Plans for about $50 million of mixed-use development along Midland Avenue from East Third Street to south of Main Street could reshape downtown's eastern edge, a strip of land that has long searched for a new purpose.
Until the 1960s, what is now Midland Avenue carried trains instead of cars. It was a major collection of railroad tracks, flanked by freight depots, industrial buildings, auto repair shops and lumber yards.
The Herald-Leader building replaced a century-old lumber yard on the east side of the tracks, and the Triangle Foundation created Thoroughbred Park to clean up the west side. Still, much of the surrounding land remained vacant or underused.
Last month, four property owners got together and won unanimous Urban County Council approval to create a tax-increment financing district that could provide $17 million in taxpayer support for new public infrastructure in the area.
The proposed TIF district is now pending before the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority. If approved, some of that infrastructure money also could eventually benefit three public parks in the district: Thoroughbred, Charles Young and the new Isaac Murphy Art Garden.
The plans would include a pedestrian and bicycle trail along Midland Avenue that would help form the eastern end of the proposed Town Branch Commons.
The Commons would be a string of small parks along the historic path of long-buried Town Branch, a creek that flows beneath downtown from a spring under the Jif peanut butter plant on Winchester Road to Rupp Arena, where it resurfaces.
Developer Phil Holoubek owns the south end of the TIF district, a triangular plot where Main and Vine streets meet that has been an eyesore since a former bank building was demolished. Plans to build a suburban-style drugstore there were wisely abandoned.
Holoubek said he thinks he has finally found a way to build an attractive, urban-style development on the difficult lot, which sits atop the Town Branch culvert and a major utility junction. His building would have 54 apartments on three floors above 17,000 square feet of street-level retail space.
"It's like a giant Tetris game," he said. "But we're getting it figured out."
The Lexington Parking Authority has agreed to invest $2.8 million for a three-story, 160-space garage on the site, providing much-needed public parking for the east side of downtown. Holoubek is donating the very point of the lot to the city for Town Branch Commons.
Land north of Thoroughbred Park is owned by former vice mayor Mike Scanlon and his ex-wife, Missy Scanlon. Plans call for it to become offices, retail space and townhouses or apartments overlooking Thoroughbred Park.
The most sensitive part of the plan is the northern section, which adjoins the East End neighborhood along East Third Street. It is mostly owned by Community Ventures Corp., a nonprofit that works to improve low-income communities.
After extensive meetings with East End residents, Community Ventures has proposed a mixed-use development on 2.75 acres at the corner of Midland and East Third, where it already has one building. The development would include pedestrian-friendly retail space at reduced rents for local businesses, with apartments above.
The property is next to the Charles Young Center and the park, which the city recently spent $500,000 improving. TIF district land west of the park is being eyed for affordable housing development.
Holoubek said the entire project is a good mix of commercial development and job-creating community improvement, which has been conceived with a lot of input from neighborhood residents.
Some of those residents remain wary. "It's just a plan to help promote gentrification and make the colonization of the East End easier," Corey Dunn said.
But Billie Mallory, an East End activist, said most people in the area are cautiously optimistic that the development will benefit the East End, which lost half its population and much of its prosperity as society integrated and families moved to the suburbs.
The East End has been on the upswing since the Lyric Theatre, at East Third Street and Elm Tree Lane, was restored, the Isaac Murphy Art Garden project began and the Lexington Market, a former convenience store at East Third and Race streets, was improved to include much-needed fresh food for the area.
"Third street is our main street," Mallory said. "I would like to see whatever goes along Third Street benefit the residents."
Mallory said Community Ventures has always been a good partner for the neighborhood, "so we'll just have to see. We can't do anything but trust them."