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Owners plan to renovate old YWCA, but city moving toward demolition

The owners of the old YWCA building on Cross Keys Road plan to renovate the eyesore into housing for domestic violence survivors, but construction must start soon or the building faces demolition by the city.

The dilapidated structure was boarded up last week by the city, and code enforcement director David Jarvis said on Wednesday he is taking steps to have the building demolished.

"We have requested the law department do a title search. After that is done, we will notify the owners and seek a demolition order," Jarvis said.

If the building doesn't come down within 60 days of that order, the city would demolish it and send the owner the bill, he said.

The group that owns the building said Thursday that they're not worried about the city's actions because construction on the $7.3 million renovation will begin before the demolition deadline arrives.

The building is owned by the Brenda D. Cowan Coalition of Kentucky, an organization that formerly was a local YWCA before being renamed in honor of Lt. Brenda Cowan. She was a Lexington firefighter who was killed five years ago while responding to a domestic violence call in rural Fayette County.

The coalition's board chairwoman, Deborah Butler Griggs, said Thursday that she had not paid close attention to a condemnation notice the city sent last month.

But she read it after a reporter told her about the city's intentions. And, after talking to Jarvis, she said her group will be able to start work on the project in time to satisfy the city.

"Right now everything is very favorable," she said. "They're not trying to snatch the building out from under us in any way. They just want to make sure something is done."

Construction would be financed in large part with $5.7 million from the sale of Kentucky Housing Corporation tax credits awarded in 2008 to the coalition. Another $500,000 would come from federal housing funds administered by the city.

Karen Trivette, the coalition's executive director, said another $1 million is expected from grants and fund-raising.

Kentucky Housing Authority guidelines stipulate that the tax credit money has to be used to save an existing structure.

"You have to rehab an old piece of property," Trivette said. "You can't start from scratch."

The YWCA bought the property in 1957, Griggs said. The building has been vacant since the YWCA fitness and aquatics center closed in 2005.

The planned affordable housing project, called The Phoenix, would include 56 residences, offices for myriad social services the Cowan Coalition provides, including a court advocacy program for abused women and an early learning center for children.

Construction will take one year, said architect Tom Fielder.

In the meantime, vandals have stripped the building of copper wiring and cut steel beams out of the roof over the old swimming pool, causing a portion of the roof to collapse. Neighbors are concerned.

Vanessa Lilly, who manages the Silver Tree apartment complex next door, said she spread word among tenants to watch their children after learning that homeless people were living in the building.

She said that parents were keeping their children away. But, as she spoke, she noticed two children cutting across the property.

"I think they ought to build something for kids," she said. "They don't have anything to do except run up and down the halls."

She was pleased to learn of the renovation plans.

Griggs admitted that the building is in bad shape.

"We have had a terrible time with vandals and gangs breaking in," she said.

The coalition has paid to board up the building on four separate occasions. The city has boarded it up twice.

Urban County Councilwoman Peggy Henson, who represents the area, was alerted last week about the condition of the property.

"I could not believe the shape the building was in," she said.

Henson found ground covered in broken glass, open manholes, gang graffiti spray painted on walls and the outdoor baby pool filled with slime. "I got on the phone right then and called the mayor," she said.

The city's building maintenance department boarded up openings on the first and second floor and filled the baby pool with dirt. Griggs contacted Lexington police to check the property on each shift change.

Large YWCA letters are mounted on the front of the rundown structure, but there is no longer a Young Women's Christian Association in Lexington.

The local YWCA dissolved its affiliation with the national organization in 2004 because of lack of support, Griggs said. "We were the last YWCA in Kentucky."

The former YWCA staff and board re-evaluated its mission in 2004 and decided to close the fitness and aquatics center and turn its attention to providing social services for abused women.

The organization was later forced to close its spouse abuse crisis center after losing funding. "But we still do outreach in 11 counties for domestic violence victims," Trivette said.

The coalition's services include the Arnett Pritchett Place, an assisted living facility for older women on Duke Road; the Phyllis Wheatley Center, which provides supervised visitation between non-custodial parents and their children, and domestic violence support groups.

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