Tom Eblen: Retired suburban developer has a plan for downtown Lexington

Herald-Leader columnistJune 29, 2014 

Veteran suburban developer Robert Wagoner has spent his past four years of retirement studying urban Lexington, as well as Greenville and Charleston, S.C., which have been much more successful at downtown revitalization.

Yes, he says, historic preservation and high-quality new architecture are important. But Wagoner thinks the real key to urban revitalization is the unglamorous infrastructure that businesses and customers take for granted in suburbia, such as hidden delivery and garbage facilities and easy-to-use parking. Especially parking.

That belief led Wagoner and 17 friends he recruited from the design and construction community to volunteer their time and talents to develop an ambitious concept for the emerging four-block entertainment district along Short Street between Limestone and Broadway.

Their goal was to create more convenient, attractive, efficient and urban-appropriate parking and service facilities, as well as to encourage redevelopment of gap lots along Short Street where buildings were demolished decades ago and replaced with haphazard surface parking.

The main element of this plan would be an attractive, two-level parking structure along Church Street. But Wagoner also proposes replacing most parallel parking along Short Street with easier-to-use angled parking.

In all, Wagoner thinks the 370 parking spaces now in that four-square-block area could grow to 450 spaces that would be more accessible and user-friendly. At the same time, it would allow many surface parking lots to be redeveloped with new buildings to house stores, restaurants, offices and apartments.

"We need to have more thought put into our comprehensive land use process for a parking strategy downtown," Wagoner said. "All you have to do is look at these other cities and see what they're doing."

Wagoner also wants to create service areas to stop noisy delivery trucks from having to idle on the street, clogging traffic and making outdoor dining unpleasant. Centralized, hidden waste areas with trash compactors would be a big improvement over dumpsters, grease pits and Herbies scattered all over within public view.

He is now talking with property and business owners and reaching out to organizations such as the Downtown Development Authority, the Downtown Lexington Corp. and the Lexington-Fayette County Parking Authority (Lexpark).

"It's probably the single most important project since the Cheapside Park renovation," said Bob Estes, owner of Parlay Social and Shorty's market and president of the Cheapside Entertainment District Association. "It would really create the infrastructure for the continued development and growth we need."

Making this plan happen will be a challenge, because the four-block area has 12 parcels with 10 different owners. There are nine surface parking lots with 16 entrances. It will need support from property and business owners, the city and private investors, he said.

The plan would require clipping off the rear addition to one Short Street building. Wagoner also would like to demolish a law office building at the southwest corner of Church and Market streets and move the recently renovated Belle's Bar building over to Short Street.

The key will be getting property owners to work together, trading some of their sites for space in new, infill buildings on Short Street, parking spaces in the garage or a share of parking garage revenues.

"Creative air rights is integral to all of this," he said.

But while executing the plan would be complex, Wagoner thinks everyone could come out a winner. Downtown would be more vibrant, business activity would increase, property values would rise and the city would collect more tax revenues.

What I find exciting — even visionary — about this plan is that the same approach could be used for many other small areas of urban Lexington. It also could be part of the parking solution needed to help the city redevelop huge, under-utilized surface lots around Rupp Arena.

Wagoner has spent two years refining these ideas with help from other development professionals: Donna Pizzuto, Harvey Helm, Ken Sallade, Jon Cheatham, Steve Graves, Mike Huston, Aaron Bivens, Joe Rasnick, Joe Nolasco, Steve Albert , Rob Wagoner, Shane Lyle, James Piper, Jonathan Rollins, Tony Barrett, Joey Svec and Matt Fleece.

Their volunteer design work includes renderings and a video presentation with three-dimensional modeling.

But Wagoner said he is open to better ideas from others. His goal in this retirement venture is not to make money, he said, but to make downtown Lexington more successful. And, perhaps, to salve some guilt from helping create suburban developments decades ago that contributed to downtown's decline in the first place.

"Ours is a throwaway society that consistently produces urban decay as a byproduct of suburban success," Wagoner said. "We have no other option (but redeveloping urban areas) if we are to protect what makes us special. No other city is like ours, ringed by such a unique signature" of horse farms and natural beauty.

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

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