The University of Kentucky Board of Trustees voted Friday to proceed with a controversial plan to raze five buildings on campus in order to make room for two new residence halls that will cost about $84 million.
The move will, in the words of President Eli Capilouto, "reimagine and reinvent" UK's physical and learning environment with modern, wired facilities that house many more students.
The board also voted to proceed with the design phase of a renovation and expansion of the Student Center. That project is estimated to cost $175 million, which will be funded with agency bonds that the university must repay.
Capilouto took the trustees on a verbal virtual tour of the northern portion of campus as it will look in 2017, starting with the two new dorms at the corner of Limestone and Avenue of Champions.
Never miss a local story.
"You'll be able to gaze at new retail spaces, perhaps a wellness clinic, new restaurants, that all complement ... urban residential spaces in ways that draw together students, alumni, and neighbors," he said. "UK and the city of Lexington do not simply make a college town — together we become a university city, and we do that best when we grow together."
He then took trustees to the new Student Center on Avenue of Champions, which will be the "thriving heart of the campus."
The trustees paused briefly to consider a plea by the Blue Grass Trust preservation group to consider saving three of the buildings that will be torn down to make way for new dorms. On Thursday, the trust released its annual list of the 11 most endangered buildings in the region; all of them were on UK's campus.
Two of the buildings slated for demolition, Holmes Hall and Jewell Hall, were designed by noted modernist architect Ernst Johnson. The third, Hamilton House, is an Italianate former residence built in 1880.
Two other dorms to be razed, Keeneland and Boyd Halls, are not considered historical.
UK officials said they have spent about a year talking with community members about the plan.
"I think the Blue Grass Trust serves a great purpose and their views ought to be listened to," said trustee David Hawpe. "But I'm not convinced the architectural significance of these buildings outweighs the need to reimagine and revitalize space."
Linda Carroll, immediate past president of the Blue Grass Trust, said she recently researched how the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill deals with historic preservation, noting that it has had a historic preservation architect on staff since 2002.
"It's unfortunate the University of Kentucky isn't the caliber of the University of North Carolina, where preservation is held in high regard," she said Friday. "This is substantial demolition."
The two new dorms are part of an ambitious $500 million plan to build 9,000 new or renovated beds on campus, which officials say will improve the student experience and boost retention and graduation rates.
Limestone Park I and II, as they are being called, will house 1,141 students when they open in 2016. By that time, 10 other new dorms will have been opened with 5,733 new beds.
UK has entered into a partnership with private developer Education Realty Trust, which has put up all the equity for the dorm construction.
Trustee C.E. "Bill" Gatton abstained from the vote because he said he was worried about future rental rates for the new dorms. According to the 75-year lease with EdR, annual rent increases will be confined to the larger of three numbers: 4 percent, the annual increase in the consumer price index, or the rate increase for other university-operated housing.
Gatton said he worried that tying rent to the consumer price index would make rents too high for students in 30 or 40 years. Faculty trustee Irina Voro also abstained from voting on the housing.
Trustees also listened to a presentation by Provost Christine Riordan about the growth of "living-learning programs" in the new dorms, which will expand to 19 by 2014. In those programs, students with shared interests, such as engineering or entrepreneurship, live and study together.
Students in UK's living-learning programs have a retention rate of 90 percent, compared to a 69 percent rate for students who live off campus, according to one study cited by Riordan.
"I'm really, really excited to see this," said trustee Keith Gannon. "I'm really impressed at the aggressiveness with which you're expanding this."
In other business, the board voted to accept a $1 million donation for the T.W. Lewis Scholarship Fund. Lewis, a 1971 UK graduate, provided the money for up to 10 scholarships a year of $5,000 for honors program students.
Up to five scholarships will be awarded to students from a 10-county region in Eastern Kentucky, including Breathitt, Clay, Floyd, Harlan, Jackson, Knott, Leslie, Letcher Perry and Wolfe counties.
Another five will be awarded to honors students from Fayette County.