Friday, January 13, 2017

Lexington: Make Good Plans For A "New" City Hall

One of the hot topics of last summer and fall was the push that the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government was making toward a new City Hall.  

After the collapse of consideration on the CentrePointe block, focus shifted to the Central Library building and its parking garage as the primary site. Although the 5 story structure seems to not be adequately arranged, those in the know feel that, with a few modifications, it could work.

Shortly after this plan became known, the Lexington-Herald Leader announced a shift in the location of their printing daily publication from Lexington to Louisville.  That, coupled with a further reduction in staff, led to the possibility of finding a smaller office space and placing their prime location well up on the list of candidates.

Some of us believe that the H-L building may a lack of square footage, but there is quite enough room surrounding the building for additions and leaving sufficient parking.  It really would make quite a statement on civic pride with a renovated (narrowed) Midland Avenue, its Town Branch Trail and the Thoroughbred Park directly in front and a backdrop of the highly treed Bell Court neighborhood.  Even the small street connecting a new back door to the neighborhood is named in honor of a former mayor, John Skain (1908-1912).

Whichever of the two sites is chosen, the "new" City Hall will not be in a newly built civic building which has been the dream of the merged government for more than four decades.  Financial woes and the struggle to balance urban, suburban and rural priorities have always seemed to push the extravagance of a new building just a little more down the list of necessities.

As always, in discussions on City Hall, the subject of sufficient space for the essential functions of government should be at the forefront.  One of my recent discussions led to remembrances of our early "part-time" council members.  I say "part-time" since they were limited to $6,000 (in 1972) and I was earning just under that in an unskilled position.  I don't think that anybody could do the job and have a family on that salary alone.  Those first council members shared office space and did most of their own research.  A tough part time job.

Thing is, back then the Fayette County population was a whopping 174,323+ and each council member represented approximately 14,527 residents on average.  Their constituents were in somewhat compact districts except for district 12, which was (and still is) primarily our rural farmland.  If memory serves, the population of district 12 (14,272) influenced the number and size of the remaining districts.

Today's district representative still receives a part-time salary (approx. $31,8000), has an office, a full-time legislative aide, a full calendar and a constituency of over 26,200 (an 80%+ increase).  The individual districts have over time, become less compact and considerably more diverse and not just culturally.  

A number of districts have become elongated, one to the point of representing folks living in a 1930's subdivision just south of the UK stadium AND folks living in a development on the Jessamine County line.  Our "mostly rural" 12th district is now approximately evenly split between suburban housing and the farming community.

Over 40 years, our community involvement has increased along with the population.  Neighborhood associations and home-owners groups are more common.  Today's council members need to keep touch with nearly all of these groups, either personally or through their aides.  They also need to be aware of groups forming within their districts.

By contrast, Louisville, and its more recently formed Metro Government, has 26 council members serving approximately 29,000 constituents.  Jefferson County has 113 square miles more than Fayette and nearly twice the population.  They also lack the distinct ring of rich horse farm property on the outer fringe.  It would not appear that they will have the need to drastically revamp their council districts any time soon.

This year is also the time to begin discussions on the community's comprehensive plan and there are a series of upcoming "On the Table" meetings on the calendar.  A usual topic is the possibility of expanding the Urban Services Area, further cutting into the farmland ring of ours, and its effect of the 12th council district.  One solution being floated around is the division of the 12th district into 2 or more parts.  Given the aforementioned role of the rural area in influencing district size, will any resulting divisions consider having a balance of urban and rural constituency while maintaining to be primarily rural?

The U.S. Census Bureau will soon call on all communities to begin redefining their census tracts and block groups for the decennial population count in 2020.  That count will be the basis for a required redistricting in 2022.

How we make plans for building our community and its quality of life, consider the possibility of an expanded Council and prepare to move into a "new" City Hall all look to be inter-related.  Now is a good time to begin planning for those questions.


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Its Time We Plan For Downtown, Yes?

The Herald-Leader published an editorial back in the middle of February of 1982 commenting initially about the loss of the Meyer's clothing store.  Their conclusion was that "The differential between downtown closings and openings continues to grow."  Things were getting worse rather than better.

Despite the positive claim by Marvin Meyers that he was there and there for good, made only a few years earlier, just a couple of short months after his death the store would be closing.  Is it ironic that Marvin's comments were made on the occasion of their first suburban mall outlet?  Was it simply the suburban commercial expansion which led to the downtown decay?  Hardly.

The editors felt they could lay blame to a number of influences:  The rise of the automobile, the proliferation of suburbs, the changing patterns of work/shopping habits -- even the use of bypass roadways around downtown.  Maybe this was the general feeling of the public but other forces were also at work.

Downtown was becoming a site for bigger and "better" office buildings, in the theory that a denser daytime population would benefit the businesses of downtown.  With each new building came the loss of retailers unable to afford space in them.  The evening and nighttime population densities were totally ignored.  Although there was a known need to add downtown residential little was done to encourage it.

What the editors settled on was the need to preserve that which was the "charm" of Lexington and to build around it.  They felt the "success of a suburban mall in the city" depended on harmonizing with the buildings already in  place.  In today's hindsight, the success of the suburban mall is to make them look more like an urban downtown, complete with a substantial residential component.

Lexington has done very little to "alter" its suburban malls.  One was demolished in favor of a large religious facility that has brought little urban activity on a daily basis.  Another was substantially demolished in favor of a university controlled health care facility, again bringing little urban activity.  Our other mall style retail still struggle to survive without resorting to adding a retail component.  That will leave the soon to be opened Summit at Fritz Farm development to test the theory.

In the 35 years since this editorial was written, only a small number of residential units have been added to downtown despite several plans brought forth.  A very small number had anything to do with renovating spaces above the existing retail or other adaptive reuse of commercial structures.  I am aware that commercial lending rules make it a bit more difficult to finance these endeavors, but the City should be able to provide some assistance.

Downtown Lexington has more than enough underutilized space to forestall the need to demolish more buildings with "charm" in order to expand its residential capacity.  I hope that it is not left to the market forces create a sustainable residential mix for downtown.  I also hope that we can build more mixed use residential with "real" downtown support retail as a ground floor element.

Maybe this round of Comprehensive Plan considerations will include what we need to do to improve our downtown, especially our underutilized parcels, and create more tax revenue generating uses for Lexington.  Let me know what you think..