Downtown needs to be more than just a place to entertain

November 25, 2013 

  • At issue: Oct. 13 Tom Eblen column, "Key to downtown: Please the customer; Enticing suburbanites is crucial, developer says"

Urban planners see grocery stores as vital to revitalization, and Lexington optimistically saw the 2010 opening of Shorty's as a milestone in the resurgence of downtown. It mixed well with other enthusiasms, including a reimagined Rupp Arena and a Jeanne Gang design for CentrePointe. Taken with the Jefferson Street renaissance and success of downtown bars and restaurants, Lexington was on a good run.

At the end of summer, however, Shorty's closed. Although new owners promise a reopening, the closing follows the loss of Gang and subsequent regressive CentrePointe designs. With our optimism tempered, Tom Eblen asked advice from Robert Wagoner, a developer of suburban shopping centers.

According to Wagoner, housing is important, "but the biggest business opportunity is enticing more suburbanites downtown to eat, shop and have fun." His sentiments echo those of Gary Bates, the master planner for a "freed-up" Rupp Arena, who bemoaned that after games, rather than linger, "people poured out of Rupp, got in their cars and left."

In keeping with other initiatives, including the Distillery District, Lexington has yoked revitalization to amusement, invariably neglecting housing and retail.

Imagining downtown as professional office space by day and entertainment/restaurant district by night is a 30-year-old recurring concept begun when Mayor Scotty Baesler confronted empty storefronts and vacant buildings. More recently, American cities are embracing a broader revitalization, including efforts to increase density with retail and multifamily housing.

Shorty's struggle is not a small blip. Suburban passersby leaving a ball game or restaurant are not pausing downtown for a gallon of milk before driving home. Urban retail requires pedestrian-oriented patrons — downtown residents who live and work within walking distance — not folks trying to remember where they parked.

Today, fewer live downtown. The 2000 census recorded 2,106 residents in the 40507 zip code (the downtown business district); by the 2010 census, that number had declined 17 percent to 1,757.

The 40508 zip code that encircles downtown and includes campus neighborhoods declined 13 percent, from 27,220 to 23,569. Zip code boundaries are not rigorous tools for determining residential health, but they illustrate a trend. During a decade when Fayette County grew by 13.5 percent, other metropolises repopulated downtowns, and we did not.

Meanwhile, we debate issues as discrete, unrelated parts: infill, sprawl and the urban services boundary; deterioration in near campus and downtown neighborhoods; obesity and our sedentary, autocentric ways. We agonize over our carbon footprint yet argue for sustainability as if it were a weekend pasttime.

But sustainability entails integrating sustainability thought and practice about how we work and live into planning, decision-making and funding strategies. We collectively mitigate these issues, even solve some, by repopulating downtown and becoming a walkable city.

We have advantages. An interstate highway never severed our downtown; our largest employer, the University of Kentucky, is within walking distance of our central business district; and our near-downtown neighborhoods remain intact — fragile, but intact.

Our gem is our size and scale. Even the most walking averse will walk a quarter mile for something wanted or needed.

A quarter-mile from the corner of Main and Limestone, the center of town, encompasses the bulk of the downtown business district, reaches the edge of UK and Transylvania campuses, and passes through historical neighborhoods.

Extending the radius to three-quarters of a mile encompasses residential neighborhoods north, south and east — ideal for infill development.

Lexington is not large or dense enough for mass transit; however, we can become a city less dependent on cars, where one-car households are possible and daily commutes are not necessary—a lifestyle millennials claim to want, the generation we claim to want to attract.

Inarguably, downtown bars and restaurants have value, particularly for preserving historic buildings and the immeasurable social capital entertainment can stimulate. Affluent bar and restaurant patrons spilling onto the sidewalk create a drive-by perception of vitality, but such venues hardly enable a downtown resident to purchase toothpaste or even a reasonably priced bottle of wine. Commerce flows from housing.

We overlook the intrinsic value housing gives the streetscape, and the stability it provides the urban core (the Jefferson Street renaissance really began decades ago when residents living along its perimeter streets decided to stay put). Affordable, medium-density, mixed-income, residential development needs incentives, live-where-you-work programs, public-private partnerships, and a task force equivalent to the battalion-sized one given Rupp Arena.

Mostly, it needs to be forefront in any conversation or strategy about revitalizing downtown. With wide-ranging retail and housing, Lexington's urban core could become a sustainability model others would envy. Our goal should be a downtown where suburbanites want to relocate, not merely amuse themselves.

At issue: Oct. 13 Tom Eblen column, "Key to downtown: Please the customer; Enticing suburbanites is crucial, developer says"

Greg Guenthner works at the University of Kentucky and lives in the Aylesford neighborhood near downtown.

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