Tom Eblen: City, UK must learn lessons from State Street to help neighborhoods near campus

teblen@herald-leader.com,Tom EblenApril 12, 2014 

How much longer must national acclaim on the basketball court be accompanied by national embarrassment in neighborhoods around the University of Kentucky campus?

Thanks to good preparation and policing, the mayhem on State Street after UK's NCAA tournament games this year wasn't as bad as in 2012. But it was still unacceptably violent and destructive.

This year's toll is an embarrassment to both UK and Lexington: more than 60 injuries requiring treatment; more than 50 arrests; more than 125 fires, including a couple dozen couches.

"It's a miracle that more people and property didn't get hurt," said Diane Lawless, who has represented that area on the Urban County Council since 2009. "This isn't a spontaneous celebration. Goodwill says they come in and buy every piece of upholstered furniture they have. This is a planned riot, period."

UK sports celebrations started getting out of hand in 1996, when some of the 10,000 fans gathered at Woodland and Euclid avenues to celebrate the national basketball championship smashed car windows and overturned a TV news van, which caught fire. There were fewer problems after the 1998 championship.

Things got ugly in 2007, when crowds in the student rental neighborhood around State Street celebrated UK's football victories over Louisville and LSU by adopting West Virginia University's noxious tradition of couch burning.

Five years later, when Kentucky beat Kansas for the NCAA championship, State Street went wild. There were dozens of injuries from fires and flying beer bottles, damaged vehicles and nearly 100 arrests.

It is worth noting that the vast majority of students and others who celebrate after UK games don't hurt people or damage property. The crowd that partied this year along South Limestone didn't become destructive.

The problem is that State Street is a very different kind of neighborhood. Some students and outside trouble-makers see it as a place where they can become violent and destructive without consequences.

Both UK and the city helped create this problem. Demand for student housing in recent decades led investors to buy former single-family houses in older neighborhoods around campus. Those houses were demolished and replaced by cheaply built apartment complexes, or they were fitted with barn-like additions and crammed with students. Yards were graveled for parking lots.

Some neighborhoods fought back, using tools including historic overlays to limit the damage. But State, Crescent, Elizabeth and other streets north of Waller Avenue and west of Limestone were overwhelmed. Homeowners and families that were stabilizing influences in those neighborhood fled. City officials took more than a decade to limit further damage to the neighborhoods by student-rental landlords.

UK officials made the problems worse in 1997 by banning alcohol from fraternity and sorority houses. With students essentially prohibited from drinking on campus, they rented "party houses" in adjacent neighborhoods. Social media made it easier for students to find those parties and evade police efforts to shut them down.

Police have refined their tactics, both to try to prevent destructive behavior and violence and to document lawbreaking for prosecution. From all accounts, they handled this year's State Street mayhem as well as could be expected.

City code enforcement officers have tried to crack down on violations in student-rental neighborhoods, but sanctions remain minimal. The city also is working on better data collection and sharing methods to make it easier to spot troubling trends in neighborhoods before they become problems.

Because existing student-rental properties were grandfathered in when city restrictions were tightened, it's hard to reverse much of the damage, said Derek Paulsen, the city's planning commissioner.

"I hate to say State Street is lost, but when it gets to that level, about the only thing you can do is call the police in," Paulsen said. "From a planning perspective, the question may be, how do we transition that neighborhood out of what it is now to something more productive?"

UK officials have taken some positive steps, including construction of new on-campus residence halls. Last May, President Eli Capilouto appointed a work group of UK and city officials to look at student alcohol habits and policies and their effect on the campus and surrounding neighborhoods. The group completed its report in December, but UK has not yet released its findings and recommendations.

Because sports-related mayhem is largely fueled by alcohol, UK's next steps will be crucial. But there is more the city could do as well. These safety and town-gown issues are hardly unique to Lexington; other places have dealt with them for years. Here are some things UK and the city should consider:

■ Accept the fact that college students drink. Make campus alcohol policies more lenient in ways that teach students who choose to drink and are of legal age to do it responsibly.

■ Extend the student code of conduct to off-campus behavior, as is done with UK athletes. That would require more information-sharing and coordination between UK and the city, but students might be less likely to engage in destructive behavior off-campus if they knew the consequences would be more serious. When expectations are high, most people will rise to meet them.

■ UK, city and neighborhood residents should put more emphasis on integrating students into the neighborhoods, from social events to beautification projects. If students feel as if they belong in a neighborhood, they will be less likely to destroy it.

■ City officials and police should more aggressively channel celebrations away from State Street to South Limestone or other commercial districts, which can be more effectively policed. Maybe State Street should be closed on big game nights to people who can't prove they live there.

■ The city must get tough with problem landlords. That could include stricter rules on zoning, building permits and code requirements, with bigger penalties for violations. There also might be ways to hold landlords accountable for tenants' destructive behavior.

"There are some good landlords out there," Lawless said. "But there also are a lot of student landlords who couldn't care less except for stuffing their pockets."

■ UK and the city should buy some houses in campus neighborhoods that are near the tipping point of too many student rentals. Those houses could be rented or sold with restrictions to faculty, staff and city employees. That would help stabilize those neighborhoods, and it would provide affordable housing for lower-paid employees near their workplaces.

"We still have some very good, viable neighborhoods around the university," Paulsen said. "We need to learn the lessons of State Street to keep them that way."

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

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