concerns?

Perhaps the best approach to growing retail is to simply get back to the basics, give the better service and attention to detail. In short, put the customer first. I, myself, have quit patronizing stores which put the self-checkout as a prima facie of customer service.


Wal-Mart, one of those big-box discount retailers, is in need of a bricks-and-mortar makeover – or so some analysts have suggested. The world's largest retailer gave a disappointing full-year forecast, based upon its recent lackluster sales and the expected sharp cuts in food stamp benefits or higher payroll taxes that will hit the disposable income of its core customers. Cold weather and a reduction in food stamp benefits can't the only reasons.

Analysts have also called for Wal-Mart to move its stores closer to major population centers, shrink the square footage of its superstores and shutter about 100 under-performing U.S. locations. "It appears increasingly uneconomic for the customer to drive 20 to 30 miles, or even 20 to 30 minutes, round trip to a supercenter to save a marginal amount on consumable goods.

Apparently Wal-Mart has listened. They have recently said that they are doubling the number of smaller new stores originally planned to open this year. The smaller stores will allow the retailer to reach new customers, particularly in urban areas. This may also appeal to shoppers who want to pick up groceries and other staples mid-week, as they need not go out to the super-centers. Comparable sales at the smaller stores rose 5 percent last quarter, compared to an overall 0.4 percent drop in the United States. Wal-Mart now plans to open between 270 and 300 small stores this fiscal year and is spending an extra $600 million to do so.

One in five Wal-Mart shoppers relies on food stamps and by some accounts, that may also apply to their employees. Last year's cuts to benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program have been particularly painful for Wal-Mart, both in their bottom line and in the public relations field. How ironic it is that Wal-Mart helped create the low-wage economy. The big box development model -- built on cheap land on the edge of the community with taxpayers subsidizing your hard costs of transportation and infrastructure.

As Edward McMahon  put it so clearly, “The two things that have kept Wal-Mart out of cities were its inflexibility on design issues and opposition from labor unions and civic activists who oppose the company because of its low wages and negative impact on existing local businesses. Now that it appears that Wal-Mart is willing (when pushed by local government) to adapt its stores to the urban environment, it is likely only a matter of time before the retail giant moves into cities all over the country and cities that want good design are going to have to demand it.

On December 4, 2013 Wal-Mart opened its first two stores in Washington, DC and the new stores illustrate the lengths to which brick and mortar retailers will go to get into rapidly growing urban markets. Having the world’s largest retailer interested in locating in the city where we’ve lost almost every other department store over the last four decades — that is a good thing.

Target, Whole Foods, Safeway, Giant, and other chains are also breaking the old rules. Smaller buildings, stores in multi-story buildings or in mixed use developments. The Euclid Kroger, for all of their hype, is not breaking new ground.

In some ways, the idea of national chains opening big new urban stores is a return to the way things once were. In 1960, we called it department store. Today we call it a Walmart.
Edward McMahon

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Wondering In A Winter Walking Land

Once again this winter I have taken to looking at the impediments imposed upon the residents of Aylesford and Chevy Chase. This area has been characterized as being one of the most walkable parts of our community. That is true, except when “ole man Winter” comes to stay.

I read a comment on Facebook from a friend, which spoke to her normal daily commute to work in Chevy Chase after a heavy snowfall. The short, five – six block walk featured one, lone, shoveled walkway and that was done by a church. Yes, there were sub-freezing temperatures and a coating of ice but people got out and walked just the same.

I also received a tweet exposing a downtown surface parking lot for having plowed the lot but leaving sidewalks full of snow to traverse for the remainder of the trip to work or shop. By local ordinance, the property owner or their local agent/tenant is responsible for clearing the public sidewalk within 4 hours of the end of snowfall. In Lexington, that is rarely done.

On my daily way home from work I usually pass through the University campus and they have done a admirable job around the main buildings and the like. On some of their lesser properties, not so good but better than the business folks who make their profits on the student residents. For all of the apartment owner who rent to these kids and don't make the sidewalks safe for them to get to class and back, I say shame on you.

And don't think that the regular merchants and property owners along Euclid Ave are exempt from the shame. The embattled Kroger Corporation should take a look at its Chevy Chase location. The parking lot was cleared and paths made toward the front door, but they are responsible all the way to the street and the sidewalk there was untouched. Even though they acknowledged that a large percentage of their customers from the neighborhood approach by foot, Kroger has done nothing to make their property safer for them. As they move the new building closer to the streets, will they continue to ignore the pedestrian along the Marquis portion in particular?

Many of the retailers in Chevy Chase shopping center did, eventually, do a decent job of clearing the snow and ice. The same cannot be said of the homeowners in Ashland Park where still there are long stretches of uncleared sidewalks, yet plenty of plowed driveways are plainly seen. I also noticed that ice damaged trees were attended to but not the sidewalks

Why is it that this area, home to many of Lexington's elite(and don't tell them that they are not), feels the need to disregard non-drivers? The doctors, lawyers and even highly placed city officials should know their responsibilities and the consequences of not performing them, and that may be the problem. There are NO consequences enforced.

The fines for not following the required civic duties of homeowners and residents are NOT being assessed. Why do we have them if they are not enforced? Why do they not carry as much weight as our simple vehicle infractions of running a stop sign or failure to yield? Perhaps the Council could spend as much time and effort debating this as the did the handicap parking issue, with a similar result of raising fines to not be collected.

I have only detailed a short 2 or 3 mile stretch of roadway and I am sure that many of you can elaborate on others. Walkable areas like the Southland Dr neighborhoods or parts of the north end all have the same problem. I just think that we should be doing something about it. The groundhog says that we still have 6 weeks of winter, so we are not done yet. And there is always next year still to come.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Retailers See Some Changes Ahead, What Will We Do?

Rick Caruso is a member of the National Retail Federation, a group which has been holding an annual convention for 103 years. This past week they have been meeting in New York City, with an expected draw of 30,000 attendees, their largest ever, during its four day run.

Rick Caruso is also the founder of Caruso Affiliates, a development company that owns some of the most profitable shopping centers in the world, including The Grove in Los Angeles. I would assume that Mr. Caruso knows something about the field of retail trade, so when he speaks – maybe, just maybe – I should listen.

Caruso, a proponent for open air centers that mimic urban shopping streets, says that “Within 10 to 15 years the typical U.S. mall, unless completely reinvented, will be a 60-year-or-so aberration that no longer meets the public's needs, the retailers' needs or the community's needs." He thinks retailers need to seek out centers and shopping districts that create community and meeting places similar to marketplaces that have thrived for centuries.

Why should the retail world mimic what has sprouted up and evolved naturally in culture all over the globe. Retail has always followed the population's movements and has never led them, yet today seems to dictate that one do their shopping by automobile. If retail is urged to replicate the urban shopping street, then it should be done as realistically as possible and as close to the customers as possible. That would mean – in the neighborhood – not on the edge of one.

The unofficial theme of this year's conference appears to be “Get ready for big changes”. The retail world could change well more over the next five years than it has in the past 50. Much of it due to changes in technology and online/mobile shopping. While the recent security breaches were not mentioned, the successes or failures in combating them will factor in those changes.

Surveys are reported to show that 69% of CEO's in the largest retail chains are highly confident in better sales growth, yet they were not as aware of the dramatic changes occurring currently as they should be. Perhaps many more of them need to go on “Undercover Boss” and not just visit a selected few of their stores.

How will these retailers be affected by the shopping habits of Millennials, who want stores close enough to walk from home? What if Google and automakers take great strides in perfecting the self driving car, to the point of not needing to park it – just call for it when you need to be picked up? Imagine that store catered to the whims of the neighborhood customers like they used to, what do you see?