Lexington starting to see the benefits of urban redevelopment

January 25, 2015

krogerThe new Euclid Avenue Kroger. Photo by Mark Cornelison

 

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.


Artists must learn business skills to make a living from their art

November 17, 2014

lackyJohn Lackey at his studio at North Limestone and Sixth streets. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Lexington is starting to become a city where an artist can earn a living, but it requires almost as much focus on business as art.

Successful artists tell me they have had to learn strategy, salesmanship, client management and finance to earn money from their passion. Most of all, they have had to be flexible entrepreneurs, willing to try new things and see where they lead.

I talked about these issues last week with John Lackey, an independent artist in Lexington for a dozen years. Since 2010, he has operated Homegrown Press Studio & Gallery at the corner of Limestone and Sixth streets.

Lackey is best known for his intricate block prints and colorful acrylic paintings of Kentucky landscapes. They are fanciful scenes from nature, filled with swirling clouds and curly trees that almost seem to dance.

But Lackey does a lot more, both out of passion and necessity. He has done logos and other commercial art for businesses, including Alfalfa restaurant, where he once worked, and North Lime Coffee and Donuts, which shares his studio building. He also has produced more than a dozen concert posters for his favorite band, Wilco.

Lackey, this month, was commissioned by Kroger to paint an outside mural for its new Euclid Avenue store. The five interconnected, 12-by-7-foot panels along Marquis Avenue will depict “the trees with the most personality in Woodland Park, with human activity in the background,” he said.

He also is getting into filmmaking, after years of playing with time-lapse and animation photography. Lackey has an Indiegogo.com campaign that runs through Tuesday to raise money for a full-length movie. It will be set in Lexington’s northside and focus on themes of community and sustainability.

Lackey learned figurative art and print-making at the University of Kentucky, but some of his most useful professional skills were acquired during several years of hiatus between his studies, when he worked at lumber yards and car dealerships.

“I learned a lot that I still use today when I sold cars,” he said, including negotiating skills and how to read customers.

Lackey spent 14 years as a graphic artist for two Lexington TV stations, where he learned more about art and deadlines. He was then able to begin building an independent art career, thanks to an understanding wife with a steady paycheck.

Early on, he realized the work is a lot like being a home-improvement contractor. Customers who commission work have ideas, but often don’t know exactly what they want. That’s where listening skills and artistry come in.

Lackey said that being willing to try new things has helped him both get jobs and stretch artistically.

“At first, I didn’t do a lot of saying no, because I needed the money, and it pushed me out of my comfort zone,” he said. “It’s good if you have different things you like to do in art.”

The Kentucky Arts Council helped Lackey expose his work to potential clients. After being included in a show at the Governor’s Mansion, he was chosen to create the 2011 prizes for the Governor’s Award in the Arts. The council also helped him get a commission for four seasonal landscape paintings that now hang in the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s board room in Frankfort.

Many artists advise against doing free work to get exposure. While Lackey generally agrees, he follows his instinct on some projects where the payoff isn’t obvious.

For example, as a Wilco fan, he engaged others on the band’s website and volunteered to do artwork for a charity event. The band liked it and hired him to create concert posters.

The head of the Clyde’s restaurant chain around Washington, D.C., also is a Wilco fan. He saw Lackey’s posters and hired him to do artwork for the restaurants. The Clyde’s work was seen by Virginia-based Potter’s Craft Cider, which hired him to design its logo and labels. Such jobs can be vital income bridges between fine art projects.

Other free artwork has enriched his life, if not his bank account. Lackey has done more than 60 posters for the Holler Poet’s series at Al’s Bar, across East Sixth Street from his studio, where he occasionally reads his own poetry. Each poster became an opportunity to experiment with new techniques that have improved his work.

“For me, one of the benefits of being an artist is not having to do the same thing twice,” he said. “It keeps your brain regenerating.”


Kroger on Euclid a chance for Lexington to do urban infill right

July 20, 2013

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A recent rendering of the design for the exterior of the new Kroger store on Euclid Avenue, incorporating ideas from architect Graham Pohl.  Photo provided

 

The design of a new grocery is usually of little interest beyond its neighborhood. But the Kroger reconstruction on Euclid Avenue offers some important lessons for Lexington as the city focuses more on urban infill and redevelopment.

Kroger has had this Chevy Chase grocery for decades, a suburban-style box behind a wrap-around parking lot. As the neighborhoods surrounding it have become more dense, the store has become more crowded.

While new, small markets such as Town Branch and Shorty’s have filled an important niche, this Kroger is the only supermarket close to Lexington’s increasingly popular intown neighborhoods. Residents there want more shopping options without having to drive to the suburbs.

Kroger plans to spend $19 million building a new store on the site, plus four adjacent quarter-acre lots it acquired. The grocery’s size will increase from 38,000 square feet to 65,000, although some of that new space will be basement storage. In addition to a surface lot, there will be a ramp and parking on the roof.

A larger store requires a zoning change, which has been approved by the Planning Commission and will go before Council on Aug. 13.

Kroger’s initial design was uninspiring — a plain, suburban-style box oriented toward a parking lot rather than the street, as are most buildings in that neighborhood, most of which was developed during the first four decades of the 20th century.

Architect Graham Pohl of the firm Pohl Rosa Pohl offered to donate his services to Kroger to help improve the exterior design to make it more compatible. He also wanted the store to be more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, since that is the way many of Kroger’s customers get there.

“My passion is good design, and I wanted a building that responded to the urban setting and looked like it had been designed, not a building that looked like an afterthought,” said Pohl, who has lived and worked in the neighborhood — and shopped at that Kroger — since 1980.

Pohl said Kroger has been very receptive to his ideas for improving the store’s design. “I have seen a real effort on their part to do the right thing,” he said.

Pohl attributes much of that to city leadership. Mayor Jim Gray has made it clear to Kroger and other developers that infill projects must be well-designed and appropriate to their surroundings.

That is the first important lesson: When city officials and residents make it clear that mediocre design is no longer good enough for Lexington, developers will respond. If a city wants design excellence, it must insist on it.

Pohl, who said he was paid nothing for his work, showed me recent versions of the Kroger design that are dramatically better than the initial ones, in both function and appearance. If Kroger follows through, the store will be better-looking, more compatible with the neighborhood and a more pleasant place to shop.

FortKrogerBut some of the store’s neighbors still aren’t happy, and they are opposing the zoning change. Driving through the neighborhood last Thursday, I saw three yellow yard signs that said, “No to Fort Kroger.”

Opponents say the new store is too big for the site and will create traffic congestion. Pohl thinks some of their fears are exaggerated, but he said city officials should continue to work with Kroger to address several issues. Those include outdoor lighting, pedestrian and cyclist safety, the addition of a bus shelter and limits on when delivery trucks can idle at the loading docks.

City officials should work with Kroger on sensible compromises to make this bigger grocery succeed. Still, it is unlikely every neighbor will be satisfied.

We say it all the time in Lexington, to the point that it has become a cliché: we need to grow up, not out, if we want to preserve our unique rural landscape from more suburban sprawl.

That kind of growth means more infill and redevelopment, and that often means increasing population density. People in Lexington have never been comfortable with increasing density, but that must change.

The Euclid Avenue Kroger project is an excellent opportunity for Lexington to learn more about good urban design and increasing density, and to figure out how to do it right.

 


Kindness, help took this hard worker a long way

December 12, 2010

Everyone loves an inspirational story, especially this time of year. You know the kind I mean: A person succeeds against all odds. Someone’s life is changed by acts of kindness. The human spirit is renewed in an unlikely place — say, for instance, a grocery store aisle.

For all of that and more, it would be hard to top Lewis Matherly’s story.

Matherly was born 57 years ago with mental disabilities to an alcoholic mother and a father who soon abandoned them. “A lot of the boys on the street used to pick on Lewis, so my brothers and I would take up for him,” said David Duncan, who lived nearby in the blue-collar neighborhood behind The Red Mile.

When Virginia and Harry Duncan moved their family to a new home on Alexandria Drive, they sometimes returned to Curry Avenue to bring Matherly out to play with their three sons and three daughters.

Beginning at age 7, Matherly did odd jobs and delivered newspapers to earn money. Often, though, his mother took his money to buy herself liquor. As Matherly grew older, their relationship grew worse.

“She booted me out the door when I was 14 and told me to hit the road,” Matherly said. “I was sleeping under a bridge, and it was winter like this.”

Virginia found Matherly under that bridge one night and took him home with her. He has lived with the Duncan family ever since.

School was hard, so Matherly dropped out after the ninth grade and went to work with Harry, a brick mason. “He taught me how to work and make a living,” Matherly said. “He was a good teacher.”

Matherly worked as a mason’s helper with the Duncans and others for more than three decades. “It was hard work, but I liked it,” he said, explaining with pride how much he could do in a day.

“I’ll tell you what, he’s a worker,” said Mike Duncan, another of Matherly’s unofficial brothers. “He was sometimes the only one on a job you didn’t have to tell what to do.”

Harry died in 2002. The construction business slowed, and Matherly found other jobs, with Duncan family members and others. He learned to get around by walking or taking LexTran buses.

But when Virginia died last year, Matherly said he panicked. Angry with God for taking her, he walked out of the house — and kept on walking. After about 10 miles, Matherly said, “The Lord told me to go back home.”

Matherly now lives in Gardenside with one of his unofficial sisters, Kathy Duncan Huggins, and her husband, Andy. “We always told Mom not to worry about Louie; we had his back,” she said. “He’s a joy to have around. He’d do anything for you.”

Matherly wanted to continue working — to be as self-sufficient as possible — but he needed more help than the Duncans could give him. He found it at Employment Solutions Inc., a non-profit organization that helps train and place people who have what social workers call “barriers to employment.”

Staff members assessed Matherly’s skills, got him hearing aids and helped him get a job in October stocking shelves at the Kroger store on Bryan Station Road. Except for the overnight hours, Matherly loves his job.

“They’ve got great people out there,” he said. “They’ve been very patient with me. I’m getting faster now.”

I have always admired Kroger for employing people with special needs. They often put enormous pride and effort into their work.

“It’s a reflection of our company’s desire to have an inclusive culture,” Kroger spokesman Tim McGurk said. Store managers are not required to hire special-needs people, he said, “But many do, because it’s often a win-win situation for Kroger and for the employee.”

Matherly and Kroger were honored last week by Employment Solutions as part of its annual “community partners” luncheon. Dale Walker, of the organization’s Bluegrass Career Services unit, nominated Matherly as the client who most inspired her.

As Walker told Matherly’s story and presented him with a plaque, three of the five surviving Duncan “children” proudly applauded — and tried not to cry.

“We work with a lot of people with harrowing stories,” said Nicole Dummitt, director of Bluegrass Career Services, which helped place about 100 people in Lexington-area jobs over the past year.

“They don’t all come from having lived under a bridge, but they’ve all needed a little help overcoming an obstacle that was keeping them from working,” she said. “Sometimes, just a few little things can make an enormous difference in someone’s life.”