The new section of Oliver Lewis Way is only half a mile long, but it could become one of Lexington’s most transformative highways since Interstates 64 and 75 were built in the 1960s.
Why is it such a big deal? For several reasons, which I will explain in a minute.
But here’s the funny thing: This road was planned in the 1950s, at the same time as the Interstates. The Lexington Herald first reported the proposed route for what was then called the “inner city connector” in 1957. Planners in a 1961 article called it Lexington’s most important proposed highway. So why did it take 60 years to build?
The main reason was that it went through Davis Bottom, Lexington’s poorest and most-neglected neighborhood. After decades of debate, it was finally demolished five years ago as part of an unusual land trust deal that calls for rebuilding more than 100 affordable homes in a new neighborhood there called Davis Park.
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Now that the road has been built, the focus is shifting to the potential this road has to reshape a large swath of urban Lexington, reduce downtown traffic, boost the University of Kentucky and fuel high-tech economic development.
“I think people are going to realize what an amazing spot this area is in terms of its proximity to downtown, to UK, to hospital areas,” said Derek Paulsen, the city’s commissioner of planning. “It has the potential to take off, which means we need to be careful with it."
Paulsen sees potential for many types of mixed-use and commercial development.
Some could be “unstructured” space for entrepreneurs around the original Country Boys brewery on Chair Avenue. But the surrounding area also could attract large infill projects, mainly for student housing and services. The Lex apartment complex was built a few years ago, and Chicago-based Core Spaces has proposed two more. One challenge will be making new development along the edge of the historic South Hill neighborhood compatible.
The Core Spaces projects show national developers are beginning to notice urban Lexington, Paulsen said. Most previous urban projects have been done by local developers such as the Webb Companies, which has been struggling for a decade to get its downtown CentrePointe project off the ground.
Oliver Lewis Way — named for the black jockey who won the first Kentucky Derby in 1875 — also will have a big impact on downtown, just as the city is preparing to build Town Branch Park and Town Branch Commons and expand the Rupp Arena-Lexington Center complex.
“It's going to reduce through-traffic of people who didn’t want to be downtown and were just trying to get to UK or Broadway or someplace else,” Paulsen said.
Cutting that traffic volume will allow the Jefferson Street viaduct to be demolished as part of the Town Branch Park plan. It could allow city officials to finally remove the section of Vine Street between Lexington Center and Triangle Park. “Also, it creates a more walkable downtown,” Paulsen said.
Reducing through-traffic volume is likely to renew discussions about returning Main Street and perhaps other one-way streets to two-way traffic, which is better for commercial development. “I’m not going to say two-way streets just yet,” Paulsen said. “But that (road) is one thing that may be really helpful.”
Oliver Lewis Way provides a more direct route from the Interstates to UK’s main campus. And that will be even better if funding is eventually approved for a spur to cross South Broadway beside the railroad bridge, continue along Scott Street and literally end at UK’s front yard on South Limestone. That route has been planned for decades, too.
With these new gateways in mind, UK has been buying nearby property for years. No development decisions for those properties have been made, but UK officials are trying to “think very strategically about the highest and best use of those locations,” said Melody Flowers, UK’s executive director for strategic analysis and policy.
George Ward, executive director of UK’s Coldstream Research Campus, thinks Oliver Lewis Way could have a big impact on connecting technology businesses at Coldstream to the main campus. What used to be a 15-minute drive between Coldstream and the main campus is now half that, and the route passes Lexmark’s headquarters and the Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus. Transylvania University is just a few blocks away, down a rebuilt Fourth Street.
Having easy access to university researchers, student talent and academic partnerships makes Lexington a more attractive location for technology companies, said Ward, who thinks this could literally be a road to more of that kind of economic development.