Monday, December 03, 2007

Downtown as Playground?

Wonders never cease in the matter of “resuscitating” the downtowns throughout the nation, whether in small towns or large cities and usually using taxpayers’ hard-earned cash in the process and always making noises about the absolutely undeniable importance of the aesthetics of the DOWNTOWN. So it is these days in Lexington, Ky., with the latest mantra of the “downtown revolutionists” being that the big horse-competition of 2010 simply must not be held where the downtown can be considered shabby.

So…the mayor (or the city, whichever) has engaged the services of an out-of-state firm to “do” a downtown sidewalk and streetscape master plan, taking as a priority the creating of a park along Vine Street and making Vine more attractive to pedestrians. A PARK? Egad! Vine Street is the second most important street in the downtown but the “downtown revolutionists” have been making noises for some time about turning Vine Street into some sort of a “green-space” for pedestrians to walk their dogs and otherwise clutter up the place.

This is reminiscent of the amazingly absurd recommendation (this time from some folks at the university) a few years ago that Vine Street be closed entirely at Broadway, with the advisement that people needing to get downtown should just plan on using “neighborhood Streets,” which allowed for one-lane traffic in many places. The Urban-County-Council, suffering a collective-coma, actually voted to do this. Then, the common-sense folks raised a howl, so the council decided on just closing half the lanes, whereupon the common-sense folks screamed to the traffic gods for relief, and the council junked its whole street-closing, gridlock-threatening nonsense.

Now, the aesthetic-mongers are at it again. With the traffic situation being the main reason folks would rather endure a root canal than go downtown, in the first place, they want to exacerbate the traffic problem by building a park (some say in the middle of Vine) that because of the newly enhanced traffic problem people will simply avoid at all costs, thereby being forced to walk their dogs and push their strollers in the same old dull neighborhoods.

Downtowns were once the center of activity. This was the case in Lexington right into the 1960s, before the population numbers exploded, one result being that parked cars could not be accommodated in large enough numbers to make shopping downtown worth the trouble. Its nature changed from one of great retail diversity to one allowing mostly for office buildings, financial institutions, government buildings, specialty shops, sports arenas and other entertainment venues. Private developers introduced the shopping-centers/malls where there was room for everything, and the rest is history.

If taxpayer money were used to help the entrepreneurs in the same way as those who profit from it downtown, one wonders what the cost would be. There’s already enough green space downtown, so one wonders why a consulting firm must be engaged at a cost no official has even mentioned (is the contract unbelievably open-ended?) to simply design some new sidewalks. The streets can hardly be redesigned, since they’re already in place and not susceptible to moving around. Some paving might be needed before 2010, but how complicated is that?

Oh well…if nothing else, perhaps this unneeded project will take minds off the other unneeded project ballyhooed a few days ago, to wit, building a new basketball facility (just $200 million plus cost- overruns) across the street on a valuable parking lot to replace Rupp Arena…after the spending of millions on its refurbishment only three years ago. Sometimes one wonders, in light of the collective poor judgment of the council, if voting is worth the trouble.

And so it goes.

Jim Clark

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