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.

 


With Lexington Mall redone, what else is left to redevelop?

January 7, 2013

Developer Phil Holoubek hopes to announce construction plans soon for the Main and Vine property that has been vacant for two years. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Southland Christian Church opened its new Richmond Road campus this weekend on the former site of Lexington Mall, a 31-acre parcel that had been a civic embarrassment for years.

The church bought the long-vacant shopping mall in 2010 from Maryland-based Saul Centers, which had let it languish for more than a decade. Dillard’s, the last store in the mall, closed in 2005.

Once the church develops commercial space at the property’s edge along Richmond Road — a former pond that now looks like a strip mine — one of Lexington’s biggest eyesores should be gone.

If we are lucky, and the economy continues improving, other prominent sites that are ripe for redevelopment might finally get some attention.

The next one that comes to mind is Turfland Mall, which opened in 1967 as Lexington’s first suburban shopping mall. After years of decline, the central mall shut down after Dillard’s closed in 2008. As with Lexington Mall, Turfland was owned by an out-of-state company that seemed to have forgotten about it.

Last month, amid a Hopkinsville bank’s attempts to foreclose on the 367,000-square-foot mall, Lexington developer Ron Switzer bought it for $6 million. He said he plans to demolish all but the Staples store. Staples and Home Depot, which owns its end of the mall, have remained open, along with several businesses in the parking lot.

“What we want to do is take an eyesore and come up with an attractive plan for a development,” Switzer said last month, adding that specific plans are not set.

Turfland Mall was purchased last month for redevelopment.

I wish Switzer the best of luck in revitalizing Turfland. The same goes for the owners of two adjacent properties at Harrodsburg and Lane Allen roads — the former Verizon building, which is for lease, and land long occupied by The Springs Inn. The once-popular motel closed in 2008 and was demolished the next year. A CVS drug store was built on 1.56 acres; the remaining 5.1 acres are for sale.

Another prime redevelopment site that could see action soon is the point where Main and Vine streets come together at the eastern edge of downtown. A former bank, antiques store and alteration shop were demolished in April 2010, and developer Phil Holoubek hoped to replace them with an urban-style mixed-use development.

But Holoubek’s efforts were frustrated by the economic slump, tight credit markets and the city’s inability to build a parking deck on the block.

Holoubek and a Louisville developer then tried to build a CVS drug store on the site, but its suburban-style design faced widespread opposition. The deal died when it was discovered that the site plan hadn’t taken into account an underground utility vault that was too costly to move.

Last week, I was giving Holoubek a hard time about how scruffy his vacant lot has looked for the past two years. I noted the CentrePointe block down the street has been sown in grass and well-maintained while it has awaited development.

Holoubek said he expects by the end of this month to announce a tenant for Main and Vine and a development plan that looks like it belongs downtown. Should that deal fall through, he promised to call in landscapers.

Among other prominent Lexington parcels ready for redevelopment:

■ The 11-acre Continental Inn site at New Circle and Winchester roads. The property was bought by a group of investors, including former state Democratic Party chairman Jerry Lundergan, and most of the dilapidated motel was demolished in 2007. Since then, property owners and the Eastland Parkway Neighborhood Association have sparred over semi-trailers being parked there.

The Continental Inn site is advertised for sale. At the right price, it could make a good location for a car dealership or even a mid-priced hotel, said Ken Silvestri, a commercial real estate broker who keeps a close eye on the Lexington market.

■ The former site of Thoroughbred Chevrolet on Richmond Road between New Circle Road and Man o’ War Boulevard also is a good candidate for redevelopment, Silvestri said. It has been vacant since the dealership closed in July 2010 after General Motors did not renew its franchise.


Lexington Mall: Blight that’s full of potential

November 9, 2009

It’s astounding when you think about it: Lexington Mall has been dead or dying since before this year’s high school graduates were born.

It’s even more astounding when you realize that the 30-acre site could be one of the hottest pieces of real estate in Lexington if it were redeveloped by someone able to think outside the big box.

Built in the 1970s, when malls were all the rage and suburban sprawl was in full bloom, Lexington Mall began declining in the early 1990s. Tenants moved out, complaining that Maryland-based Saul Centers wasn’t maintaining the place.

The last lonely tenant moved out in 2005, when Dillard’s closed its store. Since then, Lexington Mall’s doors have been boarded up and fenced off and its vast blacktop parking lot has cracked and crumbled.

City officials have been wringing their hands over Lexington Mall for years. Developers have tried unsuccessfully to buy it. Every few years, Saul breaks its silence and says the mall will be redeveloped. Then nothing happens.

Lexington Mall is out of sight and out of mind for its absentee landlord. But it has been much on the minds of local developers and landscape architects. Here’s why: The mall sits on a huge piece of prime land inside New Circle Road, situated between the city’s Idle Hour Park and the reservoir.

“It’s one of the few sites in Lexington with a water view,” said Brian Lee, a University of Kentucky landscape architecture professor whose students have studied the site for academic exercises in urban redevelopment.

The property fronts both New Circle and Richmond roads, and it is just 3 miles from downtown by way of the city’s most beautiful, upscale thoroughfare. There are schools, a fire station and shopping nearby.

Developers I talked with agreed that the site shouldn’t be another mall or Hamburg-style big-box retail center.

With a zoning change, they said, the site would be ideal for a “new urban” mixed-use village of one- to five-story buildings with shops, offices, condos and apartments, all situated on traditional streets and buffered by green space. Businesses on the mall’s edge — Home Depot, Applebee’s and Perkins restaurant, and Central Bank — could easily be worked into a new design plan.

“It seems like the idea of a cluster of smaller retail shops around a common green and serving as a village center with perhaps loft residential or office might have some merit,” said Morgan McIlwain, a landscape architect with M2D Design Group. The group’s recent work includes the site plan for the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus on the Eastern State Hospital site.

“It goes nicely with this notion of infill,” McIlwain added. “We could get higher density and not sprawl so much.”

Tom Low, a principal in the Charlotte, N.C., firm DPZ Architects and Town Planners — the firm most famous for designing a similar development in Seaside, Fla. — sent me an interesting diagram of examples for converting a site similar to Lexington Mall into a village-style development.

One developer cited the example also of Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio. I’ve also seen such projects in Charlotte, N.C., and Williamsburg, Va. When the economy and lending environment improves, something like that could make sense.

First, though, executives at Saul Centers need to find a map and remember where Lexington is. Then they need to find a calendar and realize it’s 2009, not 1990.

Then, maybe, they will partner with or sell Lexington Mall to a developer with the vision to turn one of this city’s most prominent examples of urban decay into a vibrant piece of the urban landscape.

Examples of how an old mall can be redeveloped into a mixed-use project with multiple buildings, streets and green space. Image: DPZ