Tom Eblen: After the games, nation got an unflattering look at UK, Lexington

Herald-Leader columnistApril 7, 2012 

When the University of Kentucky beat Louisville and Kansas to win the NCAA championship last week, the media spotlight focused on more than the basketball team's talent and Kentucky fans' pride.

The nation got a vivid look at how far Lexington and UK still have to go in overcoming decades of neglect in some neighborhoods surrounding campus.

What should have been celebrations turned into near riots in the Elizabeth Street neighborhood off South Limestone. There were dozens of injuries and arrests as fires were set and vehicles damaged amid a hail of flying beer bottles.

Things could have been much worse, had not Lexington police and firefighters handled the situation with such skill and professionalism. And after the first and worst night of trouble, new UK President Eli Capilouto issued a stern statement. He urged students to "not be stupid," and he warned that illegal behavior would result in criminal prosecution and university sanctions.

Some of the troublemakers weren't UK students or even Lexington residents. Still, the national reputations of both UK and Lexington were tarnished. Will parents of prospective students wonder if UK is a safe environment for their children? Will people interested in moving their families or companies to Lexington wonder about the city's quality of life?

Last week's mayhem was a wake-up call to both UK and Lexington officials. They must redouble their efforts to clean up neighborhoods around campus that have been allowed to become little more than student-rental slums.

The problems began in the 1970s, when UK dormitory construction and maintenance began falling behind enrollment growth. About the same time, longtime residents of some nearby neighborhoods built between the early 1800s and early 1900s began dying off or moving away.

Many homes were sold to the university for campus expansion. Others were sold to student-rental entrepreneurs, who either cut up old homes into rental rooms or knocked them down to build boxy apartment complexes.

Once-lovely neighborhoods where many faculty and staff used to live fell into disrepair, as fewer and fewer homes were occupied by their owners. UK's hands-off attitude reached its zenith in 1998 when officials banned alcohol from campus, which pushed student parties into the surrounding neighborhoods.

Landlords used zoning loopholes to build large dorm-like additions to bungalows and pave over yards, overwhelming those areas with people, cars, garbage and storm-water runoff. Those neighborhoods were not designed for such density.

Diane Lawless, the Urban County Council member who represents those neighborhoods, said the problems have been made worse by spot rezoning and years of building inspection that was "way beyond lax."

City officials and neighborhood leaders have spent more than a decade trying to catch up to the problem. Studies by the Town-Gown Commission and Student Housing Task Force helped lead to new laws limiting off-campus parties, tightening zoning regulations and halting construction of the "vinyl box" additions. Mayor Jim Newberry's administration launched a crackdown on code violations.

Still, about 75 percent of UK's 28,000 students now live off-campus. That compares with only 25 percent of the 1,100 students at Transylvania University, where surrounding neighborhoods have experienced few student-rental problems.

Since Capilouto took office last June, he has made housing and neighborhood issues a priority. UK has launched an ambitious partnership with a private company to replace 6,000 aging dormitory beds and build 3,000 more.

"UK has been working much closer with us on neighborhood issues," said Derek Paulsen, the city's new planning commissioner. "But we're going to be playing catch-up with this legacy for awhile."

Paulsen's appointment is another positive sign. For the first time, all city planning, zoning and building regulation will be under one department. Paulsen, an academic, has written several books about designing socially sustainable communities that deter crime.

New apartment complexes west of campus, built on sites once occupied by tobacco warehouses, have taken some of the pressure off older neighborhoods. But those developments bear watching, too. Any area dominated by transient rental property will be less stable than one that includes a good mix of owner-occupied housing.

The upcoming move of the Bluegrass Community and Technical College to the former Eastern State Hospital site could take pressure off the Elizabeth Street neighborhood. But without good planning, zoning, building inspection and code enforcement, Lexington risks the same pattern being repeated in older Northside neighborhoods.

In addition to better planning and zoning and more aggressive enforcement, city officials must clean up the damaged neighborhoods around UK. That will include significant investment in long-ignored infrastructure and more support for owner-occupied homes.

"It's an economic development issue, because this is what visitors see when they see Lexington," Lawless said. "What's good for these neighborhoods and downtown is good for Lexington and the university."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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