Greg Walker, along with his father, Randy, and his brother, Chad, has worked for years to rehabilitate and renovate what had been a nondescript collection of small industrial office and warehouse buildings bounded by Walton, National and North Ashland Avenues in Lexington. Lately, the section of town within whiffing distance of the Jif Peanut Butter Plant has been springing to life with a growing collection of interesting entrepreneurial businesses.
This interview was conducted in a studio, Dynamix Productions, that is now into its 11th year on National Avenue.
Tom Martin: How did this come together as a family business?
Greg Walker: All of this really got started in 1985 in the building that we're actually in right now — my father's old building where he had his electrical business, the very first purchase that he made in this area. He saw so many abandoned buildings around the block and decided to try to start purchasing them and renovating them, piece by piece. So, because we're such a tight family, we're always around each other, we always work together, it was a natural fit for all of us to just come together using each of our own gifts and bringing them to the table individually and collaboratively as a group.
Martin: How much of the district does Walker Properties now own?
Walker: We have approximately 13 acres of commercial real estate which encompasses what we would call one complete whole city block and then parts of another city block.
Martin: Instead of coming in and demolishing the whole block and rebuilding something new, you've chosen to renovate. Why?
Walker: There are certain restrictions in building construction and building codes specifically that it just doesn't make sound financial sense to demolish a building and erect a new one. What we ended up doing was partnering alongside Barry McNees to open the Distillery District several years ago to try to create the Adaptive Reuse Zoning Ordinance that would be an overlay over our current zoning. Through that we were able to define exactly what an adaptive reuse program is in the city of Lexington. None of this that we're doing down here today would have been possible. Adaptive reuse has really changed the game.
Martin: You were waiting for that to happen?
Walker: Yes. We were finding that certain types of tenants were trying to get into the area, but they just couldn't because of our zoning and we found that we were starting to do conditional usage permits for more and more tenants. A conditional usage permit basically says that I'm going to use the current zoning ordinance, but I'm going to have to get permission from the city to do certain other things that I want to do in my business and every time we had to do one of those, it was a risk. It takes four to six weeks to get one completed and sometimes, you don't have that kind of time when you're working with a tenant. And you run the risk of doing all this work with the tenant and then at the end of it not getting approved. So we saw that something had to give. We started looking at possibly doing a B1 zoning change. That's when we discovered that ... Instead of changing the zone, why not fix the current zoning ordinance in Lexington? And that's when we did a huge ZOTA (Zoning Ordinance Text Amendment.)
When we got all of that approved that's when things really changed. The adaptive reuse program is a very elite club. You just can't walk down to the city and apply and you're in. We wrote that zoning ordinance so that only a certain specific type of property or type of usage can get into that club and that's because once you get it, the zoning ordinance is very, very relaxed. Even down to parking, you get like a 50 percent reduction in your parking requirements. That's unheard of in Lexington. They try to put more power into the landlords' hands and away from the city's and I think it's really courageous of them do such things. But it's been a positive effect on the city of Lexington.
Martin: I hear that you take a personal interest in what your tenants are doing — you could just collect a rent check, but you take it beyond that.
Walker: Oh, absolutely. I tend to know my clients on a personal level. I know a little bit about each of them or what they're going through. If they disclose that to me, I always listen. Sometimes, I feel like I'm a family counselor. At Walker Properties, because it is a family business, our reputation is out there on everything we do. Even in this interview, I represent my father and my brother. We're always looking for the right ethical, moral thing to do in every situation.
Martin: You very recently branded the district the "Warehouse Block." How did you arrive with that title?
Walker: We actually started the idea of branding the neighborhood several years ago. We worked on the brand and came up with several names that we thought were viable. One of them was Warehouse District but we put it on the shelf because we didn't want the name "district" attached to our brand. We thought that that title had been used a lot and we wanted something unique. So we shelved the idea, and then about eight years later we finally said, okay now it's time to finally pick what we're going to do here and let the tenants decide. That's when we revisited the Warehouse District and we came up with the name Warehouse Block — that stands for National, North Ashland and Walton Avenue. There was a lot of pressure to call this area something to do with National Avenue but then that would leave out all of my tenants on North Ashland and Walton, and so the more we looked at it, the more you study the area, it truly is a block. It's a square and so that's when we came up with the idea of "Warehouse Block." We put that in front of our tenants along with the other name and brand idea and it was one vote away from being completely unanimous for Warehouse Block. They love the idea. "Warehouse" in my opinion speaks to the history of this neighborhood better than any other thing we could've picked. When you look at these buildings they are just warehouses. That's what this area is known for. You can take the history of John G. Epping's building on the corner of National and Walton Avenue. That's a great building where they used to bottle Orange Crush and 7 Up. In the end, all of the business that used to be down in this area were warehouse-type businesses and that's why we think that it's really cool that we're calling the Warehouse Block.
Martin: There's an aesthetic at work all around here. It's very appealing. It's not uniform per se but still there is a consistency to it. Does that come from you all?
Walker: Yes. Anytime I have a client approach me to do a design-build project, I offer my design services at no cost. So the designs do look similar because I do have a certain style that I try to stick to. But also, there's a collaborative effort that goes into each and every design with our clients.
Martin: Is there any other kind of business you hope to attract?
Walker: We're getting ready to build a new building on National Avenue that's going to have about 40,000 square feet. We have an outstanding group of locally-owned, well-known retail shops who have committed to leasing the building once it is complete. I'm always on the lookout for the next big thing, and I would like to have some more entertainment down here.
Martin: What are you thinking about, specifically?
Walker: Live music first and foremost. I've always had a dream: I wear a lot of hats but when I'm done wearing the property developer hat, I would like to create some sort of entertainment venue for Lexington and it wouldn't even be about making money. It would just be about the pure joy of going out and seeing something live. I think that Lexington does well with that but we can do much better, and I think that this is something that would work well in this area. With the way that Lexington supports the arts, I think it's very possible to pull off something like that.