Plan would create 200 miles of multi-use trails in Scott County

July 15, 2014

legacyGabe Schmuck, 9, left, Nate Schmuck, 5, and their father, Paul Schmuck, rode on the Legacy Trail in Lexington in 2012. Photo by Mark Ashley.

GEORGETOWN — The popular Legacy Trail out of Lexington now stops just short of the Scott County line at the Kentucky Horse Park. But what is now the end of the trail could someday be just the beginning.

Scott County leaders have worked for three years with the regional visioning group Bluegrass Tomorrow and the National Park Service to develop an ambitious plan for Kentucky’s most extensive trails network. Plans call for 200 miles of biking, hiking, horseback riding and waterway trails throughout Scott County.

“Our vision is that this is going to eventually branch out and include the whole region,” said John Simpson, director of Georgetown/Scott County Tourism.

The Bluegrass Bike Hike Horseback Trails Alliance unveiled a draft of the proposed master plan Monday at the monthly meeting of the Georgetown/Scott County Chamber of Commerce.

Alliance leaders hope to finish the plan by the end of the year and begin negotiating property easements, designing trails, raising private money and applying for federal transportation grants.

Some trails would be shared, with bike/pedestrian and horse paths side-by-side, but most would be separate. The plan was developed with help from interested residents during a June 2013 design workshop, and the alliance is eager for more public participation.

At this point, there are no cost estimates, but such a trails network would run well into the millions of dollars. Still, many officials think it would be a great investment.

“This has the potential to have a tremendous impact, economically and socially, on the community,” said Russell Clark, the alliance’s National Park Service representative.

Clark and Rob Rumpke, president of Bluegrass Tomorrow, cited the economic impact that trail systems have had on Damascus, Va., a once-depressed logging town where hikers and mountain bikers now flock to the Appalachian and Virginia Creeper trails; Loveland, Ohio; and Indiana’s Brown County.

The trails alliance has more than a dozen partners, including the cities of Georgetown, Sadieville and Lexington; Scott County Fiscal Court; the state tourism department; the Horse Park; the Kentucky Horse Council; Georgetown College; the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture; the Bluegrass Area Development District; St. Joseph Health System/Kentucky One; and several horseback-riding and cycling groups.

Rumpke said horse trails should be especially popular, given the number of local horse enthusiasts and the tourists who come to Central Kentucky to see horse farms and events.

“We’re the horse capital of the world; why are there so few horseback-riding facilities?” he asked. “This is an opportunity to address that.”

The first step in the plan is to extend the Legacy Trail 6.6 miles from the horse park to Georgetown. Christie Robinson chairs a steering committee that commissioned an engineering feasibility study, which was recently completed. The study estimates the total cost at about $8.3 million, including trailheads, bathrooms and other amenities. It could be built in four phases as money became available.

Georgetown recently awarded the Legacy Trail committee $25,000 as a match to a $100,000 federal grant that it will apply for this fall, Robinson said. That would move the design process forward.

Claude Christensen, mayor of Sadieville, said he sees the trail system as an opportunity to revitalize his town of 303 people at the northern tip of Scott County. Sadieville is applying for “trail town” status with state tourism officials. But it needs trails.

“It’s huge for Sadieville,” Christensen said. “It makes us a destination.”

Simpson, the tourism official, said many Scott County business and government leaders support trails development because they have seen the economic benefit that road cycling enthusiasts have had in the area.

The Bluegrass Cycling Club’s annual Horsey Hundred ride each Memorial Day weekend is based at Georgetown College. This year, more than 2,000 cyclists came from all over North America to ride Central Kentucky’s scenic back roads on marked routes ranging from 25 to 104 miles.

Georgetown hosted a downtown party for the cyclists, who filled Georgetown College’s residence halls and more than half of the 1,100 local motel rooms. A big group from Ontario, Canada, came for an entire week of cycling before the event.

An extensive trail network, along with Central Kentucky’s world-class cycling roads, could make Georgetown a major recreation destination, Simpson said.

“We’re at the starting point of something that could be phenomenal,” he said. “It could bring thousands of tourists to our community and enhance our own quality of life.”


Book chronicles Lexington’s early ‘contemporary’ homebuilder

July 13, 2014

140709Isenhour0001This house,built on Breckenwood Drive in 1958, shows characteristics of Richard Isenhour’s contemporary homes: native Kentucky stone, lots of glass, cathedral ceilings, exposed post-and-beam construction and an effort to integrate indoor and outdoor spaces.

 

Richard Isenhour was a chemical engineer at Dupont in the late 1940s when he questioned his career choice in a letter to the Lexington woman who he would marry.

“The kind of job I’d like would be one that’s creative and always changing, where I can see what I’m accomplishing,” he wrote Lenora Henry. “I’d like to work on things I can improve.”

The Isenhours moved to Lexington in 1952, and he took up the occupation of his father-in-law, homebuilder A.R. Henry. Before long, Isenhour began looking for ways to improve his houses with modern styles and materials, as well as new ideas about how a house should function.

Richard Isenhour

Richard Isenhour

Isenhour went on to earn an architecture degree at the University of Kentucky and design and build nearly 100 unique homes in Lexington between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s. Now locally famous, these “Isenhour houses” were some of the first contemporary-style homes built in Lexington.

Larry Isenhour, a retired architect and one of the Isenhours’ four children, has just written a handsome, well-illustrated book documenting his father’s work: The Houses of Richard B. Isenhour: Mid-Century Modern in Kentucky(Butler Books, $45) He will sign copies at 2 p.m., July 19, at The Morris Book Shop. Information about other book events: Greenschemedesign.com.

Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and later Modernist architects, as well as by contemporary homes he saw in magazines and on family vacations, Isenhour experimented. This was at a time when people from all over the country were moving to Lexington to work at IBM and UK’s new College of Medicine.

His first bold design was for his own family’s 1956 home on Blueberry Lane. It helped Isenhour find clients who wanted something different than a traditional brick box with shutters.

140709Isenhour0008Isenhour’s designs featured post-and-beam construction and open floor plans. They had exposed wooden beams, cathedral ceilings and walls of glass and local limestone. On building lots, he preserved as many trees as possible. His houses seem more spacious than their modest sizes, and they are as much about utility as style.

“Isenhour’s best work is full of light, creating an inspirational sense of the blending of outdoors and indoors,” Lexington architect Graham Pohl writes in the book’s forward.

Jan and Phyllis Hasbrouck, a physician and nurse, came to Lexington in 1962 for his internship. They had grown up in Ithaca, N.Y., admiring contemporary architecture, so when they were ready to build a home, they asked Isenhour to design it.

“I’ve loved every bit of it — the glass, the stone, the openness,” said Phyllis Hasbrouck, who has lived there since 1967. “I feel closed in when I’m in a regular home now where the ceilings are low.”

Larry Isenhour

Larry Isenhour

But Isenhour houses were not for everyone. The book reproduces a 1968 letter a Lexington bank officer sent to one Isenhour client, declining his loan application. “We have difficulty in making the maximum loan on contemporary style homes because they are usually custom designed for a limited market,” the letter said.

Larry Isenhour, who lives in a contemporary home of his own design, began working on the book soon after his father’s death in 2006, collecting old drawings, photos and documents. His goal was to create a chronological catalog of his father’s best work to show how it evolved.

“I worked in almost all of them, either as a kid picking up wood or drawing the plans,” he said. But he never interviewed his father about the thought processes behind his designs — and wishes now that he had. Isenhour also had never written a book. Fortunately, his got help from his wife, Jan, a writer and retired director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

Only one of the 98 Isenhour houses has been demolished. Most have been well cared for, expanded and updated as tastes and technologies changed. They have been especially sought-after in recent years with the renewed popularity of Mid-Century Modern style.

At least four of the houses are now owned by architects. One is Tom Fielder, who got to know Isenhour and his work when he was an architecture student at UK.

When Fielder moved back to Lexington in 1990, he wanted his three children to attend Glendover Elementary School. So he drove around that neighborhood, which has the largest concentration of Isenhour houses, until he found one for sale. Then he called his real estate agent and asked her to put in a contract on it.

“She said, ‘I can’t do a contract on a house when you haven’t even seen the inside,’” he recalled. “I knew that Dick had designed the house and it was next to Glendover school. That’s all the information I needed to know.”

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Yes, I wrote this column while sitting on my porch

July 8, 2014

When I traveled the upper South for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution years ago, I noticed a lot of statues of Confederate soldiers on courthouse lawns. I always thought Willis H. Carrier would have been a better choice to memorialize.

After all, the inventor of air conditioning helped make the region comfortable and prosperous, turning the Sleepy South into the Sun Belt. But Carrier’s invention had a drawback, too. Southerners started building houses without porches.

I have lived most of my life in houses built since 1950. One had a patio. Another had a breezeway between the house and garage. Another had a “decorative” front porch too narrow to be of any use.

A couple of my houses had decks. The large deck I built on the back of my 1950s Atlanta home was especially nice. But decks are inferior to porches. There is no roof, and deck railings are rarely as elegant as porch columns and balusters.

porchMy current house was built in 1907. It has a long, wide front porch and a large screened-in back porch, both equipped with ceiling fans. For most of three seasons each year, they are my favorite places to sit and relax. And on cool, low-humidity weekends like this past one, they can be little corners of heaven.

Front porches and back porches are very different places.

My front porch is a public extension of the living room. There is a spring-cushioned swing and two antique rocking chairs I bought cheap from people who thought, as my wife did when I brought them home, that they were worn out.

Both came with caned bottoms and seats that had seen better days. One was re-caned for me by a friend who is an excellent craftsman, in addition to being a retired physician and Air Force general. The other chair may be beyond hope, as the wooden frame looks as bad as the splintered seat and back. It is reserved for skinny visitors.

Old porch rockers have a design feature that makes them superior to those now sold at places such as Home Depot and Cracker Barrel: the back rails are steam-bent just above the seat. As President John F. Kennedy famously discovered, this bend tilts the back to the optimum angle for comfort, whether you are trying to run the world or simply watch it go by.

Front porches are all about watching the world. They are places for getting to know those who live around you, as well as for keeping the neighborhood safe and secure by providing what the urban analyst Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street”.

I have a tradition with a fellow journalist who lives at the end of my street. About once a week, around 6 p.m., one or the other of us will hear the familiar “ding” of an iPhone text message. “Beer on porch?”

On either my porch or his, we discuss life and solve the world’s problems. An award-winning poet recently moved in around the corner, and I have invited him to join us. That should elevate the conversation a notch or two.

Rather than a living room, my back porch is more like an outdoor den, shielded from neighbors and screened from mosquitoes. Becky and I each have a pillowed wicker chair, and there is a dining table barely big enough for two. It is where we go to escape the world rather than to engage or watch it.

We read the newspaper on the back porch most mornings and have dinner there many evenings. It is a great place to relax, if we can ignore the fact that the back yard needs weeding, pruning or watering. Chores should never be visible from a porch.

My porches are cozy places to watch a rain shower, if the wind isn’t blowing too hard. They are ideal for listening to birds and tree frogs — and enjoying the aroma of roasting peanuts from the nearby Jif peanut butter factory.

During this past winter-from-hell, I got a surprise one morning when I looked out at the back porch. The wind had been so strong overnight that an inch of fine snow had been sifted through the screens, covering wicker chairs and all.

So, after I shoveled my sidewalk and front steps, I shoveled my screened-in porch, thinking how funny that would seem come July.


Knoxville had a plan for revitalizing its historic downtown

July 7, 2014

knox1Knoxville’s Market Square, which dates to the 1850s, has been restored as a restaurant and entertainment district with plenty of nearby parking. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

I hadn’t spent any time in Knoxville, Tenn., since 1988, when I moved away after living there for seven years. I went back recently, and I was impressed with downtown’s transformation.

Knoxville was never a place I associated with good urban design. Planning and zoning always seemed haphazard, at best. Suburbia sprawled out for decades, mostly westward along traffic-choked Kingston Pike.

Like Lexington, two major Interstate highways converge in Knoxville. But instead of going around the city, as was thankfully done in Lexington, I-40 and I-75 went through the middle of Knoxville.

The infamous “Malfunction Junction” was improved while I was living there in the early 1980s, but it still left Knoxville cut up by expressways, on-ramps, off-ramps, bridges and a maze of one-way streets. It was a confusing place to drive, and a difficult place to walk or bike.

Many of those problems remain, but downtown is a different story.

knox2Long a conservative city with divisive politics, Knoxville leaders finally came together to organize the 1982 World’s Fair, which rehabilitated a former downtown railroad yard. That began a transformation that has made Knoxville’s city center the kind of happening place downtown Lexington aspires to be.

I spent a week in Knoxville recently, biking with friends in the nearby Great Smoky Mountains and dining each night at restaurants along Market Square and Gay Street, the main downtown thoroughfare.

When I worked in downtown Knoxville as The Associated Press correspondent, some of its old buildings were vacant and many were in need of repair. When office workers went home each evening, the city center became a ghost town.

“You and I can remember when tumbleweed blew down the streets in the evenings,” joked Alan Carmichael, an old friend who owns a downtown public relations firm, Moxley Carmichael, with his wife, Cynthia Moxley. “Now people pour in from the ‘burbs” for restaurants, bars, outdoor concerts and frequent festivals.

One big factor in downtown Knoxville’s revitalization has been historic preservation and adaptive reuse of old buildings, such as the old JFG Coffee plant and Sterchi furniture company, which are now loft apartments.

It began with the World’s Fair, which restored the old L&N Railroad depot. But the big efforts came in the past decade with restoration of the Tennessee and Bijou theaters on Gay Street and the shops along Market Square, which date to the 1850s.

“We have very few old buildings downtown that haven’t been restored,” said Rick Emmett, the city’s downtown coordinator. “Now we’re spreading that to some of the historic commercial areas beyond downtown.”

Downtown’s restored charm and activity has attracted the chain retailers Mast General Store and Urban Outfitters. Regal Riviera, a new eight-screen movie theater complex, was tastefully integrated into Gay Street.

What made most of that possible was city government’s investment in infrastructure, combined with creative city partnerships with business to finance development.

Perhaps the biggest city investment has been in parking garages a block or two from major pedestrian areas. Parking is free on weekends and after 6 p.m. on weeknights.

The city owns and operates six of 12 major downtown garages. Another garage is under construction. The city donated the land and private interests are building the garage. As part of the deal, evening and weekend parking will be free to the public in perpetuity, Emmett said.

Knoxville’s downtown parking is marketed well, with maps, a smartphone app and a website, Parkdowntownknoxville.com.

“Knoxville has a compact, walkable downtown, but most people have to drive to get there,” Carmichael said. The garages have “made a huge difference in terms of bringing people downtown.”

Another key has been the Central Business Improvement District, funded by an extra tax on downtown property owners. It was controversial when created in 1993 — just as attempts to create one in Lexington have been controversial — but it has been a big success, said Carmichael and Emmett, who both serve on the board.

The tax generates more than $500,000 a year for infrastructure, beautification and grants and loans to help downtown businesses restore historic building façades. Some money also is used to sponsor frequent festivals and events that bring people downtown.

“What that has allowed us to do is fill in the gaps,” Emmett said of the improvement district. “I think it has been huge.”

knox3City-owned parking garages on side streets near popular pedestrian areas has made it easy for visitors and suburbanites to come downtown to dine and shop. 

 


Developer’s parking idea makes sense for downtown Lexington

June 29, 2014

140623ChurchSt0088This rendering shows an architect’s conception for a two-level parking garage that veteran developer Robert Wagoner proposes building along Church Street to replace a random group of nine surface parking lots. The garage would help encourage redevelopment of gaps between buildings on Short Street, shown as green boxes. Photo provided.

 

Veteran suburban developer Robert Wagoner has spent his past four years of retirement studying urban Lexington, as well as Greenville and Charleston, S.C., which have been much more successful at downtown revitalization.

Yes, he says, historic preservation and high-quality new architecture are important. But Wagoner thinks the real key to urban revitalization is the unglamorous infrastructure that businesses and customers take for granted in suburbia, such as hidden delivery and garbage facilities and easy-to-use parking. Especially parking.

That belief led Wagoner and 17 friends he recruited from the design and construction fields to volunteer their time and talents to develop an ambitious concept for the emerging four-block entertainment district along Short Street between Limestone and Broadway.

Robert Wagoner

Robert Wagoner

Their goal was to create more convenient, attractive, efficient and urban-appropriate parking and service facilities, and to encourage redevelopment of gap lots along Short Street where buildings were demolished decades ago and were replaced with haphazard surface parking.

The main element of this plan would be an attractive, two-level parking structure along Church Street. But Wagoner also proposes replacing most parallel parking along Short Street with easier-to-use angled parking.

In all, Wagoner says, the 370 parking spaces now in that four-square-block area could grow to 450 spaces that would be more accessible and user-friendly. At the same time, it would allow many surface parking lots to be redeveloped with new buildings to house stores, restaurants, offices and apartments.

“We need to have more thought put into our comprehensive land-use process for a parking strategy downtown,” Wagoner said. “All you have to do is look at these other cities and see what they’re doing.”

Wagoner also wants to create service areas to stop noisy delivery trucks from having to idle on the street, clogging traffic and making outdoor dining unpleasant. Centralized, hidden waste areas with trash compactors would be a big improvement over dumpsters, grease pits and Herbies scattered all over within public view.

He is now talking with property and business owners and contacting organizations such as the Downtown Development Authority, the Downtown Lexington Corp. and the Lexington-Fayette County Parking Authority (Lexpark).

“It’s probably the single most important project since the Cheapside Park renovation,” said Bob Estes, owner of Parlay Social and Shorty’s market, and president of the Cheapside Entertainment District Association. “It would really create the infrastructure for the continued development and growth we need.”

Making this plan happen will be a challenge, because the four-block area has 12 parcels with 10 owners. There are nine surface parking lots with 16 entrances. It will need support from property and business owners, the city and private investors, he said.

The plan would require clipping off the rear addition to one Short Street building. Wagoner also would like to demolish a law office building at the southwest corner of Church and Market streets and move the recently renovated Belle’s Bar building over to Short Street.

The key will be getting property owners to work together, trading some of their sites for space in new, infill buildings on Short Street, parking spaces in the garage or a share of parking garage revenues.

“Creative air rights is integral to all of this,” he said.

Executing the plan would be complex, but Wagoner says everyone could come out a winner. Downtown would be more vibrant, business activity would increase, property values would rise and the city would collect more tax revenues.

What I find exciting — even visionary — about this plan is that the same approach could be used for many other small areas of urban Lexington. It could be part of the parking solution needed to help the city redevelop huge, underused surface lots around Rupp Arena.

Wagoner has spent two years refining these ideas with help from other development professionals: Donna Pizzuto, Harvey Helm, Ken Sallade, Jon Cheatham, Steve Graves, Mike Huston, Aaron Bivens, Joe Rasnick, Joe Nolasco, Steve Albert , Rob Wagoner, Shane Lyle, James Piper, Jonathan Rollins, Tony Barrett, Joey Svec and Matt Fleece.

Their volunteer design work includes renderings and a video presentation with three-dimensional modeling. (See below.)

Wagoner said he is open to better ideas from others. His goal in this retirement venture is not to make money, he said, but to make downtown Lexington more successful. And, perhaps, to salve some guilt from having helped create suburban developments decades ago that contributed to downtown’s decline in the first place.

“Ours is a throwaway society that consistently produces urban decay as a byproduct of suburban success,” Wagoner said. “We have no other option (but redeveloping urban areas) if we are to protect what makes us special. No other city is like ours, ringed by such a unique signature” of horse farms and natural beauty.

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Watch this video Robert Wagoner and friends put together about the proposal:

 

 

Click here to read Tom Martin’s Q&A with Robert Wagoner.

 


A sedimental journey back 450 million years beneath CentrePointe

June 7, 2014

140531CentrePit-TE0024 Looking up to Main Street from the bottom of the CentrePointe pit. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

When most of us think about the CentrePointe block’s history, we focus on its role as a center of Lexington commerce for two centuries.

But over the past 12 weeks, as more than 60,000 cubic yards of dirt and rock have been blasted, dug and hauled off the block to make way for CentrePointe’s huge underground parking garage, some people have expressed a deeper curiosity.

So I called Frank Ettensohn, a University of Kentucky geology professor, and asked him to take developer Dudley Webb and me on a sedimental journey. We walked around the bottom of CentrePit as the geologist described a much older history.

“Each of these layers is like a page in a book,” said Ettensohn, a specialist in the sedimentary rock layers of the Inner Bluegrass region known as the Lexington Limestone. “If you know how to read the pages you can see all sorts of things going on here.”

140531CentrePit-TE0002After digging out about 10 feet of dirt and clay, Hunt Construction’s excavation crews hit solid rock, which they dislodged with nearly 50 blasts, said project manager Tim Linde. By mid-June, they will finish removing all of that material to a depth of nearly 40 feet. As many as 475 dump trucks a day took dirt to R.J. Corman’s railroad yard, while truckloads of rock went to C&R Asphalt for recycling.

With a rock hammer in hand, Ettensohn walked us around the bottom perimeter of the pit and explained how the layers of limestone above us were formed during what geologists call the Late Ordovician period. That was about 450 million years ago, give or take a few million years.

Central Kentucky was then part of a continent called Laurentia, which now forms the core of North America. The East and West Coasts weren’t there yet, and neither was much of the Southeast. Florida was still part of Africa.

“This area was a very shallow sea, maybe 60 feet deep, much like what we see in the Bahamas today,” Ettensohn said. It was a sub-tropical region, because Central Kentucky was about 20 degrees south of the Equator, instead of 38 degrees north of it, as it is today.

“These plates move all over, and they’re moving now as we stand here,” he said. “But it’s a very, very slow process.”

The Lexington Limestone is between 200 feet and 320 feet thick. It is made up of 11 different types, each named for a place where there is a notable example.

Ettensohn said CentrePointe has two types. Excavation exposed the top of a Grier layer, which may extend another 200 feet below the ground. It is named for the Grier’s Creek area of Woodford County. Above the Grier is a thin Brannon layer, named for the area around Brannon Road near the Jessamine-Fayette county line.

The layers are different, he said, because a mountain-building event on the east side of the continent sent sea water and sediment rushing this way, eventually forming the Brannon.

Along the pit’s wall below Limestone Street, Ettensohn pointed out a brown stripe of bentonite — a thin layer of volcanic ash from a prehistoric eruption. He also saw evidence of ancient earthquakes. “We know there were at least three major earthquake events that gave rise to the deformation in the Brannon,” he said.

Fine-grained limestone indicates eras of deep water, he said, while coarse-grained limestone was formed in shallow water. Ettensohn pointed to areas of coarse rock that would have been giant dunes migrating with water flows along the sea bottom.

Hurricane-like storms helped form many of the limestone layers, he said. Thin layers of muddy shale between them are evidence of calmer periods of geological history.

Limestone is made mostly of calcium carbonate, the remains of small creatures that lived at the bottom of these shallow seas. “They died and their shells were reworked by storms,” he said.

The most common creatures whose fossil fragments are still visible in the limestone were crinoids and bryozoans, which looked more like small, twiggy bushes than animals, and brachiopods, which resemble clams.

Ettensohn picked up a small rock and pointed to tiny sparkling specks, the pulverized remains of ancient star fish and sea urchins. Then he found a fossil fragment of a trilobite, a long-extinct animal that looked something like a crab.

“They’re not particularly good,” he said of the fossils, “because they’ve been shattered to heck and back.”

But these billions upon billions of crushed sea creatures left a sturdy foundation for Lexington, whose existence will be no more than a blip in geological history.

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Time to press ‘pause’ on Rupp Arena and focus on rest of plan

May 31, 2014

 tbcTown Branch Commons would create a linear downtown park along the historic path of Town Branch Creek, which was buried underground a century ago.

 

Almost all of the talk and controversy about Lexington’s ambitious Rupp Arena, Arts & Entertainment District plan has focused on the arena. It reminds me of the old saying about the tail wagging the dog.

Renovating Rupp Arena is the most costly piece of the plan, especially because it would involve rebuilding the adjacent convention center. The total price is estimated at $351 million.

Rupp may seem like the dog, but it’s really just the tail when you look at the big picture. The dog is more than 30 acres of under-utilized parking lots south and west of the arena.

This sea of asphalt is ripe for redevelopment. It is well-located between the central business district and the University of Kentucky campus. These vast tracts of city-owned land, if properly planned and patiently developed, could become a huge economic and civic asset.

Ground leases to developers on the High Street lot could generate millions of dollars for public improvements, such as turning the Cox Street lot into much-needed green space as part of the outstanding Town Branch Commons plan.

That is why Mayor Jim Gray and the Lexington Center board should step back, take a deep breath, and refocus their energy on the dog instead of the tail. They thought they needed to renovate Rupp Arena first to generate excitement for the rest of the plan. That seemed logical, but it hasn’t worked, for many reasons.

First, Louisville’s costly KFC Yum Center hasn’t lived up to financial expectations, making taxpayers and legislators skeptical of another big arena project. The late rollout and changing details of Rupp’s financing plan didn’t help.

Then there are legitimate questions about public priorities. Would a fancier Rupp Area be nice to have? Sure. Is it essential? No.

Another issue is the economics of replacing the convention center. The space is oddly configured with no good way to expand. But the Lexington Center Corp. still owes $18 million from the last renovation a decade ago.

This is the big question: Would the convention center generate enough more business to make it worth tearing down the current facility to build a new and bigger one? Many people are skeptical.

But the biggest roadblock to a Rupp renovation has been UK’s lack of interest. President Eli Capilouto has made it abundantly clear that he thinks UK needs new academic buildings, laboratories and residence halls more than a basketball palace.

That’s a big switch from the past. UK officials have grumbled about Rupp’s perceived shortcomings since the late 1990s and have pushed renovation or replacement schemes ever since.

If Capilouto is serious about focusing on academics instead of athletics, I say good for him. That attitude is long overdue at UK. But it means the mayor must take a new approach.

Rather than continuing to push for a Rupp renovation now, Gray should focus the city’s energy on Town Branch Commons, which will make the concrete corridor along Vine Street more inviting to people and businesses. As the 2009 renovation of Cheapside showed, smart investment in public infrastructure attracts economic development.

The mayor should push to fund infrastructure to support the emerging redevelopment of Manchester Street, the future Rupp District’s western gateway. That includes finishing Town Branch Trail and linking it to the Legacy Trail.

Most of all, Gray and the Lexington Center Corp. should quickly flesh out a long-term redevelopment plan for the 22-acre High Street lot and start making deals. A good plan will encourage good development — and prevent bad development.

For example, the High Street lot would make a much better site for LOOK Cinemas’ proposed IMAX theater complex than the historic district across Broadway it wants to build in, which would set a terrible precedent.

Redevelopment also means replacing most of those surface parking spaces with more space-efficient garages, both near Rupp and in other key spots around downtown. Dispersed garages would get more frequent use than dedicated Rupp parking, plus they would give arena audiences more reason to patronize downtown businesses rather than hopping in their cars and driving home after an event.

Rupp and the convention center must be dealt with eventually. But, as all of the controversy has shown, those plans could benefit from more thought, economic analysis and salesmanship.

Waiting a year or two on a Rupp renovation also might make UK a more willing partner. UK’s Rupp lease expires in 2018, but the Wildcats will still need a place to play basketball. Having preached academics-first, Capilouto would lose credibility if he then tried to build a costly on-campus arena.

It’s time to refocus this discussion. The real economic potential of an arena district is the district, not the arena. Transformation will not come from making good facilities better, but from turning more than 30 acres of barren asphalt into a vibrant addition to the city. Lead the dog and the tail will follow.

 


CentrePointe evolution shows benefits of design conversation

May 19, 2014

CentrePointeNowDeveloper’s rendering of the current design for CentrePointe, as seen from corner of Vine and Limestone Streets. Below, the original design rendering unveiled in March 2008.

 

As CentrePointe developer Dudley Webb continues blasting and digging the biggest hole in Lexington history, he has unveiled yet another new design for what he plans to build on top of it.

The city’s Court House Area Design Review Board last week approved what was, by my count, the seventh major CentrePointe redesign in six years. The consensus of the board’s two architects and other design professionals I spoke with is that this design, while still lacking in some respects, is far better than the version it replaced.

centrepointe1Unlike the monolithic tower Webb initially proposed, CentrePointe has evolved into a complex of buildings that fits into downtown without overwhelming it. The new design accomplishes the developer’s goals while respecting the city’s existing fabric and enhancing pedestrian activity.

CentrePointe will be a great addition to downtown — if Webb can get it built.

There are a couple of reasons why CentrePointe’s design has continued evolving. One is that the mix of tenants and uses has changed several times as Webb struggled to put together an ambitious, $394 million project in a difficult economic climate.

As currently proposed, CentrePointe would contain a 10-12 story office building, a 205-room Marriott hotel, a 110-unit Marriott extended-stay hotel, 90 apartments, several luxury condos, a Jeff Ruby Steakhouse, a Starbuck’s coffee shop and several retail stores at street level.

Another reason for CentrePointe’s evolution is that Lexingtonians and their elected and appointed leaders have become more sophisticated about the role design plays in downtown revitalization and economic development. Copying ostentatious towers in Atlanta or Austin is no longer good enough.

Like beauty, good architecture is often in the eye of the beholder. But there are generally accepted principles for good and bad architecture and urban design. That is why the review board process has been valuable in improving CentrePointe, and why city officials should keep pushing for “design excellence” guidelines for future downtown construction.

 

 

 


Celebrate 250th birthday of architect who shaped early Kentucky

April 26, 2014

130826PopeVilla0046The main parlor rooms of Pope Villa, which has been owned by the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation since a 1987 fire. Benjamin Latrobe designed the house for U.S. Sen. John Pope. It was finished in 1813 but drastically altered in the years since.  Center, an 1804 of Latrobe by Charles Wilson Peale. Bottom, the Pope Villa exterior.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Thursday marks the 250th birthday of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, America’s first professional architect of renown and a man who left a lasting impression on Kentucky.

Latrobe, who is best known for his work in the nation’s capitol, had eight Kentucky commissions between 1802 and 1817, six of which were in Lexington and five of which were built. His designs influenced many Kentucky architects and builders, including Gideon Shryock and John McMurtry, setting the tone for much of the state’s most iconic architecture.

Only one of Latrobe’s Kentucky buildings survives, but it is among his most significant: Pope Villa in Lexington. The house will be open for free tours Thursday evening as the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which is slowly working to restore it, throws a birthday party for Latrobe and marks the beginning of National Preservation Month.

Latrobe was born in England in 1764 to a British father and American mother. He came to America in 1796 and died in New Orleans in 1820 after an illustrious career. Early on, his neo-classical designs caught the attention of Thomas Jefferson. Latrobe’s work in Washington included the U.S. Capitol and White House porticos.

Patrick Snadon, a professor in the University of Cincinnati’s School of Architecture and Interior Design, has studied Latrobe’s Kentucky work, which he detailed in a chapter of the 2012 book, Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852.

Most of Latrobe’s Kentucky projects were the result of his friendships with Rep. Henry Clay and Sen. John Pope. Snadon thinks Latrobe, the nation’s most avant-garde architect of the time, found the Kentuckians willing clients for his ideas.

140501Latrobe0002Latrobe’s first project in the state, in 1803, was the First Kentucky Bank in Lexington, on Main Street just east of Wrenn Alley. It was demolished before the Civil War.

In 1807, Latrobe was asked to design First Presbyterian Church, which then was on Broadway at Second Street, where Broadway Christian Church now stands. But by the time Latrobe’s detailed plans arrived, the church had already been built using a design that may or may not have followed his initial proposal. That building was demolished in 1857.

Latrobe designed three projects for Clay. The first was his Ashland mansion, 1811-1814. It was demolished after Clay’s death in 1852 and rebuilt on the same foundation by Clay’s son, James, and his architect, Thomas Lewinski.

Clay’s influence led to Latrobe being asked in 1812 to design the Transylvania University building in what is now Gratz Park. But his plan was too big and costly, so trustees hired Lexington architect Matthew Kennedy instead. That building burned in 1829 and Transylvania moved north to its current location.

Clay asked Latrobe in 1813 to design several townhouses, shops and tenements for property he owned at the northwest corner of Short and Market Streets. Parlay Social and Dudley’s on Short are now located in late 1800s buildings there that replaced Latrobe’s structures.

140501Latrobe0001Latrobe asked to design Kentucky’s second state capitol when the first one burned in 1813. But when another project kept him from traveling to Kentucky, that job, too, went to Kennedy. Pope asked Latrobe in 1817 to design an armory for Frankfort, but it was never built.

Also in 1817, Latrobe designed a house in Newport for Gen. James Taylor. It was completed in 1819, but burned in 1842.

Pope Villa is perhaps the most significant house Latrobe designed. That is because Pope and his wife, Eliza, gave the architect freedom to express his radical ideas for what a “rational” American house should look like.

“Altogether, the Pope Villa is theoretically and spatially the most sophisticated house designed in federal-period America,” Snadon wrote.

Pope Villa was a perfect square with service rooms on the first floor and main rooms on the second floor, which had a domed center rotunda with a skylight. It had full-length, three-panel windows upstairs that were widely copied in other Greek Revival houses in 1800s Kentucky.

When Pope wasn’t re-elected to the Senate in 1813, he and his wife sold their new house. Later owners did everything they could to obliterate Latrobe’s unique design. The remodeling included addition of a back wing and center hall, two then-common design elements that Latrobe hated.

Pope Villa was divided into apartments in the early 1900s. The Blue Grass Trust acquired the building in 1987 after a fire did considerable damage. Restoration according to Latrobe’s original drawings has been slow, both because of a lack of money and uncertainty about Pope Villa’s future use.

One idea at a brainstorming session last November was to use the reconstruction-in-progress interior as gallery space for contemporary art. An initial installation is planned this fall by the Lexington Art League. Details are still being worked out.

“It’s going to be the first foray into the next step for the Pope Villa.” said Sheila Ferrell, the Trust’s executive director.


Reconsider demolition of UK lab that played role in space race

April 22, 2014

WG1 The Wenner-Gren Research Laboratory opened in 1941 to do aeronautical research. Designed by Ernst Johnson, its front resembles an airplane cockpit.  Photos by Tom Eblen

I have made several trips to the University of Kentucky campus over the past year to take a good look at some of its iconic architecture before administrators demolish it.

The most recent trip was to see Wenner-Gren Research Laboratory. It is unique among the several mid-20th century buildings designed by noted Lexington architect Ernst Johnson that may soon meet a wrecking ball.

Swedish industrialist Alex Wenner-Gren, who got rich selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners, gave UK $150,000 in 1940 to build a laboratory for aeronautical research.

The mission called for a structure about as utilitarian as you could get: thick, strong walls to contain aircraft engine tests and funnel out the exhaust. But Johnson found a way to give his building style.

The long, narrow building resembles an airplane, with tail fins on the back roof and a curved front façade of glass block and fine brick work that reminds you of a cockpit. Form elegantly reflected function.

Wenner-Gren is one of the area’s few remaining examples of Streamline Moderne architecture. The style, which also was used in everything from steam locomotives to toasters, reflected mid-20th century Americans’ hopeful visions of a space-age future.

In the 1950s, the lab’s mission evolved from aircraft to biomedical research. In 1959, the lab got an Air Force contract to train chimpanzees, the first astronauts of the Mercury Space Flight program.

During a recent visit to Lexington, retired Space Shuttle astronaut Story Musgrave recalled doing biomedical research in Wenner-Gren while earning degrees in physiology and biophysics that prepared him for his future NASA missions.

wg2As with many older UK buildings, renovation and updating of Wenner-Gren over the years looks to have been basic and minimal. A water leak in the annex recently damaged a display case chronicling the lab’s significant scientific history.

Eli Capilouto, who became UK’s president in 2011, deserves a lot of credit for moving swiftly to play catch-up to longtime facilities needs, from student housing to academic buildings. But that rush has at times reflected a narrow vision of campus improvement, with little regard for history or architecture.

Architects and preservationists have complained about the planned demolition of several Ernst Johnson dormitories to make way for generic-looking residence halls outsourced to a private contractor.

Dining services also are to be outsourced to a major corporation willing to invest in new facilities. That has drawn criticism from students and others concerned about UK’s commitment to the local food economy and worker wages.

UK also plans to demolish Hamilton House, an 1880 Italianate mansion, to make way for a residence hall. Mathews Garden, a unique plot of diverse plant life managed by the biology department, along with two adjacent early 20th century houses, may be destroyed for a proposed expansion of the law school complex.

UK plans to replace Wenner-Gren with a new science classroom building. The dozen research labs now housed there will be moved to a College of Engineering building when this semester ends.

Critics have urged UK to preserve all or some of Wenner-Gren as part of the new science building. One good idea: Turn it into a cafeteria, café and coffee shop whose architecture and illustrious history could help inspire future scientists.

But UK administrators have shown little interest in investing much imagination or money in such adaptive reuse projects. So far, the architecture of the new buildings is nothing special.

You would think that, in their master-planning process, UK administrators would have involved their in-house experts, the College of Design professors who train most of Kentucky’s architects and historic preservation specialists. Well, no.

“I find it extremely disappointing that UK, as the flagship state university and our state’s keeper of culture, is letting accountants make decisions about what is architecturally and historically significant,” said Robert Kelly, a Lexington architect and longtime UK adjunct professor who has advocated for preservation of Wenner-Gren and other significant Ernst Johnston buildings.

“I find it analogous to asking your hairdresser how to perform cardiac surgery,” he said. “Hmm, that doesn’t look important — you can probably remove it.”


Lexington brothers, classmate win international design contest

April 14, 2014

MTCA rendering of the design for a mobile rural health care clinic for Southeast Asia. The design won Building Trust International’s Moved to Care competition. Below, designers Patrick Morgan, left, Simon Morgan, center, and Jhanéa “Jha D” Williams. Photos provided

 

The email from London looked genuine, but it arrived before dawn on April 1.

“Everybody we told thought it was an April Fool’s joke,” said Patrick Morgan, a young architect from Lexington. “I don’t think Jha D believed me. She just wanted to go back to sleep when I called her at 6:30 in the morning.”

The email was from Building Trust International, a London-based charity that works to improve life in developing countries with good shelter design. It told Morgan that he, his brother, Simon, and his architecture school classmate, Jhanéa “Jha D” Williams, had won the organization’s fifth international design competition, to create a mobile health clinic for use in Southeast Asia.

Their design was chosen from among more than 200 entries by student and professional architects. The best student entry won a small cash prize. “Our prize is that it actually gets built and used,” Simon said.

There were nine professional runners-up in the competition, from India, South Korea, Australia, Italy, Denmark, Ireland and Malaysia.

“It’s still a shock that we won,” Patrick said.

Patrick, 26, has a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and works for Interface Studio Architects in Philadelphia. Simon, 24, has a master’s in public health from Columbia University and works for a firm in Washington, D.C., analyzing health policy.

The brothers have been interested in design and construction since they were boys, helping their parents, John Morgan and Linda Carroll, restore historic houses in downtown Lexington.

“That was quite a bit of it,” Patrick said with a laugh. “Having a wheelbarrow in my hands at 6 months old.”

For their Eagle Scout service projects, they built a patio and landscaping at St. Paul Catholic Church.

As an architect with the Lexington firm Thought Space, Patrick designed the interior of an early 1800s cottage his parents restored on East Third Street. It is beside the offices of their company, Morgan Worldwide, a consulting firm that specializes in reducing the environmental impact of mining.

MTCteamPatrick said he saw Building Trust International’s Moved to Care competition advertised on an architecture blog and suggested developing an entry with his brother and Williams, who works for the architecture and planning firm Sasaki Associates in Boston.

“This sounded perfect for what Simon and I wanted to do together,” he said. “We had always been thinking about trying to work together on projects that would combine our skill sets.”

The idea is that health care services and education can be more effectively delivered in rural areas by bringing small clinics to people rather than asking them to travel to clinics for medical treatment, vaccinations and hygiene education.

“We had been talking about doing something like this for two years,” Simon said. “I studied in South Africa as an undergraduate, and I thought something like this was a much better way to deliver care.”

Patrick said several things about their design seemed to impress the judges. It is easily portable, folding out from a standard tractor-trailer bed. It uses a lot of color, which makes the clinic look welcoming and provides visual clues for usage in a region where dozens of languages are spoken. The design also allows outdoor deck space to be customized for each location.

“The idea is they would fold down from the trailer, but then the community could come in to use their knowledge to build the sun shading and the railings,” Patrick said. “So the local community would feel involved with it.”

Patrick and Simon said they hope to stay connected to the project as it is built and put to use in Cambodia in a pilot project late this year.

“We definitely want to get to Cambodia and stay as involved as possible,” Patrick said. “We’ll get to test the ideas we had in the design and see how they work in the real world, and then be able to tweak it for future models. The idea is that this won’t just be one clinic, but over time they will build more and more of them.”

The Morgan brothers hope to do many more projects together, combining aspects of public health and innovative design.

“It’s just really nice that the first time Simon and I worked together, doing something we plan on doing for a long time, that we were able to win,” Patrick said. “It shows that our ideas meld together nicely.”

 


State Street lessons could help city, UK save other neighborhoods

April 12, 2014

StateStreetCrowds celebrate March 28 in the State Street area. Photo by Jonathan Palmer

 

How much longer must national acclaim on the basketball court be accompanied by national embarrassment in neighborhoods around the University of Kentucky campus?

Thanks to good preparation and policing, the mayhem on State Street after UK’s NCAA tournament games this year wasn’t as bad as in 2012. But it was still unacceptably violent and destructive.

This year’s toll is an embarrassment to both UK and Lexington: more than 60 injuries requiring treatment; more than 50 arrests; more than 125 fires, including a couple dozen couches.

“It’s a miracle that more people and property didn’t get hurt,” said Diane Lawless, who has represented that area on the Urban County Council since 2009. “This isn’t a spontaneous celebration. Goodwill says they come in and buy every piece of upholstered furniture they have. This is a planned riot, period.”

UK sports celebrations started getting out of hand in 1996, when some of the 10,000 fans gathered at Woodland and Euclid avenues to celebrate the national basketball championship smashed car windows and overturned a TV news van, which caught fire. There were fewer problems after the 1998 championship.

Things got ugly in 2007, when crowds in the student rental neighborhood around State Street celebrated UK’s football victories over Louisville and LSU by adopting West Virginia University’s noxious tradition of couch burning.

Five years later, when Kentucky beat Kansas for the NCAA championship, State Street went wild. There were dozens of injuries from fires and flying beer bottles, damaged vehicles and nearly 100 arrests.

It is worth noting that the vast majority of students and others who celebrate after UK games don’t hurt people or damage property. The crowd that partied this year along South Limestone didn’t become destructive.

The problem is that State Street is a very different kind of neighborhood. Some students and outside trouble-makers see it as a place where they can become violent and destructive without consequences.

Both UK and the city helped create this problem. Demand for student housing in recent decades led investors to buy former single-family houses in older neighborhoods around campus. Those houses were demolished and replaced by cheaply built apartment complexes, or they were fitted with barn-like additions and crammed with students. Yards were graveled for parking lots.

Some neighborhoods fought back, using tools including historic overlays to limit the damage. But State, Crescent, Elizabeth and other streets north of Waller Avenue and west of Limestone were overwhelmed. Homeowners and families that were stabilizing influences in those neighborhood fled. City officials took more than a decade to limit further damage to the neighborhoods by student-rental landlords.

UK officials made the problems worse in 1997 by banning alcohol from fraternity and sorority houses. With students essentially prohibited from drinking on campus, they rented “party houses” in adjacent neighborhoods. Social media made it easier for students to find those parties and evade police efforts to shut them down.

Police have refined their tactics, both to try to prevent destructive behavior and violence and to document lawbreaking for prosecution. From all accounts, they handled this year’s State Street mayhem as well as could be expected.

City code enforcement officers have tried to crack down on violations in student-rental neighborhoods, but sanctions remain minimal. The city also is working on better data collection and sharing methods to make it easier to spot troubling trends in neighborhoods before they become problems.

Because existing student-rental properties were grandfathered in when city restrictions were tightened, it’s hard to reverse much of the damage, said Derek Paulsen, the city’s planning commissioner.

“I hate to say State Street is lost, but when it gets to that level, about the only thing you can do is call the police in,” Paulsen said. “From a planning perspective, the question may be, how do we transition that neighborhood out of what it is now to something more productive?”

UK officials have taken some positive steps, including construction of new on-campus residence halls. Last May, President Eli Capilouto appointed a work group of UK and city officials to look at student alcohol habits and policies and their effect on the campus and surrounding neighborhoods. The group completed its report in December, but UK has not yet released its findings and recommendations.

Because sports-related mayhem is largely fueled by alcohol, UK’s next steps will be crucial. But there is more the city could do as well. These safety and town-gown issues are hardly unique to Lexington; other places have dealt with them for years. Here are some things UK and the city should consider:

■ Accept the fact that college students drink. Make campus alcohol policies more lenient in ways that teach students who choose to drink and are of legal age to do it responsibly.

■ Extend the student code of conduct to off-campus behavior, as is done with UK athletes. That would require more information-sharing and coordination between UK and the city, but students might be less likely to engage in destructive behavior off-campus if they knew the consequences would be more serious. When expectations are high, most people will rise to meet them.

■ UK, city and neighborhood residents should put more emphasis on integrating students into the neighborhoods, from social events to beautification projects. If students feel as if they belong in a neighborhood, they will be less likely to destroy it.

■ City officials and police should more aggressively channel celebrations away from State Street to South Limestone or other commercial districts, which can be more effectively policed. Maybe State Street should be closed on big game nights to people who can’t prove they live there.

■ The city must get tough with problem landlords. That could include stricter rules on zoning, building permits and code requirements, with bigger penalties for violations. There also might be ways to hold landlords accountable for tenants’ destructive behavior.

“There are some good landlords out there,” Lawless said. “But there also are a lot of student landlords who couldn’t care less except for stuffing their pockets.”

■ UK and the city should buy some houses in campus neighborhoods that are near the tipping point of too many student rentals. Those houses could be rented or sold with restrictions to faculty, staff and city employees. That would help stabilize those neighborhoods, and it would provide affordable housing for lower-paid employees near their workplaces.

“We still have some very good, viable neighborhoods around the university,” Paulsen said. “We need to learn the lessons of State Street to keep them that way.”  


Creating a city where people want to move, natives want to stay

March 29, 2014

In a 21st-century economy where jobs often follow people instead of the other way around, what assets help a city prosper?

That question has led researchers, civic and business leaders to focus on things previously considered nice but not essential: arts, culture and a sense of place that make people feel engaged and invested in their community.

Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, a dance choreographer-turned-urban planning researcher, has studied one variation on this phenomenon called “creative placemaking.”

She was here Thursday to speak at the annual Lafayette Seminar in Public Issues put on by the University of Kentucky’s Gaines Center for the Humanities. It was co-sponsored by LexArts, the McBrayer law firm, the North Limestone Community Development Corp. and Commerce Lexington.

Nicodemus has researched the economic and social vibrancy created when various community sectors — government, business, non-profit organizations and citizens groups — come together to use arts and culture to strategically shape the physical and social character of a city.

That kind of development has been happening organically in many parts of Lexington in recent years. “Lexington has become a place that people are excited about,” said Steve Kay, an Urban County council member. “This conversation couldn’t have happened five years ago.”

Three recent examples were discussed at the seminar. The first is Walker Properties’ redevelopment of National Avenue, a former light industrial street east of downtown, into a mixed-use retail, restaurant and arts district.

The second was Jefferson Street, which has blossomed into a restaurant district thanks to early investments by Wine + Market, Stella’s Deli and West Sixth Brewery. The brewery’s four partners played a big role in that, because they chose to buy a 90,000-square-foot former bread factory, now called the Bread Box. One of their challenges was figuring out what to do with all of that space.

Rather than just try to rent to other commercial tenants, Ben Self said, they wanted to foster a community of people, businesses and organizations that shared their values and vision for creating a vibrant community. He added that city regulators helped the partners cut through red tape to make it all work.

In addition to the brewery and tap room, the Bread Box now houses a non-profit bike shop, a coffee roaster, artist studios, a restaurant and an urban agriculture non-profit that grows fish and greens for the restaurant. “It just felt like the right way to do it,” Self said. “It’s a development that has a heart to it.”

Later this year, the Bread Box also will house an expanded Plantory, which has co-working space for non-profit organizations. The Plantory has outgrown its space in the Community Ventures Corp. building at East Third Street and Midland Avenue.

A third example in Lexington is the North Limestone neighborhood, where young entrepreneurs have been restoring century-old homes and commercial buildings and starting new businesses.

The North Limestone Community Development Corp. recently won a $425,000 grant from Artplace, a consortium of private foundations, banks and federal agencies that is investing in creative placemaking efforts around the country.

The money will be used to begin renovation of a former factory and 40 old shotgun houses to create studios and homes for artists and craftsmen. The idea is to turn a neighborhood liability — old buildings needing rehabilitation and occupants— into a cultural and economic asset.

An important key to creative placemaking is that, in addition to economic activity, it creates a sense of place that people find attractive. It makes a city a place where natives want to stay or return, and others want to move to.

“What we’re seeing now is a tying together of the economic and the sentimental,” said Jeff Fugate, president of the Downtown Development Authority. “That’s what’s exciting.”

For creative placemaking to reach its full potential, civic and business leaders must make sure public policy supports it and strategic thinking helps small initiatives add up to something bigger.

“It’s about bringing disparate groups together to make something special happen,” LexArts President Jim Clark said. “There is no cookie-cutter way to make a creative place. But you recognize it when you see it.”


If SOAR wants to get off the ground, it needs diverse leadership

March 25, 2014

When Gov. Steve Beshear and Rep. Hal Rogers launched their Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) project last year, they promised it would be different.

They said SOAR would succeed in bringing economic vitality and diversity to long-troubled Eastern Kentucky, where so many past efforts have failed, because it would seek new ideas and leadership from a broader representation of the region’s people.

So far, it isn’t looking much different. Beshear and Rogers announced a leadership team Monday to guide the SOAR process. The list raised eyebrows not so much because of who was included as who was excluded, which was pretty much everybody outside Eastern Kentucky’s establishment power structure.

“It was a missed opportunity, for sure,” said Justin Maxson, president of the Berea-based Mountain Association for Community Development, which has been working on innovative economic development strategies in Central Appalachia since 1976.

SOAR_logoMaxson would seem a logical choice for SOAR’s 15-member executive committee or to chair one of its 10 working groups. But the only person with ties to MACED on the SOAR leadership team is Haley McCoy of Jackson Energy, an electric cooperative in Jackson County, who also happens to serve on MACED’s board.

Maxson praised McCoy’s selection, and that of SOAR’s interim executive director, Chuck Fluharty, president of the Rural Policy Research Institute. “He understands that a region needs a diverse set of economic development strategies,” Maxson said of Fluharty. “But it’s unclear what his role will be.”

If Beshear and Rogers really want new ideas, MACED would be a good place to look. “We’re not afraid to say hard things,” Maxson said. “Most of the solutions the region needs are not going to be easy.”

Excluded from SOAR’s leadership is anyone from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a citizens group with more than 8,000 members statewide. KFTC has been working effectively in coal-dominated Eastern Kentucky since 1981.

“I’m trying to be nice about this, but everything they do, it seems like it’s the same old, same old bunch,” said Carl Shoupe of Harlan, a KFTC executive committee member. “We’re a little bit too progressive for them, maybe.”

In addition to McCoy, SOAR’s executive committee, co-chaired by Beshear and Rogers, includes coal executive Jim Booth of Inez; Pikeville banker Jean Hale; Rodney Hitch of Winchester, economic development manager for East Kentucky Power; entrepreneur Jim Host of Lexington; Tom Hunter of Washington, D.C., retired executive director of the federal Appalachian Regional Commission; Ashland lawyer Kim McCann; and Bob Mitchell of Corbin, Rogers’ former chief of staff and a board member of the Center for Rural Development that Rogers created in Somerset.

Four elected officials are ex-officio members: House Speaker Greg Stumbo of Floyd County; Senate President Robert Stivers of Clay County; and county judge-executives Albey Brock of Bell County and Doc Hardin of Magoffin County.

Former Gov. Paul Patton, 76, of Pikeville, leads the Futures Forum committee “responsible for framing and advancing the long-term vision of the region.”

Among the 10 people appointed to chair working groups is Phil Osborne, a Lexington public relations executive. He chairs the Tourism, Including Natural Resources, Arts & Heritage group. Osborne is a talented marketing executive, but his appointment to head that group sends a strong message of its own.

Osborne was a key leader in Faces of Coal, the coal industry’s multimillion-dollar propaganda campaign to block federal enforcement of environmental laws related to mining. The “war on coal” divisiveness that campaign fueled in the region is one of many obstacles SOAR must overcome.

In an interview, Shoupe of KFTC read key passages from the report by SOAR’s consultant on takeaways from a public forum Dec. 9 in Pikeville, where more than 1,500 people gathered to launch the initiative:

“People appreciate the governor and congressman, but fear entrenched interests will wait them out. … Folks want the dialogue deepened and broadened. … Next generation leadership is essential. The young men and women of this region must feel a stronger sense of SOAR engagement than is currently evident, moving forward. Specific leadership attention to this dimension of governance and program design and delivery is so critical to SOAR’s mission achievement.”

“And what did they do?” Shoupe said of the leadership appointments. “They did everything backwards.”

Maxson and Shoupe said they have been assured that SOAR working groups will listen to everyone’s ideas and perspectives. That’s not good enough, and Beshear and Rogers should know it.

If they want new ideas and the broad public support and credibility SOAR needs to succeed, they must be willing to give some seats at the decision-making table to people besides Eastern Kentucky’s Old Guard. Otherwise, SOAR won’t be any different than the failed efforts of the past.

 


Update on plans for finishing Lexington trails, adding bike lanes

March 22, 2014

Spring is finally here, which means better weather for bicycling. It also means more opportunities for my fellow cyclists to ask when the Legacy and Town Branch trails will be finished, and when there will be more trails and bike lanes.

Lexington has made progress in the past five years toward building a transportation system for more than motor vehicles, but it still has a long way to go.

Keith Lovan gets those questions more often than I do. And because he is the city engineer who oversees trail and bicycle/pedestrian projects, he actually has some answers. So I called him last week for an update.

legacytrail0002

The first section of the Legacy Trail, shown here going through Coldstream Park, opened in September 2010. Photo by Tom Eblen

The main 7.5-mile section of the Legacy Trail, between Loudon Avenue and the Kentucky Horse Park, opened in September 2010. It came together quickly thanks to good public-private partnerships, federal “economic stimulus” money and the urgency of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games the next month.

Since then, officials have been working through logistics and funding to bring the trail into town and east to the corner of Midland Avenue and Third Street, where the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden will be built this summer. “It’s all coming together,” Lovan said.

He plans to ask the Urban County Council in April to approve a land swap with R.J. Corman Railroad Group that will allow Legacy Trail construction to continue along a former rail line from near Loudon Avenue to Fifth Street near Jefferson Street.

If approved, work could begin in June and finished this summer, he said. Lovan also is working with the Hope Center on right-of-way near Loudon. That also could happen this summer.

The next step will be taking the trail east along Fourth Street’s existing right-of-way. Once paperwork is finished, design work can begin on that section, based on input from a 30-member citizens advisory group.

For that section, Lovan favors a two-way bike path separated from Fourth Street traffic by short posts or a similar barrier. If all goes well, that work could all be finished by the end of this year, he said.

Meanwhile, a Scott County group is working to extend the Legacy Trail north to Georgetown. That project was started by sports agent Dick Robinson before he died suddenly in 2011. His friends and family have continued the work. “We’re making good progress,” said Robinson’s widow, Christie.

She plans to schedule a public meeting in late April to announce a preferred route. A feasibility study by CDP Engineers of Lexington will be finished in May, she said. Then it will be a matter of raising money. Keep up with the group’s progress on its Facebook page.

Bringing Town Branch Trail into downtown is a more complicated project. Two miles of the trial are finished, from Bracktown off Leestown Road to Alexandria Drive.

Funding has been secured to bring the trail to the Bluegrass Community and Technical College’s Leestown Campus at New Circle Road, but other details must be worked out before construction can begin, said Van Meter Pettit, the trail board’s president.

Pettit is lobbying the state to include the trail’s crossing of New Circle Road and connection to a nearby development’s trails as part of a project this summer to widen that section of the road and its bridges.

Pettit says his plan would be quicker, cheaper and comply with federal directives to include bicycle/pedestrian facilities in highway improvement projects. So far, the state has agreed to accommodate a future trail crossing, but says its budget won’t accommodate what Pettit wants.

The only other trail project coming this year is a half-mile one between Armstrong Mill Road and the Tates Creek schools campus, Lovan said. But several bike-lane projects will be started or finished this year.

Those include bike lanes on Southland Drive, from Nicholasville Road to Rosemont Garden; on Todd’s Road, where 1.5 miles of sidewalks and bike lanes will be added from Forest Hill Drive to Polo Club Boulevard; and Clays Mill Road, where an additional 1,500 feet of bike lanes will be added.

Three bike-lane projects are planned around the University of Kentucky campus: Rose Street between Euclid Avenue and Rose Lane; Cooper Drive between South Limestone and Sports Center Drive; and Woodland Avenue from Euclid to Hilltop Avenue.


Building movie complex in historic district would set bad precedent

March 1, 2014

House1The theater developer’s plans call for moving the John Lowman House from the West High Street bluff, where it has been since 1808. Photos by Charles Bertram.

 

The good news is that a proposed 10-theater IMAX movie and restaurant complex would be a great addition to downtown Lexington. The bad news is that the developer wants to build it in the wrong place.

Dallas-based Look Cinemas is proposing this huge complex for the southeast corner of West High Street and South Broadway. The site is within one of Lexington’s most significant historic districts, which homeowners have painstakingly restored after decades of demolition, abuse and neglect.

If city officials approve Look’s plan without substantial changes, it could undo a half-century of preservation efforts and undermine legal protections for all 15 Lexington historic districts.

Look has yet to make a formal application to the city, but it has been working on the project for a year. It has met with the South Hill neighborhood and others to try to address concerns and minimize the impact on adjacent homes.

The complex is well-designed, but it is too massive for that location. It fills virtually the entire one-acre site and rises as high as 70 feet above street level. Plans would require moving a 206-year-old house that is one of the last remaining on the High Street bluff.

At an informal design review last Wednesday, the three architects and one engineer who serve on the city’s Board of Architectural Review made it clear that this project, as now envisioned, meets none of the legal guidelines for construction in a Lexington historic district.

Board members all but rejected the developer’s plan to move the 1808 John Lowman House a half-mile away to the Western Suburb historic district. They also expressed skepticism about moving it within South Hill to one of two parking lots across from Dudley Square at Mill and Maxwell streets.

Board members noted that much of the house’s historic significance has to do with its location on High Street. They also expressed concern about the movie complex’s proximity to the 1895 George Lancaster House on South Broadway. Both houses are some of the last examples of the 19th century mansions that once lined both streets in that neighborhood.

Board member Graham Pohl, an architect, said moving the Lowman House off High Street is a “non-starter,” and he warned that this entire plan has serious implications beyond South Hill. “It sets a terrible precedent for every historic district in town,” he said.

Indeed, this would be the first case of moving a house in a historic district since the early 1980s, when legal protections were more lax. A few houses were moved before city historic districts were created, to keep them from being demolished. They include the circa 1784 Adam Rankin House, Lexington’s oldest house, which was moved off High Street to South Mill Street, directly behind where Look Cinemas now wants to build.

“This area has been gnawed on since the ’60s,” said board member Sarah Tate, an architect. “I think there’s a time when you just have to say, ‘Stop. This neighborhood can’t be infringed on anymore.’”

Here’s what Tate was referring to: When Rupp Arena and Lexington Center were built 40 years ago, most of the historic South Hill neighborhood was demolished to create a massive parking that lot city officials now want to redevelop. The fraction of the neighborhood that remained was given city historic district protection.

Most of those old buildings have since been restored into valuable, owner-occupied homes and condos. Many South Hill structures date from the early 1800s and are architecturally significant. If this incursion is allowed, what will be next?

The Board of Architectural Review is unlikely to approve Look’s plan unless the 1808 house stays and the cinema complex gets smaller. But the board could be overruled by the Planning Commission, which is more susceptible to economic and political pressures. That would be a tragedy.

The good news is that there is a much better site for this complex: across South Broadway on the huge city-owned parking lot where the rest of the South Hill neighborhood once stood.

Look Cinemas’ complex is just the kind of private development Mayor Jim Gray wants and needs on that lot to help pay for the proposed $328 million renovation of Rupp Arena and Lexington Center.

Look officials told the board they prefer their site, in part because the Rupp redevelopment process is still in its early stages. They said they can’t wait. Developers always say they can’t wait.

Here is what needs to happen: City officials must quickly figure out how to speed up their process and relocate Look Cinemas to the Rupp lot or some other downtown site. What they cannot do is further damage South Hill and risk setting a precedent that could jeopardize the investments made in all Lexington historic districts.

Yes, downtown needs new development like Look Cinemas. But Lexington will never “save” downtown by continuing to destroy the irreplaceable historic fabric that makes it unique.  

lotDevelopers hope to build an IMAX theater in this block bounded by West High Street at the bottom, South Mill Street on the left, and South Broadway on the right. 


1910 Coal & Feed Co. building redone as corporate headquarters

February 24, 2014

140218BCWood0016Brian C. Wood, founder and CEO of BC Wood Properties, stands in the lobby of the company’s headquarters as Jeannette Crank works behind the front desk and a meeting is conducted in a second-floor conference room. Wood said the renovated circa 1910 Elmendorf Coal & Feed Co. building has been a perfect space for the business. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

A couple of years ago, Brian Wood, the founder and CEO of BC Wood Properties, took the company’s president, King Offutt, down West Fourth Street to show him where Transylvania University, his alma mater, was building new athletic fields.

That part of town was beginning to see dramatic change, including conversion of the huge Eastern State Hospital property into a new campus for Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

While driving around, they turned down Henry Street, a byway that connects to West Third Street. It runs along railroad tracks and old grain elevators near Newtown Pike.

Then they saw it: a hulk of a brick building. It had been built in 1910 by the legendary millionaire horseman James Ben Ali Haggin to house his Elmendorf Coal & Feed Co. Since then, though, it had suffered at least two fires and years of vacancy.

“We had been looking for a building for a couple of years” to house the growing company’s headquarters, Offutt said. “We wanted a building with character.”

140218BCWood0032At the time, the company worked out of Eastland Shopping Center, one of more than 30 retail properties with 5.5 million square feet of space that BC Wood Properties now owns and manages in eight states.

“It was love at first sight,” Wood said of the three-story building. “A diamond in the rough.”

After they looked around the outside and in a few windows, Offutt reached for his cellphone and called the owner. “We want to buy your building,” he said.

Considerable work and a couple of million dollars later, BC Wood Properties has one of the coolest office spaces in Lexington: foot-thick, exposed brick walls; warm wood everywhere, including massive hewn posts and beams; big windows that fill the space with natural light.

The company’s in-house construction experts did most of the renovation. Local craftsmen made long trestle tables for shared conference space between offices and custom metal signs.

140218BCWood0025A huge wooden sliding door was preserved on one wall. Casual seating around the building includes old wooden pews bought on eBay from a Wisconsin church. The façade along Henry Street preserves the painted sign for another long-ago tenant, Central Kentucky Blue Grass Seed Co.

“It works really well,” Offutt said of the building. “It’s certainly improved morale among our employees. They love the building and coming to work in it.”

The building had a modern metal addition on the back, which Wood turned into an employee gym and basketball court. The company pays for a fitness trainer to come in three times a week to work with employees, and the benefit has proven popular, he said.

Preserving the building’s industrial character was their approach to the renovation, Wood said.

“We wanted to keep the essential historical nature, and not try to turn it into something it’s not,” Wood said, noting that is a key principle of the company itself.

Wood started BC Wood Properties 20 years ago and has focused on a specific niche: modest shopping centers in high-traffic locations where middle-class people shop regularly for things they need to live. He said the strategy has worked well: its properties remained more than 90 percent leased throughout the economic slump.

It also helps that the company handles all management, construction and maintenance in-house, rather than outsourcing it, to ensure that properties stay in good shape. That requires a strong team, Wood said, which includes a full-time staff of 18 in Lexington and another 14 employees elsewhere.

Last year, the company raised a $43 million private equity fund for acquisitions, about one-third of it from local investors. That allowed it to purchase 11 shopping centers in five states last year, Wood said.

Wood and Offutt are both 41-year-old Lexington natives, and they said they enjoy being part of the revitalization of Lexington’s northwest end.

“This building reflects who we are,” Wood said. “We didn’t want a high-rise presence. We enjoy being on Henry Street beside grain bins and Blue Stallion Brewery. This is us.”

Added Offutt: “This area is going to change so much in the next five years, it’s going to be fun to watch.”

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Freed slave left his mark on Lexington; his son went even further

February 15, 2014

140212Tandys0002Henry Tandy and Albert Byrd, two black bricklayers in Lexington during the late 1800s and early 1900s, formed a partnership that did the brick work on many notable local buildings. Tandy & Byrd’s biggest job was the Fayette County Courthouse. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

 

Henry A. Tandy was one of many newly freed slaves who moved to Lexington at the end of the Civil War. He would leave marks on this city that are still visible, and his son would do the same in New York.

Tandy was born in Kentucky, but it isn’t known exactly when or where. He came to Lexington in 1865 at about age 15 and made a name for himself as a craftsman, business executive and entrepreneur.

After two years as a photographer’s assistant, Tandy went to work in 1867 as a laborer for G.D. Wilgus, one of Lexington’s largest building contractors. Within a few years he was a skilled bricklayer and a foreman, according to architectural historian Rebecca Lawin McCarley, who researched his life and wrote about it in 2006 for the journal Kentucky Places & Spaces.

HenryTandy

Henry A. Tandy

Tandy saved money and, after marrying Emma Brice in 1874, bought his first real estate from George Kinkead, an anti-slavery lawyer whose mansion is now the Living Arts & Science Center. Tandy built the only two-story brick house in Kinkeadtown, a black settlement now part of the East End.

By the time their son, Vertner, was born in 1885, the Tandys had sold their home in Kinkeadtown for a profit and moved in with her parents at 642 West Main Street. Tandy is thought to have built the brick house there, and he lived in it for the rest of his life.

In the 1880s, Tandy began buying investment lots around town. He built and rented some of the best houses in Lexington’s “black” neighborhoods at the time.

Among the Wilgus projects that Tandy worked on were the Opera House, St. Paul Catholic Church and First Presbyterian Church. When Wilgus’ health deteriorated in the 1880s, Tandy took over many of his duties. It was then unheard of for a black man to run a white man’s business.

When Wilgus died in 1893, Tandy and another black bricklayer, Albert Byrd, formed their own company, Tandy & Byrd. It became one of Lexington’s largest brick contractors, with as many as 50 workers.

Tandy & Byrd’s biggest project was the old Fayette County Court House. Others that remain standing include the First National Bank building on Short Street, Miller Hall at the University of Kentucky and the Merrick Lodge Building, where The Jax restaurant is now at Short and Limestone streets.

Tandy & Byrd also built the annex for the Protestant Infirmary at East Short Street and Elm Tree Lane. The infirmary was the forerunner of Good Samaritan Hospital. Until recently, the annex housed Hurst Office Furniture.

Tandy & Byrd constructed the Ades Dry Goods building on East Main Street, which now houses Thomas & King’s offices and Portofino restaurant. The partners did a lot of brick work for Combs Lumber Co., which built many turn-of-the-century Lexington homes (including mine).

Tandy was one of 49 people profiled in W.D. Johnson’s 1897 book, Biographical Sketches of Prominent Negro Men and Women of Kentucky.

“Opportunity came to him, and he seized it,” Johnson wrote of Tandy. “Through his indefatigable efforts a large force of Negro laborers have found steady employment, and thereby obtained comfortable homes for their families.”

Tandy was prominent in the black community, with leadership roles in the “colored” YMCA, the A.M.E. Church, black fraternal organizations and the Colored Fair Association, which organized Kentucky’s largest annual exposition for blacks. He was active in the National Negro Business League and spoke at its national convention in 1902.

Byrd died in 1909, and Tandy retired in 1911 after finishing Roark and Sullivan halls at Eastern Kentucky University. But he continued dabbling in real estate and got into the livery and undertaking business. Tandy died in 1918, and he has one of the biggest monuments at Cove Haven Cemetery.

Although Tandy got little formal education, he made sure his son did.

Vertner Woodson Tandy

Vertner Woodson Tandy

Vertner Woodson Tandy studied under Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He finished his studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where he was one of seven founders of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first black college fraternity. He was the first black to pass the military commissioning exam, and he eventually became a major in the New York National Guard.

Tandy would become New York’s first black registered architect, and the first black member of the American Institute of Architects. Among many buildings he designed was St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Harlem and two mansions for America’s first black woman millionaire, the hair-care products pioneer Madam C.J. Walker.

The Villa Lewaro mansion Tandy designed for Walker in exclusive Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y., was restored in the 1990s by Harold Doley, the first black to buy an individual seat on the New York Stock Exchange.

Tandy designed one building in Lexington that still stands: Webster Hall, which housed teachers at Chandler Normal School for blacks on Georgetown Street, which he had attended.

Vertner Tandy died in 1949 at age 64. A state historical marker honoring him stands beside the family home on West Main Street, which is now used for offices.

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UK shouldn’t destroy unique teaching garden with 350 species

February 11, 2014

140210MathewsGarden0009AJames Krupa, a UK biology professor, stands in the dormant, snow-covered Mathews Garden beside the now-vacant Mathews house. The garden contains about 350 species of native plants, including many rare ones. Below, a rare American elm tree stands in the garden near the College of Law building. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Mathews Garden at the University of Kentucky doesn’t look like much in its winter dormancy, covered with snow.

Dr. James Krupa, a biology professor, says UK administrators have long complained that the garden doesn’t look like much any time of the year. But that’s not the point.

The century-old garden may be the most biologically diverse half-acre in Kentucky, Krupa said, with about 350 species of mostly native plants and trees. The garden provides a unique teaching facility, allowing students to see and compare many unusual plants that rarely grow together.

But like some of its plant species, Mathews Garden is endangered. A proposed renovation of UK’s College of Law building would destroy this unique garden, as well as two adjacent houses, built in 1900 and 1920.

When the $65 million law school renovation was announced in 2012, administrators said the project would claim both houses and the garden. Krupa said he was told recently that the garden is doomed.

But UK spokesman Jay Blanton said no decision about the fate of the garden or houses has been made and won’t be made until after state and private funding are secured for the much-needed renovation. “Those decisions would be part of the design process,” he said.

140210MathewsGarden0004AWhen the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation last month released its annual list of Central Kentucky’s most-endangered historic places, every one was owned by UK. Mathews Garden and the two adjacent houses were on the list for the second straight year. The group also complained that UK had demolished a circa 1800 house at Spindletop Farm without notice or warning.

UK trustees have approved plans to demolish several buildings designed between the 1940s and 1960s by noted architect Ernst Johnson, as well as a circa 1880 Italianate mansion, to make way for new dormitories that will be built and leased by a private contractor.

Architects have complained about the loss of the “architecturally significant” buildings, as well as poor design and construction quality of the new dormitories.

Clarence Mathews, a UK professor of botany and horticulture, created the garden in his back yard after he built a frame house at the edge of campus in 1900. Mathews’ daughter, Ruth, transferred the property to UK in 1968, but continued to live there. She died in 1986.

The Mathews house and the Ligon house next door have been used for UK offices. But the Mathews house is now vacant and showing signs of exterior decay from lack of maintenance.

Krupa said he volunteered to restore the garden in 2000. He said he began by removing 20 truckloads of honeysuckle and other invasive species.

Over the years, Krupa said he has spent countless hours and more than $41,000 in UK funds and his own money improving and maintaining the garden, which he said is used by classes with 1,500 students each year. He has added plants, trails, benches and plant identification markers.

Krupa said the garden is a living botany textbook, with every Kentucky variety of dogwood, azalea, hydrangea and viburnum and other plants. It has dozens of native wildflowers and several rare trees, including roundleaf birch, Georgia oak and striped maple.

The garden has a rare reproducing American elm tree. More than 75 percent of the once-ubiquitous American elms were lost to Dutch elm disease in the mid-20th century. Krupa thinks this may be the last one on campus.

“It’s really amazing that so many species are here in this one place,” Krupa said.

But Blanton said: “The question now is should a facility of dense undergrowth be in the center of campus or more appropriately relocated to a research tract on farms owned by the university?”

Krupa said the garden could not be relocated successfully. “Half of the biological diversity is in the soil,” he said.

Rather than expand sideways and take the garden and old houses, Krupa suggests that the law school expand back, which would displace a parking lot and a small, non-descript 1950s building.

“Administrators have always called this a weed patch,” Krupa said of Mathews Garden. “But it’s only a weed patch if you’re ignorant. I’m up against ignorance, arrogance and a lot of faculty that are afraid to take on the administration.”

For an institution of higher learning that trains many of Kentucky’s architects and historic preservation specialists, UK administrators are showing little regard for either discipline. Let’s hope they don’t flunk botany, too.

 

140210MathewsGarden0026A

The entrance to Mathews Garden. The century-old home and garden were built by Clarence Mathews, a UK botany and horticulture professor.

 


Lexington’s Fayette Cigar Store a downtown retail survivor

February 10, 2014

140206FayetteCigar0060

Fayette Cigar Store has been at 137 E. Main St. since Dale Ferguson bought the building in 1977. He resisted attempts by the city to buy the building when it purchased other property on the block, which now includes the Fayette County Court Houses, left, and the Downtown Arts Center, right. Below, Ferguson and a daughter, Dee Bright. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

With all of the talk about the need to attract retailers back to downtown Lexington, I thought it would be good to talk with one who never left.

Dale Ferguson, 75, and his family have been selling newspapers, magazines, tobacco products and sundries downtown since 1928.

That was the year his father, H.C. Ferguson, opened a newsstand on Mill Street. Soon after World War II started, he bought Fayette Cigar Store at 151 West Main Street “when the owner got drafted,” Ferguson said.

When that building was scheduled for a renovation that would have forced him to close for several months, Dale Ferguson bought a bigger building at 137 East Main in 1977 and moved the business. Fayette Cigar Store has been there ever since, despite the best efforts of developers and city officials to buy his property.

Surrounding buildings were bought in the 1980s for a proposed World Trade Center and cultural complex. Eventually, the new Fayette County Court House complex was built on his west side and the Downtown Arts Center on his east side.

At one point, Ferguson said, he agreed to city requests to swap his building for a similar one in the next block, but financial terms couldn’t be reached with its owner. So Ferguson stayed put, through thick and thin, trying to make a living on his 32-foot-long slice of Main Street.

140206FayetteCigar0023Ferguson’s three-story building dates from 1864, with central and rear sections added in the early 1900s. Before he bought the building, bookies operated in the upper floors, which was connected to an adjacent building by a hole in the wall. Now, the upper floors are accessed by an antique elevator.

Modern fire codes would keep Ferguson from using the upper floors for anything but storage and an office unless he could figure out a way to build a staircase.

“That stops a lot of downtown development,” he said, “A lot of these old buildings don’t have fire escapes.”

Ferguson said making Main Street one-way in 1971 hurt business, as did eliminating more and more street parking over the years.

“It was a mistake to do it,” he said of the one-way conversion, but added that he isn’t convinced making Main Street two-way again would do much good. “It’s too late.”

A bigger improvement, he said, would be adding more street parking, preferably angled or perpendicular spaces that would be easier for people to use and accommodate more cars.

During the last streetscape renovation in 2010, Ferguson lost a loading zone in front of his store, which hurt business.

“People would pull up, run in and buy a $200 box of cigars, and be gone in a few minutes,” he said. “They can’t do that anymore.”

But the biggest obstacle Ferguson sees to getting more retailers back in downtown Lexington is high per-square-foot rents.

“If I didn’t own my building, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I blame a lot of it on the Webbs, who overpaid for property and then had to get a return on their investment.” But the biggest problem, Ferguson said, is that too few people work downtown — he suspects less than a fifth as many as did two or three decades ago. The addition of downtown condos over the past decade hasn’t made much difference, he said. But he thinks more big apartment complexes like Park Plaza would help.

Ferguson now runs Fayette Cigar Store seven days a week with help from one of his four daughters, Dee Bright. Thanks to a resurgence in cigar smoking, customers come to the store for its extensive selection of high-end smokes, which are kept in a former bank vault in back. Pipe smoking also is on the rebound as cigarettes decline.

Cigars and fine pipe tobacco are the store’s biggest profit centers. But Ferguson says he doesn’t know what the future holds, noting that all of his main wares — tobacco, magazines, newspapers and greeting cards — have been in decline for years.

Ferguson has tried to fight back by adding niche products such as basic drugstore items and local honey. Still, business is tough.

“I have a pretty loyal customer base,” he said. “Thank God for that.”

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