Cities should be designed for people, not cars. Reversing the auto-centric mindset that contributed to the decline of American cities in recent decades is a constant struggle.
Lexington took an important step forward last August with a pilot project to make West Short Street between Broadway and Limestone more pedestrian-friendly.
The one-way street, which has recently exploded with new restaurants and nightlife, gave up one of its two lanes of vehicular traffic and parallel parking on the south side in return for angled parking on the north side interspersed with sculptures, benches, tables, a new crosswalk and more pedestrian space.
But most of those changes will disappear this week. By next Monday, Short Street will have been milled, repaved and basically returned to the way it was, except for the crosswalk, which will stay.
The pilot project was controversial — change always is — and the design, execution and timing weren’t perfect. But there were important lessons that should not go to waste.
In fact, better versions of some of those changes might reappear in a permanent streetscape after the old Fayette County Courthouse restoration is completed in a couple of years, said Dowell Hoskins-Squier, the city’s commissioner of environmental quality and public works.
“The positives definitely outweighed the negatives,” Hoskins-Squier said. “This project has certainly informed the permanent project.”
That is good news. Downtown Lexington has a lot of potential as a destination, if only we could curb the forces determined to keep it as a high-speed cut-through.
The Downtown Development Authority organized the pilot project, which had a budget of only $183,000. Its main motivation was to make Short Street’s restaurant district more inviting to Breeders’ Cup visitors last October.
Many restaurant and bar owners were pleased with the results, which they said made the area safer and more pleasant.
“I’m disappointed that it’s reverting back,” said Deborah Long, owner of Dudley’s on Short restaurant. “There were a lot of things that were good and a few things that need to be improved.”
The project’s biggest accomplishment was slowing traffic and making the street safer for pedestrians, Long said. Eventually, she would like to see wider sidewalks where the temporary benches and tables were placed on green-painted asphalt behind planters and artwork.
“Our downtown has to be more pedestrian-friendly,” Long said.
The pilot project is being abandoned mainly because of traffic disruptions likely to be caused by the $30 million renovation of the Old Courthouse into visitor, office and event space. Details of that plan are to be unveiled later this month to the Urban County Council.
The pilot project suffered from bad timing. As it was happening, water and gas company contractors had streets torn up for utility work, and the Upper Street block between Short and Main streets was closed for the renovation of 21C Museum Hotel.
The most vocal complaints about the pilot project came from four businesses on the south side of Short Street between Market and Limestone — a diner, a barber shop, and clock and shoe repair shops. Many of those complaints were more attributable to the utility work and the Upper Street closure than the pilot project, Hoskins-Squier said.
But others were not. Tony Likirdopulos, who has operated the shoe shop since 1968, said his biggest problem was the loss of adjacent street parking, which inconvenienced his customers.
“They made a mistake from the beginning,” Likirdopulos said of the city. “They didn’t come and ask us what we wanted.”
Angular parking is more user-friendly than parallel parking, but the choice of back-in rather than pull-in spaces was unpopular. (They recently have been used in several places around town. Nobody seems to like them.)
Long said she thinks angled parking would have been more successful if it had been placed on the south side, because Short Street runs one-way, west to east. Maybe so.
But she put her finger on a much bigger issue that must be addressed in any permanent plan for Short Street. Without alleys or loading zones, delivery trucks block traffic lanes. Trash and recycling bins clutter the sidewalks, ruining the restaurant district’s atmosphere.
Veteran developer Robert Wagoner has proposed carving out delivery and trash areas from some of the many nearby surface parking lots, and he is right. Any streetscape plan that doesn’t deal with these critical service issues is doomed to failure.
“We’re going to have to find some solutions to a number of infrastructure issues,” said Jeff Fugate, president of the Downtown Development Authority.
But let’s remember the Short Street pilot project for what it was: a valuable learning experience. I hope we will try many more projects like it to figure out how best to create a 21st-century downtown Lexington.