Mandate for Change- Does downtown Lexington have one?

From Business Lexington
February 19, 2009
by Van Meter Pettit, AIA

Lexington, KY – In a merged urban county where we have pledged for 50 years to preserve two-thirds of the land area as a world heritage monument for our signature equine industry, it should be clear to everyone that our economic future rests on how densely and carefully we develop the core of our city. If we choose to maintain our unique rural character, whatever land remains inside our urban boundary must become perpetually more dense and productive. To quote our recent 2040 survey, we want Lexington to have a “Great City Life in a Productive Rural Paradise.” Outside consultants and local advocates have relayed to us repeatedly that if we want to compete on a national level for jobs and business we must develop a downtown that is as compelling in nature as our rural landscape. Every parcel of every block in our city’s center needs to be viewed as the seed corn for a future harvest.

From the observations made by executives of Toyota, Lexmark, and UK Hospital we now understand that a weak and lackluster downtown is not just an embarrassment, it is a critical deficiency that will relegate us to second- or third-tier status among American cities. If we do not generate an optimal climate for urban culture, growth, and innovation, we will watch our creative businesses and college graduates move away to better job environments. Despite the recent flourish of downtown masterplanning and urban mixed-use development, Lexington has yet to commit faithfully to optimizing our downtown. Significant aspects of our 2006 downtown masterplan have been set aside or watered down.

Though motivated by good intentions and a concern for time and money, critical aspects of our most recent streetscape plan deviate profoundly from our first masterplan in ways that need debate and scrutiny. What is most time-critical at present is the mandate to convert our downtown streets back to two-way traffic. After thousands of hours of public input, the 2006 masterplan was emphatic about downtown street conversions. And yet the latest streetscape plan suggests that we redevelop Vine and Main as one-way streets. The conversion of our once two-way streets into a one-way system in our downtown is a ’60s era experiment that has failed. Our once vibrant downtown is a mere shadow of its former self. Converting our urban byways into a confusing labyrinth of restricted intersections and one-way streets has discouraged pedestrian and commercial life. Many of our best downtown landmarks and commercial property are visually inaccessible because of the one-way traffic flow. Aside from some attractive spots here and there, downtown has acres of asphalt lots and marginally used real estate. A growing chorus of visiting consultants all echo what is now a national consensus: One-way streets are good for moving commuter traffic and very bad for downtown business. Scores of cities across the U.S. have converted one-way streets back to two-way to improve their urban environments.

Since our long-term future depends on a strong and growing urban economy, it would follow that we are busily converting our one-way streets back to their original two-way condition. Sadly this is not the case.

Despite every indication that downtown would benefit from these conversions, it has been several years since ANY conversion large or small has been made. In fact we are poised to invest millions of dollars at a time of scarcity to improve Main and Vine as one-way streets. We as a community have said over and over that we need a “24/7” downtown, but the decision to renew this failed urban experiment is inspired by a two-hour-a-day drive-through mindset.

It is understandable that our government is concerned that a delay in our daily commute will generate public wrath. But the debate over commute times and two-way conversions has never been put clearly to the public in the context of the well-observed economic merits. This issue has been debated all over the country already and the consensus from scores of communities is consistent: two-way conversions, while temporarily disruptive and controversial, are a net benefit for the economy and the life of the city.

We strongly urge the council and mayor to vote for a clear mandate for two-way conversions with a specific timetable for each pair of streets. Although it will not be quick, cheap, or easy, we eventually need to convert all our major streets back to two-way if we want to optimize conditions for development and commerce downtown. How do we expect to make our city what it needs to be without reversing one of the clear obstacles to its redevelopment?

This issue needs to be clearly resolved for all subsequent planning decisions to be made coherently. If this remains an avoided debate, it will be a source of ambiguity sure to discourage confidence and investment. We will likely make costly mistakes as a city down the road without a clear mandate to guide us. If it is clearly explained, Lexingtonians all want what is best in the long-term rather than what is cheapest or most expedient. We all want a growing economy and a bright future so our children and grandchildren can grow up in the Bluegrass. Our economic future depends on an optimized and reinvigorated urban core. This major issue was recommended in 2006 and now warrants timely resolution and implementation.

Van Meter Pettit, AIA, is president of Town Branch Trail, Inc., a 501-c-3 nonprofit dedicated to advocacy for the creation of a multi-use trail linking downtown Lexington with its equine landscape via the historic Town Branch corridor.

State gives initial approval to downtown Lexington projects

2.6.09 Lexington Herald-Leader
By Beverly Fortune –

FRANKFORT — A state board gave preliminary approval to two downtown Lexington developments that would be the first in the city to use future tax revenues as a way to help finance the projects.
The Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority board gave approval on Thursday to the Lexington Distillery District on Manchester Street and the Phoenix Park/Courthouse Development Area in downtown near the planned CentrePointe high-rise.

An extensive review process remains before either can get final approval.

Barry McNees, developer of the Distillery District, called the approval “a tremendous watershed moment, to get even tentative approval by the state.”

The state has hired Economics Research Associates of Chicago to do a consultant report on both districts. The firm will look at the financial feasibility of each, how appropriate it is to use tax increment money to pay for public infrastructure in each and whether the developments will create new taxes for the commonwealth.
After the consultant’s work is finished, the KEDFA staff will work with the Office of the State Budget Director and the Department of Revenue to evaluate both tax increment financing proposals and decide which state taxes to use for the TIF, how much and exactly what the money will pay for, said Brad Thomas, an assistant director in the department of financial incentives.

The KEDFA board will then make the final decision on whether to direct state tax money toward the projects.
The Distillery District and the Phoenix Park/Courthouse area are separate TIF applications and will be considered separately at the state level, Thomas said.

Mandy Lambert, spokeswoman for the Cabinet for Economic Development, could not predict how long it would take to go through these steps.

A vexing issue with CentrePointe has been a reluctance by the developers to reveal their source of funding. Lambert said the source is identified in the Phoenix Park/Courthouse application for state TIF funds because CentrePointe is the economic engine for that area. A statutory requirement keeps that financial information confidential, she said.

“We are comfortable with the financing at this juncture. Additional analysis will be done by the consultant,” she added.

The idea behind tax increment financing is that in blighted urban areas, development creates new tax revenue that the city would not have if the land stayed neglected.

A brief look at the two state TIF applications:

Lexington Distillery District: Planned as a 25-acre mixed arts and entertainment district. Included will be a micro distillery and bourbon museum in the old James E. Pepper Distillery; 277 live-work studios and loft condominiums; 70,000 square feet of office space, 85,000 square feet of retail and 17,000 of restaurant space.

Total cost for the project is $190 million. Of that total, $81 million would be paid for by state TIF money. This includes public improvements such as land preparation, sewer and storm drainage. The five-story Pepper distillery and storage building will operate as public facilities, with legal title held by Lexington Fayette Urban County Government.

In the preliminary report the KEDFA staff recommended that the maximum amount of state tax money not exceed $61 million or 75 percent of the project. Local government would be in for 25 percent.
Phoenix Park/Courthouse Area: Project is 14.25-acre development driven by the construction and operation of CentrePointe, a 35-story development. Cost for the complex and nearby TIF improvements is $298 million.
What the city wants in the way of public improvements here is a tunnel to connect Phoenix Park to the high rise, a pedway to connect the Financial Center garage to CentrePointe, a 331-space underground Phoenix Park garage, a new Phoenix Park, restoration of the old Fayette County Courthouse, Cheapside Park and courthouse plaza; permanent site for Lexington Farmers Market with covered structure, sidewalk improvements and public art.

The staff recommended $112 million maximum state TIF participation in this project.

2.6.09 Lexington Herald-Leader
By Beverly Fortune –

Distillery District get preliminary TIF green light

by Erik A. Carlson for Business Lexington

February 05, 2009

CentrePointe and Distillery District get preliminary TIF green light- Finance Authority to begin process, both projects could be approved in 90-120 days

Frankfort, KY – Both the Lexington Distillery District and the Phoenix Park and Courthouse area project in conjunction with CentrePointe are closer to reality as the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority (KEDFA) gave both projects preliminary approval Thursday morning in Frankfort to take part in the state’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program.

From here the projects could get final approval and start collecting tax increments within 90-120 days under the Cabinet for Economic Development’s timeline. A third party consultant for the state, Chicago-based Economic Research Associates will work for the state to determine the projects’ feasibility and increments.

“By granting preliminary approval, KEDFA would enable staff to begin working with the Office of the State Budget Director and the Department of Revenue to create criteria for which a consultant would review the project feasibility including financing, appropriateness for the use of the TIF program, and potential increments, and whether the project represents a net positive impact to the commonwealth,” Cabinet for Economic Development material stated in the explanation of the process which is new to the cabinet from the original TIF law passed in 2007. “Upon completion of the consultant’s report and if it is determined that the project provides a net positive impact for the commonwealth, staff will then begin the negotiations to determine the level of participation by the commonwealth and what taxes will be used for incremental financing. Once negotiations are finalized, staff will then present the project to KEDFA for final approval.”

Both projects were given unanimous preliminary approval from the small KEDFA board with relatively little discussion of the projects.

Distillery District developer Barry McNees called the board’s vote “a huge, significant step.”

The CentrePointe project, which itself is not reliant on the TIF approval, but instead will be used to fund projects at the old courthouse and Phoenix Park is working on getting lane closure permits along Main and Vine to allow for construction according to Kimberly Bryant, and attorney with Greenebaum, Doll and McDonald.

Bryant also said architectural engineering is going on for the under ground parking garage to be associated with the project.

TIF laws in Kentucky allow for areas deemed blighted to capture tax revenue above current levels that are generated by redevelopment to go back into the TIF district to fund public projects such as infrastructure and public spaces. While the taxes themselves are not higher than any other area of town, any new tax money from the area which normally would go into the city and state coffers will go to reimburse the eligible projects for 20 years in the case of the Distillery District and 30 years for the CentrePointe project.

Stepping Up- Fayette County is Making Strides Toward being a Fit City

By Vince Tweddell, Business Lexington,

When Zina Merkin was living in Cambridge, Mass., a blizzard wiped out the roadways, leaving them unpassable for automobiles. Yet, people still had to get to and fro. A funny thing happened: people walked. That’s the first time Merkin––now a Lexington resident who volunteers her time to help with the planning, fundraising, and education for the non-profit Town Branch Trail project––recalls feeling a pull to create a community of walkers.

She said the side effects of the storm were great because “everyone had to walk––I ran into people I hadn’t seen in years.”

While walking or biking across town without the burden of dealing with motorists might seem like a dream for many Lexington health enthusiasts, local officials say it could happen in the future. And although it won’t be a complete reality in 2006, there are many projects on tap that are pushing that dream forward.

Keith Lovan, chair of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government (LFUCG) Greenway Coordinating Committee, lists five trail projects that are scheduled for construction this year. All of them will be paved, 10- or 12-feet wide, and appropriate for runners, walkers, parents with strollers, wheelchairs, bicyclists, and in-line skaters. These trails include:

• West Hickman Trail, a trail on the south end near Veterans Park that will total 1 1/2 miles.

• Brighton East Rail to Trail project on the east end, which will be the first rail to trail project in Fayette County. It will begin on an abandoned railroad track that runs all the way to Ashland, Ky., said Lovan. The goal is to eventually link the two cities with this multipurpose trail. This year just the first two miles of the trail are scheduled for construction.

• South Elkhorn Trail off of Nicholasville Road will eventually connect Waveland State Historic Site and Shillito Park. The first half-mile will be built this year.

• Liberty Park Trail is located off Liberty Road and will be about one mile long.

• Town Branch Trail will eventually total eight miles, connecting Masterson Station Park in west Lexington through downtown to Thoroughbred Park. One half-mile is in place, with 1 1/2 additional miles scheduled for construction this year.

Lovan said about $3 million worth of projects will be funded this year (with the work to be done by the LFUCG) mostly by federal funds with $200,000 to $300,000 coming from local matches.

Town Branch Trail is a perfect example of what could be for multi-purpose paths in Lexington, with plans to snake through residential, industrial, and downtown areas. Although only the first half-mile of the 10-foot wide multi-purpose trail has been completed, that hasn’t stopped residents of McConnell’s Trace Neighborhood, which borders the trail, from indulging in it.

“Every day I see people on it from seven in the morning until dark,” said Robert Russell-Tutty, president of the McConnell’s Trace Neighborhood Association. “Matter of fact, I use it myself.”

Russell-Tutty said residents are looking forward to when the trail will connect to downtown.

According to Merkin, when the Town Branch Trail is complete, it will wind about eight miles along the Town Branch of the Elkhorn Creek through “disinvested” or neglected areas, neighborhoods, underutilized industrial areas, and on through the hotel and convention area.

“Visitors can go right out of their hotel and get in their morning jog before the conference starts,” Merkin said.

This trail, she hopes, will offer alternative transportation, recreation, and exercise, while leading to further environmental cleanup. Also, it provides a firsthand view of the history of Lexington, which was founded along Town Branch.

“If the trail comes near the creek it will bring it into people’s awareness, and they will encourage cleaning it up,” said Merkin. “The creek is not in great shape. It is on the state’s list of impaired waterways. In many places it looks very pretty, and in many places you can see trash.”

Not all those who get from point A to point B in a non-motorized fashion prefer hoofing it. For bicycling enthusiasts there are additional plans on the horizon in 2006.

One of the first things bicyclists notice are bike lanes, and in 2006, Mayor Teresa Isaac has set aside $115,000 for re-striping bike lanes, according to Kenzie Gleason, coordinator of the LFUCG Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee. Although $115,000 may seem like a large amount, Gleason estimates it will fund maybe five miles.

Gleason also said funding has been secured to hire a consultant who will help determine what citizens want improved in regards to biking and walking needs on the short-, mid-, and long-range plans for alternative transportation.

“It’s a plan to determine how we’ll move forward, ” she said. “We don’t want to tell the population, we need people to tell us what their priorities are.”

Bicycle enthusiasts also have the 3rd Annual Bike Lexington to look forward to on May 20, Gleason said. She hopes the participation at the bicycling race and information day will one day rival some of the runs held in Lexington.

Beyond biking, walking, and running, Lexington offers a number of free or affordable fitness options. By utilizing the city’s community centers, residents can participate in aerobics classes, basketball, karate, weightlifting, and other classes, said Diane Bonfert, recreation superintendent for LFUCG Parks and Recreation. The largest of these with the most equipment is Dunbar Community Center on North Upper Street. Others include Carver, Castlewood, Charles Young, and Kenwick community centers. Also, Winburn Middle School has equipment and is open to the public. For example, the fitness room at Dunbar is open each weeknight from 5 to 9 p.m. In addition, for a fee per team, the Parks Department also offers volleyball and softball leagues.

Bonfert said her department has just formed a committee to determine what the Parks and Recreation department can do to help Lexingtonians to become more physically fit. She said the committee is in the beginning stages and will be further refined in the next month or so.

In the March 17, 2005, issue of Prevention Magazine, Lexington was ranked as the eighth-best walking city in America for cities with populations between 200,000 and 500,000. (Louisville ranked 16th on that same list.) But according to the Prevention Web site, Lexington received this ranking not based on the number of recreation walkers, hikers, or people who commute by walking, but by the number of baby stroller owners and the percentage of residents who participate in sports at least once a week.

Officials concede there is much more work to do for walking paths and trails, as well as bicycling paths.

“Bike trails and walking paths are included in almost all development plans,” said Bruce Edwards, Isaac’s press secretary. Edwards said Isaac always has the health of Lexington’s residents in mind, and when asked if Lexington is a healthy city, responded, “Absolutely.”

To a degree, Lovan agrees. “The government is doing quite a bit (for healthiness in Lexington),” he said. “You should see evidence this year.”

But Lovan also concedes there are not as many pedestrians or biking commuters as officials would like. He said by census, less than one percent of residents commute by walking or bicycling, and the goal is between five and 10 percent.

“So we’ve got a long way to go.”

Merkin, a research assistant in landscape architecture at the University of Kentucky, estimates that Lexington is some 20 years behind the curve when compared to other cities’ bicycling and walking paths and green spaces. She listed Indianapolis and Chattanooga as model cities.

“It’s hard to get around (in Lexington) on alternative transportation safely,” she said.

Additionally, Gleason said children are walking less to school. In the past, she said upward of 60 to 70 percent of school children got to school by biking and walking. Now it’s closer to 15 percent, she said. But LFUCG has secured a grant called Safe Route to School which will be used to identify barriers––such as dangerous crossings or missing sidewalks––that keep kids from walking or biking to school.

The thing that may be keeping more Lexingtonians from biking or walking is a level of comfort.

“My feeling is that a lot of people want to do it, but they don’t feel it’s safe yet,” Lovan said. “I think Lexingtonians are very interested in it, but it takes time to develop.”

But this year the government will inch closer to an interconnected development linking parks and greenspaces, said Lovan. “If we get all our trails (scheduled for construction) completed, yes, we’re looking at our most ambitious year yet.

“Hopefully, it will be a successful year this year, and will bring more enthusiasm and funding so that we can grow more next year.”

It’s the same theme for the Town Branch Trail Project.

“We’re not going to give up until it’s (Town Branch Trail) done,” Merkin said. “It will be a great asset to our city.”

On the right path? Town Branch Trail Connecting Lexington’s past to its future

By Van Meter Pettit
Guest Commentary for Business Lexington

Anyone who has spent time in Lexington can tell you it’s a lovely place to live or visit. We have a 200-year-old history, two universities, a highly educated population, and a diverse and prosperous economy. We sit astride two major highways – and of course (as if anyone will let you forget) we’re the Horse Capital of the World.

For just a moment, let’s step back from the Lexington we all know and love and ask a question: What more could Lexington be? What are the missing pieces that would make Lexington an even more wonderful and prosperous place, the kind of magnet for talent, creativity, and by extension, economic development, that other places in the country have become?

In drawing a comparison, let’s look at successful medium-sized cities like Austin, Boulder, San Antonio, Providence or Portland. What is a common feature? Each has a vibrant and well-designed urban center that has transformed their respective downtowns into 24/7 live-work-play environments.

In my opinion, Lexington has tremendous unfulfilled potential in this regard. Without diminishing downtown’s numerous entrepreneurial businesses or the spike in private development that has sprouted over the last year, our downtown is still well behind the curve of other American cities with whom we should be able to compete. Our downtown has numerous existing and dormant locations of interest, whether they be historical, cultural or economic, but downtown conspicuously lacks a centering element that would synch it together.

A growing number of Lexingtonians are beginning to believe that it is high time for Lexington to dream big and follow that with action. If we can “connect the dots” of our city, promoting a number of places of interest through a unifying and active experience, then we will pull tens of thousands more visitors off the highway to visit, attract many more bright young professionals to live and work here, and convince scads more lively retirees to spend their golden IRAs with us.

What could provide that unifying thread? The very same element that drew frontiersmen to this glorious spot of wilderness in the first place: Town Branch Creek.

Ever wonder why Lexington is located where it is? Why the city grid has no cardinal bearings? Why the central business district is so long and thin?

Believe it or not, Lexington was settled in 1779 along the banks of the middle fork of Elkhorn Creek, a small tributary called Town Branch that now lies buried under Vine Street.

What Town Branch Trail, Inc., a five-year-old 501-c-3 nonprofit, hopes Lexington can achieve is no less than the rebirth of the forgotten creek where our city was born at the dawn of the American Revolution. At its fullest, the project would take the form of a ten-foot-wide asphalt path shared by bicycles and pedestrians running a minimum of eight miles from downtown Lexington out to Masterson Station Park (which has an additional four-mile grass loop). Within the immediate downtown area, we envision a half-mile ribbon park running down Vine Street that would connect Thoroughbred and Triangle Parks (over the footprint of the buried creek). This Vine Street section of the trail would emulate the dry-stone canal and tree-lined “commons” that our city created out of the creek over 200 years ago. (We don’t propose digging up the actual buried stream.)

The scope and potential of this project can at first appear by degrees thrilling, daunting, or hopelessly far-fetched. Nonetheless, this project is slowly becoming a reality. A Downtown Master Plan commissioned by the Lexington Downtown Development Authority has integrated this project as a central element. Town Branch Trail is a major component of the city’s unanimously approved Greenway Masterplan. It has been integrated into the design for the Newtown Pike Extension, and Congressman Ben Chandler has offered enthusiastic support for the idea. To date, the project has attracted over $1,000,000 of in-kind donations of land and labor and $450,000 of funding to build two miles of trail. On October 8 at 10 a.m., we will dedicate the first half-mile of trail across from Masterson Station Park in the McConnell Trace neighborhood.

Now let’s put our efforts in context: The San Antonio Riverwalk took 40-plus years to create, and cities like Austin and Portland have been building miles of urban trails since the 1970s. These lovely places have been enjoying a very positive urban renaissance for decades as a result. Our situation is a bit like what Mark Twain said about Kentucky: “When judgement day comes, I’m moving to Kentucky, because everything happens there twenty years later.” Well, our twenty-year lag time is over, folks, and we have lots of nitty-gritty work ahead, but with equal measures of inspiration, perspiration, and cooperation we can carve a path into the future that will take Lexington to a whole new level of prosperity and urban life.