Tom Martin Q&A: Project aims to use suburban lessons to help downtown Lexington

Contributing columnistJune 29, 2014 

Lexington's downtown has come a long way in recent years; restaurants, music venues, the Farmers Market, Thursday Night Live. But many people still say they avoid downtown, usually because of negative perceptions about parking. And that's the focus of Tom Martin's conversation with Robert Wagoner, a real estate and suburban retail development professional whose projects include the Tates Creek, Palomar and Lexington Green shopping centers.

Now retired, Wagoner hopes to apply many of the lessons of suburban design and construction to animate unrealized potential in Lexington's urban core.

Tom Martin: Does downtown Lexington have a parking problem?

Robert Wagoner: I think it does.

Martin: Does uncertainty about whether it might be convenient and safe play into perceptions about parking in downtown Lexington?

Wagoner: I'll turn that one around and ask: Do you know where you're going to park when you go to Fayette Mall? Do you know if there's going to be parking available at Hamburg? It's all around you and that's the way we designed it, those of us who work on suburban parking lots and suburban shopping centers. Downtown is a confused mess. There are just so many different lots. They're unorganized; some are private. Some are public. So it's a confused patchwork.

Martin: There is a relationship between parking and successful retail, correct?

Wagoner: There certainly is. I've spent my career developing retail. I've drained downtowns of retail across the state. I'm ashamed by it. I feel this guilt complex. Retail has the ability to animate storefronts. So it makes that walking experience, whether it be within a mall or down the sidewalk so much more intriguing.

Martin: In your retirement, perhaps driven by that sense of guilt over the development of suburban retail at the expense of downtowns, you've focused on places like Greenville, S.C. What can we learn from Greenville?

Wagoner: In Greenville, you walk up and down Main Street and you're struck by the large trees, the wide sidewalks, the angular parking that are on either side of Main Street. And the storefronts and the buildings that are behind those sidewalks are full; there's very little vacancy along this 10-block area of Greenville. It's anchored on one end by a ball field — a minor league ball club plays there — and the other end is anchored like much we are with a Hyatt Hotel and an arena — a basketball arena. Along this path, there are a hundred-and-something retailers. There are over a hundred bars and restaurants. There's residential and there's art work strewn all along the path.

But you start to dig deeper and look at two service streets which sandwich Main Street. Along those service streets is parking. There are all different types of parking: surface parking that's well-landscaped, structured parking that's well-designed. So, it's not that much of an effort to park along these side streets and find your way to Main Street.

But Greenville doesn't stop there. They "sign" these two corridors for their suburban population to drive into. What has this accomplished? It decongested the Main Street so when you're coming to downtown Greenville and you want to come for a short stay, you might want to park on Main Street. But, if you're coming for a longer stay, you find these two service streets and you'll find these options to park.

Martin: How would that concept work here?

Wagoner: We need to focus on side streets, service streets. There are two that I have focused on, one is Water Street and one is Church Street.

Martin: Let's talk about Church Street, the alleyway directly north of Short Street in downtown Lexington. Limestone and Broadway run perpendicular to Church. You studied Church Street extensively from one end to the other and have an idea of what could happen there. Can you detail that for us?

Wagoner: There are 12 different properties that are located on this four-block area. There are 10 different property owners because one owns three different tracts. And there are nine surface parking lots. Some public, some private, some public-private. If you look at those lots and how they could work together, they could become much more efficient. They could contain an alleyway for service vehicles to deliver services, not on Short Street but behind Short Street on this alleyway.

We could locate service courtyards where we would have these deliveries take place and in those service courtyards we could have trash compactors. So we could not only provide a more cohesive solution to our downtown parking, but we could also service and pick up the trash much more efficiently.

Martin: Have you spoken with the property owners along Church Street?

Wagoner: I have talked to several people up and down Church Street and Short Street and I think most, once they see this, start to understand it. Once they see that it's not an infringement of their rights and this can be a more efficient system where they maintain ownership and they produce a higher return, but at the same time collectively produce a more attractive Short Street, then I get the buy-in.

Those that are not so open-minded don't have that same opinion. So I point to places like Charleston and Greenville, S.C., and other communities such as Franklin, Tennessee. It would be helpful in this process if the city — the Downtown Development Authority, the Downtown Lexington Corporation, and our parking authority — would support this effort. I've reached out to those three agencies and asked for that support.

Martin: What is in it for these property owners to cooperate and turn these properties into parking structures?

Wagoner: If one could picture a more complete Short Street — meaning closing these gaps where surface parking exist right now; if one could imagine the trash not being located on our sidewalks; if one could imagine how the service vehicles along Short Street wouldn't clog so much, then you start to see the potential and the synergy that would develop from Victorian Square all the way up to our judicial center.

And then, you have this active street that would draw more participants into our downtown, it would be easier to park there and all these other good things could happen.

Martin: You have publicly called on Lexington professionals in real estate, retail, property and zoning law, engineering, design, accounting and other professions to step forward and lend expertise in the search for downtown solutions. Have there been responses?

Wagoner: Currently, I have 17 landscape architects, architects and engineers working on this project. An attorney has stepped forward and agreed to help. Two people in our financial industry have stepped forward and are looking at ways that we might finance this in a creative manner.

Martin: So this is taking shape as an ad hoc group. Should the government engage this group or would that complicate things?

Wagoner: No one paid anything for any of this. This is all free. In my opinion, this group needs to be allowed to present these findings. I think it's a thought-provoking piece and I think we really do need to look at it closely. This plan needs to be flexible. It needs to be able to build around those that don't want to participate, which it can, and it needs to accommodate those that want to participate.

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