Fayette County

Developer wants to tear down historic district building. Downtown neighbors oppose it.

The Webb Companies have proposed building a condominium on the corner of High and Upper streets. The Board of Architectural Review will review the Webb Companies’ request to tear down a two-story former state office building at that intersection to build the condos at a meeting on Wednesday.
The Webb Companies have proposed building a condominium on the corner of High and Upper streets. The Board of Architectural Review will review the Webb Companies’ request to tear down a two-story former state office building at that intersection to build the condos at a meeting on Wednesday. Lord Aeck Sargent

The Historic South Hill Neighborhood is pushing back against a proposal to tear down a former state office building on West High Street to build a multistory condominium complex in the historic district.

The Webb Companies have proposed tearing down the two-story building at 120 W. High Street to build a multistory condominium project. Preliminary plans call for 44 one and two-bedroom units.

Because 120 W. High St. is in an historic district, called an H-1 overlay zone, the demolition and the design of the building must be approved by the Board of Architectural Review, a five-member board appointed by the mayor. The meeting on the proposal is 5 p.m. Wednesday in the city council chambers at the government building, 200 E. Main St.

A staff report by the city’s Historic Preservation office recommended the board deny the request.

The report, posted online Monday, said that the Webb Companies did not meet the standard for demolition of a building in a historic district. Buildings can be demolished if it’s for a non-significant or non-historic structure or a non-contributing building. Or if the property owner proves that no “reasonable economic return may be gained from the property.”

“While the condition of the building has been suggested to be beyond cost effective renovation by the applicant, historic preservation staff has been presented with no demonstrated rehabilitation needs that would suggest a reason to demolish the structure,” the staff report said. “The staff, by its experience with other projects, strongly believes that it is possible to renovate the structure within parameters that would result in viable economic return.”

Nick Nicholson, a lawyer who represents the Webb Co., said the building — which was last used by the Bluegrass Community and Technical College — has been vacant for years. It was a state-owned office building which has been home to different state divisions including unemployment and Social Security. The Webbs purchased the building from the state last year for more than $1 million, according to Fayette County property records.

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The former employment office at 120 W. High and South Upper streets. The Webb Companies want to tear down the two-story building and build a four-story condo building. The Historic South Hill Neighborhood opposes the project. The Board of Architectural Review will hear the Webb Companies’ request at its meeting on Wednesday. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

The state has made multiple changes to the building over time that have created flooding problems, Nicholson said.

“There is a slope on the property,” Nicholson said. A wheelchair ramp on the side of the building lets water right into the building, “which causes the lobby to flood.”

Nicholson said it would cost upwards of $750,000 to make changes to the building to prevent the flooding. The building has no historical significance and should be torn down, he said.

The proposed condo development will be five stories on the High Street side and four and a half toward the back of the building. The first floor may contain some retail, Nicholson said.

Jennifer Coffman, president of the Historic South Hill Neighborhood Association, said most of the neighborhood opposes tearing down the building not because they want to save the building but because it sets a precedent. Coffman said the neighborhood would prefer a four-story height limit.

“We are also concerned about the massing of the building,” Coffman said.

The neighborhood has met with the Webb Companies several times, she said, adding the Webbs have made some changes to the design to address some of their concerns.

Nicholson said they did not think the maximum five floor height was too tall for the area. There are other buildings in the surrounding blocks that are taller.

“We are not nearly as tall as the Hub,” Nicholson said. “The slope of the property helps mask the height.”

Core Spaces is currently building a five- and six-story building called the Hub at 500 South Upper on what was a parking lot between Jersey Street and South Upper Street. South Hill Neighborhood had asked developers and the Urban County Planning Commission to limit the number of stories to four. But that request was rejected. Center Court, a development on South Upper, had agreed to limit the number of floors to four when it was built several years ago.

Nicholson said the building will not be a straight wall. There will be setbacks on the sidewalk level. There is also a cut through at the bottom of the building to the parking in the back.

“The mass of the building is no different then Dudley Square or the First United Methodist Church,” Nicholson said.

But members of South Hill, in a letter to the Board of Architectural Review, said the proposed condo development would not add to the historic nature of the neighborhood.

“The structure, if permitted, would add a tall, massive structure this intimate, charming neighborhood,” the letter said. “Instead of the proposed structure, the neighborhood would prefer to see a building which is not more than four stories (like Center Court); is less massive and has more greenspace, especially at street level.”

The downtown CentrePointe project has been renamed to City Center during its "topping-off" ceremony with attendees signing the last steel beam that was later lifted to the top of one of the new structures.

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