Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Sooner the Better

Last Saturday, February 21, I attended a presentation on the Jeff Speck study the City commissioned early last year. This study will ultimately lead to, among other things, two-way streets where now we have one-ways. The long process tries the patience of those anxious to get on with the conversion.

While I believe we should proceed with the conversion, I don't believe two-way streets are a panacea for New Albany. Indeed, some of the more significant recommendations from the Speck analysis directly address other aspects of walkability. But the primary identifier of the Speck study is as the two-way street study.

To address that aspect of the study then, I want to come down four square on the side of converting our one-way streets to two-way traffic.

I can't pinpoint a specific year or event to mark the beginning of New Albany's decline. (That slide, by the way, is a fate we share with countless cities across America.) Perhaps it was Henry Ford's birthday, or the housing shortage after WW II heralding the first push toward the suburbs. It could have been the day the misbegotten decision was made to abandon street cars as a component of our transportation system, the rise of the interstate highway system, or malls.

In short, cities have taken a lot of hits from any number of larger causes than the direction of traffic flow. So the reversion to two-way traffic may not bring back much of New Albany's thriving past.

The Speck study, however, represents a rare opportunity to make a calculated, comprehensive move toward reversing the decline we've faced for years. Speck notes cities  that have converted one-ways to two-ways. The positive changes in those cities may elude us here in New Albany, but in light of the significant changes we face from increased traffic funneled through New Albany as a result of the Bridges Project, it seems a sensible prescription. And, again two-way traffic is not the only remedy he suggests. In his study, Speck quotes economist Chris Leinberger, "all the fancy economic development strategies, such as developing a biomedical cluster, an aerospace cluster, or whatever the economic development 'flavor of the month' might be, do not hold a candle to the power of a great walkable urban place." New Albany has neither of the economic engines the economist cites, but we do have within our reach the power to control one element, the most potent element, of a successful city--walkability.  

One speaker at Saturday's presentation challenged New Albany's manners and neighborliness as he said that, in paraphrase, it's not nice to raise barriers to pass-through traffic resulting from the Sherman Minton's toll-free status. Aside from disagreeing with the gentleman's contention, I would ask, did the Bridge's Project show good manners to New Albany when it placed the "free-flow zone" sign on our doorstep?

The feckless action of the Bridge's Project has placed concern with our street grid, pedestrian safety, and likely disadvantageous economic ripples on the front burner.
But, New Albany's backdrop of malaise, decline, and deterioration, with renewal always just over the horizon, is a long-standing impetus to answer Speck's challenge with action. The sooner the better.


Sunday, November 30, 2014

Glad You Asked

Earlier today I read the NA Confidential blog by Roger Baylor, in which he questions my comments in a News and Tribune article by Daniel Suddeath on the current state of downtown New Albany. Roger felt I had betrayed an unspoken allegiance to a walkable New Albany by not seizing on the opportunity Suddeath offered to bring out the incantation of street conversion in my remarks.

First off, my belief in the efficacy of two-way streets is not unspoken.This blog is not often read, which is completely understandable, since it is not often written. When I do write something here, I do so because, however much below the radar it may be, it is a public airing of my thoughts, and as such is part of a public record to any who may care to read it. I mention this only to point out that on several occasions here, I have spoken about my belief that two-way streets are better than one- way streets. I believe they create a better commercial environment for our, or any other, downtown area. I believe a walkable city is a better place for people to live, and is ultimately a better place for businesses to thrive.

When Daniel interviewed me, he referred back to some conversations he'd had earlier in the day, or week, with Dave Duggins, and some others. Because I do feel that a walkable New Albany would be  a better environment for small and independent businesses, I thought of mentioning the conversion of one-way to two-way streets, since, as I said, I believe such a conversion brings us closer to that goal. Somehow or another, Daniel and I got on to another aspect of his question about what government can do to help stem the loss of businesses downtown, or to create a more fertile field in which to grow new businesses downtown.

I had been tuned to CNBC for much of the day, as the hosts of the shows on that network waxed orgasmic about the infusion of energy into the juggernaut of the marketplace brought on by Black Friday. Against the backdrop of that drumbeat of corporate/retail giantism,  Daniel's questions about what can be done to breathe life into small town America, specifically our town, went to a less hopeful part of my brain than I usually inhabit.

I'm not one who cares about getting a deal on things; I continuously pay  higher prices to buy from local vendors. Sometimes when I do, I can make myself believe that if we all do that, we can build a vibrant local economy in which independent businesses are able to swim against the rip tide of Amazon.com, WalMart, and the other mega gleaners in our economy. 

And then, I think about how the middle class in New Albany, or, in Anytown U.S.A., has been hollowed out, sold out to foreign, near-slave labor producers, and how many of those former middle classers are now forced to live a low-wage existence where the only places they can buy things for their families is at WalMart, or other such stores. As they step down the rungs, the once-strong, independent businesses are deprived of customers and a means to stay in business.

Since Roger mentioned two-way streets as a life saver for small town businesses, I thought of a local book store, Destinations Booksellers.  I think Destinations is a store of which any town, small or large, can be proud. Its proprietors, Ann and Randy Smith have done everything that can be done to make the store a bustling, successful addition to New Albany's commercial scene. I don't know their personal finances, but I think it's safe to say they would be happy with more customers. Destinations is located on one-way Spring Street.

When Daniel asked me if there's more government can do to promote local businesses, I answered "yes". I didn't say, "make the streets two-way." While I firmly believe one-way streets are obsolete auto-enablers, which make central cities less attractive places to live, I don't think they are the most significant thing standing in the way of a small-town urban renaissance. I don't think Randy Smith's customers will suddenly have to take a number so they can be waited on in a timely fashion after Spring Street becomes two-way. On the heels of Black Friday, which belongs now to the big box stores, comes Cyber Monday, which allows consumers, those who live for deals and convenience, the chance to shop in their bathrobes, or their birthday suits, all while getting a six or seven percent subsidy from the ether gods who charge no sales tax and offer free delivery.

As Cassius said, "the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves." That's what I was trying to say when Daniel asked me his questions.

I long for a day when local prosperity stands a chance against the market giants we've elevated to Midashood. I'm all for changing New Albany's streets to two-ways if it helps our businesses, or even if it just makes the city a little better place to live. But, I'm afraid we have much, much, harder work to do. That hard work involves re-creating an economy, and a society, which existed once, but has been displaced now by what corporations see as a standard business model, advertisers see as fish in a barrel, and what most Americans see as a way of life, almost a birthright.    

Thursday, November 27, 2014

I'm Thankful I Wasn't in Ferguson, Missouri

The year was 2002. It was the last day of the year. I had a stray day of vacation left to burn, to either use or lose. My plan was to sleep in a bit late, get ready and head over to our building in Louisville to putter about unhurriedly before treating myself to a leisurely lunch. No particular project was in need of completion. We had plans for the evening, so what time I spent at the building promised to be relatively brief. The last thing my wife said as I left was to make certain I made the deposit at the bank, so it would be caught in the final accounting for the year.

I arrived at the building around 10:00 AM, checked a few things and headed down to the basement. Today, the basement is mostly populated by artists and tradesmen. At that time, it was occupied by some guys making concrete countertops. They were dirty, undependable, careless, and prone to accidents. The perfect tenant, you might say. But, I was sure, their chronic irritation would be less so on this day since they had recently given notice of moving in a couple months, and since I had the leisurely day planned out already. I wasn't going to let it bother me anyhow. While chatting with the concrete company's owner, one of yutziest of his yutzes dislodged a sprinkler head. Glad that I was there for that near catastrophe, I calmly walked over to the main shutoff valve for the sprinkler system to avoid the inevitable watery chaos.

Apparently, as I moved the huge valve to shut off the water, I must have also disengaged a key component of my logic or cognitive system. Had I not just discussed with the maintenance man where I worked how to drain the system and reset it? A piece of cake, and a minor delay, nothing else. I was still intent on having a couple brews with my long-anticipated lunchtime leisure, but I also didn't want to pay an exorbitant bill to the sprinkler company if I didn't have to. So I set about on a series of Rube Goldberg innovations designed to avoid calling the sprinkler company. Each segment of the plan was daft, and doomed in its own way. Each failure placed my leisurely lunch a bit farther out of reach. As the water continued to flow out the drain I accepted that I was having to reschedule, now for a late-leisurely lunch. (I think I might even have had a special cigar in reserve to enhance the relaxing mood I knew was just around the corner)

Inevitably, I called the sprinkler company to shut the water off and reset the system. Hours ticked away. A check was written. A leisurely lunch eluded me. A woman's voice gently chided me to do just one thing before I headed home--MAKE THAT BANK DEPOSIT BEFORE THE YEAR MELTS AWAY. That gentle reminder seeped into my brain at about twelve minutes before the bank was to close, and the bank was about ten minutes away.

I ran out the door, jumped in the car and was making great time until some annoying red and blue flashing lights invaded my rear view mirror. I stopped the car, threw the door open and stormed back to the guy in the offensively illuminated car. He scolded me, and told me to go get back in my car and await his return, as he checked my license plate to verify the car's rightful owner. (I always travel with a blood pressure gauge and as I awaited his return to my car door I amused myself by seeing how high I could get the numbers to climb.)

When the cop returned to my car door, he said, "let's start this over." It turned out he didn't like the sight of a man in a black coat, with anger in his eyes, charging toward his car. He said he felt threatened and wondered if he was going to see his little three year old girl that night. I know I'm a gentle soul. I don't own a gun. I meant the cop no harm. But I was truly and fully pissed off, and he was not helping matters by going on about running stop signs and not wearing seat belts. I allowed as how I might have been a bit overwrought, and the tension somewhat abated. He chuckled and said, "You know, you almost got a taste of my Mag Light." I contemplated how the loss of my front teeth in such an incident might further jaundice my perception of the police.

As this article highlights, the Louisville police force around that very time was not doing its utmost to promote good community relations.

And now these dozen years later, incident piles on incident of police shooting, beating, singling out black men. The ones who make the news, maybe didn't get a chance, or at least not the same chance I got, to chill, and "start this over." I still have my teeth, but many of the black men who run up against the law taste the Mag Light, or feel the sting of a billy club. Some police forces are like mini-armies. Local police forces have armed up with surplus gear shed by our foreign military adventures.

I don't have any answers on how to reduce police over-reaction. Being a cop is a job I know I couldn't and wouldn't do. But, I have a pretty good idea that the day I had planned on having a leisurely year-end lunch might have worked out much differently if I were black.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Moveable Feast

In tonight's News and Tribune (October 14, 2014) the topic of changing the location of Harvest Homecoming's booths was reported. The Harvest Homecoming festival's president, Jeff Cummins, said, "the Harvest Homecoming Committee is open to suggestions about improving the festival..."

So, here goes.

The current layout for the festival's booths includes these streets and blocks: Market from State to  Third Street (3 blocks)

Pearl Street from Spring to Main (2 blocks)

Bank Street from Spring to Main (2 blocks)

One of the reasons cited by those who object to the Harvest Homecoming's occupation of the downtown streets is that it discombobulates the year round store owners and restaurateurs for the benefit of the festival during its five day run. Further, those not enamored of Harvest Homecoming say that the stakeholders in downtown businesses don't really benefit from the erection of the booths, while it is they who try to make a living downtown the other 51 weeks of the year.

I recall when the festival began in the late Sixties or early Seventies. Downtown New Albany was a much different place then. Quite a few stores were still hanging on to the hope of a business revival against the onslaught of the malling of America, and its local outbreaks found in Clarksville and Louisville. The festival itself was quite different then, too. The footprints of its modest beginnings were confined to fewer blocks. The beer garden actually coexisted with the other booths along Bank Street.

Rather than a business revival, the store owners downtown saw the dismal Seventies, and the wrenching Eighties dash those hopes in a collapse encountered across the land by countless small towns that lost stores, dining, and service businesses to the sprawlers and the big boxers. Because those lean years stretched on into the Nineties, no one seemed to question the logic of handing over the downtown to a once-a-year fling, and the festival grew without constraints. During those lean times, the festival was a welcome change from the boring tune of decline and vacancy which played endlessly on the downtown juke. It seemed to be the song we would always sing until it would become our requiem.

But then a wind of change began to stir here, in New Albany, and in other small towns around the nation. Buy local became an organizing principle for reborn small towns. People began to see that wealth of local origin is a heartier variety of wealth; it is one that can build sustainable prosperity because it is built of the community, and in the community. Some of those who have put skin in the game of downtown revival have begun to question if the model of Harvest Homecoming born in the lean times now jibes with the better days downtown.

While I have no direct stake in the downtown, I, and we all, have a stake in building a sustainable prosperity for our city. So, when one person, or one group sounds a cautionary note about the Harvest Homecoming, and when that note is given front page ink in the News and Tribune, it becomes a topic of general concern.

I first began to hear rumblings against the disruption caused by Harvest Homecoming about ten years ago. It seemed parochial at the time and, I thought, rooted in people being forced out of their usual parking places downtown. It sounded baseless and a little short sighted. More recently, Roger Baylor of the New Albanian Brewing Company, and a stakeholder in downtown New Albany's revival, has been beating the drum for a retooling of the Harvest Homecoming. Baylor has been surprisingly willing to air his opinion on the topic. This may not be widely known, but Baylor rubs some people the wrong way. And, some people will disregard what he says simply because it is he who says it. But, as the adage says, don't shoot the messenger.

Since Mr. Cummins welcomed ideas, and since the Tribune has elevated the festival topic to wider discussion,  it seems the future of the festival and the continued health of the downtown revival could be best served by making the Harvest Homecoming a moveable feast, migrating from one part of downtown to another, as conditions change and dictate. New Albany's downtown was benefitted by the stimulus of the Harvest Homecoming in the festival's early years. I believe the festival is still  a net plus for the city, but it could be a greater contributor to the city which, at no small cost to the taxpayers, mobilizes for, and welcomes its pitching of the tents each year.

If, instead of the layout shown above, the festival's booths moved to different streets, the festival could again serve a revivifying function for downtown. The layout listed above totals seven blocks. The following layout also comprises seven blocks, although these blocks are adjacent to the heart of the downtown. While the festival's 250,000 to 300,000 attendees would still come downtown for the event, they would be somewhat away from what is currently ground zero. This should bring welcome potential customers downtown while not so seriously disrupting the normal flow of commerce.

A possible layout is:

Third Street from Spring to Main (2 blocks)

Market from Bank to Third (1 block)

Bank Street from Market to the railroad tracks (2 blocks)

Main Street, which is no longer a state highway, from Bank to Third Street (2 blocks)

This aims the festival slightly to the East and South of its current venue while leaving the streets in front of the majority of downtown stores and restaurants open for business. I would expect the merchants in the newly vacated streets to open their doors to the festival-goers, although now their doors would not be blocked by booths. Hopefully, the biggest problem facing the merchants would be dealing with an overflow of customers brought downtown by Indiana's biggest street festival. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Boxing Day

As Daniel Suddeath reported in the June 20*, News and Tribune, the building at 922 Culbertson is in the sights of the demolition crew. This is a shame, and it didn't, and still doesn't, have to happen.

The worn-out phrase from some distant management guru applies in this case, it is the requirement to think outside the box.

Inside the box, we see inadequate code-enforcement leading to the deterioration of the structure, which set it on its present perilous course. Many building in New Albany are in sorry shape. Are all  these blighters the result of blind eyes in the past? If so, good, we can place blame with people who came before us, and what good does that do anyone?

Are the members of preservation groups strident in defense of the city's historic buildings and neighborhoods; do these groups, or individuals within these groups, rub bureaucrats and policy makers the wrong way? Probably, and so what? Is the Horseshoe Foundation derelict in its mission, not abiding by its bylaws which call on the Foundation to support historic preservation? A lot of people think so.

I've heard that in place of the old tavern will be several newly-designed versions of  Habitat for Humanity houses. This laudable group does good and meaningful work, and is worthy of support, however, the houses they have designed for New Albany leave much to be desired. The placement and design of the houses does nothing to help the city escape the branding of certain parts of town as underprivileged, less desirable neighborhoods, and, therefore does not break the cycle of exclusion and poverty for the residents of those neighborhoods. Inside the Culbertson Avenue box, if the Habitat solution is chosen, we seem intent on making sure that this depressed neighborhood stays depressed and looks the part.

Does New Albany have money to fund the preservation and reuse of the building at 922 Culbertson? Not if you listen to the noise within the box.

Outside the box, there's plenty of money to salvage this building and help this neighborhood, as Suddeath reported June 19*. The sewer bond restructuring will pipe over a million dollars into City coffers. The rehabilitation of the building at 922 Culbertson has been estimated at between $150,000-300,000. Since the available funds to save this building would come from this rewrite of the bonds, perhaps it is fitting that the Sewerage Department share in the benefits of its salvation. Since the City's exhaustive search for willing parties to take on the rejuvenation process of the building has produced no results, why not use some of the savings from the sewer bonds, to invest in a first class renovation of the property and move the Sewer Billing offices there?

The structure is large enough to allow for the operations of that office to be housed on the main floor, with additional space on the upper floor for private offices for sewer employees or a field office for code enforcement, a police substation, or many other public uses. Even with the sewer offices there, the large main room of the tavern would be an ideal setting for a neighborhood Assembly Room, where from time to time governmental meetings could be held, including some City Council meetings. This would be an opportunity to deliver government services to the place where people live.

If the City's use of the property has the effect I believe it would, adding stability and vitality to that neighborhood, it need not be a permanent part of the neighborhood. The City's tenancy could be ended any time and the structure could be sold to private users. But, those private users would be buying into a part of town that has been greatly improved, and more inviting of private investment.

Inside the box rests a wrecking ball. Outside the box lies an open-ended list of possibilities.

One choice requires no imagination, and returns very little to the citizens of that neighborhood, or the city at large.

The other choice requires a hopeful vision for the city and all of its neighborhoods, a commitment to work toward an environmentally sustainable future, a city of walkable, safe, prosperous and interesting neighborhoods. What's the point of walkable neighborhoods, if you have no place to walk to?

Such neighborhoods can help New Albany rebuild, and bring vitality back to the city, as young people starting new families are given what many of their contemporaries are currently seeking in the older neighborhoods of Louisville, such as Germantown and the Highlands. It is not an overnight fix. It is, rather, a long slow process, and one which is immensely helped with a focal point such as the 922 building. If we don't seize some opportunity with this building, it will be a mistake. Will it be a mistake fatal to New Albany's future? Of course not. But it will be a mistake which we didn't need to make if we just looked outside the box.The lid's open. All we need to do is step out.

*June 20, 2014--News and Tribune, Old New Albany tavern to be torn down
*June 19, 2014--News and Tribune, New Albany City Council acts to restructure sewer bonds       


Monday, June 9, 2014

Just a Couple of Crazy Kids With a Dream

Of course the trajectory of crazy the Las Vegas Teabaggers were on, which ended in yet a few more tragic gun deaths, was probably pre-ordained to end in the deaths of the zealots themselves, at their own hands.

Perhaps the now-bastardized slogan, purloined by the radical Tea Party, needs a tweak. In addition to the standard, the Miller's flag might read, "Don't Tread On Me... I'll Tread On Me."