Herald-Leader Editorial

At last, a plan for excellence

Workable urban design proposal will help reach lofty goals

November 24, 2013 

The remarkable thing about the proposal to create design standards for downtown construction in Lexington is that we are so late to the game.

The simplest Internet search will show that virtually every city of any size has some kind of urban design standards — Austin, Charlotte, Richmond, Baton Rouge, Nashville, even Fort Worth and Amarillo. Examples abound throughout the U.S. and in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

But now, after almost three years of work, a thoughtful, workable, flexible proposal to raise the level in Lexington's urban area is close to completion.

Bring it on.

Lexington's downtown has much to recommend it. It escaped the worst of urban renewal and so isn't plagued by vast swathes of empty lots. Instead, it is surrounded by intact historic neighborhoods and two universities.

Although retail has largely moved to suburban malls, downtown remains the legal and banking center of the region. In recent years the dining and entertainment scene downtown has expanded dramatically. Downtown condos have also become common in the last decade, providing quality housing for young professionals, empty-nesters and others who want an urban lifestyle.

But we're not there yet.

Lexington's urban core is still plagued by vacant lots, parking lots, historic buildings hidden under shoddy modern coverings, blocked-up windows and other remnants of downtown's abandonment in the last decades of the 20th century.

The Design Excellence proposal offers a way forward toward a more attractive, consistent and harmonious downtown streetscape.

Downtown developer Bill Lear, who worked with the Design Excellence Task Force on this proposal, stated the goal simply: "We want to prevent the worst and encourage the best and allow the great to take place."

The proposal approaches this lofty goal through specific standards relating to building height, setback from the street, location of parking, orientation to the street and pedestrian entries.

These assure that, for example, a four-story building won't be overshadowed by a 15-story structure next door or, conversely, that a squat one-story office building with parking in front won't materialize in the middle of a row of historic multi-story commercial structures.

There are also more flexible guidelines addressing things like building materials, signage, lighting, landscaping and public art.

The proposal allows for many aspects of a project — those relating to specific, yes-or-no standards — to be approved by staff, which will expedite the process. A project facilitator, a city employee to help property owners navigate the bureaucracy, will also speed things up.

There's been a lot of discussion about creating incentives as a complement to this proposal. Something characterized as offering a carrot to sweeten the stick of added regulation.

This community has a policy of encouraging development within the urban core to preserve farmland and avoid the costs of extending city services into new areas, so it's reasonable to sweeten the pot to make that happen. Work has begun to develop incentives that will be considered along with this proposal.

That said, the Design Excellence program itself is an incentive, not a stick. Property in areas with more specific design requirements, like historic districts, appreciates more rapidly than that in other areas because of protection from inappropriate or unsightly construction nearby that torpedoes values.

Certainly we should offer that protection to the heart of our city.

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