Off-campus research

Todd tours UK neighborhoods

ralessi@herald-leader.comOctober 17, 2009 

University of Kentucky President Lee T. Todd Jr. toured several neighborhoods surrounding the campus on Friday to see how the conversion of single-family homes into much larger student rental houses is changing the complexion of those areas.

Todd and several UK officials, including Dean of Students Victor Hazard, joined neighborhood association presidents and two Urban County Council members on the fact-finding trip — half by van and half on foot — at the request of Councilwoman Linda Gorton.

The group took stock of the many rental homes sprouting large, vinyl-sided additions to accommodate more student tenants in the Columbia Heights neighborhood southeast of campus and in the Elizabeth Street corridor southwest of UK.

"I'm here to learn something about the neighborhoods, and I have," Todd said after finishing a walk on Westwood Court. "I've seen a lot of this, and I think it's time we have conversations going."

Neighborhood leaders said they hope those talks will accelerate now that the Urban County Council has approved a six-month moratorium on the building of additions that are larger than 25 percent of the existing structures. The moratorium, approved Thursday, affects only the areas of Lexington closest to UK.

"At least we can take a break and figure out what can be done to alleviate the vinyl-box addition problem," Molly Davis, president of the Elizabeth Street Neighborhood Association, told Todd.

During the tour, Todd asked Davis several questions about the new rental houses springing up on Westwood Court. At one of the court's 26 houses, the back yard was paved over recently to create more parking. And neighbors have dubbed 219 Westwood Court a "satellite fraternity house" because it is rented by eight to 10 members of the same fraternity.

"Overnight, it changed the character of the neighborhood," said Steve Olshewsky, a retired accounting professor who lives across from that newly enlarged house.

Neighbors have noticed an increase in trash and traffic and a scarcity of on-street parking.

"This is a clash of lifestyles," said Olshewky, 50, who taught at the University of Texas-Austin and Temple University. "I have a sedate lifestyle because I'm older. They are more active."

Neighbors are handling the emergence of student rental homes differently. At least one Westwood Court house is for sale. Other nearby residents, such as Davis, have aggressively urged UK and city leaders to take action, not to stop students from moving into the neighborhood but to better control the sudden spike in density.

Davis praised Todd for taking the 90-minute tour.

"I think he's just listening and cogitating," Davis said.

Councilwoman Diane Lawless said Todd "seemed genuinely concerned for safety of students and the impact these structures are having."

Mayor Jim Newberry announced that city inspectors would step up reviews of rental homes to make sure they are up to fire codes.

Todd, who was on a tight schedule, paused only briefly to answer questions.

Todd said he expects more people from all sides — the city, the university, students and neighbors — to get involved in talks about how to better regulate growth of housing for students.

Whether those talks take place primarily through the Town-Gown Commission, which was set up by city and UK leaders, or through other forums, "we'll be a part of all of them," Todd pledged.

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