Two great downtown stories in the H-L recently

July 2, 2009

Dear Friends:

Over the last week the Lexington Herald-Leader has run a story and a column that really add to the public conversation going on about downtown. The initial concept is that after decades of perimeter expansion, downtown has huge potential for economic development. The next base concept is that a downtown economy is supported by foot traffic and not drive-through commuters.

Fitting into this framework, the first piece by Tom Eblen looks at Charlottesville’ Main Street Mall and how it has become a great civic magnet for their downtown.

The second piece by Beverly Fortune looks at how a block of North Mill Street might make a good one block pedestrian zone in the same spirit. Building upon the sucessful reuse of Cheapside Park for festivals and market days, this seems like a great next step.

See what you think.

Does Lexington have the guts of a Charlottesville or a Boulder, Colorado to close some streets for pedestrians? I sure hope so. New York City just closed Time Square for pedestrians. If they can manage it I think we could too.

Why does this matter to Town Branch Trail?

Because the more dense and vibrant the city, the more useful the trail.


Van Meter Pettit, AIA

Lexington Herald-Leader
Thursday June 25, 2009

Support grows for Mill Street pedestrian mall
By Beverly Fortune –

Momentum is growing among downtown merchants and property owners to close North Mill Street between Main and Short streets and convert it to a pedestrian mall, similar to Cheapside.

Closing the street to traffic is a recommendation in the city’s downtown streetscape plan.

“It would be great for my business,” said Eric Boggs, an owner of Goodfellas Pizza on North Mill. “We could put more tables out front. People would love it.”

The Cheapside Entertainment District Association favors the closing. “No one had any negative views at our last meeting,” Boggs said.

Sandy Fields, owner of The Rosebud and Silks Lounge bars, has pushed the idea to close Mill late at night for years. “It would be great for downtown,” Fields said.

Narrow sidewalks and crowds of people spilling out of bars has worried Fields to the point that she hires security to keep customers out of the street at night. “I don’t want anybody to get hit by a car,” she said.

After years of not getting support from city officials, Fields sees the idea gaining traction.
“What we’re shooting for is a central location downtown like 4th Street Live in Louisville, or Beale Street, where you can walk freely throughout the street,” said Bob Estes, president of the Cheapside Entertainment District Association. The district would include Mill and Cheapside, a street closed temporarily last year, then permanently.

“This is the only block of downtown lined with old buildings that face each other across the street. It could be a beautiful pedestrian area,” said downtown developer Phil Holoubek, who is pushing the idea.
Closing Mill would not mean sacrificing street parking. Mill has only four unreserved parking spaces during the day, said owner Sonya Forschner, owner of Ivos hair salon.

“As soon as you park an SUV out there, we’re gone. Nobody can see us. We would have much better visibility with a mall,” she said.

The idea of closing Mill Street has its critics as well. Attorney Carolyn Kenton, whose office has been on the street for 17 years, adamantly opposes permanently closing Mill.

“I have a lot of elderly clients who can’t walk from the Short Street lot down here,” she said. Even with little parking on the street, “cars can stop to let somebody off.”

Banning cars in favor of pedestrians would strengthen the identity of the developing entertainment district in the west end of downtown, proponents say.

“Anything we can do to encourage a European feel to downtown, we should do,” said Len Cox, owner of Graves Cox store in Triangle Center at the corner of Mill and Main. “Mill and Cheapside would make a nice U-shape area for people to walk.”

He predicted it would become “a great destination spot.”

The Urban County Council approved the streetscape plan, but council action is needed to close the street, said Harold Tate, president of the Downtown Development Authority.

“We need to hear from police and fire to see if there are safety issues. And we need input from business owners and property owners downtown,” he said.

Tate said Mill could be closed on Friday and Saturday nights at first, as an experiment.
But he said, “The concept is exciting.”

Urban planner Steve Austin estimates the conversion would cost less than $1 million.

However, a Mill Street pedestrian mall is not in Phase 1 of the streetscape budget, Tate said. That first phase includes new sidewalks and buried utility lines on Limestone from Euclid Avenue to Fourth Street, plus sidewalks and rain gardens on portions of Main and Vine streets.
Proponents such as Austin want to move up Mill Street on the streetscape priority list.

Councilman Jay McChord said one way to pay for closing Mill is to make only partial improvements on Vine Street in the short term. “A Mill Street pedestrian mall would be low-cost, high-impact infrastructure” that could be completed in time for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, he said.

“It could help you create real critical mass activity in your downtown,” McChord said.
Councilwoman Diane Lawless’s district includes the Mill Street area. “I haven’t talked to traffic engineering, but it seems like a simple thing to do. It would be a really neat thing to do,” she said.

Lexington Herald-Leader
Wednesday, Jul. 01, 2009

Tom Eblen: Charlottesville shows potential of Mill Street pedestrian mall

When I first heard about plans to turn the block of Mill Street between Main and Short into a pedestrian mall, I thought it was a good idea.

After seeing how a larger pedestrian mall has transformed downtown Charlottesville, Va., I think it could be a truly great idea.

I went to Charlottesville recently with a group of friends for a bicycle tour. On Friday and Saturday evenings, we went to the Downtown Mall for dinner.

The place was hopping. Hundreds of people were eating, shopping, listening to live music and visiting with each other.

The eight-block mall on what used to be Main Street has 30 restaurants and 120 shops in a mix of old and new buildings. At one end is a children’s museum and an amphitheater that hosts big-name performers and has free weekly concerts by local bands.

The mall has become a big tourist draw and economic engine. More important, it has become Charlottesville’s community front porch. Most of the people we saw there seemed to be locals. Some said they come every week between May and October.

It’s a good example of the urban planner’s maxim that if you build a city to appeal to its residents, others will want to be there, too.

The Downtown Mall was hardly an overnight success. More like a 35-year slog.

As with many American cities in the early 1970s, suburban growth had turned Charlottesville’s downtown business district into a ghost town.

So, in 1975, Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia, got on the bandwagon of cities building pedestrian malls. Many of those malls failed, such as Louisville’s River City Mall, although it would later be reborn as the popular Fourth Street Live.

But Charlottesville stuck with it, trying new ideas and making periodic improvements over the years. The city recently finished a $7.5 million renovation, which included new pavers and free wireless Internet service.

As with most successful developments, good design is key. The former street is 60 feet wide, with pedestrian corridors on each side and cafes in the center, shaded by giant willow oak trees. The trees make the mall pretty as well as comfortable in the summer heat.

The trees’ rapid growth was a pleasant surprise, said Rhetta Bearden, a guide for the local historical society who gave several of us a great downtown walking tour.

Planners knew that Main Street had once been part of “Three Notch’d Road,” a pioneer path from the James River to the Shenandoah Valley that got its name from hatchet marks on trees to blaze the trail. But they didn’t know there were springs beneath it that would make the willow oaks flourish, Bearden said.

If you compare Charlottesville and Lexington, you find that Lexington is a bigger city, with a bigger metro area. It also has more college students.
So what would it take to make downtown Lexington more of a people magnet?

There certainly seems to be public interest. Just look at the growing crowds for Thursday Night Live, Gallery Hop and big events such as this weekend’s Independence Day festivities.

One pedestrian block of Mill Street doesn’t compare with Charlottesville’s eight-block mall, but it fits nicely into a bigger picture. The block is strategically located between Cheapside and Victorian Square, both of which are having success recently with restaurants and bars.

With a little money and imagination, Mill Street could become the heart of a downtown entertainment district that would pull University of Kentucky students a few blocks north, Transylvania University students a few blocks south and a variety of Central Kentuckians in from the suburbs.

My guess is that a new skyscraper wouldn’t do nearly as much to revitalize downtown Lexington as a bigger community front porch.