Thursday, June 19, 2014

ON THE AVENUES REWOUND, PART ONE: Yellow lines, and what comes due.

ON THE AVENUES REWOUND, PART ONE: Yellow lines, and what comes due.
ON THE AVENUES REWOUND, PART TWO: You actually can get something for nothing.
ON THE AVENUES REWOUND, PART THREE: Anatomy of a red herring.

Since this was written last fall, I've decided that Wile E. Rosenbarger is anything but benign. He's taken credit for bringing the world leader in street sense, Jeff Speck, to New Albany, after which Speck was hired to study our Miller Lite of a street grid and recommend modernity. Now Rosenbarger will fight behind the scenes against whatever Speck recommends, and when the whole project collapses, he'll blame either the stupidity of Joe Sixpack, the cowardice of politicians, or both, and intimate that the only way for us to weather the ensuing nastiness is continue paying him to pretend he's Gail Wynand.

Apart from that, I stick with the following. Thus far, entrepreneurial capital has made the difference in New Albany. The rest is sophistry (see Part Three).

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ON THE AVENUES: Yellow lines, and what comes due.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor ... originally published on September 9, 2013

On Tuesday I visited an old pal to do some catching up.

He’s a Louisville restaurateur whose business is located in the epicenter of Frankfort Avenue. As we spoke over a cool adult libation, a steady stream of walkers, joggers and cyclists traveled past. It’s a thriving area with a strong indie ethos. There are a handful of retail vacancies, but not many. The neighborhood around my buddy’s place is filled with homes worth double or greater the value of equivalent structures in New Albany.

In short, Frankfort Avenue is fun and livable, and it’s the same milieu once publicly shunned by a New Albany city councilman, who feared our town might become too much like it. Yogi Berra couldn’t have said it any better than L’il Stevie: No one goes there anymore because it’s way too crowded.

Granted, my friend’s business always has been difficult to reach in peak periods – and the parking at times is gruesome. But even now, when me and the wife spend so much of our own free time in downtown New Albany, we still make the transit over to the Frankfort Avenue area every other week. Yes, there are lots of people therein. Travel can be quite slow, and parking often is a pain – and yet, precisely owing to these factors and others that flow from urban density, there is abundant life on every corner.

It’s a worthwhile destination, and so we seek it out.

So there I was on Tuesday afternoon, ensconced a stone’s throw from Frankfort Avenue -- and all my friend wanted to talk about was my town, not his. He said that recently his family was in New Albany for an entire day, just exploring, shopping, eating and drinking. He professed fascination with the atmosphere and history, and conceded that there’s enough to do in New Albany to occupy a whole weekend without once venturing into Louisville.

He asked me: How are you guys managing to do this?

My answer: Pretty much all on our own, as entrepreneurs, volunteers and chief bottle washers.

“But what about local government? What has it done?”

Crickets chirped. Pins dropped.

Somewhere, a skateboarder barked at a dog.

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The single most important step toward New Albany’s revitalization ever taken by any portion of city government was the council’s approval in 2006 of the riverfront development area, and the subsequent availability of non-quota 3-way alcoholic beverage permits.

It’s true that the Urban Enterprise Association’s fa├žade grants have been helpful, as has Develop New Albany’s networking. While I’ve not always agreed with Clean and Green’s program of beautification, at least the work has come from private donations. The Horseshoe Foundation’s revolving loans have been useful, too.

Other than these entities, and with One Southern Indiana abjectly negligible, most of the entire record of revitalization has been written by entrepreneurs, ranging from business owners through developers and facilitators like Steve Resch. There are too many names of over-achieving, life-savings-grade investors to mention all of them here, but it should suffice to say that apart from a perpetually well-intentioned bully pulpit, local New Albany government largely has been AWOL – chronically under-funded, often paying more attention (and granting very real tax abatements) to larger companies in industrial parks, or just uninformed, disorganized and obsessed with political irrelevancies.

It isn’t that I’m not thankful for their moral support. It isn’t that the politician types aren’t trying the best they know how, with the tools at their disposal. It’s just that the haphazard, uncoordinated and plainly strange way we’re now approaching street grid reform has me fearing the worst.

And those fears have a history of being realized.

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This blog began in 2004. In 2005, the Garner administration publicly (and with exaggerated and paranoid caution) casually mentioned the concept of impending two-way street conversions.

Nothing happened.

Garner’s successor, King England III, talked quite a lot about the topic. In truth, there may never again be a mayor who talked as much.

By the way, nothing happened then, either.

Now, a full eight years after the first muffled and muted Hauss Square mutterings somehow leaked into the newspaper of record, we’re told that when it comes to two-way traffic, the current Mayor Jeff Gahan is said to be “for it” – so much so that City Hall has yet to make an official statement supporting two-way streets ... and David Duggins, Gahan’s economic development adjutant, has offered no public utterances on the topic to date.

Now, I believe what I’ve heard through the grapevine, but at this juncture, the administration’s only real comments on the matter have been made at council meetings by city planner John Rosenbarger, and I’m sorry: This is rather like President Barack Obama trotting out the head of the Postal Service to reveal bombing plans for Syria.

All Rosenbarger can do is speak nuts and bolts to engineering wonks. The political side of this – and yes, so long as Bob Caesar seeks to hold back the evil forces of modernity, there is a political side – falls to officials quite apart from the planner. They’re not putting enough skin into this game, at least for my taste.

Consequently, and mostly because no one else seems willing to say it aloud, please allow me to be the bringer of truth:

Dear New Albany politicians in the executive and legislative branches of government,

Hi. You know this whole two-way street conversion thing we’ve been talking about since the House of Bread was still open? Well, here’s the way it needs to work.

Do it. 

Now.

You owe us.

That’s right: You owe us.

In fact, it’s all quite easy to understand, so let me help you out.

Just take every one of those “no-brainer,” “quality of life,” and “economic development” arguments made by those in favor of $20 million worth of new city parks, and grasp that these exact same arguments apply just as strongly to two-way streets, traffic calming and complete streets – at least insofar as the new cadre of independent business owners are concerned. 

Remember us? 

We’re the ones who actually have been investing downtown.

Then add the needs and interests of present and future inhabitants in those neighborhoods making up the city’s historic core. They’re not feeling arterial – no, not at all. 

While you’re at it, take the case for Main Street’s makeover (you can keep the excessive expense, but that’s another story), and understand that the Main Street rationale (i.e., we all need nice things) applies to Elm and Spring Streets, too – as much, and probably more so, because unlike Main Street, those other neighborhoods still hang in the balance. The NSP was nice … but it was mostly Federal stimulus money, wasn’t it?

You see, you owe us a modern street grid, because so far, most of the heavy lifting in the historic core has been on someone else’s dime, whether from local investors, state highway pay-outs or Obama funds. Now, with this much needed two-way street conversion and other related measures to enhance New Albany’s prospects, it’s time at last for you to go all in and show us that you really get it, and that River Ridge envy shall not be the dominant economic development motif hereabouts.

Just remember: You owe us.

Pay us all back, all at once. Give us a street grid that facilitates revitalization, not one that actively hampers it. 

Hell, if you buy the paint, we might even roll a few kegs out some afternoon and paint the stripes for you.

If you decline to act – well, we might just paint the stripes ourselves, anyway. Maybe Clean and Green can fund it. A little civil disobedience never harmed anyone.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We're watching.

Roger

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