Taking one small step while considering a bigger one, the City Commission wrestled again this week with the puzzle of reconciling downtown revitalization with the dominion of the automobile.
Old pictures from the glory days of the central business district show both sides of St. Clair Street lined with parked cars from one end to the other. But by the 1970s, the slow drip of retail business to the suburbs had become a steady stream. Downtown merchants and City Hall sought to reverse the trend with construction of the St. Clair Street Mall, which set aside one block exclusively for pedestrian use, the idea being to emulate the ambience of suburban malls. A parking garage was added alongside the pedestrian pathway in the expectation that customers intrigued by the refurbished district would shortly flock back in.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Major retail continued moving out and the parking facility, little used, deteriorated. Merchants and city officials got back together 25 years later and decided to rip out the linden trees shading the mall so they could reopen one lane to vehicular traffic down the center. The garage, more than half empty most of the time and unsafe for users, eventually had to close.
Now there’s impetus to make St. Clair still more like a conventional street. John Gray, a local preservationist, proposed that 11 on-street parking spaces be designated on the wide brick sidewalks. The commission finally agreed Monday to four spaces as a compromise. Fire Chief Wallace Possich said the parking won’t interfere with fire safety and Public Works Director Jeff Hackbart said the spaces would be marked clearly so both motorists and police know the limits.
Sooner or later, we suspect, St. Clair will look more and more like a street and less and less like a mall. Maybe it’ll help, maybe it won’t. Who knows?
Meanwhile, commission members are trying to decide what to do with the closed parking garage – repair it, tear it down or turn it over to private enterprise. Comissioner Sellus Wilder mentioned previous discussions about selling the property for a nominal fee. But if you buy a white elephant for $1, it’s still a white elephant that needs a much bigger investment to make it functional and attractive.
Wilder suggested tax increment financing as one possible solution. The government incentive program was established 50 years ago to stimulate growth in blighted areas by granting developers temporary tax breaks in hopes that business growth would increase public revenue in the long run. TIF fell into disrepute over its exploitation for dubious purposes. Last year, developers requested $9 million in TIF tax breaks to install infrastructure in a new east-side shopping center off Interstate 64.
Before anyone does anything to the St. Clair Street garage, an unbiased study should be conducted to determine the realistic demand for parking there now and predict how much it will grow with developments such as the Franklin County Judicial Center and the Kentucky State University classrooms in the old library. The garage was a product of faith that if it was built, people would come. They didn’t, at least not in the numbers required to make it successful. The last thing the city or a would-be developer need now is another shot in the dark.
We’d love to see Frankfort’s historic downtown reborn as the true center of community life, filled with scintillating destinations for office workers, tourists, suburbanites and people who want to live in the middle of it all. However, we wouldn’t bet a lot of money on that happening anytime soon.