Miller Street is so small and unobtrusive, most motorists pass without giving it second glance.
Just 13-feet wide, it is a one-way street that runs between West Second and West Third, just east of Jefferson Street.
And as recently as about 10 years ago, Miller Street was hardly more than a narrow eroded alley lined with mostly boarded up frame houses.
Today, it is an eclectic mix of historic and contemporary houses, commercial buildings, parking lots and a garden plot. The Vogt Reel House, built in 1904, Lexington's oldest operating firehouse, backs up to Miller Street, as does the trendy Apiary where chef Cooper Vaughan has his catering kitchen and event space.
While the location might not appeal to everybody, those who live there are enthusiastic supporters of their unique street with its rich history and downtown living.
"My wife and I have always been attracted to urban living," said architect Ben Gallagher. In 2010, he built a contemporary house on Miller Street for his family.
"It's convenient to our places of work. We love the location."
Previously, the couple lived on the second floor over top Atomic Cafe at Third and Limestone.
As the trend toward urban living gains favor, more out-of-the way places like Miller Street are being discovered, Gallagher said.
"From Louisville to Savannah, you have these little alleys that are being developed. They're the coolest places."
Across the street from Gallagher are five brick townhouses, an infill project completed in 2012 by David Doucoumes. Attorney Theresa Gilbert bought her townhouse while it was still under construction and moved in 2008 from Fairway Drive.
The open floor plan is light and airy, with glass doors across the back, a small enclosed courtyard and a two-car garage in back.
"My group of friends love to come down here and go to the Grey Goose," said Gilbert, president of the Northside Neighborhood Association who moved in before Jefferson Street became the lively place it is today.
When her son visits from Chicago, the two love to walk to the nearby Jefferson Street bars, restaurants and breweries like West Sixth Brewery, County Club, Wine + Market, Chase Tap Room, Nick Ryan's and Wagon Bones Grill.
The convenience of being within walking distance of the Lexington Opera House, Rupp Arena, the Lexington Center, Starbucks and the Kentucky Theatre kept Becky Lewis downtown when she decided to sell a larger house she lived in on New Street near Gratz Park.
"I didn't consider any place but downtown," said Lewis, who lives next door to Gilbert. "When I want to do anything downtown, I never have to consider parking. I just walk. And walking through downtown is so interesting. What an eclectic mix of people — all ages, incomes, lifestyles."
Miller Street shows up on pre-Civil War maps of Lexington. It was originally called Scott Alley, named for the Scott family that owned the hemp factory and ropewalk that ran the length of the block.
Miller Street was an historic black neighborhood where workers lived who were employed in the several hemp factories and ropewalks in the Northside, and for servants who worked in the large houses nearby.
Fast forward to the early 1990s, when the few, small frame houses that remained were owned by absentee landlords and were in deplorable condition, according to historical accounts. The Northside Neighborhood Association had wanted to make improvements on Miller Street for several years, said Win Meeker, a former president of the NNA and a member of the city's Historic Preservation Commission.
The opportunity came when the association was given a brick cottage at 244 Miller Street, built before the Civil War.
Using grant money and donations, volunteer labor and professional help from Phase IV construction company, the Northside renovated the house.
"Our commitment was to fix it up, and sell it to a low or moderate income, first-time home buyer," Meeker said.
In 1998, the house received one of the city's annual Historic Preservation Awards. The next year, the association sold the house to Tommye Bell, who still lives there.
"That really did initiate the turnaround of Miller Street," Meeker said. "Then David Doucoumes came into the picture, and that really helped change things."
Doucoumes bought several of the frame houses, and cleared the land for his townhouse project called Rope Walk. He came with experience, rehabbing old buildings including where Limestone's a la lucie restaurant is located and High Street's Common Ground coffee shop.
He and Keith Clark renovated the building at Cheapside and Short that became Cheapside Bar. "Miller Street had always been kind of a rough spot in the middle of very expensive real estate," Doucoumes said. At the same time he saw its urban appeal.
Before the townhouse project construction started, it took two years to acquire necessary zone changes, variances and permits from city agencies. Plus, the new buildings were in an historic district that carries its own restrictions.
In 2008, the economic downturn hit and delayed the project even further.
"It was just interminable the amount of time and effort it took. It was an ordeal," Doucoumes said. The last townhouse was sold in 2012.
Doucoumes recently sold the last vacant lot he owned — where Gallagher has raised a garden for several years. A single-family house is being designed for the site. Another residential project is planned for nearby Bruce Street, across Second from Miller Street.
Lewis said a townhouse in a downtown neighborhood for her "is the best of both worlds" because it's a new house in an historic setting. "It's a fun place to live."
Fun, perhaps, but living downtown on a street that even today is not much more than an alley — no sidewalks, curbs, street lights — would give some folks pause as they thought about their personal safety.
Miller Street residents pay attention to safety, but you could say they have developed street smarts.
"I don't walk alone at night. But with another person, I feel very comfortable walking the streets around here at night," Lewis said.
With more pedestrians out after dark, "There are more eyes on the streets," Gallagher added.