The East End deserves Lexington's best effort

September 1, 2013 

First District council member Chris Ford, pictured here at the Charles Young Center, represents the East End.

PABLO ALCALA — Lexington Herald-Leader Buy Photo

The successful redevelopment of Lexington's East End neighborhood is as essential to the ongoing expansion of downtown as are the capital projects proposed for Main and Vine streets.

The re-emergence of the Charles Young Community Center on East Third Street signifies the reclamation of East End history important to African-Americans throughout Lexington. The battle to prevent the center from falling victim to urban revitalization (as originally recommended by proposed demolition a decade earlier) is further evidence that community stakeholder engagement is vitally important to any redevelopment process.

In the past decade, other formative steps have also been taken to bring long-desired, publicly financed investments to the East End. I applaud these efforts as substantial and visible progress. Fayette County Public Schools fulfilled a pledge and built William Wells Brown Elementary School and the adjoining community center. The Lexington Housing Authority has leveraged a $20 million federal HOPE VI grant for construction of new multi-family and single-family affordable housing.

The Lexington Urban League's affordable housing developments on Elm Tree Lane highlight its longstanding East End presence. Community Ventures Corp. has assembled underutilized land parcels and remediated old brownfield commercial sites. City government has been a supportive partner, financially and otherwise, in these efforts.

However, much more work remains to be done. East End redevelopment is at a critical crossroads where taxpayer investment, private market interest and active community engagement intersect and merge.

East End's path forward must ensure we leverage the unrealized potential most vividly symbolized by the dormant commercial development in the 500 block of East Third Street.

The East End Small Area Plan (adopted by the city's planning commission in spring 2009) has provided a springboard and, most importantly, a community-wide awareness of the area's historical significance and prospective role in Lexington's future.

This recognition and awareness have recently resulted in a few notable achievements. The rebirth of the Lyric Theatre offers convenient community access via the adjacent Cultural Arts Center and DeWeese Street Community Room.

After a rocky start, the Lyric has rebounded and is restoring its position as a trusted and responsive community partner. Comparing facility usage at the Lyric, the 100 rental agreements executed during the first seven months of 2013 already exceed the 93 total rentals during 2012.

With patience almost exhausted, East End eagerly anticipates the construction of the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden, named in honor of legendary jockey Isaac Burns Murphy. With design and environmental clearance approaching completion, the project's imminent construction will illuminate East End's historical connection to the horse-racing industry. The garden will also serve as a trailhead for the extension and alignment of the Legacy Trail through downtown and into East End.

But it's important that we not allow publicly financed capital investment to shift our focus away from the fact that basic systems of social and economic infrastructure are still required for the East End to truly prosper, revitalize and grow.

East Third Street commercial redevelopment is an ideal use of the city's Community Development Block Grant loan incentives. Infill and redevelopment of existing housing and vacant lots would nicely fit the bill for long-proposed Affordable Housing Trust Fund investment, working in concert with a functional land-bank authority appointed by the city.

Sorely needed job training will help combat the chronically high unemployment rate (over 20 percent in some East End areas). The recapture and designation of federal Workforce Investment Act funding specifically targeted for Fayette County can help prepare residents to lead sustainable households, invest in the education of their children and participate in the commercial economy and marketplace

Furthermore, I believe that private market interest should play a significant role in future commercial and residential redevelopment in the East End. To achieve success, privately financed efforts must acknowledge the sensitivities and skepticism wrought on the neighborhood by decades of divestment and economic exploitation.

Our work together has only just begun. I invite and encourage Lexington's civic, business and fellow political leaders to join ranks with longtime East End residents and neighborhood newcomers to take the next steps toward transformational community redevelopment.

The good news is strong grassroots leaders and organizations exist in the East End to lend insight and guidance. The task of rebuilding trust, demonstrating confidence and mutual respect will be perhaps the most challenging and complex of redevelopment activity. But it's worth the energy and dedication.

The East End deserves no less than Lexington's best effort.

Councilman Chris Ford represents the First district.

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