Jan 192011

Locating city development

By Danny Mayer

For the past five years, the overwhelming majority of power—public debate, political scrutiny, positive media coverage, public and private money, development—has focused on reviving downtown Lexington and maintaining the county’s rural farmland. Correspondingly, most political and economic capital has been spent in the city’s center and at the county’s edges.

Danny Mayer

Main Street looking west, Summer 2010

This urban/rural development has been pitched to residents as an investment in the entire city, a public good. Demographically speaking, however, most Lexingtonians do not live on farms, nor do they live on Main Street. They live somewhere between the city and the country in diverse suburban tracts. Consequently, most of our relationships to city debates and costly city and rural improvements have existed at a geographic remove from our everyday lives. Things are happening here in Lexington, it’s just that most of the city’s population experience little direct benefit.

City consensus: city and country investments

The evolving consensus view by city power-brokers regarding city development and long-term “vision” has been that investments in a signature countryside and vibrant city are public goods, that such investments ultimately benefit all Lexingtonians, and that they offer the city its greatest “bang for the buck” in maintaining a competitive advantage over other cities. In the city center, it is claimed that city and private money spent downtown improves livability for citizens already living throughout Lexington, who get better access to culture, creative jobs, shopping and nightlife. At the same time, it is said that livable cities can better attract the important demographic of globally conscious, creative non-Lexingtonians who are looking to choose a place to live and work. Downtown living is also presented as greener, more aesthetically pleasing and practical—the wave of the future.

The same consensus has maintained that Fayette County’s rural countryside equally contributes to Lexington’s over-all economic and downtown growth. When the city invests in saving rural acreage from development, speculators and developers are forced to “infill” the city, which contributes to needed downtown development. At the same time, limiting rural growth also allows Lexington residents to maintain an important livability factor: their close proximity to the picturesque inner bluegrass countryside. The unique juxtaposition of city and country that residents have access to also helps nurture an already strong agri-tourism industry, a key pillar in a diversifying Lexington economy.

Scrutiny, debate and development: national maps

I generally agree with the broad contours of the consensus view—investments in the city and its periphery are important and can be mutually beneficial. At the same time, though, I often find myself disagreeing with the actions this consensus often-times enables in Lexington.

Part of my disagreement stems from my reading and understanding of national trends. City leaders have presented the renewed emphasis placed on creating a livable downtown and a picturesque countryside as national trends worthy of exploiting, of capitalizing upon. But in embracing the new urbanist vision, they have left out some key bits of context.

The national push to revive downtowns has evolved at precisely the same time that wealth has shifted away from the suburbs and back into the cities. Over the past 20 years, a similar influx of money has also occurred in formerly rural agricultural lands throughout the U.S. The increased economic power of these places—Jackson Hole, Santa Fe, nearly the entire state of Montana—has developed not through continued agricultural production, but rather through a valuation of the countryside as “picturesque,” mostly by a wealthy global clientèle who can afford to jet in and out of these vacation spots. (This fact has led Barbara Ehrenreich to observe that if a place looks truly beautiful, chances are that you cannot afford to live there.)

Cities and their countrysides may be experiencing periods of reinvestment, but it should also be clear that these public investments are disproportionately geared either to attract or mollify the same people as they always have: the wealthier among us who are either moving out of the suburbs or looking for new places to visit and own.

The influx of wealth into the cities, generally presented in Lexington and elsewhere as positive evidence of urban renewal, has been accompanied by a not-wholly-unexpected change nationally in urban demographics: in the rush to make the disinvested city appealing to “everyone,” those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder often get displaced from the city. Between the years 1999 and 2009, according to a recent Brookings Institute study, the number of poor living in metro areas increased by 5.5 million people, with two-thirds of that growth occurring in the suburbs. In fact by 2009, as the back to the city mantra has taken hold nationally as a model of progressive economic development, the majority of the poor who live in metro areas now reside in the suburbs. According to Brookings, 1.9 million more live in the suburbs than in the city.

At the very moment when we need to be investing in the suburbs, it seems—at a time when the suburbs have become more city-like in their mixture of class, ethnic and racial positions; that is, when they have finally become representative of the public—they have lost the voice of civic leaders and, correspondingly, the interest of the public and its mobilizing capabilities.

Lexington’s creative solutions: local maps

Despite claims of Lexington’s uniqueness (and world-class creative awesomeness), this city is not much different than other mid-size U.S. cities attempting to re-tool their urban core and promote their rural edges. For the most part, our solutions have been their solutions: make downtown livable. Leverage nearby assets. Do this mainly to better attract individuals (creative types) and corporations into town.

No surprise, then, that we may be on track to replicate, on our own scale, the same national problems that occur when city planning attaches itself to the needs of people who, in aggregate, do not need the extra public investment.

Look where our public money and civic interest have gone these past several years. Despite not committing to annual funds to develop affordable housing, the city has committed to investing regular annual sums of money (the regularity of which better attracts other outside money) in an effort to purchase 50,000 acres of farmland in Fayette County. The program is halfway to its goal, right at 25,000 acres.

A good percentage of the purchased acreage has been local horse farms, whose owners tend to reside in the top 10% of county wage earners. These same horse farms, indirectly, receive other public benefits, things like the free publicity a horse farmer gets for living in a city that invests great amounts of money to bolster its global brand image as “the horse capital of the world.” (Editor’s Note: Word is that Leftist media center for the Upper Southeast and American Southeast Bike Polo Capital of the World, two NoC offerings, made it to Day 3 in city brand deliberations, but both lost out early on Day 4 due to a fairly strong consensus of “no” votes.)

Closer to the city, public art projects like Horse Mania have nearly exclusively focused on the city’s commercial downtown zone: bordered on the east and west by Winchester Road and Newtown Pike, and on the north and south by Third Street and the UK campus. So, too, has a mis-named “Second Sunday,” promoting healthy activities, located itself downtown (once a year). Expensive public projects like streetscape improvements, road closures, public investment (Cheapside, the Courthouse lawn) and private restaurant and bar openings have also focused on this same Horse Mania zone.

The city’s government funded stab at supporting public transportation—free rides downtown aboard the environmentally friendly and “nostalgic” looking COLT trolleys—has also reinforced downtown’s Horse Mania zone. By very dint of its location, the trolley’s north/south line primarily serves vaguely wealthy UK students and wealthier Transy students. The recently re-tooled East West line has been expanded to run from the newly developed restaurants along Jefferson Street (between Short and Third) to the tony neighborhoods of inner-ring suburb Chevy Chase.

Think about this for a moment: One of the city’s most successful and wealthy neighborhoods—Chevy Chase—has essentially been afforded a direct, and free, bus service to cross-town eating and drinking establishments, all in the name of bolstering downtown business. In contrast to every other LexTran line, Chevy Chase bus-users get to ride in a brand new, environmentally friendly bus, one whose visually distinct appearance distinguishes it from every other (non-free) bus in Lexington used by everyday (read: not wealthy) riders.

In the East End, important black cultural landmarks that have the support of the city like the Lyric Theater and Isaac Murphy Park are found on Third Street—the back part of the city’s downtown Horse Mania commercial zone. The city’s celebrated investment in reviving the formerly segregated Bluegrass-Aspendale projects has had the byproduct effect of diminishing urban density in the East End area. In trumpeting the “success” of this redevelopment, nobody seems to know where many of the previous residents have relocated to. It seems clear that the subsequent construction of Equestrian Estates on the site has attracted few who previously lived there. City/private developers instead opted to slightly scale up price points to attract a more middle class neighborhood clientèle.

I should stop here a second, step back and say, I love all these measures and developments. Shropshire, which runs north through Equestrian Estates, has been a joy to jog down this past year while watching the neighborhood fill in and become vibrant. The city should be putting regular money into the maintenance of county agricultural lands. Using targeted free or discounted public transportation to aid specific communities in moving through the city certainly qualifies as a public good. The Lyric’s beneficial work in the East End neighborhood, as a regular hub of entertainment and community empowerment, is already immense–and it is not even 6 months old.

But looked at in aggregate, platted on a map, things seem a little fishy. That’s a lot of big city projects in a small space, an area generally about 6 blocks wide and maybe a mile and a half long at the epicenter of the city, and 25,000 acres parceled around the periphery. Also a lot of studies. And media space, money, time, effort.

The community has benefited off those investments in unequal ways. Relative to the rest of the city, the downtown Horse Mania Zone, along with the owners of thoroughbred farms (despite their own problems), are faring comparatively better than the rest of the city. As one among many constituencies, their needs are getting heard, and often met.

Danny Mayer

Main Street looking east, Summer 2010

Though I personally am faring well (my wife and I are employed), I note very little of the immense downtown investment even reaching into my neighborhood, just off Fourth Street on MLK, only a block outside the Horse Mania zone. Our streets have not been beautified. Downtown jobs do not seem to have had an impact here. Many of my neighbors have no need to visit the bars, restaurants and city offices that now proliferate downtown (and which are cited as evidence of downtown revitalization), so there’s not much of a feeling among some of my neighbors of belonging downtown; the Living Arts and Science Center, which helps anchor the block, didn’t even merit a Horse Mania horse.

These aren’t gripes so much as an observation. I know from personal and professional observation that, among others, Andrea James has worked diligently to harness active neighbors and limited district funds to neighborhood needs. Thankfully, we have the Lyric; this alone qualifies as an immense fringe benefit. But then again, we’re located one block off the Horse Mania zone. New money (me and probably you) is pouring into this area. Returns on the public’s large investment downtown, I would presume, decrease the farther one is located from it (and me).

Whether intended or not, city-wide, most residents have only benefited indirectly from the many consecutive years of downtown and rural investment, though they are often invoked collectively as direct beneficiaries to justify public expenditures; meanwhile, those who most visibly and directly benefit from remaking Lexington into an urban showcase seem to be the types of people who, from the outset, were already generally well off.

In other words, new times and new schemes, new developments and new markets, new rhetoric and new aesthetics. Same old winners.

Off the map: suburbs as solution

I always chuckle when reading the many assessment reports that relate to the city. They all say the same thing. Lexington has world-class scenery and a small but vibrant urban core with lots of potential. City leaders should position themselves to maximize these strengths.

There’s always a chapter on the horse industry and the countryside. There’s always one on downtown’s potential, and another outlining city strengths (usually accompanied by a sober reminder that all competitive global cities of tomorrow promote x, y and z in their city in order to attract talent). From there, things vary a bit, but this part is nearly all the same. Bourbon is often mentioned.

I laugh because I think, has the person authoring this study actually lived in Lexington, or even spent time here? Whatever else Lexington is, it is a city of suburbs. Most of us live in a diverse mix of suburban developments, and unless ridiculous amounts of new urban housing stock get built real quick, most of us will remain living in them.

The solutions come from some rigid urban utopia: Though your city has a very small urban footprint relative to other older cities because you did not industrialize as much during the 20th century, you should be like Austin (population 1,000,000). You should urbanize like Pittsburgh (whose downtown first spit out 400,000 residents over a 30 year period before settling at a population still larger than Lexington). World class cities! World class countrysides! Development in a box! It all seems so narrow, topographically speaking, a narrow range of  creative solutions.

In most studies, the suburbs are understood as the problem, not as a potential solution. This should not surprise us. Like cities forty years ago during the era of white flight, the suburbs are now just a place experts tell us we’re supposed to fly through, turning our nose up at the ugly aesthetics, on our way to the re-branded city or country (or to the airport). This is unfortunate because, in this city at least, such thinking dismisses a very real potential strength . It also completely fails to engage most of the public on their home turf.

Bike your suburbs, know your suburbs. Read Steve Austin’s Bluegrass ReVisions blog for some good inner-New Circle suburban routes.Drop in for lunch.. Throw rounds of disc.. Roll in the dirt. Be meddlesome. Wear a helmet. Explore.

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  One Response to “Propping up Main Street”

  1. Finally someone articulates the misguided policy decisions our city has been pursuing since Scotty Basler was mayor. A well-written, thoughtful piece.

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