It was a great week for “infill and redevelopment,” the popular Lexington catchphrase that is easier to say than do.
First, The New York Times made my little neighborhood look positively hip.
A Travel section story told how Walker Properties and other entrepreneurs are transforming National Avenue, a once-seedy collection of industrial buildings, into “the kind of walkable, shoppable district that is not common in a Southern city of this size.”
The Times made special note of National Provisions, a sophisticated food and drink complex that Lexington native Andrea Sims and her French husband, Krim Boughalem, created in a vacant soft-drink bottling plant.
Lexington often gets press for basketball, horses and bourbon. (And donuts; last year, the Times featured another of my neighborhood’s culinary treasures, Spalding’s Bakery.) But seeing the national media hold up this city as a model for urban revitalization may be a first.
The news got even better Thursday, when Kroger opened its new Euclid Avenue store. It is the best-looking Kroger I have ever seen, and a departure from the suburban big-box model that dominates the grocery industry.
Tailored to its increasingly urban setting, the building welcomes pedestrians and cyclists as well as people arriving in cars. With limited space for a parking lot, Kroger hid more parking on the roof, easily accessible via escalators and elevators.
Although it is almost three times larger than the suburban-style box it replaced, the building minimizes its mass and respects the street. There is a lot of glass, chrome and natural light. The walls have murals by local artists. The extensive grocery selection includes two locally owned restaurant food carts, another first for Kroger.
Neither National Avenue nor the new Kroger happened by accident. They were the result of good planning, hard work, community engagement and leadership by city officials and businesspeople.
Much like the owners of the Bread Box on West Sixth Street, developer Greg Walker has a community-focused vision for National Avenue, and he has found local business and non-profit tenants who share that vision.
Walker worked with city planners on mixed-use zoning that emulates the way cities used to be. You know, before mid-20th century planning philosophies sucked the life out of cities, making them better places for cars than people.
National Avenue’s success also has been made possible by renewal of the nearby Mentelle, Kenwick and Bell Court neighborhoods. They had fallen out of fashion and into decline after Lexington’s suburban building boom began in the 1950s.
Recently, though, these neighborhoods have become hot properties. They’re likely to get hotter, especially since Niche.com, a national online ranking company, last week named Ashland Elementary as the best public primary school in Kentucky.
People once again appreciate these neighborhoods’ walkability and close proximity to downtown, the style and craftsmanship of their old houses and the sociability of front porches, small parks and neighborhood stores and restaurants.
The new Kroger responds well to its neighborhood, which has been getting denser both because of the popularity of in-town living and growth of the nearby University of Kentucky campus.
But without good leadership and community engagement, the new store wouldn’t have turned out nearly as well.
When the grocer first announced plans to replace the Euclid Avenue store, nearby residents pushed back against a “Fort Kroger” big box. Mayor Jim Gray made it clear that a well-designed, urban-style store would be required. As Kroger spokesman Tim McGurk put it, “Mayor Gray gave us good advice throughout the process.”
Gray put Kroger in touch with Lexington architect Graham Pohl, who worked with the company to significantly improve the new store’s design. The effort has paid off, both for the city and for Kroger.
“Based on customer reaction, I can see us repeating” such things as the murals and food carts at other Kroger stores, McGurk said. “It really puts a sense of the local community in the store.”
Lexington leaders like to talk about infill and redevelopment because they see it as the best way to preserve precious farmland. But it is more than that.
Yes, infill and redevelopment can be harder, more complicated and more expensive than green-field suburban development. It often requires creative zoning and financing. It takes leadership and risk. It demands a commitment to excellence, as well as communication with existing neighborhood residents who may fear increasing population density, traffic or simply change.
But these two examples, and others in places such as North Limestone Street, Davis Bottom and Alexandria Drive, show that infill and redevelopment is not just the right thing to do. It can be the best thing to do.