Owners put Victorian Square up for sale; what's next for downtown block?

bfortune@herald-leader.comJanuary 22, 2012 

Victorian Square in the heart of downtown Lexington is for sale, raising the possibility of changes in the handsome block of restored 19th-century buildings.

Whether the downtown mall remains similar to what it is now — a mix of retail, bars, office space and restaurants — or takes on a new identity, it is a great re-use opportunity, said Gary Bates, design-team leader from the Norway-based firm Space Group, hired to develop a master plan for the proposed Arena, Arts and Entertainment District.

"It's a fantastic piece of architecture. And it has incredible adaptive re-use potential because of its size and location in the heart of downtown," Bates said Thursday in a telephone conversation from Oslo.

New interest has focused on Victorian Square since its owners put the historic property on the market for $7.25 million.

Victorian Square is not technically in the proposed 46-acre Arts and Entertainment District that Bates was hired to study. But it sits prominently across Main Street from Rupp Arena, Lexington Center and Triangle Park.

With more than 226,000 square feet of space, "We can't ignore such an obvious, key piece of downtown. We need to rethink Victorian Square," Bates said.

One possible use could be as an "accelerator" for arts groups, he said. "The arts are fragmented in Lexington, an abundance of small arts groups that are discombobulated and disassociated and not really pooling their resources."

"What about creating a meeting place where performing or visual arts could come together, support each other, get an energy going that would propel all of them into a stronger position in the community?"

The building could be used in a similar way to expand and emphasize start-up businesses, he said.

Some tenants said last week they were not overly concerned about a possible new owner, while others fretted.

Tony Atwood, manager of DeSha's restaurant, the first tenant in Victorian Square, said he was not stressing about a change in ownership. "I'm sure leases will be honored. I'm not too worried," he said, adding, "We love it here. It's a great location." DeSha's is at the corner of Main and Broadway.

Jeff Miller, owner of Howard & Miller men's clothing store, which moved to Victorian Square in 1986, said "Unless somebody comes in with a grandiose plan and wants to tear the whole building down and put a parking structure up, I'm not too worried."

Victorian Square is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which recognizes the historic and architectural significance of the buildings, but does not give protection against demolition.

But in Artists' Attic, where 22 artists maintain working studios and an art gallery, several artists were worried. The news "distressed us all," said artist Lee Sturtevant. "We're all sick about it. We love the facility so much."

Artist Ann Rutherford Pass said, "We don't think we will ever find space like this again where you can have 20 or more artists together. A lot goes on here — workshops, seminars, demonstrations, visiting artists. We're just hoping for the best." Artists' Attic has been in Victorian Square since 1988.

Victorian Square owners Alex Campbell and Bill Young Jr. each issued statements last week about why they wanted to sell. Both said the new focus on downtown influenced their decision.

Campbell said he became interested in the restoration of Victorian Square after an observation years ago by Bob Zion, the Triangle Park architect, about the importance to the park and downtown of preserving the buildings. Campbell is a founder of Triangle Park Foundation, which built Triangle Park.

"It was never my intent to operate Victorian Square long after its renovation. With everything going on downtown today, now would seem to be a good time to consider a sale as part of my overall estate planning," Campbell said.

Young's father, the late W.T. Young, was a long-time owner of the property. Young said his father viewed preservation of the "rundown and unsightly buildings as a civic effort needed to enhance the appeal of downtown. With the recent increase in economic activity in downtown ... I feel now is a good time to consider a sale."

In 1985, the 16 buildings were brought together under one roof with retail, restaurants and office space by a group of investors that included banker Elmer T. Whitaker, Xalapa Farm owner Lillie Webb and developers Don and Dudley Webb.

In 1994, when several of the investors became discouraged about the future of the mall, Campbell and Young took over the project.

Tenants include several bars, restaurants, men and women's clothing stores, a shoe store, art gallery, gift shop, a store stocked with University of Kentucky items, the Explorium and Artists' Attic.

Lexington Children's Theatre purchased its building and renovated it in 1997. "We are not a tenant of Victorian Square and therefore are not part of the building that is up for sale," said managing director Lesley Farmer.

In 2008, as nightlife picked up in other parts of downtown, bars and nightclubs were added to Victorian Square. About that time, Victorian Square successfully lobbied the state to get the building designated an Entertainment Destination Center that allows bar patrons to buy alcohol and walk through the commons area with an open container, socializing or listening to bands.

"It promotes a festival-type atmosphere," said attorney Stephen Amato, who specializes in alcoholic beverage regulations.

However, the owners never followed through to actually apply for a EDC license.

Reach Beverly Fortune at (859) 231-3251 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3251

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