Short Street changes, hotel construction may be hurting business at some downtown restaurants

The menu board for Lexington Diner's daily specials sits right next to a sign informing drivers that a block of North Upper Street is closed from Short to Main streets.
The menu board for Lexington Diner's daily specials sits right next to a sign informing drivers that a block of North Upper Street is closed from Short to Main streets. Herald-Leader

Some businesses on Short Street in downtown Lexington say pedestrian-friendly changes combined with construction and utility work for the new 21c Museum Hotel are causing traffic headaches and a decline in customers in the popular restaurant corridor.

"You have a lot of frustrated drivers and unfortunately a lot fewer people coming down here," said Karin West, co-owner of Lexington Diner at Short and North Upper streets.

But city officials said they are working to address problems, stepping up enforcement of when trucks may load and unload, and working with utility companies doing work in the area.

Lexington Diner is at the nexus of the problem. Upper Street from Short to Main streets is closed due to construction of the 21c Museum Hotel. Construction vehicles have been in the area for months and, in the past few weeks utility companies also have done work associated with the hotel. Those trucks have parked on Short Street in front of Lexington Diner.

Because Upper Street is closed between Short and Main streets, two lanes of Upper Street traffic must turn left onto Short Street not far from where there is new, back-in parking, which creates traffic backups, West said. If construction and utility trucks are parked in one lane, traffic on Short is then limited to one lane, she said.

"It's harder for people to access us or even see us because we have had these large utility trucks parked in front," West said.

As part of a pilot project to enhance downtown, the city also made changes to Short Street, altering the parking and using paint to create more room for planters, benches and tables. The pilot project from North Broadway to North Limestone had a grand opening in late August

Jeff Fugate, president and CEO of the Lexington Downtown Development Authority, said the organization takes the concerns of downtown businesses seriously and was working to address the issues.

Fugate said the city was trying to increase coordination with the utility companies so the city knows when they are doing work and can communicate that with Short Street businesses.

West said her main complaint was the lack of communication between businesses and the city.

"I would like to see more communication," she said. "I think there has been some effort recently and I would like to see that continue."

Moreover, deliveries should occur only at certain times, and trucks are supposed to park on Short Street directly behind the old courthouse. Those deliveries should not happen during morning or afternoon rush hour, and the city is working to enforce those rules, Fugate said.

"Part of this is getting used to the new pattern of traffic," he said.

Urban County Councilman Kevin Stinnett said he had heard a lot of complaints from business owners on Short Street about the changes. During a recent council meeting, Stinnett asked the city to step up enforcement of when delivery trucks may load and unload.

"We have made some dramatic changes," he said. "We need to make sure that we are enforcing these rules so we don't hurt those businesses that have grown organically on this street without the city's help."

Just this week, new planters were added to the Short Street corridor. In coming weeks, there will be additional painting of the street, and sculptures and decorative art will be wrapped around the chain-link fence surrounding the old courthouse, said Brandi Berryman, a project manager with Lexington Downtown Development Authority.

But not everyone is complaining about the changes. Fugate and Berryman said they have heard positive feedback from pedestrians who find it easier and safer to cross the street. The benches, tables and chairs on the street are frequently in use, they said.

Josh England, market manager for Lexington Farmers Market, said the popular downtown market at Fifth Third Bank Pavilion om Cheapside Park was concerned that changes made to Short Street would hurt business. But England said most vendors are pleased with the changes.

"The vendors — so far this year — have liked it," he said. "We will see how things go in the future."

Debbie Long, owner of Dudley's on Short, said her restaurant had not had the same types of problems that Lexington Diner has endured. Dudley's is closer to North Broadway. But Long said that there are tweaks that need to be made.

"We're trying to enhance the downtown by making it more pedestrian-friendly, and I like the idea of slowing traffic down, particularly in the evening," Long said. "But we probably still need to tweak it."

Fugate said it was too early to say whether the changes on Short Street would be permanent. The project needs more time. It's also difficult to gauge the success or failure of the Short Street pilot project until the 21c opens in February and Upper Street reopens.

"Unlike the changes that happened on South Limestone that were permanent — which now everyone loves — this is a pilot project," Fugate said. "I know construction is frustrating, but it means that people are investing in downtown, and that's a good thing. The alternative is nothing being built."