Tom Eblen: For downtown to flourish, make it more appealing to suburbanites

teblen@herald-leader.com,Tom EblenOctober 12, 2013 

Robert Wagoner, a retired developer, has been spending a lot of time observing downtown Lexington for what works and what doesn't. He has some ideas for improvement. Photo provided

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When he was studying architecture at the University of Kentucky in the early 1970s, Robert Wagoner became intrigued by the challenges of revitalizing urban Lexington. But that wasn't where the development business was going then.

So Wagoner went on to a successful career helping develop some of Lexington's best-known suburban shopping centers. After several years of retirement, though, he is once again thinking a lot about downtown. A man can play only so much golf.

Wagoner has spent many hours driving, walking and biking downtown streets, studying what works and what doesn't. With help from friends in the design and construction fields, he has translated some of his ideas into elaborate presentations.

Suburban design has been tried in urban settings for decades, usually with poor results. But that isn't what Wagoner has done.

He has used his experience to consider how tried-and-true suburban strategies focusing on the needs of customers and businesses that serve them can inform the more difficult task of designing dense urban spaces. Good design is all about problem-solving.

I spent a couple of mornings walking and biking around downtown with Wagoner to look at things from his point of view. By the time we stopped for a late breakfast each day, I had a lot of food for thought. I have space today to discuss only a few of his big themes, but they are a good place to start.

Creating more downtown housing is important, Wagoner said. So is attracting out-of-town visitors. But the biggest business opportunity is enticing more suburbanites downtown to eat, shop and have fun.

"The key is expanding and growing the customer base downtown as an option to suburbia," he said. "Always start with the customer."

That means making downtown a more beautiful, pleasant and exciting place to be. But it also means focusing on details and infrastructure, not just grand plans and great architecture. Two key issues: parking and service logistics.

"Instead of just dealing with the icing on the cake," he said, "deal with the pan that bakes the cake — that's infrastructure."

Most visitors come downtown in automobiles, and they need parking that is convenient, easy to find, easy to use, makes them feel safe and costs as little as possible.

Some people need convenient street parking for quick stops. Whenever possible, he said, parallel parking should be replaced by angled parking, because it is easier to use and provides more spaces.

Make street parking free for the first two hours, he said. And encourage more reciprocal parking agreements among businesses. Both would improve customer convenience — and that would attract more customers.

Other people want to come downtown and walk around. They need parking garages that are easy to find and use. Garages are costly, but they are much more efficient than the surface lots that contribute to downtown's gap-toothed ugliness.

Well-marked garages on side streets a block or two from popular pedestrian-friendly streets of shops and restaurants would make the downtown experience more pleasant and convenient. They also would reduce traffic congestion, much of which is caused by people circling around looking for parking, Wagoner said.

If Wagoner were redesigning downtown, he would make Main Street two-way and more pedestrian-friendly by limiting garage access from Main and giving through-traffic more alternatives. He would keep Vine Street one-way going east and reverse one-way Short street to go west.

Then he would put garages along Church Street, where there are now several surface lots. This location would be convenient for both daytime office workers and people who come to restaurants and bars in the evening.

And rather than building a lot of new parking garages near Rupp Arena, Wagoner would shuttle people to the arena from those Church Street garages, or let them walk through downtown and dine or shop on their way. That would make more efficient use of costly parking infrastructure and better incorporate the Rupp and central business districts.

Another of downtown's biggest shortcomings, Wagoner thinks, is the lack of well-designed delivery and service space behind many businesses. That results in garbage cans on or near sidewalks, and it forces delivery vehicles to use "front" streets, causing noise, traffic congestion and a less-pleasant customer experience.

As he made this point, we were sitting at a sidewalk table outside Shakespeare & Co. on Short Street. A big food delivery truck pulled up in front of us. The rumble of its idling engine made conversation impossible, so we had to move inside.

Wagoner had a lot of insights that can spark good public conversation about improving downtown and making it more successful. Look for more of them in future columns.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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