new public art at lowell’s

In early October, local art group PRHBTN sponsored six new street art murals around Lexington.

One of the biggest new murals is right next to Lowell’s! We can see this huge, beautiful art from our front door, and we chronicled artists Yu-baba and Key Detail as they painted.

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We think that this new mural is part of what makes Lexington and our North Lime neighborhood such a great and unique place to live and work. Come down to lowell’s to see it!

 

north lime

This month, we’re updating our logo, our colors, and our design.

You’ll see these new colors, logo, and design first on our emails, website, and buildings (which are freshly painted), and we’ll continue to roll out the new design throughout all of our materials in the coming weeks.

One new element of the design is the ‘north lime’ designation which goes along with our logo. We are proud to be part of Lexington’s resurgent North Limestone neighborhood, and we wanted to celebrate that in our logo.

North Lime is where we work every day. It’s where we get to see you. We’ve been here for 37 years, and this neighborhood is in our blood.

We’re still here at 111 Mechanic Street, in the heart of North Lime. And we can’t wait to see you here soon!

uncovering a bit of our history

As we peeled away some sixty to seventy years of paint, we started to make out faint outlines of block letters underneath all of those layers.

At first, all we could see was ‘ETE  HOME  F’. Then, below that, we could make out ‘LEXINGTON – DANVILLE’. At the top of the building, we could start to see ‘H & G’.

We were hooked. We wanted to know what was here before.

::

We’ve often wondered about the origins of our buildings here on Mechanic Street. We’ve known that our main building was built in 1949, but we didn’t know what kind of building it was.

That changed as we prepared to paint our building this year.

As we scraped away more paint, we could find more clues, but the clues were never very clear. Eventually, it started to look like ‘H & G COMPLETE HOME FURNI’, and we were pretty sure we were dealing with some sort of furniture store. That seemed a little odd, given the structure of our building, but maybe our building was just a warehouse for the store.

Finally, with most of the paint removed, the top line looked a lot less like ‘H & G’ and much more like ‘BAUGH & GARNER’.

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Baugh & Garner Building, 1932 - The original 4-story Baugh & Garner building on the corner of North Limestone and Mechanic. Today, Lowell's stands where the 2 houses behind the B&G building (at the lower left of this picture) are.
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Several internet searches (mainly, the great historical images at the University of Kentucky’s ExploreUK) confirmed that our building was part of Baugh & Garner Incorporated, a furniture store on the corner of North Limestone and Mechanic Streets. The four-story building for the store was built in 1922, and our building at 111 Mechanic Street was built a quarter-century later as a warehouse for the store.

We can’t find any contemporaneous pictures of our building when it was part of the store, but we do have some good pictures of the store itself from 1921, 1932, and 1933.

We’d love to know more about Baugh and Garner – when it started, who ran it, when it went out of business, when the old building was torn down, etc.  If you can share any additional details, please let us know!

 

 

 

The True Cost of South Limestone

The South Limestone streetscape project began with the closure of South Lime two months ago today, and the project is slated to continue for another 10 months.  Meant to better connect downtown with the University of Kentucky campus, the project includes the widening of sidewalks, the installation of bike lanes, and the underground placement of utilities.

When the project started, we wrote about the chaotic process of closing the street and about the need for practical planning and design on South Lime and other urban development projects.  How has the project evolved since then?

Not well.

Severed Artery
The closure dramatically impacted traffic patterns between downtown
Lexington and the south side of our city, resulting in gnarled traffic
on a number of alternative routes to downtown.  At various points in the project, intersections with cross-streets (High, Maxwell, and Euclid) have also closed with little notice, adding to confusion and gridlock for downtown commuters and shoppers.  In effect, the closure of South Limestone has walled off downtown from Lexington's south side.

Several businesses along South Lime have struggled to cope with the substantial loss of customers and the physical disruption of their businesses.  Last week, Joe Graviss, the owner of the McDonald's on South Lime, pleaded with Lexington's Mayor and Urban County Council to add extra shifts or more workers to speed the project.  

City officials responded that extra shifts will not accelerate the project.  The project's manager noted that the city's concrete supplier closed in the evenings and that local utilities were already providing personnel to assist with the location and relocation of utility lines.  At one point, he admitted that he had no ideas for speeding the South Lime project along.

Vice Mayor Jim Gray – the CEO of Gray Construction and the only councilmember to oppose the project – countered the project manager's claims.  "It would be wise of us not to be extravagant in describing the difficulties of this project…  With 2000 projects under my belt, I've never seen a project that couldn't be improved or accelerated."

At this point, most elected leaders and city bureaucrats seem unprepared to take significant action to accelerate the South Limestone streetscape project.

That's because they have been thinking about the impacts of South Lime on the wrong scale.

Estimates on the price of the South Lime project vary, but the early $5.2 million estimate has ballooned to somewhere between $13.1 and $17 million.  The newer, higher price was partly meant to help expedite the project. 

But, as we'll see in a moment, that price far underestimates the true cost of the project to our city, our economy, and to our future. 

South Limestone's closure is not a mere inconvenience – it is a severed
artery that is bleeding the life from downtown.  It demands an urgent response from our leaders.  The cost to the city is too
dear to delay action, especially in this difficult economy.

Disruption: Anecdotes and Hard Data
A number of weeks ago, on the first day that the High Street intersection with South Lime was closed, I worked in my office and overheard two different customers from the south side of Lexington talk about the enormous problem of getting to our downtown shop – the confusion from suddenly closing the High Street intersection had made traffic especially difficult to decipher.

Then, we had an elderly customer from Nicholasville make an appointment for the next day, asking for directions on how to get to the shop with all of the construction.  Concerned about getting lost, she decided to do a dry run the day before.  After experiencing the jams, diversions, and delays, she called back and canceled her appointment.

Last month, I talked with another downtown business who is in our same industry.  They were scratching their heads about why their August business "fell off a cliff".  I talked with them again last week, and their business was still much slower than usual.

Yesterday, a regular customer who owns a shop in Festival Market came into Lowell's and opened the discussion with a flat "Business sucks".

When I started hearing these anecdotes, I began to think that the impacts of the South Limestone closure extended far beyond South Lime.  I wondered about the effects of South Lime as a customer deterrent for our business:

  • How many of our customers come from the south side of Lexington?
  • How many of those south-siders might have chosen to stay away from "the mess" downtown?
  • What could that data tell us about the impacts to all of downtown Lexington?

And what I saw in the data was astounding and troubling:

  • About 30% of our customers come from ZIP codes which would use Nicholasville Road (which turns into South Limestone) as the primary corridor to downtown
  • Since July 22nd – the date of the closure – we have lost one third of the business we'd normally expect from those ZIP codes.  By comparison, the rest of Lexington is relatively flat or growing.
  • The net of this was a loss of 10% of our sales (and a much bigger hit to our profitability) directly attributable to the South Lime closure.

I disclose these facts not as a woe-are-we pity party, but as a fact-based assessment of how "the mess downtown" affects one downtown business.  Our business is a relatively healthy, well-respected business with incredibly loyal customers (Last week, we won "Best Honest Mechanic" from Ace Weekly readers).  And, still, the closure of South Limestone accounted for a loss of a full third of south-side customers.

Ripple Effects
Can we extrapolate from just one business to the whole of downtown?  Not with any degree of certainty.  But my conversations with other business owners make me believe that my business' experience with the South Lime closure is not exceptional.  Admittedly, not every downtown business is as impacted by traffic disruptions, but most are impacted in some fashion: lost customers, lost productivity, supply chain delays, etc.

Hard data for downtown Lexington is difficult to come by.

  • Just how much of Lexington's $11 billion economy takes place downtown?
  • Which businesses depend upon the smooth flow of traffic?  To what degree?
  • How many of their customers / employees / suppliers come from the south side?

Depending on the assumptions used, the estimate of impacts to downtown can vary wildly.  Our best "conservative" estimate?  Downtown Lexington loses about $360,000 each business day that South Limestone is closed.  (Depending on our assumptions, the estimates ranged between $275,000 and $600,000 each day.)

That translates to between $7.0 to $7.7 million in lost business every month, or between $84 and $92 million for the year-long duration of the South Limestone project.  That's around 700 to 1000 jobs which could evaporate from downtown Lexington, especially as the closure drags on.

Are these numbers absolute?  Not by any means.  But they do provide a ballpark idea of the true cost of the South Limestone project. 

Much of the focus on the costs of South Lime have focused on either a) the direct taxpayer costs ($17 million) or b) the costs to businesses on South Lime.  And while those South Limestone businesses deserve special attention for the degree this project impacts them, our estimates suggest that our leaders and our community have been thinking about 'cost' on the wrong scale.  There is a much bigger, much more urgent cost which must be addressed.

The irony of South Limestone – as the cycle of lost customers, declining businesses, lower employment, and more lost customers continues – is that the project may well end up strangling the very downtown that the streetscape is meant to connect with.

Our leaders frequently assert the necessity of a vibrant, livable downtown.  It is time for them to live up to their words. 

With the South Limestone closure, they must now choose: Will they continue to choke off downtown from a significant portion of the city, or will they act with urgency and extraordinary effort to accelerate and improve the project?

Their actions now will determine whether the prediction from our Chaos post will come true:

"And the results of the chaos are easy to predict.  Confused commuters
and shoppers stay away from 'the mess' downtown.  Downtown businesses
die.  And, after fits and starts, Lexington ends up with a beautiful
street.  To nowhere."

Time to choose.

LowellsSquare

The Spotlight Effect

There’s an old saw in business: “That which gets measured gets results”. 

I have to admit I’ve always been a bit dismissive of that saying (usually attributed to the late business guru Peter Drucker).  In corporate life, I saw plenty of things that were measured which didn’t get results.  The mere act of measuring something accomplishes nothing if effort doesn’t also go into improving that ‘something’.

But a couple of events over the past few weeks has me thinking about what does get results. 

Newtown Pike Extension
The first event was the much-acclaimed burial of utility lines along Lexington’s Newtown Pike extension.  After Graham and Clive Pohl (of Pohl Rosa Pohl Architects) highlighted the discrepancy between the pretty artists’ renderings of the extension and the actual plans for the construction that was about to begin.  Instead of the beautiful, pristine streets promised in the renderings, the extension would have been littered with utility poles and power lines.

LFUCG engineers cited the high relative cost of burying the utilities, estimating that putting them underground would add nearly $900,000 to the project’s cost.

Since the extension will be a kind of “gateway” into Lexington, there was an outcry from many on the Urban County Council about how important it was for us to look good for visitors.  Our Vice Mayor was quoted as saying “We’ll never get a second chance to make a first impression.”  Local columnists and Lexington’s online community jumped on the issue as well, and it snowballed.

Within a couple of weeks, city leaders lined up with Kentucky’s Governor to announce that they had found the extra funds to put the utilities underground in the Governor’s contingency fund.

IMG_2545 I have to admit, I support putting utilities underground, but am dubious of the “first impression” argument.  The utilities are currently slated to go underground only on the Newtown Pike Extension.  The existing stretch of Newtown will still have above-ground utilities.  So a visitor’s true first impression will still be filled with wires and poles from I-75 to Main Street, as seen in this shot of Newtown from this afternoon.

The Treeds Experiment
The second event was a little closer to home.  In the Treeds Experiment, I decided take up a challenge from an Urban County Councilmember to see how long it took to get a response from LFUCG’s Division of Code Enforcement.  So, last Friday – just before the holiday weekend – I sent an email to Code Enforcement about a lot next to our main building which had become overgrown with tree-weeds, or “treeds”.  

At the same time I sent the email, I posted an outline of the experiment on my blog, along with pictures of the overgrowth.  And I pledged to chronicle the responses I got from the city. 

IMG_2531 This past Tuesday, the city’s contractors showed up to clear the lot – less than one business day after my email and post.  Pretty impressive by any measure.  Code Enforcement hasn’t addressed all of the concerns I outlined (the main drain in the lot is still clogged).  But, to be fair, they have addressed most of the public safety issues which accompanied the blight in that lot.

On Twitter, a couple of folks brought up valid points.  Russell and Ann both pointed out that Treeds had an unfair advantage – because I talked about it publicly, that may have helped artificially accelerate the responsiveness of the city.  (Indeed, within hours of my initial Treeds post, a city employee commented that the experiment would ‘fail’.)

The Spotlight Effect
These two events both benefited from the “spotlight effect”: When the public’s spotlight turns to a particular issue, and that spotlight begins burning intensely, ‘normal’ reactions and ‘normal’ timelines are no longer acceptable.

Russell and Ann were right: my experiment wasn’t ‘normal’, and the average citizen shouldn’t expect that kind of responsiveness.

And others would point out that the Newtown Pike Extension wasn’t ‘normal’ either – it was a one-time event which utilized one-time funds.  We shouldn’t expect city officials to move that quickly to fix an oversight or mistake.

But we should. 

Everyone should get prompt action on valid complaints.  Everyone should expect city leaders to fix their mistakes, to do the right things, and to do them quickly.

But we can’t wait for our leaders to do the right thing.  We need to push them.  We need to build bigger, brighter spotlights, and we need to shine those spotlights on the things that matter. 

It is up to us.

Building a Spotlight
What does it take to build an effective spotlight?  I can’t claim to be an expert, but here are some of my thoughts culled from the past few days and weeks (feel free to contribute your own in the comments below):

  • We must be more vocal.  We tend to be indirect folks here in Lexington.  It is awkward and impolite to complain; it is much better for the other person to do what they should.  But they don’t.  And we stew.  And nothing much changes.  

It is time for that to change.  As out-of-character as it may be for many of us, we need to become much more vocal about what is wrong and what we expect.  Only then can things improve.

  • We must join our voices.  When one person calls a city department, they are a complainer.  When several people call – and are joined by bloggers, columnists, and media – that’s a movement. 

And a movement is what dislodged the status quo of the Newtown Pike Extension.  We need more movements in Lexington with more voices working in concert.  We need to utilize our public platforms – Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and papers – to draw others to our cause.

  • We must be more visible
    When one person calls one other person at LFUCG, there’s no spotlight. 
    No one else knows about the call, and no one else can amplify the
    sentiments expressed there. 

One of the reasons that Treeds got such a rapid response was probably
the ‘publicness’ of the experiment.  That visibility helped the amplify
the spotlight and, in all likelihood, accelerated the response.

  • We must measure.  This statement isn’t about micro-measuring every detail of every issue.  It is about documenting who we talked with and what they said, and holding them accountable for their actions (or lack thereof). 

Any regular reader of my posts knows that I’m not shy.  They know
that I’m not afraid to use my platforms to try to build a movement.  In
the past few months, my blogging and writing has become fairly
visible.  (And, for what it is worth, I’ve got some like-minded
friends.) 

So if you need a spotlight, let me help you.  If you see blight around campus or around downtown, let me know.  If
your business is suffering from the South Limestone road closure, let
me know.  If you have a great idea for our city, let me know.  If you
see a problem which needs fixing, let me know.

Together, let’s be more vocal.  Let’s join our
voices with others who agree.  Let’s be more visible.  And, then, let’s
hold people accountable.

I want a better Lexington.  One where businesses aren’t squeezed out of their locations by poorly-planned year-long road closures.  One where our government operates much more transparently.  One where blight is quickly and effectively addressed.  One which has a real (and realistic) urban development plan for downtown.  One which has a thriving arts and business community.  One which leverages its past to build a brighter future.  One which will make my son homesick if he ever leaves.

If you want that too, then join me – or rather, have me join you.  Tell me
what matters. 

And I’ll do my best to help you build a spotlight.  Let’s make a better, faster Lexington.

LowellsSquare

The Treeds Experiment

Back in May, I blogged about the abandoned properties next to our shop, and about what to do about blight in our city. 

In this week’s Urban County Council meetings, residents of several neighborhoods surrounding the University of Kentucky campus registered their concerns about the changes taking place in their communities. 

The biggest concerns surrounded how some property owners were effectively converting single-family homes into makeshift dormitories / frat houses / flop houses to take advantage of the burgeoning student population at UK.  The complaints centered not only on the creation of multi-unit apartments and the paving of lawns for parking, but also on the often-destructive behavior of the residents who move in.

Some on the council wished to impose a moratorium on these kinds of conversions while the city figures out how to accommodate growth at UK. 

Last night, the council rejected the proposed moratorium, to the disappointment of many of the residents.  At one point, Councilmember Lane suggested that neighbors should simply “file a complaint on property owners you feel are in violation of zoning ordinance, see if our government can apply the laws we have on the books,” to which citizen Janet Cowan responded “I know all of the numbers, Mr. Lane.  I have them on speed dial.” 

So, how well can the government apply the laws we have on the books?  It is time to see. 

The Treeds Experiment
What happened after openly blogging about the properties surrounding Lowell’s back in May? 

Nothing.

Well, not nothing, exactly..  The 8-foot tall tree-weeds (“treeds”) I talked about then have now grown to some 16- to 18-feet tall, dwarfing the hedges that they have grown through.

IMG_2528

The treeds now spill out over the sidewalks, making them impossible to navigate without a machete.  Some pedestrians step into the street rather than navigate the mess on the sidewalks.

IMG_2520

The grass growing next to our building has now grown to 7 1/2 feet tall (That’s me back there earlier this afternoon, risking chiggers and other man-eating varmints. I’m 6 1/2 feet tall…). 

IMG_2526

And, finally, the only drain on the lot is completely crusted over.  So, during heavy rains, the lot drains straight into Mechanic Street, contributing to an occasional “Lake Mechanic”.

IMG_2530

All of which sets the stage for what I’m calling “The Treeds Experiment”.  The Treeds Experiment is a test — wherein I plan to take up Councilmember Lane’s suggestion — and learn just how long and how well our government takes to apply the laws that we already have on the books.

Simultaneous with this blog post on the afternoon before a holiday weekend, I am sending an email to code_enforcement@lfucg.com requesting that they take remedial action upon this lot and its owners.

I will chronicle the communication (and, I anticipate, the non-communication) I get from the Code Enforcement folks and other city officials in updates to this post and on Twitter.  I will not tell them that I am doing so (so that they will not artificially accelerate their actions).

But I am telling you.

Should be interesting.  Look for updates here as the weeks and months progress.

::

Note: Many thanks to AceWeekly for chronicling the LFUCG meetings and civic discussions.  Ace captured the quotes I used above.

Pat Gerhard at Third Street Stuff has recently contacted the Downtown Development Authority about the lot.  We agreed a month or so ago that I would contact Code Enforcement.  (Sorry for the delay, Pat.)

9/4/2009, 3:46 PM: Sent initial email to LFUCG Code Enforcement, while publishing this post.

To whom it may concern:

I am the owner of Lowell’s, an auto
repair shop at 111 Mechanic Street.  There is a lot at the North corner
of North Limestone and Mechanic which appears to be abandoned, as no
maintenance has been done by the owners for over 2 years. 

There are now large tree-weeds growing through the hedges
surrounding the lot, making progress on sidewalks very difficult.  The
only drain on the lot is clogged, and the lot drains into Mechanic
Street, contributing to flooding during heavy rains.  There is a large
clump of grass which is now approaching 8 feet in height which is
growing next to our main building.  Many customers assume that the lot
is ours (since it borders our building), and a few have asked us to
clean it up.

Can you take remedial action on this property and update me on your progress in addressing these issues? 

Thank you,
Rob Morris

9/4/2009, 6:18 PM: Blog comment from the Lexington Streetweeper (written by an LFUCG employee) on how the Treeds Experiment is “destined to fail”.

9/4/2009, 9:28 PM: I reply that failure really isn’t possible.

9/7/2009, 10:50 AM: During torrential downpours, Lake Mechanic forms again as Mechanic Street is completely flooded, due in part to runoff from the Treeds lot with a clogged drain.

9/8/2009, 10:45 AM: I receive an email from David Jarvis, Director of Code Enforcement:

I will have Calvin Powell assign an Inspector.  Thank You.

9/8/2009, 1:25 PM: I respond:

Thank you.  I look forward to your updates.

Rob

9/8/2009, 2:19 PM: David Jarvis sends me another email:

Property will be cited (14 day time limit) and the limbs will be cleared back off the sidewalk as soon as we can get our contractor there.

As I read that email (and post this update) the contractors arrive with weed-eaters and loppers in hand:

IMG_2531 

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Buh-bye treeds!  But where will the varmints live now?

9/8/2009, 2:45 PM: Taylor Shelton and 10th District Councilmember Doug Martin post responses on the blog.  Councilmember Martin mentions that Code Enforcement is particularly short-handed and suggests that citizens use LexCall 311 with details of their similar complaints.

9/8/2009, 6:31 PM: I came back to Lowell’s after being out since about 3:30 PM, and most of the debris was removed.  Still a couple of piles which couldn’t fit into the contractor’s truck.

IMG_2536

9/9/2009, 9:15 AM: Contractors cleaning up remaining debris from lot next to Lowell’s main building.

IMG_2537  

9/9/2009, 10:14 AM: The lot’s only drain is still clogged.  Not sure whether that is a Code Enforcement issue or not.  Sent a response to David Jarvis and Calvin Powell:

Thank you for your quick actions in getting this lot cleared. 


Is the clogged drain in the lot something under the purview of Code
Enforcement, or would there be another department which handles that
drainage issue?



Thanks,

Rob

IMG_2540 IMG_2541 IMG_2542

LowellsSquare

LexMob: Final Schedule

When we started LexMob on July 22nd, the idea was to keep patronizing
businesses affected by the closure of South Limestone for a month. It has been extremely rewarding to meet fellow LexMobbers and to meet owners and workers in the targeted businesses.

It has also been very time-consuming.  I’ve decided to stop organizing LexMobs after Monday, August 31st, so that I can better tend to my business.

This doesn’t mean that LexMobs have to stop.  In fact, we’d be thrilled if LexMob continues into the fall.  And anyone can organize a LexMob for South Limestone: The idea is to ‘show up’ with our feet and our wallets to help out these businesses.  Whether it is a mob of 1 or a mob of 100, simply show up and ask others to show up as well.

The easiest way to organize a LexMob: Send out a notice on Twitter with the hashtag phrase “#LexMob for #SoLime”.  In my experience, it is good to send out a few tweets at different times of the morning to let different people know when and where the LexMob will be.  Then, after your LexMob, tell the twitterverse how it was and thank those who came.  That’s all it takes. 

I’ve had a number of suggestions for how LexMob could continue:

  • LexMobs could be weekly (or a couple of times a week) instead of each day
  • Perhaps the businesses on South Limestone could organize LexMobs themselves
  • We could just see what happens; Hopefully, other LexMobbers could continue to organize mobs without a central planner

We support any or all of these options. 

In any case, here is our ‘final’ schedule for LexMob:

  • Wednesday 8/19, Lunch: Sav’s Grill
  • Thursday 8/20, Lunch: Hanna’s, Zag’s, & Failte Irish Imports
  • Thursday 8/20, 7 PM: Social Event at Pazzo’s Pizza Pub (sponsored by the Lexington Fashion Collaborative)

  • Monday 8/24, Lunch: Banana Leaf
  • Tuesday 8/25, Lunch: Tolly Ho
  • Wednesday 8/26, Lunch: Cloud 9
  • Thursday 8/27, Lunch: Han Woo Ri, The Album, Sqecial Media, and ReBelle
  • Friday 8/28, Lunch: Sav’s Grill and Oneness

  • Monday 8/31, Lunch: Pazzo’s Pizza Pub and CD Central

We hope to see you there!  Who’s in?

LowellsSquare

LexMob Schedule

We like (and encourage) the loose, spontaneous organization of LexMob (an initiative to patronize businesses affected by the closure of South Limestone). 

But several folks have encouraged us to put together a LexMob schedule so that they can plan their attendance.  We think that’s a good idea.  As always, feel free to organize or propose your own LexMobs.

Here’s our tentative schedule for the next week (also published in this week’s Ace Weekly on page 5).  Look for updates and schedule changes on Twitter (look for the #LexMob or #SoLime hashtags).

Friday 8/7, Lunch: Tolly Ho
Friday 8/7, 5:30PM: (OFF Lime) Front Porch Friday, Ace Weekly, 185 Jefferson
Saturday 8/8, 6-9 South Limestone ‘Street Party‘ near High Street

Monday 8/10, Lunch: Banana Leaf
Tuesday 8/11, Lunch: Hanna’s, Zag’s, & Failte Irish Imports
Tuesday 8/11, Dinner: SoundBar
Wednesday 8/12, Lunch: Sav’s Grill and Oneness
Thursday 8/13, Lunch: Cloud 9 and Kennedy’s Bookstore
Friday 8/14, Lunch: Tin Roof

Please join us as we support businesses on South Limestone.  Also, if you are up for a hike (7 to 8 blocks) you can park in the Lowell’s parking lot on the south corner of North Limestone and Mechanic Streets.

LowellsSquare

LexMob Update: Who’s in?

It’s been two weeks since South Limestone closed and since I suggested the idea to LexMob businesses up and down SoLime.  So how is the LexMob idea faring?  Have we made a huge difference to the bottom lines of the affected businesses?

In a word: No.

In two words: Not yet.

As an ad hoc effort, we usually decide the spot we’ll mob for lunch that morning.  I usually send out a tweet proposing a time and place, and ask “Who’s in?” 

So far in a typical LexMob, just three or four people show up.  A couple of times, the mob swelled to about a dozen or more.  And yesterday, I was the lone LexMobber.

These weren’t really the overwhelming numbers I had hoped for, but are about what I expected as we get the idea of LexMob off the ground. 

Still, the LexMob experience has already been rewarding in a number of ways:

  • I have gotten to meet a lot of great new people while LexMobbing.
  • I have gotten a lot of exercise marching up and down Limestone (except in yesterday’s monsoon).
  • I have gotten a lot of encouragement from the local Twitter community and from the affected businesses.
  • Lexmobbers (including me) have gotten exposure to great restaurants and stores that we would never have patronized if the closure hadn’t happened.
  • A few times, I’ve seen folks organize their own LexMobs
  • I have gotten an inspiring, up-close look at how resilient and innovative other business owners are in the face of profound challenges.

And those rewards will keep me going back to SoLime businesses during the closure.

Where have we been?  Here’s our list so far:

7/22, Lunch: Pazzo’s Pizza Pub (4 LexMobbers)
7/23, Lunch: Sav’s West African Grill (3 LexMobbers)
7/24, Lunch: Tolly Ho (14 LexMobbers)

7/27, Lunch: Tin Roof (3 LexMobbers)
7/28, Lunch: Han Woo Ri (Korean – 11 LexMobbers)
7/29, Lunch: Hanna’s on Lime and Failte Irish Imports (8 LexMobbers)
7/29, Dinner: Pint Night at Pazzo’s Pizza Pub (~4 LexMobbers)
7/30, Lunch: Pita Pit (2 LexMobbers)
7/31, Lunch: Sav’s West African Grill (4 LexMobbers)

8/3, Lunch: Banana Leaf (Indian & Malaysian – 2 LexMobbers)
8/4, Lunch: Cloud 9 (1 LexMobber)

While I think all of these businesses need our help, I worry less about the popular campus hangouts (Pazzo’s, Tolly Ho, Tin Roof) than I do the lesser-known and more out-of-the-way spots.

At Cloud 9 yesterday, I wasn’t just the only LexMobber there – I was the only patron.  During what should have been their busiest hour, I was the only customer in the whole place. 

And – given its former ‘dive’ incarnation as the original Tolly-Ho and Wok ‘n’ Go (tucked behind Kennedy’s Book Store) – it was a surprisingly great place.  Very clean.  Really nice ambience.  A very tasty special burger blend from Critchfield Meats.  Deep-fried hot dogs.  Beer-battered fries.  Unique and delicious ‘flavor-blasted’ soft serve ice cream.  Home-made mix-ins for ice cream treats.  Home-made frozen cheesecake.  I already want to go back.

Being the only customer gave me a chance to have a long conversation with the owner (Kurt Henning) about a variety of topics, including the South Lime closure.  He had no communication from the city about the closure – he heard details mainly through rumor.  He didn’t know that the digging would go as far south on South Lime as it has.  He had no warning that the Euclid / Winslow / Avenue of Champions intersection with South Limestone would be completely closed.  And, he was surprised that the road in front of his shop (on Winslow, well off of South Lime) was being dug up as well.

And yet, Kurt was surprisingly resilient in the face of such a disruptive interruption to his business.  He’s looking forward to when students get back on campus and business picks back up.  He’s working to ensure good word-of-mouth (he does no advertising) about his business. 

And, sitting there as the only lunchtime customer in a great local establishment, I decided then and there to give him some good word-of-mouth.  (Did it work?) 

Don’t go there – or to other South Lime places – because you feel sorry for them.  Go because they really are that good and because they deserve our business.

And, despite the extra inconvenience, time, and cost – I decided to continue LexMobbing South Limestone.

Who’s in?

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Pretty to Gritty: Thoughts on Lexington Streetscapes

Last week, Lexington’s Downtown Development Authority held a “Downtown Improvements Public Forum” to share plans for renovating streetscapes along Limestone, Cheapside, Vine, and Main Streets.  (Controversial renovations on South Limestone are already underway.)  More ‘open house’ than ‘forum’, the lead agency for DDA’s plans, Kinzelman Kline Gossman, had ringed the room with posters showing artists’ renderings of what the streetscapes would look like and detailing guidelines for street and sidewalk construction. (Large PDF of the DDA streetscape plan here.)

Walking through the door, there was a telling moment.  There was an artist’s rendering of what South Limestone would look like after the streetscape project was finished.  It was beautiful.  Except that it wasn’t South Limestone.  The lone rendering of a South Limestone streetscape, while pretty, included non-existent buildings and storefronts.

South Limestone Rendering

Throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to manage relationships and to interact with numerous creative agencies: design firms, ad agencies, industrial designers, consultants, and the like.  I’ve had many opportunities to witness their creative processes at work.  I’ve also seen the common pitfalls of such creativity.  And Wednesday’s open house struck a familiar chord. 

One of the most common pitfalls of creative work is to focus disproportionately on ‘the pretty’.  ‘Pretty’ is creative work in its purest, most idealistic form.  Pretty designs are often, as their name would imply, beautiful and inspiring.  And as long as inspiration is their primary goal, pretty designs can be useful.

But too often, pretty designs are seen as some kind of end point in the creative work.  After producing a a creative product, the agency – or, worse, their clients – see the work as complete.  They frequently choose not to get ‘dirty’ with the unglamorous implementation of the project.  Many design firms see implementation as too mundane, too pedestrian.  In their view, they should focus on the pure ‘art’ of their creativity; it is then up to the engineer, the website coder, or the construction foreman to do the arduous task of making the project match the pretty design.

And that is precisely the problem with pretty designs.

When the pretty design meets schedule constraints or cost constraints or other real-world constraints, it can fall apart.  When the engineer or construction worker runs up against physical realities, the pretty design often gets severely compromised, and becomes something considerably less pretty.

While pretty creativity gets accolades and awards, it usually only accounts for a small fraction (I’d guess 5 to 10%, based on my experience) of the real creative work on a project.  And that real creative work is what I would characterize as ‘gritty’ creativity: the practical, streetwise, action-oriented creativity which actually drives the project forward and finds creative solutions to real-world problems.  The success or failure of complex projects depends in great measure on how much ‘gritty’ creativity is employed within those projects.

The disconnect between pretty and gritty is the most common cause of failure in creative projects.

What I saw at the DDA’s forum was an abundance of stylistic and architectural details.  They had detailed guidelines for how to design intersections and sidewalks.  They had beautiful renderings of what downtown streets could look like after the designs were applied.  They had very pretty designs for the future of our downtown.

But what was missing from the forum was any substantial gritty design work for the actual execution of the project.

In the wake of the uncoordinated and under-publicized closure of South Limestone for streetscape improvements, I – and many others in attendance – expected many more practical, gritty details about how the rest of ‘Phase I’ (Cheapside, Vine, and Main Streets) would be implemented.  Indeed, I had also hoped to find out more about how future phases would affect my business and those of my neighbors on North Limestone. 

The disconnect between ideal (“the pretty”) and implementation (“the gritty”) was troubling: Could we be headed for another South Limestone? 

In the South Limestone closure, many businesses seemed to have little time to prepare for losing a big chunk of customers for a year or more.  Commuters had little time to adapt to drastically altered traffic patterns.  While the city made some public parking available, that parking was a pedestrian-unfriendly 4 to 5 blocks away from some of the affected businesses.  In short, South Limestone needed some gritty design for the implementation and coordination of the project.

The pretty planning for downtown streetscapes has been underway for years.  But real-world work on Main, Vine, and Cheapside is slated to begin in just 3 to 4 months.  This short timeframe creates added urgency for understanding how the rest of the streetscape project will really work.  And the utter lack of gritty planning details in last week’s meeting makes answers to the following questions even more important.

  • Could all three streets, as with South Limestone, be completely closed?
  • Which sections of which streets will be closed?  For what periods?  What is the planned sequence of closures?
  • When can each business on the affected streets expect their businesses to be interrupted?
  • How long will such business interruptions last?  What will those interruptions look like?  Where will they be most severe?
  • How can we accelerate the project where business interruptions will be most profound?
  • Can we sequence closures around business cycles?  Could retailers be least affected during the holiday shopping season?  Could work near outdoor cafés be completed by spring?
  • How will the city or DDA assist businesses during the closures?  How will such assistance be more effective than what was done for South Limestone?  Targeted ad campaigns?  Special events?  Shuttle services from parking garages? 
  • Will drivers need to find alternate routes (as with South Limestone)?
  • What are the likely sources of project delay?  How will those be mitigated?
  • What, precisely, are the future phases?  When are they slated?

To avoid the chaos that accompanied the South Limestone closure, the DDA and the city must begin mapping out the gritty planning of how this project gets executed.  And simply throwing such vital details to a construction contractor isn’t acceptable. 

The streetscape project is certainly a pretty design.  But, if it is to be a successful urban development project – if it is to help us build a better, more vibrant city – then it must get much more gritty as well.

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