Council to review zoning change that outlines design district in downtown Lexington

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comJanuary 14, 2014 

The Urban County Council could add incentives to encourage more renovation and new development in downtown Lexington as part of new design standards for much of downtown.

Some of the options that are being considered to spur more development in the city's urban core include waiving or restructuring some fees, adding publicly financed parking garages and streamlining the permitting process.

Steve Kay, chairman of the Design Excellence Task Force and an Urban County Council member, said the task force is studying multiple proposals and will return to the council possibly as early as April with more details.

During Tuesday's Planning and Public Works Committee meeting, the committee voted to send to the full council a zoning change that outlines the boundaries of the new downtown design district. The zoning changes have to be addressed before the design guidelines and the incentives. If the council votes to approve the zoning changes later this month, it will go to the Planning Commission for its approval. But it must return to the council for final approval, which likely won't be until April.

The new design standards were created by the Design Excellence Task Force, which was created by the Urban County Council in 2010. The task force has been meeting for more than three years to develop design standards and guidelines for development in an area that goes from Midland Avenue to Oliver Lewis Way and as far north as Third Street in some areas and as far south as High Street. The standards and guidelines include oversight of several elements, including building heights, architectural design, awnings and signs.

Developers complained after the initial unveiling of the proposed design standards in November that the new rules could discourage development rather than encourage it.

Rehabilitation and new development in downtown or infill areas is expensive. The cost to provide a parking space in downtown Lexington can be as much as $16,000 a spot. Those complaints prompted a more in-depth look at incentives for development, Kay told the council on Tuesday.

The Lexington Downtown Development Authority is conducting an economic analysis of residential and retail markets in downtown, said Jeff Fugate, president of the Downtown Development Authority. A consultant will use that data to determine what types of economic incentives are needed to encourage more development, he said. The consultant will be paid by using existing funds, Fugate said.

In addition, the Lexington Parking Authority, which controls public parking in Lexington, is working on a 10-year capital improvement plan that will look at the creation of more garages and other parking facilities, Kay said. That completed plan will likely not be available until the end of 2014. But Kay said that the authority will likely have an idea of the direction it is moving by April, when the council will likely consider the design standards and incentives.

The Planning and Public Works Committee had few questions about the zoning change on Tuesday. Vice Mayor Linda Gorton said she was thankful that the council would vote on the design guidelines, zoning changes and possible incentives at the same time. Kay said after Tuesday's meeting that the design guidelines have not been controversial. It's the incentives and the administration of the design guidelines that have prompted the most discussion.

"There is agreement about the vast majority of the content coming out of the design task force," Kay said.

Bill Lear, a lawyer who represents many downtown developers and who is also on the task force, said addressing the parking problems in downtown Lexington is key to containing costs.

Lear said that the proposals for incentives are moving in the right direction.

"The cost of downtown parking and efforts to share in that is a huge factor," Lear said.

In Greenville S.C., public-private partnerships have helped offset the costs of building downtown, he said.

But Kay said that the task force wants to put the right incentives in place. Indianapolis recently built a $6.35 million parking garage downtown. It's only 5.5 percent full on average and 19 percent full at peak times. The city's money has to be used wisely, he said.

Beth Musgrave: (859) 231-3205. Twitter: @HLCityhall.

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