LexTran will use a $5.1 million federal grant to build at the site of its now-empty building at North Limestone and Loudon Avenue in what could be a big economic stimulus for the area, officials said Monday.
The local bus authority will use the grant, along with $2.1 million from an earlier grant, toward a $12 million project to consolidate its operations at one site and expand passenger service.
The LexTran project "will be the largest single investment in that neighborhood in I can't imagine how long. It's a huge, huge investment," said Griffin VanMeter, a north-side resident, business owner and vice president of the North Limestone Neighborhood Association.
He pointed to the Central Sector Small Area Plan, completed in 2009, which identified the area along Loudon, between Bryant Avenue and North Broadway, as a "major redevelopment opportunity."
The project has the potential "to change this whole part of our community," Mayor Jim Newberry said at a news conference announcing the grant.
Phase one of the project started in 2001, when the bus company acquired the five-acre tract and built a bus-washing garage.
The 80-year-old brick building at the northwest corner, empty since LexTran purchased the property, will be retained if possible, said Rocky Burke, LexTran general manager, but the back will be demolished and replaced by a structure with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.
LexTran officials have been meeting with nearby neighborhood associations, and the shared sentiment is that the façade of the 1928 brick structure, built by Greyhound, should be kept. Burke said that would depend on the structural soundness of the building, which was once used as a kitchen design center.
"We will try our best to retain some of it," Burke said. "If nothing else, we will keep the bricks and reuse them."
Neighbors reacted favorably to Monday's announcement.
The positive influence of rebuilding Arlington Elementary School "into a state-of-the-art school," a project that is nearing completion, together with redevelopment of the LexTran property will continue to breathe new life into the north side, said the Rev. Martina Ockerman, an associate pastor at The Rock United Methodist Church nearby.
She pointed to an influx of young families moving into the Castlewood Park area, buying older houses and fixing them up.
The Rev. Kris Bentley, pastor at Arlington Christian Church, farther north on Limestone, said, "Anything people do to enrich and redevelop this area will be a good thing. It feels like it's a neglected part of town."
Building what fits
The project calls for keeping the bus wash facility on Loudon, expanding the vehicle maintenance building and adding more bus parking. LexTran's administrative offices — some of which are in the Central Christian Church property on Spruce Street — will be brought together on the site. The authority has nearly 200 employees and a fleet of 75 buses.
Within 30 days, LexTran will begin advertising for an architectural and engineering firm to begin planning for the project. The company hopes to move quickly on the project, Burke said.
Whatever is built on the site will be in keeping architecturally with other old buildings in the immediate area. "We want to build something back that fits into the community," he said.
The two grants will leave LexTran $4.5 million short of its $12 million financial goal, but it has applications pending for two other grants.
Burke expressed confidence the company would be able to get grant money to round out the needed sum.
The expansion will give LexTran more parking space for buses, allow it to expand its fleet and add more routes. Right now, "we are maxed out," Burke said. "We have no place to park additional buses."
The LexTran project was one of 47 selected from 281 applicants nationwide for funds from the Federal Transit Administration's Bus and Bus Facilities Livability Initiative grant project.
Les Miller, an owner of Al's Bar at Sixth and North Limestone, said LexTran had been "very transparent and open" in informing residents of its plans and soliciting their ideas.
"It can only be a good thing to turn an empty, abandoned building into a hub of activity," he said.
Miller said he and his business partners particularly want to see the old building saved and redeveloped "rather than demolished."