Fayette County

Southland neighborhood, built for cars, is about to become pedestrian-friendly

A pedestrian approached the sidewalk’s end on Southland Drive in Lexington on Feb. 16.
A pedestrian approached the sidewalk’s end on Southland Drive in Lexington on Feb. 16. palcala@herald-leader.com

Walking from the Good Foods Co-Op to the Oleika Shrine Temple on Southland Drive is not easy.

The busy street — hub of Lexington’s large, diverse Southland neighborhood — lacks sidewalks in most areas. Crossing the street at Southview Drive is easy for cars but not for people.

City officials hope by next spring that new sidewalks on both sides of Southland Drive from Rosemont Garden to Nicholasville Road will make it easier for pedestrians to walk the popular commercial corridor that is home to many locally owned businesses.

Designs for the $1.85 million project were unveiled Thursday night at the Southland Association annual meeting. The project includes much more than just sidewalks. It will also enhance or create pedestrian crossings at key intersections in the centrally located neighborhood that once was on the southern edge of Lexington.

Also on the to-do list is turning a cement culvert with a creek into a natural area with green space. There will also be more space for benches and plantings in the parking lot of the Southland Shopping Center, home of a weekend farmers market.

Jonathan Hollinger, the city’s project manager, said the city recently examined areas of Lexington without sidewalks or where sidewalks don’t connect and ranked them based on a series of criteria. Southland Drive was first.

Mayor Jim Gray allocated $1.85 million for the sidewalks — a total of 2.2 miles for both sides of Southland Drive. The design phase cost a little more than $250,000.

New sidewalks are part of a multi-pronged enhancement of Southland, which began to develop in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the car was king. Many of the businesses that dot Southland Drive have large, expansive parking lots but no sidewalks. It makes for an unpleasant and difficult pedestrian experience, Hollinger said.

Southland Drive is surrounded by well-established neighborhoods.

“There’s a lot of people who want to walk in that area but frankly aren’t able to,” Hollinger said. “People want walkable and bikeable communities, but not everyone wants to live downtown.”

Lauren Gawthrop, the marketing manager for the Good Foods Co-Op, said she was impressed with the preliminary designs and with the overall effort to make Southland easier to navigate for pedestrians and bikers.

“As someone who has tried to walk to other businesses on Southland, I know how harrowing it can sometimes feel,” Gawthrop said. “Folks who come to Southland to run errands typically have to get out of their car, go into one business, get back into their car and drive across the street to the next stop on their list of errands. Making Southland walkable and accessible to pedestrians can only spell success for business, in my opinion. It encourages exploration and discovery of new services, foods and shops. “

All of that pavement also makes Southland hot in the summer months when the popular farmers market is at its peak. In addition to sidewalks, the city plans to add more trees and other plants as part of the sidewalk project.

In the middle of Southland Drive is a Norfolk Southern railroad bridge. The city is working with the railroad to use the bridge either for public art or advertise other popular events on Southland Drive such as the Southland Street Fair in May.

Between Nicholasville Road and the railroad bridge, there is no safe pedestrian crossing. The city is looking at putting a pedestrian crossing — but not a traffic signal that would stop traffic — in the Rambler Road and Rainbow Road area.

Engineering and design work will take an additional six months. Construction could start in late fall. The city hopes the entire project will be completed by early spring or summer of 2018, Hollinger said.

Newly striped bike lanes and new sidewalks in front of the HealthFirst Bluegrass building and around the Hampton Inn will remain, he said.

The sidewalk project is one of several on Southland Drive. Earlier this year, a group of University of Kentucky students worked with the city on a design contest called “Retrofitting the Retro.” A pop-up space — a park-like area — is planned for completion in May in time for the Southland Street Fair. That project was done in collaboration with the sidewalk project, Hollinger said.

In December, a new Southland sign was unveiled at the Nicholasville and Southland Drive entrance. The retro sign has been popular with Southland residents and visitors alike, residents have said. That sign was paid for through a combination of Southland Association and city funds.

The city is also in the beginning stages of addressing long-standing stormwater and flooding issues in the area. That large project — which were once five different projects now combined into one — will address stormwater improvements on 5,700 parcels. The widening of Clays Mill Road from Waco Drive to Harrodsburg Drive is also slated to begin in 2018.

“In total, it’s a public investment of nearly $25 million,” said Councilwoman Amanda Bledsoe, whose district includes parts of Southland Drive. The “Retrofitting the Retro” project was paid for through grant money, and that group is actively seeking additional private foundation funds.

“We are looking at places where we can leverage public investment with private dollars,” Bledsoe said. Bledsoe has helped coordinate all of the different projects in the corridor to make sure there is no duplication. The projects are designed to complement, not detract from one another, she said.

Bledsoe said the Southland Association, which includes both homeowners and business owners, has been instrumental in facilitating all of the various projects on Southland.

“We had 173 people at the meeting on Thursday night,” Bledsoe said. That’s rare for a neighborhood meeting, she said. “What makes them so successful is they have so much public input and engagement.”

Hilary Baumann, the president of the Southland Association, said Friday that overall preliminary designs for the sidewalks have been well received by residents and business owners alike.

“The city is extremely open to feedback on the design both from a pedestrian perspective as well as the adjacent businesses,” Baumann said. “Overall everyone is positive and excited about the plans, as end-to-end sidewalks and improved crosswalks have been a needed addition to the area for years.”

Beth Musgrave: 859-231-3205, @HLCityhall