Because of the CentrePointe debacle, city officials and developers have spent seven years wrestling over how to improve the rules and processes for new buildings and historic preservation in downtown Lexington.
The goals: promote “design excellence” in new construction, make it harder to demolish significant old buildings and make the whole process more “fair and predictable” for developers.
An Urban County Council committee voted 6-4 on May 10 to move forward with a compromise plan formulated by a small committee that included Council members and developers. The plan faces perhaps another year of discussions before final decisions are made.
As with any compromise, nobody got everything they wanted.
For example, the plan doesn’t include an architectural review board to judge the design of new buildings. Many other cities have these boards, but it has been a political non-starter in Lexington because of strong opposition from local developers.
The plan divides development rules into two categories: measurable standards and subjective guidelines. The rules would apply to B-2 zones, which is basically all of downtown.
You can follow all the standards and still have an ugly building.
The new standards, which seem to be an improvement over current ones, would cover things such as building height and setback requirements. They would vary depending on three location-based property designations: downtown core, “gateway” areas or neighborhoods.
The idea behind the standards is to make new buildings compatible with their surroundings. For example, skyscrapers would be permitted in the downtown core. But in neighborhoods, the limit would be eight stories, which to me seems three or four stories too high. Developers could seek exemptions from the city’s Board of Adjustment.
This kind of form-based zoning can prevent bad things from happening, such as the suburban-style drugstore proposed at the corner of East Main and East Vine streets several years ago. But it won’t create “design excellence.” You can follow all the standards and still have an ugly building.
That’s where the guidelines come in. But they would be enforced only for new development that receives public assistance, such as tax-increment financing. On these projects, a developer would have to work with the city’s design officer, a job recently created in the Division of Planning.
In reality, how aggressive a design officer could be with a developer would depend on politics. Mayor Jim Gray cares a lot about good design. Future mayors, maybe not so much. No other design professionals would review a project. The Council would be the final arbiter, since it must approve or reject any tax break or public financing agreement.
This system would do more to encourage “design excellence” than Lexington’s current one, but developers would still have a lot of latitude.
One interesting aspect of the plan is that it strengthens protection for most significant old buildings downtown, but lessens it for others.
Before a developer could demolish an old building that the city’s Historic Preservation office considers significant, the Board of Architectural Review would have to approve. Developers could appeal the board’s decision to the Council.
Most downtown buildings — except for those around the old Fayette County Courthouse — now have no protection, so this would be a big improvement.
But, unlike in city historic districts, the board would have no say over exterior renovations. That means as long as an old building wasn’t demolished, a developer could change its historic character as much as he wished.
The Courthouse Area Design Review Board now rules on exterior changes to as well as demolition of old buildings in that district. But the plan calls for that board to be abolished, leaving those buildings with less protection than they have now.
(The board has had a mixed record. Its low point was allowing demolition of protected buildings for the stalled CentrePointe project.)
How new development rules handle historic preservation is critical, and not just to history geeks like me. Most of downtown Lexington’s revitalization in recent years has been the result of adaptive reuse of significant old buildings: 21C Museum Hotel, Dudley’s, Shakespeare & Co., Parlay Social, Table Three Ten and many more. The issue is as much about good economic development as historic preservation.
This plan now goes to the full Council for consideration. If approved, it would go to the Planning Commission for review, then back to Council for final approval. But it is hardly a done deal, as the 6-4 committee vote indicated.
A lot of people will want to weigh in and seek changes, including some who had been part of the years-long Design Excellence Task Force but were excluded from talks about the compromise plan.
Whatever the outcome, it is worth keeping a couple of things in mind: An attractive downtown is a more successful one, so good design is in everyone’s economic interest. And good design is more of an art than a science. It requires finesse, and you achieve that more through discussion than with rules.