UK to demolish two historic houses for renovation of law school

lblackford@herald-leader.comAugust 28, 2012 

The University of Kentucky has abandoned a plan to build a new College of Law on Scott Street because of financial concerns and intends to renovate the existing law school on South Limestone.

The latest plan includes the demolition of two historic houses that sit next to the law school on South Limestone, a proposal the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation called "unconscionable."

Bob Wiseman, UK's vice president of facilities, said in an Aug. 1 letter to the Blue Grass Trust that funding challenges had scuttled the original plan.

"The high cost of a new replacement law school previously discussed for Scott Street had simply reached a point of being financially non-attainable," Wiseman wrote. "At issue is tens of millions of dollars in cost savings by doing a renovation and expansion of the law building."

Wiseman said Tuesday that a renovation project would probably cost $60 to $65 million, compared to $90 million for the Scott Street project.

"If we're talking about saving $30 million, those two houses will not stand in the way," he said. "We can't afford it."

Wiseman said Law Dean David Brennen and other officials were talking to prominent alumni and key donors about the new plan, but nothing official had been released, nor was there a timetable.

Brennen did not respond to calls Tuesday seeking comment, but sent an email to alumni on Tuesday saying that the renovation was one option, but "no final decision has been made at this time."

Continued decreases in all state funding means UK must consider the best way to build new facilities using its own money, Wiseman said. The university recently entered into an agreement with a private developer to build $500 million in new on-campus residence halls.

The chairwoman of the alumni association board, Christy Lewis, was not available for comment Tuesday.

Wiseman wrote to the Blue Grass Trust in response to a query sent by the group's president, Linda Carroll, to UK President Eli Capilouto about the fates of 658 and 660 South Limestone, respectively the Ligon House and the Mathews House and botanic garden.

"At a time when the University has agreed to positively address the issue of its past land-use practices which have contributed to the destruction of charming older neighborhoods around the campus, it is unconscionable for its leadership to consider the demolition of these buildings," Carroll wrote.

Carroll also wrote that the Mathews House at 660 South Limestone was built in 1908 by UK's first dean of agriculture, Clarence Wentworth Mathews, who established the garden now on the property.

The building now houses the Center for Academic Resources and Enrichment Services in the Office of Institutional Diversity.

The Ligon House at 658 South Limestone houses the Donovon Scholars program. It was built in the 1920s in the Arts and Crafts style.

Neither house is protected from demolition by zoning laws or city ordinances.

John Rhorer, chairman of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Historic Preservation Commission, also wrote to Capilouto about the houses.

"The University is the proverbial 300-pound gorilla that can do pretty much whatever it wants to do with these properties," Rhorer wrote in an Aug. 14 letter.

In an interview Tuesday, Rhorer said he wanted to give UK a chance to rethink its position.

"Before they do anything further, we want them to really understand what those properties mean and their relationship to the university and the town," he said.

Wiseman, however, said land at UK is increasingly precious, and residential spaces don't work for modern teaching.

"This is all part of that master planning," he said. "How do you build on campus without creating the need to expand our campus boundaries?"

UK's master planning process also has come under fire from the Blue Grass Trust, which donated $1,000 to hire urban planner Omar Blaik to look at the interplay between UK and the city. UK recently hired the Boston firm Sasaki and Associates to draw up its master plan, and UK will not use Blaik in any capacity.

"I'm mad that the mighty powerful University of Kentucky used its leverage to get the little old Blue Grass Trust to give money for Blaik's study, and they're going to throw the whole thing away and start over again," Carroll said.

Blaik's study found that UK's policies on alcohol and housing had contributed to decay in many of its surrounding neighborhoods.

Wiseman said previously that UK had tried to get some involvement from Blaik, but they could not come to terms.

Linda B. Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.

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