UK sorority puts plans for East Maxwell Street house on hold

Alpha Phi sorority wants to demolish these three houses, left to right, 253, 255 and 261 East Maxwell Street to build a sorority house. Neighbors and downtown supporters are opposed. January 21, 2011. Photo by Ron Garrison | Staff
Alpha Phi sorority wants to demolish these three houses, left to right, 253, 255 and 261 East Maxwell Street to build a sorority house. Neighbors and downtown supporters are opposed. January 21, 2011. Photo by Ron Garrison | Staff

Facing intense neighborhood opposition, a University of Kentucky sorority has put on hold its request for a zone change that would allow it to demolish three houses on East Maxwell Street to build a sorority house.

An attorney for Alpha Phi sorority asked the city's planning staff Friday to postpone the zone change hearing scheduled for Thursday's Planning Commission meeting.

The sorority's attorney, Bruce Simpson, told the planning staff the organization was looking for another housing option, senior planner Jimmy Emmons said.

The group wants to rezone 253, 255 and 261 East Maxwell Street to allow construction of a multistory building that would house 50 undergraduate women.

Aylesford Place Neighborhood Association, Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation and ProgressLex, a downtown advocacy organization, oppose the project.

The city's planning staff is recommending disapproval of the sorority's request because allowing a more dense residential zoning "would promote demolition of the existing three buildings that make up part of an entire block of older, residential-type buildings with consistent architecture," Emmons said.

"The block is really a community asset," he said, noting that the Downtown Master Plan recommends the area remain architecturally intact.

"Retaining the old and historic buildings for housing and retail space is important to revitalization of the area," he said.

A planning staff report also calls the proposed three-story Alpha Phi building out of scale with other houses in the neighborhood. It is twice as wide as neighboring buildings and would take up nearly one-third of the block.

It also violates the city's Comprehensive Land Use Plan because it would exceed allowed population density per square foot of building space, Emmons said.

Alpha Phi International Fraternity is the newest sorority on the UK campus; the chapter was started a little more than a year ago. Members meet in various places on campus, said Linda Kahangi, executive director of the sorority, which is based in Evanston, Ill.

Kahangi said she was aware of community opposition to the proposed sorority house.

"We are certainly open to changing our plan if there is another, viable opportunity," she said in an interview Friday. "The last thing we want is to build a chapter house where we are not wanted. We want to have good relations with the neighbors."

The sorority first worked with UK to find university-owned property close to other sorority houses where it could build or renovate an existing building. Those efforts were unsuccessful, Kahangi said.

However, in recent days "we have seen some movement with the university about freeing up some other property," she said.

On Monday, campus services administrator Lance Broeking said the university has identified parcels it owns on Rose Lane that might work for Alpha Phi.

"I am sending them the information as quick as possible," he said.

Gregory Guenthner, treasurer of Aylesford Place Neighborhood Association, said the blocks between downtown and campus make up a walkable neighborhood prime for revitalization and live-work programs.

"It is an ideal neighborhood for faculty and staff who want to live close to campus and for people who work downtown, so they can walk to work," he said.

The neighborhood association understands a sorority needs to be near campus, Guenthner said. "But this is an institutional dormitory, and we don't think campus ought to be migrating north of Maxwell."

Tearing down the houses "weakens the residential fabric of the block and sets a bad precedent," said Lexington architect Graham Pohl. "It will make it easier for developers to raze buildings in that neighborhood in the future."

The threatened 200 block of East Maxwell adjoins the Aylesford neighborhood, which is protected by local historic zoning. Aylesford also is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Blue Grass Trust has followed the sorority's zone-change request for several months, said Linda Carroll, president of the Blue Grass Trust board.

"We are solidly opposed to what they want to do," she said.

When Aylesford was working to get historic zoning, the 200 block of East Maxwell was removed at the request of a developer who owns numerous properties around the university, she said.

"That the block got carved out of the Aylesford neighborhood doesn't make it any less historically and architecturally significant," Carroll said.

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