After more than four hours of debate, a Lexington historic preservation board voted 3 to 1 Wednesday night to let a developer tear down a 1950s office building in the Historic South Hill Neighborhood.
The Webb Companies had asked to demolish the former state office building on the corner of High and Upper streets so it could build a five- and four-story apartment building. Because the two-story office building is in an historic district, the company had to get approval from the Board of Architectural Review to demolish the building and for the design of the new apartment building.
The review board placed several design restrictions on the proposed project, including decreasing the building’s maximum height from five stories to four stories. Under the original proposal, the maximum height was five stories on the High Street side and four stories at the rear of the building, which is closest to the residential area of Historic South Hill.
The height restriction could eliminate nearly a third of the project’s proposed 44 units, lawyers for The Webb Companies said Wednesday.
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The company has not decided whether it will appeal the height limitation to the Urban County Planning Commission, said Nick Nicholson, a lawyer for the company.
“Moving forward, the applicant will evaluate the impact the loss of units and recommended design changes has on the project before making any determination on proceeding with the project or appealing any part of the board’s decision to the planning commission,” Nicholson said.
The city’s historic preservation staff had recommended denying the permit to demolish and said The Webb Companies had not provided enough evidence to show the building could not be remodeled and used again as an office building.
“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.”
The Historic South Hill Neighborhood had objected to the demolition, saying it might set a precedent that would allow other buildings to be demolished. It also had sought to limit the maximum number of floors for the 44-unit building to four. The project includes 61 parking spaces.
Jennifer Coffman, president of the neighborhood association, said the neighborhood has not yet to decide if it will appeal the board’s decision.
Officials with the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation also urged the board to block demolition.
“We ask you to be very, very cautious,” said Janie Fergus, a board member of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation. “We are concerned about any precedent when it comes to demolition.”
The Webb Companies countered that the former state office building was built in 1956 and has never contributed to the historic significance of the neighborhood, which is mostly known for homes that are more than a century old. The company also argued the property could not be remolded and used as an office building because of various problems.
Nicholson said it would cost at least $725,000 to bring the building up to code or to make it inhabitable. The Webb Companies purchased the building from the state for a little more than $1 million and tried to lease the building for two years, he said.
“The only people who looked at it was the city,” Nicholson said, which passed because of the condition of the building.
If necessary changes were made to the building it would have to be rented at $28 per square foot, well above the current average rate of about $13 to $19 a square foot, Nicholson said.
Dudley Webb, of The Webb Companies, said the building is on a slope, which means much of the office space is below ground level. They could not charge $28 a square foot for office space in a basement, he said.
Members of the Board of Architectural Review said they were torn.
Graham Pohl said he does not think the building has historic importance because of extensive renovations and changes to the exterior of the building. Sarah Tate said she felt the building’s mid-century modern architecture is important and disappearing in Lexington.
Joshua Gilpin said “given the identity of that neighborhood, I don’t think this particular building reinforces that identity.”
Jim Dickinson, the board chairman, disagreed.
“It’s a hard building to love but it has been part of that neighborhood for 50 years and that deserves some respect,” Dickinson said.
Demolition should only be considered as a last resort and he was not convinced the building could not be adapted and reused, Dickinson said.
Board members that voted in favor of demolition were Pohl, Tate and Gilpin. Dickinson voted against.
In the last 20 years, two other buildings in the Historic South Hill neighborhood have been torn down — a warehouse that was destroyed by fire and a home that had fallen into disrepair.