Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Lexington KY

I spent most of last week in Lexington, Kentucky at a professional conference held at the Radisson hotel in the downtown. (My entire profession has only about 300 members nationwide, so we're not talking about a huge event.)

Unlike many cities, no interstate highways penetrate the downtown area of Lexington. However, I-64 and I-75 are just a few miles north.

Lexington-Fayette County is a consolidated city-county government, as is the much larger Louisville-Jefferson County (where we got stuck in terrible Sunday afternoon traffic on I-64 for nearly an hour!).

Yes, we drove all the way. But we did carpool; indeed, myself and a colleague from Columbia MO both drove over to the Swansea IL MetroLink station long-term parking area, leaving our vehicles there while a third colleague drove the rest of the way.

That's really the only efficient way to get there, as according to my research, no Amtrak train services Lexington, and the Greyhound service available requires changing buses first in Indianapolis and then again in Cincinnati. Lexington does have a small airport, but there are no direct flights from St. Louis; you have to change planes in Chicago, or Cincinnati, or Memphis, or even Atlanta.

Besides which, flying these days is an experience I'd like to avoid if possible. Two conference participants from Louisiana were stranded at the Houston airport for two days because of the problems with American Airlines. But driving I-64 takes you directly to the northern edge of town.

Indeed, Lexington has its own little outer-belt (perhaps more of an inner-belt as sprawl continues outside it, especially to the south), but it's not an interstate. It is called New Circle Road; that, in fact, is where the Greyhound station is located. But local transit in Lexington is limited to city buses, a system called LexTran.

Downtown Lexington has some interesting historic buildings, and an impressive public library with a huge pendulum clock that must be seen to be believed... although the local schoolkids don't even seem to notice it.

But it also is beset with many of the failed 1970s and '80s remedies that St. Louis has in our downtown:
One-way streets clogged with traffic at rush hour, but empty most other times.
A downtown indoor shopping mall attached to an arena and convention center, and connected by funky-smelling skywalks to adjacent hotels and office towers.

Technically, there are two downtown malls, both attached to each other by a skywalk above Main Street: The Shops at Lexington Center, where the ground floor food court is the real draw, the shops above seemingly an afterthought largely peddling UK blue sports memorabilia. I was not the only person who remarked it was actually faster to just walk across the street to the mall from the hotel, rather than navigating the skywalk maze! The 2nd mall I did not explore inside, but walked around the perimeter (both closed at 6 PM), although it looked a bit more interesting: Victorian Square, an adaptive reuse of several historic buildings combined into a shopping mall, attached by skywalk both to Lexington Center and to a parking garage.

I will say, though, Triangle Park and its fountains were impressive.

I explored quite a bit around the downtown area, and discovered several nice historic districts immediately north of downtown, and in their midst, a very nice, old college campus called Transylvania University (or just "Transy" for the locals). And of course you can't miss the University of Kentucky campus which sprawls forever and ever southward from downtown. Between downtown and the UK campus are many taverns, restaurants, and off-campus housing complexes. I get the sense the professors and their families mostly live in the historic districts just north of downtown, where homes range from modest to magnificent, are generally well-kept, and populated with many "End this War" lawn signs and bumper stickers, something I didn't really expect to see in Kentucky. Of course, that may just be where the liberal profs from the East coast live. ;-)

I walked a bit outside the downtown area, through Thoroughbred Park (also impressive but smaller than I'd expected), and kinda stumbled onto the 'wrong' side of town along US 60, through an industrial area where the massive Jif peanut butter factory is located, and ultimately to the rather sad-looking Eastland Shopping Center, which reminded me a lot of Northland before it was knocked down a few years ago (and not just because of the similar name!).

Eastland had a bus stop right in front of the Big Lots though, so I was able to hop on and ride back into downtown, through some even rougher blocks of Northeast Lexington than where I had walked, to the c. 1990 combination transit center/parking garage. It is rather ugly, as you might expect, and takes up a full two city blocks along Vine Street. But it is functional.

Clearly, though, the UK campus is a major center of activity. There's even reversible lanes -- marked only by yellow paint on the road and giant red glowing "X" signs above the lanes heading south from town/campus, all the way to the new shiny shopping malls along New Circle, along Nicholasville Road (US 27). It's hard to picture how the reversible lanes actually improve rush-hour traffic flow, but it probably works similarly to how Gravois used to be before I-44 was completed. Fascinating to see a place that still has reversible lanes on a surface road with no dividers at all; but also a bit scary!

Anyway, Lexington clearly has its challenges, but was fun and interesting place to visit and explore nonetheless. Hey, the mayor even stopped by to kick-off our conference; somehow, last year in Detroit I don't think we rated high enough for such a visit.


Chris said...

Your recounting of the lack of Amtrak service to the entire state of Kentucky reminds me of the one time in Baltimore when I was waiting for a train years ago. I was examining an Amtrak service map when it came to my realization that Amtrak served northern Montana, but not a major city like Louisville. Wonder why Amtrak is doing so badly?

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