Maybe creating a vibrant downtown isn't so much about grand plans as small spaces.
One small space with potential is the block of North Mill Street between West Main and Short streets. It retains most of its old buildings, which now house places to eat, drink and work. Developer Nick Ebbitt is converting the upstairs of several buildings into loft condos.
The block is in the middle of downtown's emerging action: Galleries, restaurants and bars have sprouted along Short and in Victorian Square; Dudley's is moving there; Cheapside is alive with the farmers market and other events that will only increase in popularity when a market house is built.
But plans for Mill Street are controversial because developers want to close the street to traffic and eliminate a handful of parking spaces.
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I don't see a big problem with that, but several people, whose opinions on these matters I respect, do. They think it's important to keep that block as a regular street, at least during the day. Pedestrian malls have been successful in some cities, including Charlottesville, Va., but they have failed in others.
The key seems to be striking a balance between cars and people to create flexible, inviting spaces where people want to spend time and businesses can succeed.
A grass-roots plan by property owners along Esplanade between East Main and Short streets has the potential to do just that. It seems like a good, reasonably priced idea that could be adapted for Mill Street and other places in Lexington, too.
The plan is the work of Gene Williams and Art Shechet, two of the partners in Natasha's restaurant. Natasha's developed a loyal following with its high-quality ethnic food, and the business has expanded by adding a music stage with nightly performances by local bands, emerging artists and occasional big-name acts.
Esplanade, which is fortunate to have wide sidewalks, will host a street fair during next fall's Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. And that got the partners to thinking about the possibilities of a more flexibly designed Esplanade that could take advantage of an adjacent, little-used park on the Chase Bank tower property.
They figure the project could be done for less than $500,000 without closing Esplanade — and adding daytime parking spaces to the west side of the street, where there are none now. They also would plant shade trees that would be lighted at night.
In the evenings, resurfaced parking spaces in front of Natasha's and the Lexington Club could be converted into outdoor dining areas. With some remodeling to open up the Chase park, there could be room for a temporary stage and booths during community events and festivals.
The result would be a small, flexible public square similar to those that help make European cities fun places to spend time.
Architect Farzin Sadr, who owns Natasha's building and has his offices upstairs, drew up some initial plans. Natasha's partners have enlisted support from other nearby property owners, including Chase tower and Central Christian Church.
Williams and Shechet unveiled their plan at an Aug. 18 breakfast for Mayor Jim Newberry and Urban County Council members. They soon will ask that the project be added to the city's downtown streetscape work — ideally before the Equestrian Games.
"We're latecomers to the table, but we think this plan makes sense and would be a lot of bang for the buck," Williams said.
"We also think it would move the center of gravity back a bit to the east end," he said. "We want an anchor here that is social and speaks to an older crowd and more family groups."
Natasha's partners think this could be an easy, highly visible downtown success story that would have relatively little cost or controversy. I suspect they're right.