It is time for Lexington to adopt design standards for its urban core. And the proposal presented last week to a committee of the Urban County Council offers a way forward that won’t tie the hands of developers but will help assure a harmonious streetscape when new buildings join the old.
It accomplishes this while eliminating one body that reviews projects and without creating a new regulatory board or bureaucracy.
After seven years of fiddling with this idea, the city needs to move forward.
Even though people don’t like restrictions on their projects, almost everyone favors them when the guy next door wants to build something. That’s because quality of life and property values depend upon cohesive neighborhoods and streetscapes. Think of a block of single-family houses with nice front lawns pierced by an apartment building built out almost to the sidewalk.
The same is true for a downtown. While diversity in design is desirable, a chaos of building forms, vacant lots and blanks walls meeting sidewalks is not. A framework that assures at least minimum standards can both attract and protect investment.
The initial push for design standards came about seven years ago after the demolition of historic buildings and proposed mega-development on what’s become known as the CentrePointe block. In the same time period, there was a proposal to put a suburban-looking Rite Aid at the entry to downtown where Vine Street meets Midland Avenue and Main Streets.
To city officials faced with those dire visions and the public outrage over them, design standards for downtown seemed more acceptable. Early drafts ran afoul of developers who complained that creating another hoop to jump through, and another board or committee to satisfy, would increase costs and discourage investment.
That brought the current proposal, which has a simplicity that recommends it. It covers the business zone downtown that stretches generally from Midland Avenue to Rupp Arena and from Third Street to High Street and has three central components:
▪ If the proposed development involves no public money and conforms with objective criteria such as building height, amount and location of parking, setback from the sidewalk and so forth, it can be approved by staff and get a building permit.
▪ Developers seeking public assistance — such as tax-increment financing, tax incentives, parking or other infrastructure improvements — will, as part of the contract involving the subsidy, be required to meet design excellence guidelines. The entire package involving the subsidies and design requirement will be negotiated on the front end.
▪ Proposed demolitions must be approved by the Board of Architectural Review, which reviews all proposed demolition and construction projects in historic districts. If the request is denied by the BOAR the owner can appeal to the council.
▪ The proposal would apply throughout the area, eliminating the Courthouse Area Design Review Board.
It’s not a perfect proposal — there’s really nothing to prevent an insensitive rehab of an historic building and it would allow new eight-story buildings next to the residential neighborhoods near the urban core — but there will be opportunity to address those concerns over the next few months as it’s considered by the full council and the planning commission.
This is a good start toward a streamlined process that will give developers the clarity they need to move forward while protecting their investments and Lexington’s downtown.