Centennial celebration planned Saturday for historic Duncan Park

August 25, 2015
A cyclist rode up North Limestone Street past an entrance to Duncan Park at the corner of Fifth Street. Many young people are moving into neighborhoods around the park and fixing up long-neglected old houses. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

A cyclist rode up North Limestone Street past an entrance to Duncan Park at the corner of Fifth Street. The park originally was a wealthy merchant’s estate. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

There’s a party Saturday to celebrate the centennial of Duncan Park, a piece of land that has reflected the changing character of Lexington for more than twice that long.

Four nearby neighborhood associations are sponsoring the public celebration from 3 to 7 p.m. at the five-acre park at North Limestone and East Fifth Street. There will be live music, food trucks, family activities and exhibits by community organizations.

“We just want people to come out and enjoy the park,” said James Brown, the new First District member of the Urban County Council.

Duncan Park has a fascinating history.

It was part of 20 acres that William Morton acquired in the early 1790s. He built one of Lexington’s first mansions there in 1810, and that mansion dominates the park. The federal-style house has oversized proportions to make it look good from a distance.

The Englishman, who came here in 1787 and opened a store, became a wealthy merchant and financier. Because of his aristocratic bearing, everyone called him “Lord” Morton, but probably not to his face.

Morton gave away a lot of his money, creating Lexington’s first public school. He also was a benefactor of what is now Eastern State Hospital and Christ Church Episcopal.

Two years after Morton died in 1836, his property was bought by Cassius Marcellus Clay, the fiery emancipationist who published an anti-slavery newspaper, The True American, and was Lincoln’s ambassador to Russia during the Civil War.

Clay sold the place in 1850 to his wife’s uncle, Dr. Lloyd Warfield, who subdivided three-fourths of it to create the neighborhoods now north and east of the park.

The house and five acres were bought in 1873 by Henry T. Duncan, editor of the Lexington Daily Press and the city’s mayor. Because of how well he and his wife maintained the grounds, it was known as “Duncan Park” long before their daughter, Lucy Duncan Draper, sold it to the city as a park in 1913.

A month before the park officially opened, it was the site of a May 1915 rally by women seeking the right to vote. That was fitting: Clay’s daughter, Laura, was a national leader in the women’s suffrage movement.

Duncan Park was a happening place for more than four decades, with a baseball field, tennis courts, ping-pong tables and playgrounds.

The Lexington Leader reported in 1925 that three young girls were forming a girls’ club at Duncan Park. One of them was Elizabeth Hardwick, 8, who lived on nearby Rand Avenue. She later moved to New York and became a famous literary critic, novelist and founder of The New York Review of Books.

City officials have always struggled over what to do with the Morton house. Early plans called for it to become a museum or a girls school. More recent proposals have included a black history museum and an official home for Lexington’s mayor.

Instead, the mansion has always housed social service agencies. In 1914, it became a “milk depot” for Baby Milk Supply, a new charity. Now called Baby Health Service, the organization cares for uninsured children at a clinic beside St. Joseph Hospital.

The Morton house was a Junior League “day nursery” in the 1930s and then was the city children’s home until better accommodations were built on Cisco Road in 1950. In recent years, it has housed The Nest Center for Women and Children.

Until the 1950s, Duncan Park was only for white people. The city built Douglass Park on Georgetown Street for black residents in 1916. By the time city parks were legally integrated, a different kind of segregation was taking place.

Lexington’s suburban sprawl contributed to white flight from the neighborhood. In August 1972, 200 black people marched from Duncan Park to city hall to protest the closing of inner-city schools and the busing of black children to the suburbs.

As owner-occupied homes surrounding Duncan Park became poorly maintained rentals, crime soared. Things have slowly gotten better, especially since last year’s fatal shooting of Antonio Franklin in the park prompted his mother, Anita Franklin, to organize well-attended monthly “peace walks.”

Many people attribute the drop in crime to a renaissance in the North Limestone area. Many old houses are being restored and reconverted from low-income rentals to owner-occupied homes.

The Martin Luther King Neighborhood Association has focused on improving Duncan Park since 2001. Discussions are now under way about adding more features to the playground and basketball courts.

Travis Robinson, the association’s president, said the park is becoming safer thanks to better policing and more use by area residents. Regular activities include potluck suppers and story-telling programs for kids.

“It’s a community asset that has been underutilized,” said Vice Mayor Steve Kay, who lives nearby. “More people are coming to live in the neighborhood, and that is making a difference.”

A cyclist rode up North Limestone Street past the old columned entrance to the 1810 Morton House in Duncan Park. Many young people are moving into neighborhoods around the park and fixing up long-neglected old houses. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

A cyclist rode up North Limestone Street past the old entrance to the 1810 Morton House in Duncan Park. Many people are moving into nearby neighborhoods and fixing up long-neglected houses.

The Morton House, built in 1810 and once owned by emancipationist Cassius Clay, sits in the middle of Duncan Park. Since the city bought the property in 1913, it has housed social service agencies. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The Morton House, built in 1810 and once owned by emancipationist Cassius Clay, sits in the middle of Duncan Park. Since the city bought the property in 1913, it has housed social service agencies.


CentrePointe deal looks promising, but city must scrutinize details

August 11, 2015
CentrePointe

CentrePointe is bounded by Main, Limestone, Upper and Vine Streets. Photo by Charles Bertram.

 

At first blush, this deal would appear to have the potential to write a dream ending for Lexington’s biggest downtown development nightmare.

Two young men with finance and development experience and access to big money say they are taking over CentrePointe, the mixed use project that after seven years of false starts is nothing more than a giant hole in the center of the city.

But due diligence is needed, because dreams often don’t come true.

Investor Matt Collins and Atit Jariwala, who heads the New York development firm Bridgeton Holdings, seem to be saying all the right things to try to turn this disaster of a project into a civic asset.

Collins said he and his family aren’t just invested in CentrePointe; they have an agreement to take over the project. (I’m holding my breath until all of the papers are signed.)

Property owner Joe Rosenberg and Dudley Webb, the previous developer, will no longer have control or decision-making roles, Collins said. They will only be minority equity partners, reflecting the current value of their investments.

“We’re calling the shots,” Collins said.

Collins and Jariwala also are thinking about renaming the development, since CentrePointe and its pretentious spelling carries a lot of baggage. Good idea.

The partners said they want to make this project a landmark, an iconic piece of architecture, but one that looks like it belongs in Lexington. Another good idea.

This was one of Webb’s mistakes. He had a chance for great architecture with the design developed by Studio Gang of Chicago and later adapted by Lexington’s EOP Architects. But Webb’s sixth and latest version of CentrePointe’s design was barely better than his first three attempts, which were generic and forgettable.

I hope, though, that Collins and Jariwala won’t limit their vision to a look that mimics Lexington’s historic buildings. To be a landmark, a contemporary structure needs to be contemporary, not a riff on architectural history.

Collins and Jariwala said they plan to stay with plans for an underground garage, hotel, apartments, shops and restaurants. But rather than a commercial office tower, they want a new government center, which the city would lease.

Lexington needs a new government center to replace the old Lafayette Hotel building, which badly needs renovation and would be better suited for a hotel, condos or apartments.

City officials have been exploring the idea of selling the old hotel and constructing a new government center on city-owned land downtown. Would it make sense to lease from a private developer instead? Maybe, if the numbers work.

With Webb essentially out of the picture, there is no political reason not to consider incorporating city hall into this development. But Collins and Jariwala will have to negotiate a long-term lease that makes financial sense for taxpayers.

Mayor Jim Gray and the Urban County Council will have to look closely at those numbers, and at something else: Collins and Jariwala said they may want the city to guarantee $25 million in tax-increment financing bonds to build the garage.

City officials weren’t willing to guarantee those bonds for Webb, viewing the risk as too great. If these men want the city to do it for them, they will have to make a case that they are a better risk and structure a deal that protects taxpayers.

After several years of work in banking and international development, Collins said he moved to Lexington two years ago to attend law school at the University of Kentucky. When he finishes school, Collins said he wants to make his home in Lexington, where his Frankfort-born father, international financier Tim Collins, spent part of his childhood.

I think local ties are important. I agree with Collins’ belief that Lexington has a lot of untapped potential, and that it needs a more vibrant downtown to achieve it. I also agree that a landmark building on the CentrePointe block would be a catalyst.

CentrePointe doesn’t just need new financing — it needs new vision, talent and leadership. I am hopeful that Collins and Jariwala can offer that. But city officials must evaluate this deal and its many complexities with open eyes and a clear head.

The big mistake Lexington leaders made seven years ago when CentrePointe was announced was to take everything Webb said at face value. We can’t afford to make that mistake again.


If CentrePointe developer can’t get investor, city should get tough

August 4, 2015
Not much has changed at CentrePointe since this photo was taken Jan. 27, except that weeds have grown up along the pit's walls. Photo by Tom Eblen

Not much has changed at CentrePointe since this photo was taken Jan. 27, except that weeds have grown up along the pit’s walls. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Ninety days ago, city officials gave developer Dudley Webb 90 days to try to make a deal with an unidentified investor to rescue his long-stalled CentrePointe project.

Unlike previous unidentified investors, city officials know who this one is, and Mayor Jim Gray says he has the necessary deep pockets.

But here’s the question: Will Webb be willing to take a financial hit to get a bailout? He is hardly in a strong negotiating position after more than seven years of false starts and mounting expenses.

Webb couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.

“We don’t really have any news to report right now,” said Mason Miller, an attorney representing the city on CentrePointe. “I suspect by later this week we should know more.”

Webb unveiled plans for CentrePointe in March 2008: a massive skyscraper complex with a Marriott hotel, luxury condos, offices, glitzy restaurants and shops.

Most city officials were dazzled, with the notable exception of then-Vice Mayor Gray, a veteran construction executive. The city allowed Webb to demolish an entire downtown block on no more than promises.

Preservationists were outraged at the loss of historic buildings, several of which were supposed to have been protected by the city. Architects were appalled by Webb’s design, a throwback to generic 1980s architecture that had no relationship to the city around it.

Real estate and hotel experts questioned Webb’s business plan. Details of his financing were sketchy, including a hard-to-believe story about an unidentified foreign investor who died without a will.

Under pressure from city officials, the empty block was planted with grass, creating a pasture that became popular for city festivals. As he searched for financing, Webb toyed with better designs from respected architects, then chose mediocrity.

Nearly two years ago, Webb claimed he had enough capital to excavate the pasture for the first step of his project, a three-story underground parking garage. A skeptical city government agreed to let him dig, but only if he pledged $4.4 million to restore the site if he ran out of money and work stopped. That’s just what happened more than a year ago.

CentrePointe is now CentrePit — a block-square hole in the heart of Lexington. In December, Webb brought in two tower cranes, indicating work might begin. But the cranes have done no work on CentrePointe. They and weeds are all that have risen from the pit.

In April, city officials sent Webb a default notice and threatened to begin foreclosure. A week later, he began talks with the potential investor. City officials gave him 90 days to make a deal. That time is now up.

If Webb makes a deal, we can only hope the investor insists on a better design and business plan.

It doesn’t take a genius to look around Lexington and see what has succeeded while CentrePointe languished: modestly scaled businesses in creatively renovated buildings that speak to Lexington’s history and culture. If Webb hadn’t been so hasty with the wrecking ball, a good architect could have combined old and new to create an attractive, successful development on the CentrePointe block.

Real estate experts say there is demand for first-class office space, high-end rental apartments and perhaps an extended-stay hotel downtown. But a third convention hotel several blocks from the convention center makes no more sense now than it did in 2008.

As people keep pointing out, Lexington needs a new city hall. The current one, in the old Lafayette Hotel building, is long overdue for renovation and would be better suited for a hotel or condos. But I sense little political appetite for building a new city hall at CentrePointe as long as Webb is the developer. A skeptical public would view that as rewarding bad behavior.

If Webb doesn’t strike a deal with this investor, what happens then?

I think city officials should play hardball. Begin foreclosure. Explore options for condemning the block as a public nuisance. That would surely spark a court battle, but it also might prompt Webb to get realistic about a private equity bailout.

It has been painfully obvious for too many years that Webb is in over his head with CentrePointe. But that doesn’t mean Lexington should let his folly continue to suck life out of the downtown renaissance occurring all around it.


She wanted classic style, he wanted a net-zero energy house.

July 26, 2015
Jamie Clark, a Lexington energy consultant and contractor, renovated an older home in Chevy Chase to see if he could create a "net zero" energy house that looks like a typical house most people in Lexington want to own. So far, his project has been a success.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Jamie Clark, a Lexington energy consultant, renovated a circa 1958 house in Chevy Chase to see if he could create a “net zero” energy house that looks like a typical Lexington house. Photos by Tom Eblen

The solar panels that help power Jamie Clark's renovated house in Chevy Chase are hidden on the back roof, visible only from the very back of his back yard.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The solar panels that help power Clark’s renovated house in Chevy Chase are hidden on the back roof, visible only from the very back of his back yard.

 

When Jamie and Haley Clark decided to move closer to town and Christ the King School, where their two young daughters are students, they each knew what kind of house they wanted. Trouble was, they didn’t want the same thing.

“She wanted a very Southern Living house,” Jamie Clark said, referring to the lifestyle magazine. “I wanted a net-zero house.”

Kentucky doesn’t have many net-zero houses, which use insulation, solar power and other technology to create as much energy as they use over the course of a year. And few of them look like the traditional homes that most Lexington buyers want.

Jamie Clark of Lexington is an energy-efficiency consultant and contractor.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Jamie Clark

Clark, who works as an energy-efficiency consultant and sells geothermal systems for Climate Control Heating & Air, took that as a challenge.

“Part of my goal was to prove that you could build net zero in Chevy Chase,” he said as he stood outside the house they bought two years ago and drastically renovated. “This would fit in in any neighborhood in Lexington.”

Clark searched Chevy Chase for a house for sale with the right orientation to the sun. He found a one-story ranch on Prather Road, built in 1958 with salvaged brick, and began renovations. Haley Clark sketched what she wanted, and architect Van Meter Pettit turned her ideas into construction drawings.

The Clarks rearranged the existing house and added about 1,000 square feet. The result was 2,978 square feet of living space above ground, plus 1,856 in the finished basement.

They put the master suite on the first floor and added a second story with Cape Cod dormers in the bedrooms of their daughters, Alexandra 8, and Catherine, 5. The girls’ double bathroom was designed with their teenage years in mind.

“I just turned 40 and I never plan to move again,” Clark said. “We were really mindful of growing in this house.”

The first step in creating a net-zero house is insulation; less energy used means less must be generated. The Clarks’ contractors installed Icynene spray-foam insulation and energy-efficient Anderson 400 Series low-E windows.

Clark drilled five, 200-foot wells and put in a geothermal system for heating, cooling and hot water. He installed a Climate Master Trilogy 45 heat pump and a highly insulated iGate water tank.

Clark said he spent about $900 on LED light bulbs, whose light quality is comparable to traditional incandescent bulbs. LEDs cost 10 times more than traditional bulbs but use 1⁄10 the electricity and last 10 times longer.

The only incandescent bulbs in the house are on chandeliers that look better with “pretty” bulbs. And there are motion sensors in the girls’ playroom to turn lights on and off automatically.

Jamie Clark installed a super-insulated water heater that works off the geothermal system.

Clark installed a super-insulated water heater that works off the geothermal system.

“It makes a lot more sense to just conserve than to put more solar panels on the roof,” Clark said. “Back in February, when we hit minus 18, I was using less power than the microwave at Super America to heat my house.”

Clark installed new Energy Star-rated appliances. The only natural gas the house uses is for the kitchen stove, and Clark said his monthly meter fee is much higher than the cost of the gas.

To create electricity, Clark installed 20 solar panels on the back roof. They are on the Kentucky Utilities grid, so the house draws power on cloudy days and adds power on sunny days.

Clark wired the system for 40 panels and plans to add more if he needs them. “I’m trying to talk my wife into a Tesla (electric car), and if we do that then I’ll put 20 more panels up there for charging it,” said Clark, who drives a Toyota Prius.

Like other energy systems in the house, the solar panels aren’t visible. “The only place you can see them is if you stand at the back fence line,” he said.

The Clarks moved in last Thanksgiving, so it will be at least a few more months before they know if their house is net zero. Early results are encouraging. The electric bill in December, when there were only six days with more than six hours of sunshine, was $153. But the bills were $11 in March, $30 in April and $9 in May.

Clark did some of the work himself, and he has good contacts in the industry. For an average consumer working with a contractor, Clark’s energy-efficiency measures would cost about $50,000 more than conventional systems, adding about $200 a month to a 30-year mortgage.

“They will more than pay for themselves,” he said, adding that federal tax credits for solar and geothermal systems would reduce costs further.

Over time, savings will be even greater. Electricity costs in Kentucky typically double every decade, but as utilities move away from high-pollution coal, rates could rise more sharply.

“It’s a dream home, that’s for sure,” Clark said of the project that has made him and his wife happy. “It’s everything we wanted.”

A state-of-the-art geo-thermal heating and cooling unit in the basement is a big reason Jamie Clark's renovated house in Chevy Chase is close to net-zero energy usage over the course of the year.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

A state-of-the-art geo-thermal heating and cooling unit in the basement is a big reason Clark’s renovated house in Chevy Chase is close to net-zero energy usage over the course of the year.

Jamie Clark's wife wanted a "Southern Living" house, and the energy consultant and contractor wanted a super energy-efficient house. So his renovated house in Chevy Chase has both high style and almost no net energy use over the course of the year, thanks to solar panels, geo-thermal heating and cooling and high-level insulation. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Clark’s wife wanted a “Southern Living” house, and the energy consultant and contractor wanted a super energy-efficient house. So his renovated house in Chevy Chase has both high style and almost no net energy use over the course of the year, thanks to solar panels, geo-thermal heating and cooling and high-level insulation.


Renovating old market helps new owner discover her family history

July 12, 2015
Workers renovated the circa 1894 addition to the Buchignani Meat Market. The builder's great-granddaughter, Mary Ginocchio, recently bought the building across from her Mulberry & Lime shop and is having it renovated for commercial space.  Photos by Tom Eblen

Workers renovated the circa 1894 addition to the Buchignani Meat Market. The builder’s great-granddaughter, Mary Ginocchio, recently bought the building across from her Mulberry & Lime shop and is having it renovated for commercial space. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Mary Ginocchio recently bought an old commercial building across North Limestone from her house and home furnishings boutique. After a major renovation, she hopes to lease the first floor to restaurants and rent out the two apartments above.

But this project is much more than a real estate investment. It is restoring a key piece of her family’s history.

Ginocchio bought the building for $300,000 in May from Charles Whittington, whose family had owned it since 1986. Whittington operated a used bookstore there for years and lived above the shop.

Ginocchio hopes to spend no more than that on the renovation, which is being led by contractors Dudley Burke and Mica Puscas; Puscas is also finding new homes for tens of thousands of books that were left behind.

“There’s work to be done everywhere,” she said. “But they’ve gotten so much done in just a month. I’m conservative with my money, but I’m getting over it quick.”

Martin Ginocchio and his daughter, Mary, stand in the doorway of what was originally the Buchagnani Meat Market.

Martin Ginocchio and his daughter, Mary, stand in the doorway of what was the Buchagnani Meat Market.

Ginocchio will have an open house from 1 to 4 p.m. July 26 to show off the renovation in progress. The contractors are trying to save as much historic fabric as possible — from pine floors and woodwork to the tin ceiling on the main floor.

The building dates to 1887, when the first section was constructed for Ginocchio’s great- grandfather, Hannibal Buchignani. His meat market had outgrown its previous location on South Broadway. (A large 1880s photo of that shop hangs in Spalding’s Bakery on Winchester Road.)

Buchignani came to the United States from Italy as a child. When he grew up, he decided to move to California. On his way there, he stopped to see a friend in Lexington who persuaded him that this would be a good place to start a business and raise a family.

Buchignani’s grocery prospered. In 1894, he built an addition, part of which housed a bicycle shop. He was one of Lexington’s first bicycle enthusiasts, and Ginocchio said he asked several manufacturers to make a triple bicycle for his sons, Hugo, Leo and John.

“They wouldn’t do it, so he built it himself,” she said. “We still have the frame in the basement.”

Buchignani never lost his childhood desire to live in California. So, in 1905, the family sold its furniture (but kept its Lexington real estate) and moved to San Francisco. They arrived six months before the famous 1906 earthquake devastated the city and left them living in a tent in a park.

According to family lore, one of Buchignani’s sons asked: “Papa, what are we going to do?”

“We’re going to take the first train back to Lexington,” he replied.

Three years after reopening his market, Buchignani bought the mansion across the street when it went up for auction. It was built about 1818 as the home of Matthew Kennedy, Kentucky’s first professional architect.

Ginocchio now lives in the back of the Matthew Kennedy House. She uses the front rooms for her Mulberry & Lime home furnishings shop. The mansion also houses the office of interior designer Anna Marie Lewis, who is helping with the renovation.

Next door is a modest house built in 1813 by Kennedy and his business partner, John Brand. It was moved down Constitution Street years ago to prevent its demolition, and it is now the home of her father, retired architect Martin Ginocchio.

When he was young, his father, Louis Ginocchio, ran The Tavern on South Limestone, where Two Keys Tavern is now. His grandfather died 16 years before he was born in 1931, but Ginocchio recalls many visits to the meat market run by his uncles, John and Hugo, a short trolley ride up Limestone.

“I remember this structure from way back, the smells and everything,” he said. “All the produce was in large, tall baskets. There were cookies in big cans with glass tops. There was a refrigerated room where my uncles would hang whole sides of beef to age.”

At Christmas, the uncles had special Italian candy to give him when he visited.

The Buchignanis’ market shared its building with other businesses over the years, including an ice cream shop, a confectioner, a shoemaker and an electrician. The meat market closed in the 1960s, and the building was sold out of the family.

Buying and renovating the meat market has prompted the Ginocchios to look for old photographs and talk more about their family history, memories and relics. A glass-topped cookie can and tall basket have been around the house forever, but Mary Ginocchio didn’t realize where they came from.

“I didn’t think I would be that attached to the building,” she said. “But I am now.”

If you go

Buchignani Meat Market sneak preview

What: See renovation in progress

When: 1-4 p.m. Sunday, July 26

Where: 215-219 N. Limestone

Cost: Free, but donations accepted for the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation

More information: (859) 231-0800 or Mulberryandlime.com

A worker in the 1894 addition to the Buchignani Meat Market, which once housed a bicycle shop. Mary Ginocchio, whose great grandfather Hannibal Buchignani built the building, recently bought it and is having it restored for use as commercial space.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

A worker in the 1894 addition to the Buchignani Meat Market, which once housed a bicycle shop.

Martin Ginocchio and his daughter, Mary Ginocchio, looked through the remains of a bookstore that operated in the old Buchagnani Meat Market until about 1996. The building's downstairs has been unused since then. Their ancestor, Hannibal Buchignani, built the commercial building about 1887, adding an addition about 1894. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Martin Ginocchio and his daughter, Mary Ginocchio, looked through the remains of a bookstore that operated in the old Buchagnani Meat Market.

Martin Ginocchio and his daughter, Mary Ginocchio, looked through the remains of a bookstore that operated in the old Buchagnani Meat Market until about 1996. The building's downstairs has been unused since then. Their ancestor, Hannibal Buchignani, built the commercial building about 1887, adding an addition about 1894. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Martin Ginocchio and his daughter, Mary Ginocchio, looked through the remains of a bookstore that operated in the old Buchagnani Meat Market.

Apartments above the Buchignani Meat Market are being remodeled into two rental units, which include natural light from two skylights in the roof.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Apartments above the Buchignani Meat Market are being remodeled into two rental units, which include natural light from two skylights in the roof.

Apartments above the Buchignani Meat Market are being remodeled into two rental units, which include natural light from two skylights in the roof.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Apartments above the Buchignani Meat Market are being remodeled into two rental units.

The two apartments over the old Buchignani Meat Market on North Limestone Street overlook owner Mary Ginocchio's Mulberry & Lime shop. It is housed in the circa 1818 mansion where Kentucky's first professional architect, Matthew Kennedy, lived. Ginocchio's great-grandfather, meat market owner Hannibal Buchignani, bought the house at auction in 1909 and it has been in the family ever since.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The two apartments over the old Buchignani Meat Market on North Limestone Street overlook owner Mary Ginocchio’s Mulberry & Lime shop. It is housed in the circa 1818 mansion where Kentucky’s first professional architect, Matthew Kennedy, lived. Ginocchio’s great-grandfather, meat market owner Hannibal Buchignani, bought the house at auction in 1909 and it has been in the family ever since.

Hannibal Buchignani built the right side of this commercial building on North Limestone Street for his meat market about 1887 and added the left side about 1894. The street-level space has gone unused since a bookstore there closed in 1996. Buchignani's great-granddaughter, Mary Ginocchio, recently bought the building and is renovating it for commercial space.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Hannibal Buchignani built the right side of this commercial building on North Limestone Street for his meat market about 1887 and added the left side about 1894.

The Buchignani Meat Market is shown in this 1921 photo by Lexington real estate agent Asa Chinn, whose documented the city's downtown streetscape that year.  Photo provided

The Buchignani Meat Market is shown in this 1921 photo by Lexington real estate agent Asa Chinn, whose documented the city’s downtown streetscape that year. Photo provided


Efforts to move, repurpose People’s Bank building are getting close

July 11, 2015
People's Bank on South Broadway must be moved or it will be demolished to make way for a 12-screen movie theater. Photo by Tom Eblen

People’s Bank on South Broadway must be moved or it will be demolished to make way for a 12-screen movie theater. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

The former Peoples Bank building, with its zig-zag roof and walls of glazed turquoise tile,seems to have captured people’s imaginations.

Fans of the Mid-Century Modern structure are within $75,000 of the $850,000 in cash and in-kind services they need by July 30 to save it from demolition by moving it off the South Broadway site where it was built in 1962.

“We’re in the home stretch,” said Laurel Catto, board chair of the Warwick Foundation, which plans to renovate the building into the People’s Portal, a public space for promoting cross-cultural understanding.

The building is owned by Langley Properties, which has agreed to donate it to the foundation if it can be relocated. Otherwise, Peoples Bank is slated for demolition to make way for a 12-screen movie theater.

One piece of the puzzle could fall into place July 17, when the Lexington Center board votes on whether to allow the building to be moved to the corner of West High and Patterson streets at the far front end of the Rupp Arena parking lot. The board also will consider putting $150,000 toward site preparation.

Plans call for much of that surface parking lot to be redeveloped eventually, and the Peoples Bank building would make a nice transition in scale from large, new structures to the historic Woodward Heights neighborhood to the west.

The Warwick Foundation, created from the estate of the Lexington-born architectural historian Clay Lancaster, has pledged $300,000 toward the Peoples Bank relocation and renovation.

Most of that came from a $250,000 grant the foundation must raise money to match. So far, it has raised all but $75,000 of the match. The most recent major donation, $30,000, came from the Josephine Ardery Foundation in Paris, which promotes historic preservation.

The Urban County Council has appropriated $150,000 for the project. The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation also has been active. More than $11,000 has been raised in small donations, Catto said. To give, go to: Warwickfoundation.org.

To help with fundraising, Langley Properties will allow the foundation to give tours of the building from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on July 18, the first time it has been open to the public in years. Tours cost $20 each, with all proceeds going toward the building fund. More information: Facebook.com @People for the Peoples.

The planned new use for the building is something Lexington needs and Lancaster, who died in 2000 at age 83, would have loved, Catto said.

“Everybody knows Clay Lancaster as an architectural historian and preservation pioneer, and he was,” Catto said. “But he did an enormous amount of work in cross-cultural and inter-religious study. And he considered that his most important work. So it has always been baked into the Warwick mission.”

Plans call for the People’s Portal to be a public space for lectures, art exhibits, films and other events centered around promoting community values of respect, compassion, understanding and inclusion.

“You can’t pick up a newspaper today or hear the news without understanding the importance of that message,” she said.

The foundation has formed a high-profile advisory board for the People’s Portal, co-chaired by former Kentucky first lady Libby Jones and architect Tom Cheek.

Among the initiatives Catto would like to see the People’s Portal involved with is helping Lexington become a signatory to the Charter for Compassion, which has been signed by 62 cities worldwide, including Louisville and Cincinnati, and is in process with more than 200 others.

Also, she said, the People’s Portal could become an outpost for the Festival of Faiths, a 20-year-old event held in Louisville each May.

Catto thinks this building, designed by Lexington architect Charles Bayless for the People’s Federal Savings and Loan Association, is a perfect structure for this use. Modernist design has become especially popular among young adults.

“Young people have really engaged with preservation in a big way over this building,” she said. “It resonates with them, much like the Hunt-Morgan House and other Antebellum buildings did with adults in the 1950s.”


Chattanooga offers good lessons for Lexington’s downtown

June 16, 2015
In one of Chattanooga's most ambitious recent adaptive reuse projects, a former movie theater was transformed into The Block. The theater's garage is now faced with a 5,000-square-foot climbing wall, one of the nation's largest. The $6.5 million project is one of many that has transformed downtown Chattanooga from decay into a popular destination for both residents and tourists. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

A former movie theater has been transformed into The Block. The theater’s garage is now faced with a 5,000-square-foot climbing wall. The $6.5 million project is one of many that has transformed downtown Chattanooga from decay into a popular destination. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Downtown has made a lot of progress in recent years. But when I travel to other cities in the region, I realize how much further and faster Lexington needs to go.

Each June, I meet more than a dozen friends from Lexington and Atlanta somewhere in between for a week of bicycling. We look for a place with scenic, bicycle-friendly rural roads, not far from an urban center with great restaurants and interesting places to visit after each day’s ride.

I was impressed two years ago with Asheville, N.C. I was even more impressed last year by Knoxville, Tenn., whose downtown has improved dramatically since I lived there in the 1980s. This year’s destination was Chattanooga.

Lookout Mountain has been a tourist attraction since the Civil War, but Chattanooga’s downtown was long known for industrial grime and urban decay. In the 1960s, it was one of America’s most-polluted cities.

Boy, has that changed. Outside magazine readers recently voted Chattanooga as America’s Best Town.

Since 2002, a $120 million effort called the 21st Century Waterfront Plan has transformed the city’s once-derelict riverfront into a local amenity and tourist destination. That, in turn, has attracted private construction, new business and jobs.

Chattanooga is a great example of the concept that smart public infrastructure investment attracts private capital. It’s the same idea behind Town Branch Commons, the proposed linear park through downtown Lexington.

The waterfront plan helped prompt Chattanooga’s Hunter Museum of American Art to invest in a $22 million expansion. The Hunter is an excellent museum, and its prominent spot on a downtown bluff makes it easy to visit, unlike Lexington’s good but well-hidden University of Kentucky and Headley-Whitney art museums.

The Hunter is one of Chattanooga’s many examples of historic buildings being restored and adapted for new uses. The original portion of the museum is housed in a 1905 Classic Revival mansion, which since 2005 has adjoined a beautiful piece of contemporary architecture.

Another example is the Walnut Street Bridge, a 2,376-foot steel truss span built in 1890 and closed to vehicular traffic in 1978. After 15 years of neglect, it was converted into a pedestrian bridge that has become a popular gathering place.

Like the Old Courthouse in Lexington, it might have been easier and cheaper to just tear down the bridge rather than restore it and find a creative new use for it. But it is obvious now that Chattanooga made the right choice.

Chattanooga’s most famous example of historic preservation and adaptive reuse is Terminal Station, the 1908 Beaux Arts train depot that in the 1970s was converted into the Chattanooga Choo Choo, a hotel and convention center.

The Choo Choo struggled over the years, but as surrounding old buildings have been converted into trendy restaurants and shops, the area is coming back to life. An $8 million project is underway to restore the rest of the old depot and create more commercial space.

One of Chattanooga’s newest adaptive-reuse projects is The Block, near the Tennessee Aquarium. The $6.5 million project transformed the old Bijou Theater into a fitness and climbing complex. The cinema’s renovated parking garage is now faced with a 5,000-square-foot climbing wall that is both an eye-catching piece of architecture and a popular tourist destination.

Some of Chattanooga’s most important new public infrastructure isn’t visible. In 2008, the city-owned electric utility defied the cable-company monopoly and installed a gigabit broadband system that has attracted high-tech jobs.

Chattanooga’s population is a little more than half that of Lexington (168,000 vs. 310,000), although its metro area is a bit larger (528,000 vs. 473,000). But Tennessee’s fourth-largest city offers Lexington some great examples of how public-private partnerships can invest wisely in infrastructure that can attract economic development.

Chattanooga set a clear vision: Clean up the environment; showcase natural amenities, such as the Tennessee River; preserve history and local culture; encourage outstanding contemporary architecture; make it easy for people to live and work downtown; promote outdoor activity; and invest in beauty and public art.

Meanwhile, back in Lexington, last week marked six months since the Webb Companies had two giant tower cranes installed at CentrePointe, where they have done nothing toward turning the block-square pit into an underground garage.

The Hunter Museum of American Art is a prominent downtown destination in Chattanooga, perched on a bluff above the Tennessee River. Originally located in Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The Hunter Museum of American Art is a prominent downtown destination.

Moccasin Bend of the Tennessee River, as seen from Lookout Mountain, with Chattanooga to the right. While Lookout Mountain has been a tourist attraction since after the Civil War, Chattanooga has made substantial improvements to its downtown in recent decades, making it popular with both residents and tourists.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Moccasin Bend of the Tennessee River, as seen from Lookout Mountain, with Chattanooga to the right. While Lookout Mountain has been a tourist attraction since after the Civil War, Chattanooga has made substantial improvements to its downtown in recent decades.


Historical Frankfort church, once threatened, is saved for a new role

June 6, 2015
Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors.    Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

FRANKFORT — When Good Shepherd Catholic Church and School moved to a new suburban campus in 2011, many people worried about what would happen to its former site, a downtown landmark since before the Civil War.

First, the old church was in the way of construction for the Franklin County Judicial Center, which took out the school gymnasium next door. In the end, the church wasn’t harmed, but the Judicial Center wrapped it on two sides.

Then there was a lack of maintenance. Water seeped through brick, damaging plaster and endangering the church’s structural integrity. Roof leaks caused sections of the heart-pine floors to rot. A tree sprouted from the bell-tower steeple.

The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation listed Good Shepherd on its 2013 “eleven at the eleventh hour” list of Central Kentucky historic buildings in danger of demolition after plans fell through to convert it into a museum.

“That building has been threatened for years, and there was a lot of concern that we were going to lose it,” said Craig Potts, executive director of the Kentucky Heritage Council and the state’s historic preservation officer.

“I was particularly concerned,” he added. “I was married in that church and live just a few doors down from it.”

Unlike some other recent preservation stories, this one seems headed toward a happy ending. Joe Dunn, an Oldham County developer who specializes in adaptive reuse of old buildings, is finishing a beautiful renovation of the circa 1850 sanctuary.

It has been leased to event venue operator Denise Jerome, who this summer will reopen it as The Lancaster at St. Clair, a place for weddings, receptions, music performances and other gatherings. A public preview is planned 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Aug. 20. Rental information: michaelisevents.com.

The remaining part of the old gymnasium’s lot at the corner of Wapping and St. Clair streets is being converted into a garden-like outdoor event space enclosed by a wrought-iron fence.

After that is finished, Dunn will renovate the school building, which opened in 1923, and lease it for office space.

Dunn and his son, John, were already familiar with downtown Frankfort, having renovated the McClure Building, a 1906 office building, and the Market Square Apartments, a former Odd Fellows lodge built in the 1850s.

When Dunn first looked at the Good Shepherd campus, he was only interested in the school building. But the real estate agent insisted that he walk inside the church.

“I thought, what would I do with a church?” he recalled. “But, being raised Catholic, I thought I should look at it, and, wow! You could just feel the reverence of the place.”

Dunn was captivated by the old sanctuary’s Gothic Revival arches, colorful stained-glass windows, bell tower and working pipe organ.

“I had the same feeling he did when I walked into the space,” said Jerome, who manages several event venues in metro Louisville.

So, in May 2014, Dunn bought the church, school and what was left of the former gymnasium lot. He expects to spend about $500,000 on the church and garden renovation.

Dunn and Jerome named the venue for Father J.M. Lancaster, who came to Frankfort in 1848 to lead a 20-year-old Catholic congregation that was suddenly swelling with immigrants escaping military conscription in Germany and famine in Ireland.

The next year, he paid $5,000 for a small Presbyterian church on Wapping Street, where the congregation worshiped as its members literally built their new church around it. When the new church was finished, the old one was dismantled. Since then, Good Shepherd has played a big role in Frankfort society.

“He has done a good job with the renovation,” Potts said of Dunn. “And I think he has a good idea for its reuse that is going to help all the revitalization efforts already underway downtown. Frankfort is kind of buzzing right now.”

While restoring Good Shepherd was a big job, Dunn said the project has gone more smoothly than many do.

“There was a lot of damage, and I did have to say a few prayers, ‘Is this what you want me to do?'” Dunn said. “But the pieces fell into place pretty easily. Sometimes you feel like there are other hands guiding you.”

Joe Dunn, who is renovating the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort for use as event space, plays a few notes on the organ, which is in good working order. The building was built about 1850.   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Joe Dunn, who is renovating the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church for use as event space, plays a few notes on the organ, which is in good working order.

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors.    Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors.

The tower bell in the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort still works.   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The tower bell in the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort still works.

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The work included fixing water-damaged brick and plaster and refinishing the original heart-pine floors.    Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space.

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The organ is in good working order. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Developer Joe Dunn has renovated the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, for event space. The organ is in good working order.

The event venue in the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, will be named in honore of Father J.M. Lancaster, the first priest there, who was memorialized in a stained-glass window.   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The event venue in the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, which was built in 1850, will be named in honore of Father J.M. Lancaster, the first priest there, who was memorialized in a stained-glass window.

The former Good Shepherd Catholic Church, built in 1850 at the corner of St. Clair and Wapping streets, had suffered water damage from a leaking roof and deteriorating brick walls. The building was surrounded when the Franklin County Justice Center was built.   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The former Good Shepherd Catholic Church, built in 1850 at the corner of St. Clair and Wapping streets, had suffered water damage from a leaking roof and deteriorating brick walls. The building was surrounded when the Franklin County Justice Center was built.

Developer Joe Dunn, who is renovating the former Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort, also bought the nearby parish school building, circa 1920. He plans to renovate it and lease it as office space.   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Developer Joe Dunn also bought the nearby parish school building, circa 1923. He plans to renovate it and lease it as office space.


With market opening, National Provisions fulfills ambitious plan

May 31, 2015
National Provisions owners Andrea Sims and Krim Boughalem, who are married, pose in their new market space, which opened May 21 and completed the buildout of their facility, which also includes a bakery, restaurant and beer hall. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

National Provisions owners Andrea Sims and Krim Boughalem, who are married, pose in their new market space, which opened May 21 and completed the buildout of their facility, which also includes a bakery, restaurant and beer hall. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

When Krim Boughalem and Andrea Sims opened National Provisions in a former soft-drink bottling plant at the corner of National and Walton avenues in late 2013, it was a gamble.

Would Lexington learn to love — and pay a bit more for — the kind of fresh, European-style food that Boughalem grew up with in France?

The married couple thought so. Their first two Lexington ventures, Wine + Market on Jefferson Street, which they sold, and the Table Three Ten restaurant on Short Street, which they still own, were successful.

But National Provisions was a much bigger play: 16,000 square feet of beautifully renovated space that now includes a bakery, brasserie-style restaurant, Beer Hall, wine shop and a large market with fresh, locally produced food and delicacies flown in from around the world.

The market, the last phase of the project, opened May 21. The couple said that, as with each of the previous phases, business already has exceeded their expectations.

“It’s been pretty constantly busy,” Sims said. “There has been a lot of traffic, and I think it helps that you can see the lighted cases through the window at night.”

The market has fresh produce and specialty cuts of meat. The cheese counter has more than 100 varieties, many imported from Europe. There is a section of charcuterie (prepared meats) and a section of ready-to-eat salads, sandwiches and meals for taking home, which have been especially popular.

There is a case of pastries from the bakery in the next room, and a selection of Kentucky products such as Weisenberger Mill flours and corn meal. A seafood section and oyster bar will be the last part of the market to open, in September.

The center of the market has long, tall marble tables where customers can sit or stand to casually eat food bought at the market counters.

One side door of the market leads to the bakery; another to the brasserie. The back opens into the Beer Hall. “With everything open now, the place really breathes well,” Sims said.

Boughalem, 49, is the food expert, having learned the restaurant business in New York and London. Sims, 46, a Lexington native, trained as an artist in New York and France.

National Provisions’ interior spaces reflect Sims’ sophisticated design skills.

The former industrial building has been transformed into a variety of spaces that are both rustically elegant and comfortable. The idea, Sims said, is to not just serve and sell good food and drink, but to create a memorable experience customers will want to repeat regularly.

“That’s what it’s all about, really,” she said. “You walk in the place and you just want to be there.”

Because National Provisions is located near downtown, just off Winchester Road near where it becomes Midland Avenue, it gets a lot of passing traffic. The couple said their biggest surprise has been the enthusiastic support of residents in the nearby neighborhoods of Mentelle, Bell Court and Kenwick.

“It’s a much more committed clientele than we had at Wine + Market,” Sims said. “People have been so excited each time another thing opened.”

Part of that may be because National Provisions is the flagship of Walker Properties’ mixed-use redevelopment of the National Avenue corridor, which last week was renamed Warehouse Block. It has received a lot of favorable publicity, including in The New York Times, which cited it as a good example of urban redevelopment.

One challenge National Provisions has faced is educating customers that they’re paying more because the food is fresher and of higher quality than they may be accustomed to.

“That is a challenge, but I don’t think it’s because they don’t understand,” Boughalem said. “They’ve just never seen it. That’s not the way American markets work anymore.”

Educating suppliers is a challenge, too. Meat processors aren’t used to the European cuts Boughalem wants. For example, he said, American butchers usually produce about 34 different cuts from a cow; in France, there are 92 cuts.

“People are used to seeing meat wrapped in plastic,” he said. “We’re going to show people what meat should look like. Our goal has always been to expand big enough to have our own full-time butcher and fishmonger.”

Added Sims: “What we’d really like is our own full-time farm.”

National Provisions co-owner Krim Boughalem prepares baked goods in the bakery, National Boulangerie, which was the first section of the complex to open at the corner of National and Walton avenues in December 2013. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Boughalem prepares baked goods in the bakery, National Boulangerie.

National Provisions co-owner Andrea Sims helps a customer select cheese at the new market, which carries more than 100 kinds, many from Europe.. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Sims helps a customer select cheese at the new market.

National Provisions began in December 2013 with a bakery. The new market space sells all kinds of food, including the baked goods. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

National Provisions began in December 2013 with a bakery.

National Provisions co-owner Andrea Sims walks through the Beer Hall in the food complex at National and Walton Avenues, which also includes a restaurant, bakery and now and international fine food market. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Sims walks through the Beer Hall.

National Provisions' market, at left, opened May 21, the last piece of the food complex at National and Walton avenues, which also includes a bakery, restaurant and beer hall. In addition to international delicacies, the owners are stocking as much locally produced food as they can. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

In addition to international delicacies, the market stocks a lot of locally produced food.

National Provisions' market, at left, opened May 21, the last piece of the food complex at National and Walton avenues, which also includes a bakery, restaurant and beer hall. In addition to international delicacies, the owners are stocking as much locally produced food as they can. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

National Provisions’ market, at left, opened May 21, the last piece of the food complex.


National Avenue business district has new name: Warehouse Block

May 28, 2015
Greg Walker of Walker Properties announces the renaming of his family's redevelopment district along National Avenue as Warehouse Block. Behind him is his father, Randy Walker, left, and Mayor Jim Gray. Photo by Tom Eblen

Greg Walker announces the renaming of the district along National Avenue as Warehouse Block. Behind him are his father, Randy Walker, left, and Mayor Jim Gray. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

The mixed-use business district Walker Properties has been developing in a former industrial area along National Avenue has a new name: Warehouse Block.

The family-owned company announced the name, which was voted on by tenants, at a news conference Thursday. The name and a new logo will be used in signage and other branding for the district.

Warehouse Block has a diverse mix of tenants in its renovated buildings. The New York Times featured the development in a story earlier this year as an outstanding example of adaptive reuse and urban redevelopment.

“It’s not every day that Lexington gets in the New York Times,” Mayor Jim Gray said. “What the Walkers have done is a perfect example of creative place-making.”

Randy Walker, an electrical contractor, said he started buying and renovating buildings along National Avenue three decades ago, “at a time when the neighborhood was barely nice enough to be sketchy. Coming from the construction industry, I couldn’t stand letting these buildings go un-maintained and unused.”

Walker Properties worked with city planners to revise zoning codes to allow a return to the way cities used to before the mid-20th century trend of strict segregation of land uses. The company is now run by his sons, Greg and Chad.

Greg Walker said the Warehouse Block has been about much more than renovating old buildings. “We and our clients and tenants are building a community,” he said.

Walker said the company will sponsor the first Warehouse Block party Aug. 21. National Avenue will be closed off for live music and food vendors.


How would you #FillCentrePit? Water, trampoline, donuts and more

May 8, 2015

CentrePointeIllustrationIllustration by Chris Ware, photo by Faron Collins

 

If developer Dudley Webb can’t finish his long-stalled CentrePointe project, how would you fill the massive hole in the heart of Lexington?

That was my challenge in Wednesday’s column, and did you ever respond, on Twitter, Facebook and email. I quit counting suggestions after a couple hundred. But I read them all, and here are some of the best, most creative and most bizarre.

This game was prompted by city officials’ demand that Webb fill the hole with rock and dirt, since he had made little visible progress for nearly a year in filling it with the underground garage and mixed-use development that he has promised for seven years. City pressure seemed to prompt news Friday that Webb is talking with another, unidentified developer about partnering on the project. City officials have met with that developer and say they are optimistic.

But if things don’t work out, Lexingtonians have plenty of other ideas for this limestone pit, 35 feet deep and a full city block square.

The most popular suggestion by far is to finish the underground garage and put a park on top of it. So many people liked CentrePointe as a grassy meadow, which it was from 2009 to 2013 while Webb searched for financing.

Readers thought retired racehorses could graze there, and it would make a great place for pony rides. Or it could be Lexington’s version of New York’s Central Park, Chicago’s Millennium Park or San Francisco’s Union Square.

Commercial real estate folks say this block is too valuable for a park, and that what Lexington needs is a tax-generating complex of offices, apartments, restaurants and shops.

Several readers wanted to see a development with outstanding architecture, such as the CentrePointe design that Jeanne Gang, the Chicago architect and MacArthur Foundation “genius” award winner, created in 2011 but that was later discarded.

Others who wanted the parking garage completed had other ideas for the top: a huge grocery store, a public market, a new city hall, a symphony hall, a glass-domed aviary or butterfly house, a museum complex, an Imax theater or hanging gardens.

“And Christmas lights,” wrote Christian Thalacker. “Lots of Christmas lights.”

A retired University of Kentucky professor suggested turning the site over to UK administrators, who could quickly fill it with dormitories, since Webb had already torn down all of the block’s historic buildings for them.

Others wanted to make better use of the hole than as a place to park cars. It could become an amphitheater, sunken gardens or a sports arena.

Others suggested a below-ground horse-racing track, basketball and racquetball courts, a zoo, a giant sandbox, a skateboard park, a roller derby rink, a go-kart track, a giant Ferris wheel, the world’s largest burgoo pot or a fire pit for community marshmallow roasts.

More adventurous readers wanted to create the world’s largest plastic ball pit. Others wanted the hole filled with foam or blue Jell-O or Vaseline and glitter. Several suggested installing the world’s largest trampoline.

“Are the food trucks still looking for permanent spots?” Lara Bissett asked via Twitter. “#FillCentrePit with food smells and watch people fall in like lemmings.”

Noting that Webb had once proposed creating a “Lake Lexington” water feature, many readers wanted to see the pit filled with water.

CentrePointe could become a wave pool, fishing pond or swimming pool, complete with a resort-like water bar on the end near McCarthy’s Irish Bar. The idle construction cranes could stay on as diving platforms.

Melody Hughes Ryan suggested other local-themed water park features, including The Great Compromiser No Wave Pool, honoring Henry Clay, and the Belle Brezing Hot and Steamy Tub.

Some suggested a water slide coming off the roof of the Lexington Public Library or a zip line down from the top of Lexington Financial Center or a bungee slingshot from High Street.

“Fill it with North Lime donuts and West Sixth beer and let us swim in the deliciousness,” Matt Gordon tweeted.

Others wanted paddle boats, a Noah’s Ark replica or a riverboat casino on the lake.

Some suggested the pit as a place to put Webb, Congress, various other politicians, liberals, Republicans, Duke basketball fans and impudent newspaper columnists. Among readers with this line of thinking, Webb was the overwhelming choice.

“Fill it with all of Dudley’s broken promises,” tweeted Rob Morris, a blogger and car-repair shop owner who has been a longtime critic of CentrePointe. “Wait. We’ll need a much bigger hole.”


Tell me how you would #FillCentrePit if Dudley Webb can’t build

May 5, 2015

CentrePointeThe CentrePointe pit in downtown Lexington. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Ronald Reagan: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Jim Gray: “Mr. Webb, fill in this hole!”

That historical reference, from a former colleague, is one of many quips and wisecracks I have heard since city officials notified CentrePointe developer Dudley Webb last week that they consider him in default.

Before the city gave Webb permission to excavate his long-stalled development’s underground garage, he had to pledge $4.4 million in December 2013 to restore the property to a grassy meadow if he stopped work for 60 days.

If Webb did not fill the hole, the agreement gave city officials the right to take out a mortgage on the property to pay for the work.

Although there has been no obvious progress since last summer, Webb disputes the city’s claim that work has stopped. He has demanded that city officials retract their default notice, and his attorney has threatened to sue if they don’t.

“We’ve made great progress,” Webb told the Urban County Council last Thursday. “We’re so close to getting this deal done.”

Council members listened politely but said nothing. After seven years of empty promises, Webb’s credibility is lower than the bottom of CentrePit.

If Webb and city officials can’t reach agreement, the issue will end up in court, which could make for an interesting discovery process. Who was the mysterious dead investor? Did he ever exist?

Nobody really expects the hole to be filled. That would make no sense. Lexington needs the underground garage — and a successful, tax-generating development on top of it.

The “restoration” agreement was an attempt to give the city some leverage to keep Webb on task — or force him to turn the property over to another developer if he can’t get the job done.

Until then, the fenced-off crater, where two tower cranes have stood idle since they were installed in early December, will continue hurting surrounding businesses and sucking life out of an otherwise rebounding downtown.

CentrePointe has become a Lexington joke, so we might as well have a few laughs. Here is my challenge to you: How would you fill this hole?

Post your suggestions on Twitter or Facebook, with the hashtag #FillCentrePit so I can find them. If you don’t use social media, send me an email at teblen@herald-leader.com. No phone calls, please.

I will write a follow-up column Saturday based on the best of your suggestions. I’m looking for humor and creativity more than practicality.

To kick off the conversation, here are some ideas I have seen and heard:

■ Many have suggested drilling a few feet sideways into the Town Branch Creek culvert and allowing CentrePit to fill with water. Then, Webb would have a version of the Lake Lexington water feature he proposed years ago. (Drill carefully; a major sewer line runs between the pit and Town Branch.)

■ A manipulated photograph making the rounds on social media shows CentrePointe restored to its fenced-meadow state with the People’s Bank building, which must be moved from South Broadway or it will be demolished, placed there.

■ Several people have suggested putting the Noah’s Ark replica proposed for a Northern Kentucky religious theme park, which has been controversial because of tax breaks it has received and requested, in CentrePit, either to float or be buried.

■ One friend suggested a public contest to guess how many dump truck loads of soil and rock it would take to fill the hole.

■ Another friend suggested filling CentrePit with water and renting paddle boats. A pay lake for fishing might be more appropriate. Every time I think about how Lexington got into this mess, the phrase “hook, line and sinker” comes to mind.

The best solution, of course, would be for Webb to get financing and get to work — or turn the block over to someone who can. Until then, we might as well laugh about CentrePointe. Otherwise, we’ll just want to cry.


Can North Lexington revival avoid the pitfalls of gentrification?

April 24, 2015

Rand Avenue. Rock Daniels   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.comRecently renovated houses on Rand Avenue off North Limestone Street. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

My column last Monday about the quickening pace of renovations in the North Limestone corridor generated some heated discussions on social media about “gentrification.”

In case you aren’t familiar with the term, it was coined in the 1960s to describe the displacement of poor residents when people with more money move into a neighborhood, leading to higher property values, rents and taxes.

It is a politically charged word sometimes used to try to shame people interested in historic preservation, or who want to improve property in neighborhoods where they wish to live or invest.

As urban living has regained popularity in Lexington after decades of suburban sprawl, re-investment in old neighborhoods has led to worries about gentrification.

It is a legitimate issue, because business practices and trickle-down economic policies have created a widening gap between rich and poor. Many hard-working people struggle to make ends meet after years of stagnant wages.

But gentrification can be subjective and complicated, because it involves touchy issues of class, race and capitalism. There are no easy solutions.

Two thoughtful essays about gentrification in Lexington were written by Bianca Spriggs in Ace Weekly last June and Joe Anthony in North of Center in May 2012. Both are worth reading online.

Here’s my view:

Neighborhoods are not static. They are constantly changing for many reasons. Some of those changes are good and others are bad, depending on your perspective. I see a lot more good than bad happening in North Lexington these days.

Many of these neighborhoods were created a century or two ago for wealthy and middle-class homeowners. Suburban flight led to disinvestment, deterioration and crime. A lot of owner-occupied homes became low-income rentals owned by people who didn’t take care of their property.

There are many good houses and commercial buildings there worth preserving and reusing. There also is a lot of community fabric and culture worth respecting and nurturing.

The return of more owner-occupied housing in these neighborhoods is a good thing. It is a fact of life that homeowners have more political clout than renters. That often results in more investment, better policing and less crime in neighborhoods with a significant share of owner-occupied homes.

That doesn’t mean rental property is undesirable. In many neighborhoods, such as mine, renters contribute a lot to community life.

Thanks to investment by new residents, businesses, non-profit groups such as the North Limestone Community Development Corporation and some professional renovators, many of North Lexington neighborhoods are becoming safer and more economically diverse places to live.

That doesn’t mean I like every house-flipper’s craftsmanship or tactics. But some of them are doing good work.

It is inevitable that some renters will be displaced. But I think renovators and re-sellers have a moral obligation to treat people fairly and, when possible, help longtime residents stay in the neighborhood.

Lexington is still small enough that business people’s reputations precede them. Quality work and good ethics will pay off for those who practice it, especially if others in the community speak out about bad actors.

Some absentee landlords will be displaced, too, and that is a good thing. Poor people often pay high rents and utility costs for substandard housing — and then get kicked out if they complain to Code Enforcement.

There are better solutions to affordable housing than steadily deteriorating homes owned by absentee landlords. The Urban League, Community Ventures, Habitat for Humanity, AU Associates, churches and others have done a lot of good work on affordable housing over the past two decades.

This wave of private investment in North Lexington, and the city’s new affordable housing trust fund, provide a good opportunity to address some of these gentrification issues in new and creative ways.

For one thing, people who choose to live in urban neighborhoods rather than more homogenous suburbs are seeking cultural diversity. That’s because diverse neighborhoods are more interesting places to live.

How can the city, non-profit groups and developers work together to keep low-income people in these neighborhoods, while at the same time improving the quality of housing they can afford? How can neighborhood revitalization work for everyone?

Neighborhoods are like any natural environment: The more diverse they are, the more healthy they are and the more sustainable they will be over time.


Rand Avenue renovations add to North Limestone renaissance

April 19, 2015

150416RandAve0008Real estate entrepreneur Rock Daniels has been buying, renovating and reselling former rental houses in the first block of Rand Avenue. His contractors are basically rebuilding many of the century-old bungalows, which were structurally sound and have nice architectural detals, but had badly deteriorated after years as rental units.   Photo by Tom Eblen

 

First it was downtown mansions. Then East Lexington bungalows. Now, North Lexington cottages. The popularity of in-town living has brought another wave to Lexington’s home renovation market.

With most of the antebellum houses and Victorian mansions redone and selling for more than $500,000, a good business has developed in complete renovations of homes built a century ago for working-class families.

The wave that started in neighborhoods such as Hollywood, Kenwick and Mentelle has washed up North Limestone.

150408RandAve0022Rock Daniels, a real estate agent who twice ran unsuccessfully for the Urban County Council, is buying and virtually rebuilding early 1900s houses in the first block of Rand Avenue, just north of Duncan Park, as well as some houses on nearby streets.

Laurella Lederer was doing the same thing before him. Having redone much of Johnson Avenue, she is now working on the second block of Rand.

Broken Fork Design has redone several houses and multi-family units, including the Fifth and Lime Flats. It was a much-needed renovation of an apartment complex built after the 1963 demolition of Thorn Hill, a circa 1812 mansion where Vice President John C. Breckinridge was born.

Chad Needham, who redid the old Spalding’s Bakery at East Sixth and North Limestone and the building that now houses North Lime Coffee & Donuts across from it, has done several other houses and commercial buildings in the area.

Needham’s most recent project is especially impressive: an early 1800s house at the corner of North Limestone and West Fifth Street that became commercial space long ago and had fallen into terrible shape. Beautifully renovated, it now houses Fleet Street Hair Shoppe.

Rand Avenue, created in 1892, still has most of its original houses. A notable exception is No. 264, a vacant lot since about 2001. It was the childhood home of Elizabeth Hardwick (1916-2007), whose father was a plumbing contractor.

Hardwick left Lexington for New York in 1939 and became a famous fiction writer, essayist and critic, a founder of the New York Review of Books and wife of poet Robert Lowell. She was recently inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.

Since the 1980s, though, Rand Avenue has largely been rental property. Broken Fork did one of the first renovations there — the house where the Spalding family started frying their famous donuts in 1929.

Daniels, who lives in the Hollywood neighborhood, saw Rand Avenue as a promising area for young professionals who wanted to live near downtown, wanted a house and yard rather than a condo, but couldn’t afford larger renovated houses.

The first house he renovated sold in November for $182,500. He is now doing nine more on Rand, three of which are already under contract, two to medical school residents and one to a physical therapist, he said.

Daniels showed me through one of them, a circa 1910 frame cottage with about 1,200 square feet. It had been a rental house for years. He bought it for $36,000, is investing about $80,000 in renovation and hopes to sell it for about $165,000. His nearby renovated houses are priced around $145,000.

With each house, his contractors install a new roof, take the house down to the studs and make any needed structural improvements. They preserve what historic fabric they can. But except for restored heart-pine floors, most things will be new: windows, wiring, plumbing, heating and air, insulation, kitchens and siding on the non-brick houses.

Many houses have small interior coal chimneys that can’t be reused. They are removed for a more open floor plan, but the bricks are reused for walks.

“We try to save and repurpose as much as possible,” said Daniels, who grew up in a National Register historic house in Bristol, Tenn.

Daniels wants to buy all of the rental houses he can on the street, he said, but none that are owner-occupied. In fact, he said, he has offered to make improvements on those houses at cost.

He will soon be building a new porch for homeowner Janice Hamilton and her husband. She has lived there since 1981 and likes what is happening on her street.

“When I first moved here it was a lot of older people, most of them homeowners,” Hamilton said. “And then a lot of them died out and it became rental property. So it became a little this and that.

“Now I’m glad to see it coming back to the way it used to be,” she said. “A lot of people give Rand Avenue a bad rap. We had some bad tenants years ago. But it’s quiet, it’s close to town. Everybody looks out for each other. I’m looking forward to new homeowners.”

Daniels sees a lot more potential for restoring North Lexington neighborhoods.

“Of course, we’re looking for what the next Rand Avenue is going to be,” he said. “There are so many people who want to move downtown.”

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A Lexington landmark saved, but Georgetown treasure may be lost

April 14, 2015

150410OddFellows0064Ben Kaufmann, left, and Rob Rosenstein joked with each other April 10 while inspecting the 1869 Odd Fellows Temple at 115-119 W. Main St., for the first time.  “As long as you’re smiling, I’m OK,” Rosenstein told Kaufmann. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

For people who care about Kentucky’s history, culture and irreplaceable architecture, the past week was one of highs and lows, thanks to two good guys and one who should be ashamed.

First, the good guys:

“Let’s chase the ghosts away!” Ben Kaufmann said as we entered the front door of the Odd Fellows Temple at 115-119 West Main Street last Friday morning, setting off a burglar alarm.

Kaufmann, a real-estate investor and financial adviser, had bought the 1870 Italianate and Second Empire-style building 10 days earlier at a Master Commissioner’s sale and was getting his first look inside the $750,000 investment.

150127OddFellows0006The building housed Bellini’s restaurant until it closed Jan. 1. The building and restaurant owner, NGS Realty, was in bankruptcy last year and neglected the building. In late January, city Code Enforcement officers stepped in to board up missing and broken windows to protect the building and passing pedestrians.

Kaufmann and Rob Rosenstein, former owner of Liquor Barn, plan to renovate this landmark, designed by noted Lexington architect Cincinnatus Shryock, and then rent it, mostly as restaurant space.

Over the decades, the building housed offices, restaurants, bakeries, bars and stores, most notably Skuller’s Jewelry, which was there for more than 70 years. Skuller’s recently restored sidewalk clock has been a downtown icon since 1913.

The building’s hidden treasure is the third-floor ballroom, which hasn’t been used publicly for years because it lacked an elevator and modern stairway. But it may be the best-preserved part of the building, whose last major rehab was in 2000.

The white ballroom is stunning: 40 feet wide and nearly 60 feet deep, with a vaulted ceiling 25 feet high and original plasterwork. Tall, arched windows look out on Main Street, although the view is now dominated by the idle CentrePointe pit.

A quick inspection revealed few structural problems in the building and only a couple of small roof leaks behind the ballroom, where interior walls had been torn out for a renovation that was never completed.

The first floor, where Bellini’s operated, has beautiful mosaic tile floors, vintage tin ceilings and two long, handsome bars. The second floor also had been partially stripped out for renovation. It originally housed law firms and, in recent years, apartments.

“Watch out what you wish for, you might get it,” Kaufmann joked as he added up renovation costs in his head.

“As long as you’re smiling, I’m OK,” Rosenstein kept saying with a laugh.

These guys enjoy teasing each other, but they realize the Odd Fellows Temple is a diamond in the rough. When polished, it should be a hot property. Old downtown buildings have become the preferred location for upscale restaurants and bars.

Kaufmann and Rosenstein are good businessmen looking for a profit. But they also are doing Lexington a favor by saving one of its architectural gems, a place that holds generations of memories and should create many more in the future.

“This is an important building,” Kaufmann said. “I want to restore it to its original beauty.”

Lexington is lucky to have these guys. If only Georgetown were so lucky.

Sanders-Kocher copyScott County is about to lose its first brick house, a Georgian mansion that early Thoroughbred breeder Robert Sanders built on Cane Run Creek south of town in 1797. The house has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973.

The property’s condition has deteriorated since a company owned by Kenneth A. Jackson of Kentuckiana Farms acquired it in 2007. The Scott County PVA values the house at $121,120 and its 25.5 acres at $202,299, according to the Georgetown News-Graphic. United Bank of Georgetown holds a mortgage on the property.

Preservationists say Jackson has rebuffed their attempts to help him protect the house or find a buyer at a reasonable price. Jackson recently sold adjoining parcels for development. A salvage crew has been removing fine interior woodwork — the house’s most distinguished feature — with demolition scheduled to follow.

Efforts to save the house did not appear to be fruitful by late Tuesday afternoon, said Jason Sloan, director of preservation for the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.

All indications are that the house will be torn down Wednesday, Sloan said.

Some people would say this is Jackson’s property and he should be able to do with it as he pleases. But when someone buys a National Register house of this significance, I think he assumes a responsibility to Kentucky’s heritage, whether he likes it or not.

To neglect this house for years and then demolish it in the hope of pocketing a bigger profit may be legal, but it’s not right.

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Before death, R.J. Corman permanently protected 1,200-acre farm

April 11, 2015

150409CormanFarm0012Before his death in 2013, railroad magnate R.J. Corman put permanent conservation easements on his 1,200-acre Jessamine County farm, which includes a 65-acre natural area around Jessamine Creek. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

NICHOLASVILLE — April Corman Colyer says her father always told her and her siblings that the farm he and they grew up on and gradually expanded to more than 1,200 acres would never be developed or sold out of the family.

When railroad magnate R.J. Corman said something, he meant it.

Before he died in August 2013 after a long battle with cancer, the founder of R.J. Corman Railroad Group arranged to put permanent conservation easements on the farm, the family planned to announce Sunday.

Without those easements, the beautifully landscaped property that stretches from the U.S. 27 Bypass at Nicholasville to U.S. 68 near Wilmore would have been prime subdivision land in a fast-growing county known for suburban sprawl.

It is the second such action by a prominent Central Kentucky family announced in recent weeks. Arthur Hancock and his wife, Staci, said March 20 that they had put conservation easements on their 2,200-acre Stone Farm in Bourbon County.

Both were arranged with help from the non-profit Bluegrass Conservancy, which is celebrating 20 years of helping landowners permanently preserve more than 24,500 acres of farmland and natural areas in the region.

040415Cormanbcb050

R.J. Corman in 2004. Photo by Charles Bertram

Corman’s farm includes 65 acres near the headwaters of Jessamine Creek that the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission has designated as the R.J. Corman Natural Area.

“He told us that we would always have the farm, that it would always be something that our family could enjoy, but we would never be able to sell or develop it,” Colyer said.

“My Dad had a great vision and foresight, and he knew what would happen had he not set something like this in place,” she added. “Inevitably, the pressures of development are too great.”

Colyer is director of public affairs for the railroad services company her father started in 1973. R.J. Corman Railroad Group now has 1,500 employees in 24 states, including 700 in Kentucky.

She and her husband, Korey, and other family members live in five houses on the farm, including the one where Corman grew up as the son of a state highway toll booth worker.

The farm has been improved with 14½ miles of white plank fences and 15 miles of roads and recreation trails. It hosts several 5K races each year and an annual community Fourth of July celebration.

Corman planted hundreds of trees on the property, including maple trees that are tapped each year for syrup that is given to customers.

The farm adjoins about 800 acres that contain company shops and other facilities, including the headquarters office and aircraft hangars that are frequently used as event space for charity fundraisers.

The farm has about 300 head of cattle, chickens, a corn crop and a garden that provides vegetables for the company cafeteria.

The conservation easements permit no more than another 2 percent of the farm to ever be used for impervious surface, including buildings or roads, Colyer said.

Map“He wanted it preserved for his grandchildren and many generations to come,” she said. “He would always say when I was younger that if the land was to ever be sold, then the proceeds had to go to charity. It doesn’t exactly work that way now, but he has put constraints in place so that it can’t be sold.”

Colyer said she is happy with the decision, because the farm is as special to her as it was to her father.

“It has been a constant in my life no matter what was going on,” she said. “It’s home, but it’s more than that. It’s part of me. It’s where my heart is.”

Corman’s best friend, Central Bank President Luther Deaton, lives on 20 acres adjacent to a back corner of the farm. They could look across the farm and see each other’s houses a mile away.

“When he started buying that land, he said, ‘I don’t want anything to ever happen to it. I just want to make it beautiful so people could enjoy it.'” Deaton said. “And you’ve seen what he’s done.

“I get up every morning and look out at all that land and the cattle, all the green grass and trees,” Deaton added.

Conservation easements can have significant estate and tax benefits for landowners, said Mackenzie Royce, executive director of the Bluegrass Conservancy, the non-profit land trust.

“They can make it more affordable to pass land between generations,” she said, adding that no public funding is used and the land remains on tax rolls.

Royce said these two major easements are “a testimony to how it has begun to catch on in the community. The pace of conservation has really accelerated.”

The Bluegrass Conservancy was created in 1995 and recorded its first conservation easement in 1998, a cattle farm in Jessamine County. Conserved properties since then have included horse farms and natural areas along the Kentucky River.

“We’re not anti-development or anti-growth,” Royce said. “We’re about helping farm families in our community conserve our most strategic land for future generations and balancing that with the growth that we know is going to happen.”

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NoLi CDC gets $550,000 grant to turn bus station into public market

March 31, 2015

NoLiRichard Young, left, and Kris Nonn of the North Limestone Community Development Corp. stand in front of the former bus station near the corner of North Limestone Street and West Loudon Avenue that the NoLiCDC hopes to acquire from LexTran and turn into a community market.  Photo by Tom Eblen

 

The nonprofit North Limestone Community Development Corp. will get a $550,000 grant to help turn a former Greyhound bus station into a public market and local food hub focused on the surrounding neighborhood.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is announcing the grant Tuesday as part of its first Knight Cities Challenge.

The foundation split $5 million among 32 projects it thinks can attract talent, improve economic opportunity and increase civic engagement in 12 of the 26 cities where the Knight ­brothers once owned newspapers, ­including the Lexington Herald-Leader. Winners were chosen from 125 finalists culled from 7,000 proposals.

The goal of the NoLi CDC project is to make locally grown food more available in the low-income neighborhood, which has been experiencing a renaissance in recent years with an influx of young, entrepreneurial and community-minded residents.

The market also would provide stalls and shared ­infrastructure for “makers” and other entrepreneurs in the neighborhood who want to start businesses, said Richard Young and Kris Nonn, the NoLi CDC’s two staff members.

The NoLi CDC has shown the potential for a public market in the neighborhood by sponsoring a monthly Night Market on the lower block of Bryan Avenue, between West Loudon and North Limestone.

Several thousand people came out to each of the festival-like markets last year, and about half the merchants and vendors were from the neighborhood. The first Night Market of 2015 will be 7 to 10 p.m. Friday.

Bahia Ramos, a program director with the Miami-based Knight Foundation, said she “really had a blast” when she attended a Night Market last year.

“There was such a diverse cross-section of people, and a genuine outpouring of good energy and creativity,” she said. “We wanted to be a catalyst to help grow that out.”

The NoLi CDC’s focus has been creating entrepreneurial opportunities for people to live and work in the North Limestone corridor.

Another of its projects is the York Street “makers spaces” — renovated 1920s shotgun houses where makers can live and work. That project, which is applying for a new type of city zoning, received a major grant last year from ArtPlace America, which focuses on encouraging “creative placemaking” in communities.

NoLi CDC hopes to put its public market and food hub in a huge Art Deco building on West Loudon Avenue, a block from the Night Market site. The only problem is that it doesn’t own the vacant building, which has nearly 104,000 square feet on 2.4 acres.

Built in 1928, it was the headquarters of Southeast Greyhound Lines until 1960. The building is now owned by the Lexington Transit Authority, which wanted to demolish it for a new headquarters. Lextran later decided to build a facility nearby, and the old building has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Lextran officials wrote a letter supporting the NoLi CDC’s grant application. Lextran plans to solicit sealed bids for the building within six months, spokeswoman Jill Barnett said

Acquiring and then renovating the building, which will cost several million dollars, are some of the challenges to be overcome, Young and Nonn said. But the Knight grant will give them working capital to get the project started.

Multi-tenant public markets have been very successful in many cities, Young said, noting such examples as Findlay Market in Cincinnati and Mercado La Paloma in Los Angeles.

“A lot of times you hear people talk about starting a business as ‘taking the plunge,'” Nonn said. “This would mitigate the risk associated with that” by providing shared facilities, a shopper base and other support services.

Theoretically, these projects would allow a neighborhood resident to start a business in his or her home, graduate to a market stall and eventually grow enough to have a shop in the neighborhood.

Young and Nonn worked closely with Ashton Potter, the city’s new local food coordinator, to make plans for the public market to also serve as an aggregation, processing and sales point for Central Kentucky farmers. It would include a commercial kitchen that entrepreneurs could rent to test or produce food products.

“This building that is going to be coming up for sale can go to a use that is incredibly beneficial for the neighborhood,” Young said. “Lifting the access barrier to entrepreneurial activity is something that’s really important.”


Land-use decisions in rural Fayette County require delicate balance

March 28, 2015

BooneCreekBurgess Carey rides a zip line at his controversial canopy tour, which city officials shut down. The dispute prompted a three-year examination of ways to add more public recreation and tourism opportunities in rural Fayette County which is ongoing. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

A tightly managed, three-year effort to expand public recreation and tourism opportunities in rural Fayette County started coming unwound Thursday as the Planning Commission prepared to vote on it.

Several commission members expressed concern that the proposed zoning ordinance text amendment, or ZOTA, which they and the Urban County Council must approve, would be too restrictive.

They started offering amendments, then put off the matter for more discussion until May 21 and a possible vote May 28. The delay was wise, because these complex zoning decisions have implications far beyond recreation.

The challenge with the ZOTA is striking the right balance of private property rights, public access and the long-term preservation of horse farms, other agriculture and an environmentally sensitive landscape that the World Monuments Fund has recognized as one of the most special and endangered places on earth.

It is important to note that the ZOTA wouldn’t change rules about what property owners can do on their land for their own enjoyment. It affects only new public recreation and tourism-related land uses, both commercial and non-profit.

Part of the problem with the ZOTA process has been that it grew out of a nasty dispute between Burgess Carey and some of his neighbors in the Boone Creek area off old Richmond Road.

Carey has a permit to operate a private fishing club on his property in Boone Creek Gorge. But he expanded it into a public canopy tour business, in which people toured the gorge from treetop platforms using zip lines and suspension bridges.

Neighbors opposed the business, and city officials shut it down.

Carey’s aggressiveness antagonized officials and made it easy for opponents to brand him an outlaw rather than debate the merits of having a canopy tour on Boone Creek. That’s a shame, because it is a well-designed, well-located facility that the public should be able to enjoy.

The Boone Creek dispute prompted the ZOTA process and made it contentious from the beginning. One result was that the city task force created to study the issue wasn’t as open as it should have been to public participation and diverse viewpoints. Hence, last week’s Planning Commission fireworks.

Suburban sprawl is incompatible with animal agriculture, especially high-strung racehorses. Development takes the Inner Bluegrass region’s valuable agricultural soils out of production.

That is why Lexington in 1958 became the first U.S. city to create an urban growth boundary. Without it and other rural land-use restrictions, horses and farms could have been crowded out of Fayette County years ago.

Farmers are understandably concerned about any nearby commercial development. But some other people think it is unfair for traditional agriculture to have a monopoly on rural land use.

The balancing act gets even more complicated in the environmentally sensitive and ruggedly beautiful land along the Kentucky River Palisades. It is an ideal place for low-impact outdoor recreation and environmental education. But most public access is restricted to the city’s Raven Run Nature Sanctuary.

Preserving these natural areas is complicated, because they need constant care to stop the spread of invasive plant species, especially bush honeysuckle and wintercreeper euonymus, which choke out native vegetation. It is a huge problem.

Much of the land along the river is owned by people dedicated to its care and preservation. Many spend a lot of money and effort fighting invasive species.

But, as a matter of public policy, it is risky for Lexington to count on landowners’ wealth and good intentions forever. It makes sense to give them some business opportunities to help pay for conservation, especially since much of this land is not suitable for traditional agriculture.

Most Fayette County rural land is zoned “agriculture rural.” The ZOTA proposal would create a new “agriculture natural” zoning option along the river with some different permitted uses.

Much of the debate about the ZOTA’s treatment of both zones is about what land uses should be “primary” by right and which should be “conditional,” requiring approval by the city Board of Adjustment. The conditional use process allows for more site-specific regulation, but it can be cumbersome for landowners.

Carey’s lawyer, John Park, who lives on adjacent property along Boone Creek, points out that poor farming practices in that area can be more environmentally destructive than some commercial and recreational uses. But state law gives farmers a lot of freedom from local zoning regulations.

One criticism of the ZOTA proposal — and other parts of Lexington’s zoning code, as well — is that in trying to regulate every conceivable land use to keep “bad” things from happening, the rules aren’t flexible enough to allow “good” things to happen.

These are complicated issues with a lot of good people and good points of view on all sides. More frank and open discussion is needed to reach something close to a community consensus.

Increasing public access to rural recreation and tourism is important, both for Lexington’s economy and quality of life. But it also is necessary for preservation.

People protect what they love. Finding more ways for people to connect with this irreplaceable landscape and agrarian-equine culture will nurture that love.


It won’t be cheap, but Lexington must renovate old courthouse

March 24, 2015

141231Downtown0070The old Fayette County Courthouse. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Remember the old TV commercials for Fram oil filters? An actor dressed as an auto mechanic would explain how a costly repair could have been prevented with regular oil changes.

His punch line: “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”

Those ads came to mind as I read the report about all that is wrong with the old Fayette County Courthouse and what must be done to fix it. The building is well into “pay me later” status, and any further procrastination will make things worse.

Lexington’s EOP Architects and Preservation Design Partnership of Philadelphia spent six months cataloging decades of serious abuse and neglect of an iconic building that has defined the center of Lexington for more than a century.

This Richardsonian Romanesque temple of limestone, completed in 1900, symbolized the idea that public buildings should be beautiful as well as functional. It had a 105-foot-tall rotunda with a bronze-plated staircase paved in white marble. The dome was illuminated by then-new electric lights, and the cupola was crowned with a large racehorse weathervane.

But by 1930, growing Fayette County government needed more office space. Rather than branch out to annexes, more and more was crammed into the courthouse. The ultimate architectural insult came in 1960-61, when the rotunda was filled in and most of the elegant interior gutted to add elevators and more office space.

Building updates were ill-conceived. Little was spent on maintenance. The weathervane, damaged by a storm, was taken down in 1981.

The courts moved out in 2000 to new buildings two blocks away. The old courthouse was handed off to the Lexington History Museum and left to leak and crumble. Concerns about lead paint contamination prompted its closure in 2012.

The old courthouse is just one example of how Lexington squandered a rich architectural inheritance. For decades, “out with the old, in with the new” was city leaders’ motto. Much of the new was poorly designed and cheaply built.

There were many short-sighted demolitions, such as Union Station and the Post Office on Main Street, plus “modernizations” that now look ridiculous. New schools and office buildings were often cheap imitations of contemporary architecture. The city allowed many handsome buildings to be razed for parking lots.

There also was a lot of “demolition by neglect”, a trend that sadly continues at such places as the 1870 Odd Fellow’s Temple that most recently housed Bellini’s restaurant. It’s no wonder, since the old courthouse such a visible example.

Mayor Jim Gray deserves credit for trying to change things. The Downtown Development Authority and its consultants have put together an excellent, no-nonsense plan for a public-private partnership to renovate the old courthouse as a visitors’ center, public events venue and commercial space.

The cost of fixing and upgrading the building for new uses won’t be cheap: about $38 million, although about $11 million could come from historic preservation tax credits.

But what other choice do we have? The old courthouse is a black hole in an increasingly vibrant downtown that will soon include a 21C Museum Hotel in the restored First National building.

The consultants’ report says the old courthouse is basically sound structurally, but the damage so severe that a purely commercial restoration isn’t feasible.

That means city leaders must finally face up to their responsibility, just as they had to do when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency forced the city to fix long-inadequate sewer systems that were polluting neighborhoods and streams.

Fortunately, many Urban County Council members have expressed support for restoring the old courthouse. They recognize it as an investment in Lexington’s future. But you can bet some will vote “no” to try to score political points, just as three members did on the necessary sewer rate increase recently.

After all, what’s the alternative? Tear down the old courthouse? Imagine the bad publicity that would bring Lexington, especially after city officials in 2008 allowed the Webb Companies to destroy an entire block nearby to create a storage pit for idle construction cranes.

Demolition of the old courthouse would tell tourists that the “city of horses and history” doesn’t really care about its history. And it would tell potential residents and economic development prospects that Lexington is too cheap and short-sighted to care for its assets or invest in its future.

I think most Lexington leaders are smart enough to bite the bullet and do the right thing here. And if they are really smart, they also will make other investments to avoid big taxpayer liabilities in the future. As the old courthouse and EPA consent degree have painfully demonstrated, “pay me later” is rarely a wise choice.


New MACED president says timing right for new ideas in E. Ky.

March 14, 2015

Peter Hille first came to Eastern Kentucky the day after he graduated from high school. He and other members of his Missouri church youth group piled into vans and drove to Breathitt County to run a summer camp for kids.

“I had this image in my head, probably from watching CBS documentaries on the War on Poverty, that Appalachia was black and white,” he said. “I got down here, and, of course, it was green.

“It was the first week in June,” he said. “You know how the mountains are the first week in June: fireflies all over the hillsides and locusts singing. I thought, I love this place!”

Hille, 59, has nurtured that love for more than four decades, and he is now in a unique position to express it: as the new president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, a non-profit organization based in Berea that works throughout southern Appalachia.

Hille, a graduate of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, moved to Eastern Kentucky in 1977 and spent more than a dozen years as a woodworker, cabinetmaker and home builder. It gave him an appreciation for the challenges so many Appalachians face.

“They know this is where they want to be,” he said. “But it’s real challenging to figure out how to earn a living.”

150315PeterHilleHille got into community work and spent 22 years at Berea College’s Brushy Fork Institute, which develops community leaders.

He served nine years on MACED’s board and was chairman until he joined the staff three years ago as executive vice president. He was named president last month, succeeding Justin Maxson, who left after 13 years to become executive director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Hille is currently chair of the Eastern Kentucky Leadership Foundation, a board member of the Central Appalachian Institute for Research and Development and an advisory board member for the Institute for Rural Journalism. In the 1990s, he was facilitator for the Kentucky Appalachian Task Force.

“I do feel like everything I’ve done up to this point has been leading up to this,” said Hille, who lives with his wife, artist Debra Hille, in a passive solar house on a wooded farm near Berea.

Founded in 1976, MACED has become a respected voice in discussions about Appalachia’s economic transition. It promotes enterprise development, renewable energy and sustainable forestry. MACED also has become an influential source of public policy research through its Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

“We are at such an exciting time in Eastern Kentucky,” Hille said. “The challenges are as great as they’ve always been, but I think we’ve got some opportunities now that we haven’t always had.”

Perhaps the biggest opportunity, Hille said, is the bipartisan Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative launched by Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers in 2013.

“It is the kind of clarion call for unity that we so badly need in the region,” he said.

Another opportunity is the Obama administration’s proposal to release $1 billion in Abandoned Mine Lands funds for environmental reclamation and economic development in mining regions.

“We would have to scramble to figure out how to make good use of that money,” he said. “But I think there are a lot of ways to do it.”

While coal will continue to be important to Eastern Kentucky for decades, it will never be what it was, Beshear and Rogers have said. That acknowledgment creates an opening for new and creative thinking, Hille said.

More emphasis should be put on developing renewable energy sources and focusing on energy efficiency. MACED has worked on home energy-saving retrofits for years.

“However much we can scale that up, that is money that is invested in the region, that stays in the region, that is paid back from the savings in the region,” he said.

But the biggest goals should be creating more entrepreneurs and businesses in Eastern Kentucky, and attracting more investment capital. Hille thinks the place to start is by looking at the region’s needs, such as better housing and health care.

“All of those needs represent economic development opportunities,” he said. “What are the opportunities to meet those needs in the region? Or is the first step in health care getting in the car and driving to Lexington?”

Another focus should be on regional assets, such as forested mountains that could be sustainably managed for long-term jobs in timber, forest products, agriculture and tourism. “We haven’t invested in enough possibilities,” he said.

Part of the challenge is changing century-old attitudes about work.

“Instead of trying to find somebody to give you a job, it’s about creating a job for yourself,” he said. “It’s about feeding that entrepreneurial spirit in young people, and then creating the entrepreneurial ecosystem that is going to support those budding entrepreneurs and encourage them to stay here.”

When a region is economically distressed, it means markets are broken in fundamental ways. Government and non-profit assistance may be needed to fix them. But long-term success will only come with the development of strong markets and capital within Eastern Kentucky.

“With economic development, you’ve always got to ask, ‘Where does the investment come from? What kind of jobs are being created?'” Hille said. “In the long run, if we’re only creating jobs and we’re not building assets, if we’re not creating durable capital in the region, if we’re not building sustainable businesses and industries, then outside investments may or may not serve the needs of our communities.”