Crews have started the process of transforming the abandoned, boarded-up Pennington Place apartment complex, once plagued by crime, vagrants, fires and vermin, into an upscale property.
Lexington Urban County Council member KC Crosbie, whose district includes the complex, said she spent more time dealing with problems related to the site than any other issue in her district. There were problems with drug use, gang tagging, copper thefts from the air-conditioning units and vagrants living in the vacant apartments.
"You name it, we saw it there," Crosbie said.
In December, two companies — the Barrington Group of Sarasota, Fla., and Metzger and Co. of Atlanta — teamed up and paid $2.1 million for the dilapidated property at 245 Codell Drive.
By the time the makeover is complete, their investment is expected to top $18 million, said Larry Lieberman, founder and president of Barrington.
During a news conference Thursday, executives of the two firms unveiled architectural renderings of the planned makeover. The team also announced that the complex, at Richmond and New Circle roads, has been renamed 300 At The Circle.
The makeover of the former Pennington Place is the latest of several positive developments in the Richmond Road area, where several longstanding eyesores are being cleaned up and replaced with new businesses.
■ Construction continues at Southland Christian Church's satellite campus on the site of the long-vacant Lexington Mall. Church officials said they hope the sanctuary will be completed in time for Christmas services.
■ This fall, volunteers and city crews removed 80 tons of overgrown honeysuckle bushes and collected 400 pounds of debris from the south side of Richmond Road between Shriners Hospital for Children and Fire Station No. 9. They then planted 100 native trees. Lowe's gave $20,000 for the cleanup.
■ Coba Cocina, a sit-down, full-service restaurant, is under construction in the Idle Hour Shopping Center by developers and businessmen Phil and Lee Greer.
A special attraction will be the world's largest jellyfish tank, Phil Greer said. He said he hopes Coba Cocina will open by the end of the year.
■ The run-down Sonnet Cove Apartment complex on Laketower Drive, with half of its 340 units condemned by the city, was bought in March 2011 by real estate developer Allen Schubert, a Lexington native who lives in Louisville.
The complex, renamed Lakewood Park, is being redeveloped into luxury apartments, half-million-dollar townhouses and a high-end apartment building targeting empty-nesters.
"All this development sets such a positive tone for that whole part of the city," said council member Bill Farmer, whose district includes many of the projects.
"Underlying this is the optimism of where Lexington is going as a city," Farmer said. "These developments are happening because there's a sense Lexington has a steady hand on the wheel. We are all in the boat rowing in the same direction, trying to get through this very difficult time."
Cutting out the cancer
The former Pennington Place apartment complex is nestled in the 7th District, an area outside New Circle Road that includes Woodhill, parts of Andover and the Athens-Chilesburg corridor.
The area once was home to Lexington's biggest area of growth, but that changed, and it became plagued with crime.
Bringing the apartment complex back to life is a battle that council member Crosbie has been engaged in for years.
Crosbie said the makeover will have "huge, positive ramifications for the Woodhill area. Already the site looks better."
Mayor Jim Gray took a personal interest in Pennington Place. He visited the site several times.
In June 2011, the complex was to be sold at a master commissioner's foreclosure sale to pay $97,000 owed to the city for an extensive list of code violations. But TCF National Bank, which held the mortgage on the 41-year-old complex, reached an agreement with the city in an effort by both sides to make the property more marketable.
The city postponed foreclosure for six months to give the bank time to find a buyer. The bank paid half the fines and put the other half into an escrow account to pay for maintenance and security.
Grass was mowed, debris was picked up, first-floor doors and windows were boarded up, the property was fenced and 24-hour security was hired.
The property drew interest from the Barrington Group and Metzger.
Barrington Group, Lieberman's company, builds new apartment complexes and rehabs existing ones. "We look at a lot of property. Finding older properties in stable neighborhoods is very difficult," he said. "We have a saying: 'We can change a property; we can't change a neighborhood.'"
The Woodhill neighborhood surrounding 300 At The Circle "is basically a good neighborhood. Pennington Place was the problem," Lieberman said. "If we cut the cancer out, put in a new prosthetic, you should end up with a strong neighborhood again."
Still, Lieberman and his partners wanted to meet with Gray, Crosbie and other city officials before making the purchase.
"They wanted to make sure Lexington was the right place for them. That the city had a strong desire to see this project work," Gray said.
It was a good fit for both sides.
"The encouragement we got from the mayor and his staff was phenomenal. Never have we had such encouragement from local political officials," Lieberman said.
Gray, who spent 40 years in the construction business, said he was impressed with Lieberman's and Metzger's portfolio of distressed-property makeovers. "They're the real deal," he said.
Charlie Myers, owner of Flowers From Myers, which has been doing business in the Woodhill Center for 32 years, said he was excited by changes at Pennington Place and at Lexington Mall, across New Circle Road. "We're getting rid of two big eyesores. This area could blossom," he said.
A knack for rehab
Barrington Group and Metzger have partnered on projects for 23 years, Lieberman said.
This week, site superintendent Danny Brown organized his crew to demolish a burned-out unit and remove an in-ground swimming pool at 300 At The Circle.
Five buildings on the 20-acre site have been razed; seven more will be torn down, reducing the number of residential units from 443 to 300.
Brown, a 25-year employee for Metzger, has directed the rehab of several distressed apartment buildings. Some have not required as much work as Pennington Place. "But when we're through, it will be a complete transformation," said Brown, a graduate of Eastern Kentucky University.
"We're stripping out all the mechanical — plumbing, electric, heating and air — and taking units down to the studs. Then we start to rebuild. Basically, we treat it as new construction," Brown said.
The one-, two- and three-bedroom units will have wood floors, maple kitchen cabinets, brushed nickel kitchen and bathroom fixtures, and separate laundry rooms with washer and dryer connections.
Amenities will include a pool with a large deck for sunbathing, a "bark park" with a running path and a doggie play area, a children's playground, a workout room, a yoga studio, a wi-fi center and a café, called The Loop, where residents can mingle. The property will be fenced and gated.
The complex is intended to appeal to young professionals and students. Rent is expected to start at $680 a month. The first units are to be move-in ready by summer.
"We want to remake the property and refocus its market," Lieberman said.
That change makes Gray glad the city postponed foreclosure.
"The city's patience paid off," he said. "To contain and fix the problem at Pennington Place — also at Sonnet Cove — with the right developers, doing things in the right way, is a big deal."