Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Time is Right for Walkable Urbanism in Owensboro

The following In My View, which appeared in the Messenger-Inquirer, is from Michael Huston, Owensboro native and urban designer currently working with the Gateway Planning team on the Downtown Owensboro Placemaking work.

Having been born in the mid 60’s they tell me that I am a member of Generation X, albeit just barely. Our claim to fame is that we were the first generation to be brought up on an endless stream of television sitcoms and TV dinners. I think you could also say that we were also the first truly suburban, car-dependent generation, and the first generation to grow up without a “real” downtown. Even though there were still a few retail stores here in downtown Owensboro when I was young (Anderson’s, Interstate and Sears to name a few), I never experienced the downtown that my parents and grandparents knew; the downtown full of retail stores, drugstores, diners, movie theaters…and people. The generations that have come after me (and I am starting to lose count), know even less about the thriving commerce, the local meeting places, and the entertainment options that used to be at the center of every town.

It wasn’t in fact, until I began traveling, first within the big cities on the east coast, and then in Europe, that I was able to experience the type of urban vitality than was once prevalent in all U.S. towns and cities. I saw in New York City a series of linked, walkable neighborhoods, each with its own drugstore, grocery store, drycleaners, etc. Later in Europe, I saw that this type of urban vitality can exist even in smaller towns and cities. In all of these places, I witnessed a type of social interaction between people that is all but eliminated as we wiz by in our cars up and down Frederica Street and around the bypass, and I started to feel that we as a society were missing something in our now-suburbanized towns. It was then that I became passionate advocate of downtown revitalization efforts.

Therefore, as an architect and urban designer who grew up in Owensboro, I felt a great deal of excitement and satisfaction when I was asked to join the urban design team with the Gateway Planning Group who is spearheading the development of the Downtown Owensboro Placemaking Initiative. This planning process will go beyond just design by establishing community priorities and outlining public/private investments needed to make it a reality. I feel that the timing has never been better to start such an endeavor. With an aging population, higher gas prices, and the threat of global warming more people are seeking a compact, less car-dependent environment; a perfect fit for downtown. And with the closing of the Executive Inn (as painful as it may be), we have a unique opportunity to reinvent seventeen acres of riverfront property into an even more successful downtown destination.

Yet, some may still ask, why go to all the effort? I think there are many reasons why we should, or perhaps must, take on this challenge. Economically, it is imperative that Owensboro remains competitive in creating and keeping good jobs. To do so, we must maintain a quality of life that is as good as, or better, than our regional competitors. Owensboro already has so much to offer, and a beautiful, thriving downtown would add even more to its appeal. Further, every great town or city needs a strong “center” as a place of identity and a place to come together as a community. The renaissance has, in fact, already begun in Owensboro as can be seen by the sidewalk caf├ęs on Second and Third Streets, the opening of a new dance studio on the east side of downtown, and the imminent renovation of the Smith Werner Building. This plan will help to ensure that the renaissance will continue, and that when the big pieces are added to the puzzle, whether a new hotel, a new convention center, etc., it will be done in a way that reinforces the “downtown experience” as a whole.

Now, back to Generation X. It is my hope that my generation, and the generations that follow, will once again be able to feel the spirit of community and identity that come with having a strong, vital “center.” And that in addition to the option of living in the suburbs, we will have the option to live and work in a beautiful downtown urban neighborhood, in a “not-so-quiet” town on the banks of the Ohio River.

Michael Huston

Michael Huston is an Architect and Urban Designer with the Gateway Planning Group and lives in Miami, Florida. He is a graduate of Owensboro Catholic High School.

Email: mike@gatewayplanning.com

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