Fayette County

Judge temporarily halts demolition of former state office building in historic area

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 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. Lexington Herald-Leader

A Fayette Circuit judge has temporarily halted the demolition of a former state office building in a historic district at the corner of High and South Upper streets.

Fayette Circuit Judge Thomas Travis granted a motion on Aug. 1 by the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation for a temporary injunction and restraining order that halts the proposed demolition of the building as Travis considers the preservation group’s appeal of a June Board of Adjustment decision allowing demolition of the building.

The fate of the former state employment office, which was built in 1956 and has been vacant for years, has been in limbo for a year as its demolition has been challenged in two separate court cases.

The Webb Companies want to raze the building to develop The Residences at South Hill, a four-story apartment complex. The Board of Architectural Review, which must sign off on demolitions in historic districts, voted to approve the demolition in August 2018 but limited the maximum height of the new apartment building to four stories, among other design changes. The Board of Architectural Review’s decision was appealed to the Urban County Planning Commission, which unanimously approved the demolition in October 2018.

Residences at South Hill.jpg
The proposed Residences at South Hill will be built after a two-story former government office building is razed at the corner of High and Upper streets. The new building will be four stories.

The city’s historic preservation staff had recommended denying the permit to demolish and said the Webbs had not provided enough evidence to show the building could not be remolded and used again as an office building.

The Webb Companies argued it would be too costly to rehabilitate the building and the building did not contribute to the historical significance of the South Hill Neighborhood, which is known for homes that are more than a century old.

The Blue Grass Trust, a local historic preservation group which argued against demolition, filed a lawsuit in October. In January, that case was dismissed based on procedural issue. The group then appealed the January dismissal to the state Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, the Webb Companies asked the Board of Adjustment in June to rule that the demolition permit could be issued. The Board of Adjustment, which handles administrative appeals, agreed the demolition permit could be issued. The Blue Grass Trust filed a separate lawsuit June 18 asking Travis to overturn the Board of Adjustment’s decision. As part of that lawsuit, the trust asked Travis to issue a temporary injunction stopping the city from issuing the building permit.

The trust must post a $25,000 appeal bond, Travis wrote.

Jessica Winters, a lawyer for the Blue Grass Trust, said the group will post the bond.

Nick Nicholson, a lawyer for the Webb Companies, said the Historic South Hill Neighborhood supported the demolition and the Residences at South Hill. The trust’s decision to tie the issue up in court is a waste of resources, he said.

“We find it quite unfortunate that the Blue Grass Trust is trying to hold up a significant downtown development which has been approved by every LFUCG entity with authority over the project and supported by the historic neighborhood in which the building and the project are located,” Nicholson said. “The neighborhood that is most directly impacted by this structure fully supported the demolition of the structure as they felt it was a detriment to their neighborhood.”

The temporary injunction could remain in place until the various appeals have been decided, which could take years.