by Andrew Wyllie
Public spaces, streets and sidewalks define the character of a city. When exploring a city on foot, itâ€™s always fun to come upon a small park area or pedestrian mall with small shops and restaurants away from the bustle and noise of the street.The Downtown Master Plan has a number of great ideas, but it needs to be more than just a strict plan we follow to make downtown a better place.It should only be used as a foundation for what we can do and allow the city (not the city government) to determine its own needs for improvement. I have traveled to many cities where a new park or some kind of art installation was used to try to make an otherwise boring area more interesting.The end result of this type of project often results in a boring area with a park that no one uses except perhaps homeless people. Sure it looks nice, but the park itself does not make an area more attractive to people unless the park has a purpose. Cheapside Park downtown is a great example of a successful park. It supports many weekly events like the farmerâ€™s market and Thursday Night Live and other city events. Thoroughbred Park on Main street is less useful â€“ thereâ€™s no reason to go there, no stores beside it or places to eat. It looks great as you are driving by and thatâ€™s about it.
Mill is in a perfect location in the city on a stretch of road that has older buildings on both sides many of which are occupied by restaurants and bars at street level. The new area would allow business owners to build small patios and would provide a space where people can walk with out having to worry about dodging cars. A place to relax on a park bench at lunchtime, to read the paper or share some gossip. The plan has been received very enthusiastically by the businesses that will be directly affected by the closure of the street. Indeed, many of the business owners even complain about the sidewalks not being wide enough, and that theyâ€™ve had to hire security guards to make sure their patrons do not get hit by cars on the street. People visiting Lexington who are staying downtown will likely spend some of their time exploring the city on foot. These pedestrian areas like the one proposed on Mill St. are the parts of a city people will remember about their visit and tell their friends about when they get home.
Most major cities have pedestrian areas, especially in Europe where the cities are much denser and not zoned like cities are in the U.S.
Most U.S. cities are not designed with pedestrians in mind but are planned for automobiles first. While older cities like Lexington would have originally
been built for pedestrians, as cars became more prevalent, the density of the downtown area was diminished and people moved out to the suburbs, many of which require residents to own a car (or two or three) just to get around. To make matters worse, a quick walk around Lexington will reveal how poorly the pedestrian infrastructure has been maintained. Since Main St and Vine St have been optimized for car travel, walking along these roads is like walking beside a major highway with some cars easily reaching speeds of 45mph. This is one reason, with a few exceptions, most of the new restaurants and bars downtown are not on Main or Vine but are on the peripheral streets which are much easier to walk along.
While the Downtown Master Plan has the closing of Mill St. on the list of changes to be made, itâ€™s not currently high on the priority list. The project is estimated to cost roughly a million dollars and would include putting in trees and benches and proper lighting. Local businesses along the stretch of road are enthusiastic about the project and do not seem particularly concerned about losing parking spaces or car traffic along the street.
A few streets over, the South Limestone streetscape project while largely supported â€” has drawn sharp criticism from business owners protesting the Lexington Downtown Development Authorityâ€™s execution, and the lack of communication throughout the process.
They cite the lengthy closing of the North Limestone corridor as precedent for how slow and devastating the construction projects can be.
LFUCG work sessions have become the site of heated debates, with Vice Mayor Jim Gray, Council Member Diane Lawless, and Council Member Julian Beard advocating for the imperative of speed on the project (CM Beard pointed out, â€œFour months is just long enough to put a lot of these folks out of business.â€)
This is where the Master Plan needs to become a living document.
In one part of town, buy-in has been sought, while another group felt excluded from the process.
I donâ€™t doubt that the changes to South Limestone will create a lot of foot traffic from the UK to downtown which is ultimately better for the businesses along the street, but we also need to consider the needs, concerns, and survival of the businesses that are already making it vital.