The Lexington council killed the most recent proposal for a new city government center Thursday night by voting to stop negotiations with a private developer to rehab and expand the Lexington Herald-Leader building on Midland Avenue and Main Street.
Minutes after the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council voted 7 to 5 to nix a potential deal with CRM Companies, Councilwoman Susan Lamb proposed the council consider Phoenix Park on Main Street as a possible site for a new city government center.
A workshop to discuss Phoenix Park was set for Sept. 27.
The block on Main Street where the park is located was considered as a possible location for a new city hall more than two years ago when the city contemplated buying the adjacent Lexington Public Library. But that option was scratched after consultants said the library building was too small and too expensive to rehab.
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Lamb said after the Thursday meeting that the library building would not be part of the proposed new site. The land in Phoenix Park and possibly the government-owned Phoenix building, which is adjacent to the park, could be used as a footprint for a new government center, she said.
A 2017 study estimated that building an eight-story building on the Phoenix Park location would cost between $91 million and $96 million, but consultants cautioned at the time that those numbers were preliminary.
At least one adjacent landowner said Friday he would fight the Phoenix Park location. And one candidate for mayor said the council should hit pause on the site-selection process and have a broader discussion about whether it wants a new government center.
Developer Dennis Anderson, who owns Park Plaza apartments, said he vehemently opposes Phoenix Park as the new home for the city government center. The high-rise apartment complex fronts Phoenix Park.
Anderson said he has spent more than $75,000 on upgrades to the city-run park, including fencing for the only downtown dog park. He has also spent millions on the Park Plaza apartment complex since taking it over more than a decade ago, including a more than $4 million current remodel.
“I also have an easement that goes directly through the park,” Anderson said.
Anderson said Park Plaza is one of the largest apartment complexes in downtown. If the city wants more people to live downtown, which is key to attracting retail, restaurants and a long-sought-after downtown grocery store, it needs more residential properties not fewer, he said.
Replacing the park with a city government center will hurt those efforts, he said.
“Most cities will help developers do infill and development by paying for things like park amenities,” Anderson said. Lexington does not, he said.
Ann Hammond, executive director of the Lexington Public Library, said after the city decided not to buy its building the library decided to do a facility needs assessment, which includes a renovation of the downtown location.
Hammond said the city has not approached the library about using Phoenix Park as a possible site for a new city hall or asked about the library’s future plans. The library and the parks department also have upped the amount of programming in the park over the past year.
“Our point to renovating the building is to make it more open and inviting to the public,” Hammond said. Putting a city government center on that site “will certainly effect what we do here.”
Discussion of Phoenix Park as a possible site for city hall comes as Lexington prepares to elect a new mayor on Nov. 6, along with deciding who should hold every seat on the city council.
“I think they need to take a deep breath and not rush into anything now,” said Linda Gorton, a former vice mayor who is battling Ronnie Bastin, a former police chief and commissioner of public safety, in the race for mayor. “I think they need to get perspective on things. It would be helpful if they could come together and figure out what their priorities are.”
Councilwoman Amanda Bledsoe is the only member of the 15-member council who does not have an opponent. Councilwoman Peggy Henson is retiring and not running for re-election.
Gorton, who was the city’s longest-serving council member, said this is not the first time the council has stopped a city hall proposal from moving forward. Other proposals by Gray and former Mayor Jim Newberry also stalled at the council level.
Council members who opposed the Herald-Leader site did so for a variety of reasons. Some didn’t like the cost — $178 million over 35 years. Others didn’t like the location. Some weren’t sure if leasing from a private developer was the right option.
Those concerns will not change with a new site, Gorton said.
“Does the council want to do this or not?” Gorton said. “That’s the first question the council needs to answer. They need to address this in a logical way. This would be a great opportunity for the council to have a discussion that focuses not on a site but on the big picture.”
Bastin said he has spoken with hundreds of voters over the past several months and few have told him that a new city government center is a top priority.
“I appreciate the efforts of Mayor Gray and the council on this initiative,” Bastin said. “ Nevertheless, we must take time to assess the priorities for our community before moving forward. As mayor I will take a hard look at ideas for addressing our need for a new city hall.”
Bastin also said that politics should be kept out of a very important and expensive decision.
“I will not let the politics of this issue come before the most immediate needs of the people of Lexington,” Bastin said.
Craig Turner, CEO of CRM Companies, also did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment. Turner has an option to buy the Herald-Leader building. It’s not clear if he will buy the property now that the city hall deal has been scuttled.