Fayette County

Design task force to discuss downtown Lexington at Tuesday planning meeting

A Design Excellence Task Force that has worked for more than a year to craft guidelines for future construction in downtown Lexington will give an interim report to the Planning Committee of the Urban County Council on Tuesday.

The guidelines, when coupled with development incentives, will ensure that construction enhances downtown and does not destroy what makes Lexington special, said task force chairman Tom Blues.

Downtown construction standards have been discussed for several years, said Chris King, planning division director. Guidelines were recommended in the 2007 downtown master plan drafted by the Washington-based firm of Ayers/Saint/Gross, Architects + Planners.

Downtown advocates pressed more urgently for the city to exercise some control over the design of buildings after the CentrePointe and CVS Pharmacy controversies. In each case, the proposed buildings, neither of which was built, were deemed out of character with others in the city's core.

The task force was appointed in September 2010 by then-Vice Mayor Jim Gray.

Blues said he is frequently asked what design excellence is, and he admitted the concept is hard to put into words. "The goal is not to impose conformity on the design of buildings. We want compatibility not conformity. There's a difference," he said.

"It's about creating buildings and an urban environment where people want to live, work and play," said architect and task force member Graham Pohl.

Iconic design also stimulates economic growth, said architect Rick Ekhoff.

Milwaukee's art museum by internationally acclaimed architect Santiago Calatrava increased economic development by 45 percent in the neighborhood where it is, he said "Just that one building. Architecture can be transformative."

Guidelines would not impose architectural details as do regulations in a local historic overlay zone, said Bill Johnston, president of the Historic Western Suburb Neighborhood Association and a task force member.

Also the goal is not to make new buildings look like old ones. "The idea is to encourage innovative design, he said.

King, the planning division director, said, "What we're talking about are standards to help guide development positively in our downtown."

The task force will need six to 12 more months of work before guidelines are brought to the council for final approval.

The guidelines will be overseen by a new Downtown Design Excellence Review Board that will take the place of the Courthouse Area Design Review Board, but the area covered will be larger than the courthouse design area.

Many cities use design guidelines, said Michael Speaks, dean of the University of Kentucky College of Design. "Guidelines can be incredibly helpful because they can prevent rapacious developers from going unchecked."

On the other hand, they can squeeze too tightly and not allow creative design, he said.

The challenge is to find the right balance, Speaks said.

"Very often the most imaginative work gets done within restraints," he said. "If you don't have constraints to rub up against, it's hard to innovate because you are wide open to do anything."

What Lexington wants to do is err on the side of "encouraging innovative development projects," he added.

Tuesday's meeting will be at 1:30 p.m. in council work chambers in city hall.