Thursday, February 09, 2012

Lexington Downtown - OKAY

The drumbeat goes on in Lexington by the movers and shakers who seem to be determined to change the downtown from what it is, essentially a repository for financial institutions, offices, entertainment venues, specialty shops, restaurants/bars, apartment/condominium buildings, and government facilities, along with the necessary parking garages. The objective: turn the downtown into a sort of fun-and-games tourist/convention attraction, complete with parks and anything else someone in the university classifies as aesthetic and therefore uplifting.

The attempt has been somewhat derailed by the uprising of some important folks, like UK President Capiluto, who insists that there are more pressing needs for taxpayer money such as the upgrading of the UK campus. The aesthetic-promoting cadre has concluded that some of Rupp Arena’s walls should be converted from solid building material to glass, never mind that the building is just fine as it is. One can only guess at the expense of keeping all those windows clean, the better not to offend visiting sports fans. This is just an example of the wackiness involved in the whole process.

The artists’ renderings of the new plans, including all sorts of new buildings, indicate that Vine Street will be closed from its intersection with Main to Broadway…in other words, the most important section of the street. This means, of course, that the plan requires that the downtown one-way streets must be converted to two-way, the better to enhance beauty, convenience, aesthetics, and, of course, turn the whole area into a gigantic gridlock, with left-turn lanes on a street that was clogged in the 1930s-50s an impossibility. When the attempt to close Vine was made a few years ago (and actually approved in one reading of the ordinance), the citizens would have none of it and screamed “No Way” so loudly that the commissioners’ ears were ringing for a week.

Figures in the hundreds of millions for financing the project(s) have been thrown around as if the money will just magically appear. No one has the foggiest notion of what the cost will be or how it will be defrayed. Two things are certain: (1) People interested in profits are the prime movers, not the citizenry, most of which avoids the area for obvious reasons; (2) Somewhere along the line the government will be tabbed for a huge slug of money. The new KFC Yum Center in Louisville, a sort of house that Pitino (or at least UL basketball) built is facing financial difficulties already. Sooner or later, Louisville taxpayers will get involved but not by choice.

There’s always been a mystery as to why businesspeople and/or firms shell out their own cash for building the malls and other retail areas/businesses, as well as manufacturing facilities, while somehow the citizens are supposed to cough up the funds to prop up anything that happens downtown. The reason people aren’t attracted to downtown is quite simple: the paucity of retail space coupled with the fact that parking is either impossible or too inconvenient to abide. Feeding parking meters is also a non-starter.

Imagine an actual full-sized grocery store anywhere downtown, for instance. Managing carts up and down the garage elevators is laughable on its face. This is not the 1930s-40s, when the population of Lexington was about 75,000, a fourth of what it is now. Even then, there were neighborhood groceries as was the case in even much smaller towns. I grew up in Danville then, when this was the case…two or three sizeable groceries in the business area, along with stores like Montgomery-Ward, and small groceries throughout the town. Now, the largest groceries in Danville are far from downtown, notwithstanding a population of only about 16,000. People go where they can park their cars conveniently and not line up and traverse multi-ramps in garages.

Lexington’s movers and shakers take bus trips to other cities routinely and return with glowing accounts of “how those people are so far ahead of us.” Balderdash! Lexington does not have a riverfront like Louisville or Newport or Minneapolis or a lake-front like Chicago, where a recreational/entertainment area is possible. It’s a locked-in city, quite attractive in its own way and also accommodates venues such as the Opera House, Kentucky Theater, Singletary center, Rupp Arena (among the finest in the country and newly refurbished), and the city-renovated and operated Lyric Theater, costing a cool $6 million to refurbish and $600,000 a year to operate. With the handful of one-way streets in use now, access to these facilities is a piece of cake.

The plan seems to be to completely isolate Rupp Arena from that to which it is attached now and apparently build other buildings on what is now Vine Street. Why? The center of downtown is a huge square-block cow pasture now (okay, paddock in horse country), with no actual hope for putting anything there in the near future. If the movers and shakers feel somehow compelled to just do something, why not attempt it on that perfectly located plot…but not with taxpayer money? There’s room for every kind of frill imaginable there…for the convention-goers, of course. Egad! The economy is in the tank, the city is broke, and the dreamers contemplate costly frills.

And so it goes.
Jim Clark

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