Della Horton takes five to 10 minutes at least once a week to walk from her office on Vine Street to one of the restaurants on South Limestone for lunch.
On Thursday, a warm and sunny day, she made the trek to join a colleague at Hanna's on Lime. Horton, like many others, enjoys walking to the bustling thoroughfare.
"After the big makeover, Limestone is safe, attractive and pedestrian friendly," she said. "It's an easy walk from Vine or Main Street. And it's good to get out and break the day up."
That was the goal of the "big makeover" that Horton speaks of. Those who frequent the area have seen the evolution of South Limestone and know it bears little resemblance to how it looked in the summer of 2009 when the street was closed from the intersection of Avenue of Champions to Vine Street for a major overhaul that took about a year.
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The transformation was rocky. South Limestone became impassable as construction crews buried utility lines, replaced sewers, added curbside rain gardens, planted trees, widened sidewalks, built a bike path and installed new street lights.
Motorists endured detours and significant delays, and the livelihood of small-business owners along the street was threatened. The project's cost became a major issue in the 2010 mayor's race between incumbent Jim Newberry and then-Vice Mayor Jim Gray.
"It was a year of real hardship. We felt like it was never going to end," said Justin Stephen, general manager of the Tin Roof restaurant.
Some businesses moved or closed in that year. But business owners who persevered emerged with a new level of business and financial savvy, Stephen said.
"If you got through that, you should be able to get through anything," he said.
When South Limestone reopened, bars and restaurants had a celebration. Many offered specials on drinks and food and had live music.
"Everybody worked so well together, after the block party we got together to form SLAM (South Limestone Association of Merchants)," said Seth Bennett, owner of the Two Keys Tavern and one of the block party's organizers.
Stephen sees the payoff in repaired buildings, painted facades and new businesses — including The Local Taco and Sav's Chill.
The overall goal was to bring new vitality to the South Limestone corridor and support downtown by attracting more University of Kentucky and Transylvania students and faculty to downtown.
South Limestone has transformed from a strip of college hangouts to a dynamic corridor of bars, restaurants and other locally owned establishments that attract downtown office workers for lunch. Students and young professionals party there after dark.
The street was the go-to place for March Madness and UK's romp to the NCAA championship. The parking lot of Tin Roof emerged as a major gathering spot to knock back brews while watching UK play. Thousands of fans of all ages crowded the sidewalks and spilled into the streets for celebrations.
After the team won the championship, many migrated to downtown.
"Woodland and Euclid was the place to be for March Madness when I was in school," said Jeff Fugate, president of the Downtown Development Authority, referring to the hangout spot of the 1990s.
Joggers can be seen running up and down the strip. Couples stroll the sidewalks throughout the day and on warm summer evenings.
Chad Hurley met his wife, who works at University of Kentucky Children's Hospital, at King Tut restaurant for lunch on Thursday and was walking back to his office at Main and North Upper.
"We meet in the middle. We didn't do this much at all before the street was renovated," he said. "But now it's fun. There's always a new place popping up."
Chris Jeter moved his barbershop, Above the Rim Cuts, from South Upper to South Limestone.
"This is an up and coming area. It's been a long time coming, but this strip of South Limestone is huge," he said. "At night, about 10 o'clock, it's ridiculous. There's so much foot traffic."
Jeter stays open until 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. He has two chairs now, but he said he wants to add up to five and stay open seven days a week until 10 p.m.
Since his arrival in April, Jeter has been embraced by nearby business owners. The 26 owners have a spirit of friendship and cooperation that Jeter said he appreciates.
"Of course there's competition, but everybody helps everybody else out over here," Bennett said. "We're interested more in bringing more people to this block than in competing."
It's proving to be a successful business plan, Bennett said.
"The economic atmosphere on South Limestone keeps getting better and better. I think it's one of the best looking strips of businesses in Lexington," he said.
Oneness, a men's urban streetwear boutique, opened a year before Limestone closed for renovation. "We stuck it out, but it was pretty difficult at times," said Joe Staley, one of the owners.
The store's tenacity paid off. "Our sales doubled last year, and they'll almost double this year," he said.
In the next few months the boutique will move to a larger building on Jersey Street, behind Two Keys. "We want to stay in the neighborhood," Staley said.
Carol Behr, owner of Kennedy Bookstore, which anchors the corner of South Limestone and Avenue of Champions, said, "There used to be Two Keys and not much else over here.
"Now with Pazzo's, the Tin Roof, the Paddock, if somebody comes into town and says, 'Where's the place to go?' The answer would be 'South Limestone. It's awesome.'"
A point of contention
Enhancing Limestone had Urban County Council backing, but it became a contentious issue with some council members and business owners who complained of customers not being able to reach their destinations during construction. The cost of the project increased, and that also became an issue.
An original estimate of $6 million by streetscape consultant Clete Benken and his Covington design firm of Kinzelman Kline Gossman escalated to a final price tag of slightly more than $17 million.
A few weeks before work was to begin, Urban County Council voted to accept ATS Construction's $13.1 million bid to allow the project to move forward.
Gray cast the lone dissenting vote. The mayor recently said he always supported the streetscape project, "but it was presented at one number and developed at a much higher number."
The numbers speak for themselves, he added. "The final cost was three times the original estimate."
Newberry defended the cost of the makeover, saying, "It was a very complicated project and a very expensive project to do it right because it involved so many utilities and other pieces of infrastructure."
He added, "There is no doubt in my mind it was exactly the kind of investment the community needed in its ongoing efforts to more closely link the UK campus with downtown."
Looking to the future, Gray said he encourages UK officials to redevelop property it owns on South Limestone with student housing.
"The whole streetscape project is part of a complete project to integrate the university and downtown," he said. "That's why so much of the university's planning today about location of its future housing is so mission-critical."
That is how the city gets a full return on its investment, he said, to integrate university housing with that commercial corridor.
"The theme from the beginning was to join the university and downtown and create an exciting and compelling environment," he said.
Gray said it was exciting to imagine university housing along South Limestone, the CentrePointe block developed and active, and Vine Street more pedestrian friendly.
"That would be a seamless experience of engaged urban space from South Limestone, through downtown, past Transylvania, up North Limestone to Loudon, where a thriving young arts community is developing," he said.