What is now a row of dilapidated houses on York Street could soon become the anchor of Lexington's first "live-work" community.
The project, spearheaded by the North Limestone Community Development Corporation, would allow artists and craftsmen to live, work and sell goods out of their homes.
At the same time, backers of the project hope to preserve one of Lexington's older, working-class neighborhoods and provide quality affordable housing.
"Our priority is to keep people who are living in this neighborhood in this neighborhood," said Richard Young, executive director of the North Limestone Community Development Corporation. "Affordability and accessibility are key."
In December, the Urban County Council voted unanimously for a change in the city's zoning language to allow for live-work communities, the first step in the process. Next, the group must file an application for a zoning change.
Using several different funding sources, including a $425,000 ArtPlace America grant, the group was able to buy 18 properties that it is now in the process of renovating. Seventeen of those homes are on York Street, and one is on nearby Eddie Street. Those houses will be key to making the new live-work community a success.
The idea for the new zoning designation came from the neighborhood itself.
"We have a lot of people in the neighborhood who make stuff and produce wares, and they want a place to sell them," said Kristofer Nonn, an architect and project manager for the community development corporation.
"There is also a need in the greater Lexington area," Nonn said of artist and craftsman spaces.
Many artists can't afford to have a studio, rent an apartment or pay a mortgage and have a separate place to sell their work. This type of zoning can slash overhead and allow artists and craftsmen to make a living, said Young.
"The philosophy is to return it to what was once here," Young said.
In one of the homes on York Street, they found a ledger from the 1940s of a former resident who was a television and radio repairman. The working-class neighborhood is still filled with craftsmen, artists and people who make and sell goods.
"There is a precedent for it," Nonn said. "It's just a matter of using modern zoning to get back to that self-reliance."
With limited exceptions, zoning laws have not allowed people to sell products out of their homes or to employ other people there. The new zone, called a planned unit development zone, would allow artists and craftsmen to produce and sell products out of their homes. Some of the allowed uses under the planned unit development zone include artist studios, artisan food and beverage production, and urban agriculture.
The proposed live-work area includes the area bounded by Seventh Street, North Limestone, the RJ Corman railroad line and Maple Street. There are potentially 39 properties that are considering the new designation. But there are a total of 171 properties in that block that could apply for the change, Nonn said.
Nonn said the group hopes to have its application to the city for the zoning change in the next few months. It's still working with property owners in the area to determine who wants to apply for the zoning change.
The group's aim is to keep the sale prices of the homes it owns — called the LuigART Maker Spaces — reasonable. One of the 18 homes has already been remodeled. Young said the goal is to keep the sale prices under $100,000 so mortgages will remain about the same as market rents for the area. They are hoping the homes will sell with prices in the $60,000 range. The LuigART Maker Spaces share the name of a nearby street — Luigart Court.
"It is a home-ownership program," Young said. "That's what differentiates us from similar programs across the country. We want to encourage home ownership in the neighborhood. We want to provide housing that is better than what is currently available."
Council member Chris Ford, whose council district includes the North Limestone area, said the North Limestone Community Development Corporation has worked with the city's planning staff and with the neighborhood to come up with a unique proposal that he hopes will keep more residents in the neighborhood.
"I am encouraged by their initial efforts to include affordable housing in the confines of the project," Ford said. "I am also encouraged that folks that are already residing in the neighborhood or may want to return to the neighborhood will have the same options as newcomers."
Nonn said that because the community development corporation is a nonprofit, the group is not trying to make money. That's how it can keep the cost of rehabbing and selling the homes low.
"We will take the proceeds of the sale of one house and put it into the next house," Nonn said.
That means that it will take time to rehab the properties. It's a slow, deliberate process.
But it could have big payoffs down the road, Nonn said.
"We are trying to save an old working-class neighborhood that under other models, you would find one developer who would come in, bulldoze all the properties and build another development," Nonn said. "This option will preserve what's already here."