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..

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