Historic preservation needs more than first steps

Will this be another downtown survey that is filed away and forgotten?

Or will Lexington follow through and take steps to leverage what’s left of its rich architectural past for a more prosperous future?

The city historic preservation division last week unveiled a survey of every building on 34 downtown blocks. It graded each pre-1965 structure’s historic and architectural merit as “outstanding,” “significant,” “contributing” or “non-contributing.”

Mayor Jim Newberry ordered the survey after controversy erupted last summer over developer Dudley Webb’s demolition of a block of buildings dating to 1826 to make way for the CentrePointe tower he has yet to begin building.

Preservationists were outraged, but Webb claimed the old buildings were insignificant and too dilapidated to reuse.

Newberry said a comprehensive survey was needed as “a reference point from which our conversation can begin” about which downtown buildings are worth renovating and reusing.

“That will be a substantial step in the right direction so our discussions can be more productive than they have been in the past,” Newberry said last week. “I think it’s healthy for us to have a community discussion of those values now rather than in the heat of the battle.”

Newberry also ordered code enforcement officers to sweep downtown to make sure old buildings aren’t suffering “demolition by neglect” as many of those on the CentrePointe block had.

The mayor’s strategy makes sense. The survey, which will be posted for public comment on www.lexingtonky.gov beginning Monday, is a useful first step.

But it is at least the third first step Lexington has taken in the past three decades.

After an earlier downtown demolition controversy, then-Mayor Pam Miller commissioned a similar survey in 1993. Several of that survey’s “significant” buildings have since been demolished.

Most of the buildings on the CentrePointe block, which is now an empty mud hole, were rated “significant,” except for the 1826 building that housed Joe Rosenberg’s jewelry store, which was rated “outstanding.”

The 1994 survey recommended that the city prevent demolition of those buildings. It also recommended that the city “encourage property owners, through code enforcement, to provide continued maintenance for buildings in the area.”

The Kentucky Heritage Council has other downtown surveys, most done in 1979 and 1980 by architectural historian Walter Langsam. They describe in detail the architectural and historic merit of many of the now-demolished buildings on the CentrePointe block.

Do you see a pattern here? Many of the more than 50 people who came to a meeting last week to see the latest downtown survey did, too. They asked about next steps. Where do we go from here?

Lexington has done and continues to do a lot of good historic preservation, thanks to the Blue Grass Trust, other organizations and many dedicated individuals and businesses. Among them: Bank of the Bluegrass, Ben Kaufmann, Gray Construction, Thomas & King, Peter Armato, Holly Wiedemann.

And just west of downtown, visionary developers Barry McNees and Rob McGoodwin are working separately to redevelop industrial complexes built for two of Lexington’s former signature industries, bourbon and tobacco, into assets for the new economy.

But historic preservation has always been a struggle in Lexington, because too many people have the wrong idea about it. They see preservation as an economic drag instead of an economic engine.

Preservation is rarely about recreating the past to make a museum piece. Instead, it’s about mixing the best of the past and present to create interesting, useful buildings for the future that speak to Lexington’s unique heritage and culture.

It’s really not so much preservation as recycling.

Look carefully around Lexington and in other cities around the country and world and you will see fine old commercial buildings being given new life. And they’re usually a lot more special than the new, generic towers built by cost-conscious developers.

Downtown revitalization isn’t an accomplishment, it’s an ongoing process that requires vision, leadership and citizen engagement.

It’s not about creating laws for everything, because laws and process can do as much to prevent great development as bad development. The key is creating sensible, flexible laws that allow leaders, under the watchful eyes of citizens, to help a city achieve its potential.

During the next few weeks, as citizens comment on the latest downtown building survey, Urban County Council members should adopt the Downtown Master Plan and proposed new zoning laws. They, business leaders and interested citizens also should look at strategies other cities are using to protect their historic assets and recycle them for the future.

Creating a successful downtown Lexington isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. But we’ll never get very far if all we ever take are first steps.

Morton's Row, including this building from 1826 that was one of Lexington's first Greek Revival structures, was torn down to make way for CentrePointe. Photo by Tom Eblen

This 1826 building, one of the first Greek Revival structures built in Lexington during the mid-1800s, was demolished for CentrePointe. Photo by Tom Eblen