Tom Eblen: Acres of prime land are full of potential

Await right developer

Herald-Leader columnistNovember 9, 2009 

It's astounding when you think about it: Lexington Mall has been dead or dying since before this year's high school graduates were born.

It's even more astounding when you realize that the 30-acre site could be one of the hottest pieces of real estate in Lexington if it were redeveloped by someone able to think outside the big box.

Built in the 1970s, when malls were all the rage and suburban sprawl was in full bloom, Lexington Mall began declining in the early 1990s. Tenants moved out, complaining that Maryland-based Saul Centers wasn't maintaining the place.

The last lonely tenant moved out in 2005, when Dillard's closed its store. Since then, Lexington Mall's doors have been boarded up and fenced off and its vast blacktop parking lot has cracked and crumbled.

City officials have been wringing their hands over Lexington Mall for years. Developers have tried unsuccessfully to buy it. Every few years, Saul breaks its silence and says the mall will be redeveloped. Then nothing happens.

Lexington Mall is out of sight and out of mind for its absentee landlord. But it has been much on the minds of local developers and landscape architects. Here's why: The mall sits on a huge piece of prime land inside New Circle Road, situated between the city's Idle Hour Park and the reservoir.

"It's one of the few sites in Lexington with a water view," said Brian Lee, a University of Kentucky landscape architecture professor whose students have studied the site for academic exercises in urban redevelopment.

The property fronts both New Circle and Richmond roads, and it is just 3 miles from downtown by way of the city's most beautiful, upscale thoroughfare. There are schools, a fire station and shopping nearby.

Developers I talked with agreed that the site shouldn't be another mall or Hamburg-style big-box retail center.

With a zoning change, they said, the site would be ideal for a "new urban" mixed-use village of one- to five-story buildings with shops, offices, condos and apartments, all situated on traditional streets and buffered by green space. Businesses on the mall's edge — Home Depot, Applebee's and Perkins restaurant, and Central Bank — could easily be worked into a new design plan.

"It seems like the idea of a cluster of smaller retail shops around a common green and serving as a village center with perhaps loft residential or office might have some merit," said Morgan McIlwain, a landscape architect with M2D Design Group. The group's recent work includes the site plan for the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus on the Eastern State Hospital site.

"It goes nicely with this notion of infill," McIlwain added. "We could get higher density and not sprawl so much."

Tom Low, a principal in the Charlotte, N.C., firm DPZ Architects and Town Planners — the firm most famous for designing a similar development in Seaside, Fla. — sent me an interesting diagram of examples for converting a site similar to Lexington Mall into a village-style development.

One developer cited the example also of Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio. I've also seen such projects in Charlotte, N.C., and Williamsburg, Va. When the economy and lending environment improves, something like that could make sense.

First, though, executives at Saul Centers need to find a map and remember where Lexington is. Then they need to find a calendar and realize it's 2009, not 1990.

Then, maybe, they will partner with or sell Lexington Mall to a developer with the vision to turn one of this city's most prominent examples of urban decay into a vibrant piece of the urban landscape.

Reach Tom Eblen at (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415, or at teblen@herald-leader.com. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.

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