There are now two interesting ideas for moving Lexington’s City Hall to another downtown building.
City officials said a month ago that they were considering buying and renovating Central Library to replace the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government’s 34-year-old headquarters in the old Lafayette Hotel building a block away.
Since then, two veteran Lexington architects have floated another idea: Move City Hall to the Lexington Herald-Leader building after a renovation and the construction of a stylish new entrance wing on what is now the front parking lot.
Charles Jolly and Carol Myers of Myers Jolly Architects said the Herald-Leader property at East Main Street and Midland Avenue struck them as an ideal City Hall location for several reasons. In addition to meeting government’s office needs, it could create new space for parking and public gatherings, and it could have a big influence on downtown’s future growth patterns.
(Jolly and Myers have a combined 66 years of experience. Their many projects include the Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea, the McConnell Springs visitors center, and several buildings for the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.)
Several things have sparked Lexington’s downtown real estate chess game:
City officials have long looked for more-efficient offices, which are now scattered in several downtown buildings. The circa 1920 Lafayette Hotel building has been City Hall since 1984, but it’s costly to operate and maintain. It really should be sold to a developer and reverted into a hotel or condominiums.
Several City Hall scenarios have been explored and rejected in the past decade, including the former Lexington Mall property at Richmond and New Circle roads, and leased space in the long-promised CentrePointe project.
Meanwhile, the internet has dramatically changed libraries and newspapers alike.
Ann Hammond, executive director of the Lexington Public Library, said the circa 1989 Central Library beside Phoenix Park is ill-suited for the library’s increasing digital needs. If the city bought the building, Hammond said, she would look for more flexible library space downtown.
Because the internet has replaced print as the best medium for distributing news, the Herald-Leader recently outsourced newspaper printing to Gannett Publishing Services. The company has said it will seek downtown office space for its news and advertising staffs when the property at Main and Midland sells.
Both the library and the newspaper properties could make sense for City Hall.
Except for Park Plaza apartments and the garage it shares with Central Library, the city already owns the rest of the library block, which includes Helix garage, the Phoenix building, police headquarters, the county clerk’s office, a parking lot and Phoenix Park.
The police and clerk’s buildings are functional but old. If Central Library became city hall, it might be smart to replace them with more contemporary office space that could be better integrated into the entire complex.
Jolly’s and Myers’ vision calls for renovating the Herald-Leader building into offices and turning the front parking lot into green space and a signature entrance addition that would include chambers for the Urban County Council and other public space.
Across Midland Avenue is the beautiful but underused Thoroughbred Park. Having city hall across the street could increase activity there. And for special events, Midland Avenue, a state highway, could be closed briefly, as it is now for parades, to create one big public gathering place on the park, street and city hall lawn. Plans already call for the Town Branch Commons linear park project’s pedestrian and bicycle facilities to extend along Midland.
“This important corner could become a showplace for downtown activity,” Jolly said.
The newspaper’s back parking lot has 207 spaces, which could be 400 or 600 if a deck or two were built above it. That not only could meet city hall’s requirements, but it could provide needed parking for future development on downtown’s east side. (And moving city hall from the city center would free up a lot of parking to handle commercial development there.)
Jolly and Myers think their plan could jump-start development already planned along Midland Avenue and at Main and Vine streets, as well as blocks of vacant property in the area bounded by Midland, Martin Luther King Boulevard, East Main and East Second streets.
And here is their really wild idea: Turn the little-used rail spur between the Herald-Leader building and the new Warehouse Block district on National Avenue into Lexington’s version of New York’s High Line.
The city is deep into exploring the library option; a consultant’s proposal for reconfiguring that space is to be delivered to Council on Nov. 29. But city officials briefed on the Myers-Jolly plan have been intrigued by it.
One last thought: If Central Library does become City Hall, part of the Herald-Leader building might work well for the library, especially the improved parking access.
Politicians and taxpayers are always reluctant to spend money on government offices. Still, this is an old, costly problem that needs solving, and now is the time to act. Borrowing rates and construction costs are low, but that isn’t likely to last as the economy improves.
What’s more, Mayor Jim Gray, a veteran construction executive, and his administration are showing that they can handle big, complicated city projects, such as the old courthouse renovation and Town Branch Commons.
It will be interesting to see how these City Hall ideas play out, and what others might emerge. I love a good real estate chess game.