UK looks at University Lofts to replace Reynolds Building

The University Lofts on Bolivar Street is a former tobacco warehouse. Its renovation into apartments began in 2003 with modern electrical and plumbing service. Inside, it has high ceilings and large rooms, as does the Reynolds Building.
The University Lofts on Bolivar Street is a former tobacco warehouse. Its renovation into apartments began in 2003 with modern electrical and plumbing service. Inside, it has high ceilings and large rooms, as does the Reynolds Building.

The University of Kentucky is in negotiations with the owner of the University Lofts on Bolivar Street to purchase the former tobacco warehouse as a new home for the art department, and that would include student and faculty art studios now housed in the deteriorating Reynolds Building.

The Board of Trustees will be asked at its meeting Tuesday to authorize the university to offer up to $6.7 million for the building, renovated about eight years ago by Lexington developer Rob McGoodwin into 86 loft-style rental apartments.

On Friday, Bob Wiseman, university vice president for facilities, said, "I am very optimistic we'll come to terms."

McGoodwin approached Michael Tick, the new Dean of the College of Fine Arts, last fall after reading that Tick said that doing something about the Reynolds Building was a top priority. McGoodwin showed Tick the Bolivar Street building and suggested UK lease it for the art department.

UK was not interested in renting, but it had the building appraised and did "some slight architectural work to make sure the various uses in the Reynolds Building would fit in this building," Wiseman said.

McGoodwin said on Friday he is "cautiously optimistic" that he and his business partners can come to an agreement with UK. "If we can make it work on our side, I think it could be a very, very smart move for the university," McGoodwin said. "We'll just have to see what they offer, and what the terms are."

He turned down a UK offer of $6.1 million, the property's appraised value.

Wiseman estimated renovating the University Lofts into classroom and studio space would cost about $8 million. Part of the cost would include taking down walls that form the apartments. Still it would be cheaper to buy and renovate University Lofts ($14.7 million total) than renovating Reynolds ($17 million).

If UK were to commit to a substantial renovation of Reynolds, space for instruction, studio and faculty offices would have to be leased for a year during construction. That would cost $1 million, Wiseman said.

Also, space UK rents at several locations for storage of records and material for about $150,000 a year would be saved because Reynolds would be converted to storage. "We could consolidate a great amount, if not all, our storage in Reynolds," Wiseman said.

The much-loved but dilapidated Reynolds Building on the west side of campus is home to the art department's faculty and student studios.

The 144,000-square-foot Reynolds Building looks much like the old tobacco processing facility that R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company constructed in 1910. UK bought Reynolds in 1962 and has never been completely renovated.

UK's vice president of external affairs, Tom Harris, has called Reynolds "probably the worst building in higher education in the state."

Yet its large open spaces and high ceilings give students an opportunity to think big and construct art on a large scale, faculty and staff say.

The University Lofts building has the same aesthetics as Reynolds — high ceilings, big rooms, a loft aesthetic. The difference is that it has been reworked and is in good condition, Wiseman said.

"I see a good roof, good electrical system, good windows, an elevator, metal staircases and waste water and storm water piping, Wiseman said. "All the things we were going to have to do in the Reynolds Building we will not have to do in this building."

Plus, it is located on a safe, well-lit major street, across from campus, close to other apartments, restaurants and bars frequented by students. It is on LexTran and campus bus routes. An 85-space parking lot is across Bolivar Street and there is some on-site parking.

If McGoodwin agrees to sell, Wiseman said he will have to go to the General Assembly in January and seek specific authorization to pay for the $8 million renovation.

That money would become available in July 2012. Renovation would take one year. "If all goes through as hoped, we could occupy the Bolivar building in the fall of 2013," he said.

University Lofts has approximately 110,000 square feet. Reynolds has 154,000 square feet, but only about 54,000 of that is usable, Wiseman said.

That additional space would come in handy, Dean Tick said, because starting this fall, all 4,500 freshmen have to enroll in arts and creativity classes. An estimated 1,500 of those students are expected to take art classes.

Ben Withers, chairman of the art department, said the rundown condition of Reynolds has been an impediment to recruiting outstanding faculty and students, and securing endowment funds from major donors.

He called the possibility of moving into the University Lofts building "incredibly good news." At an art department faculty meeting on Friday, the mood was "very positive."

"But it hasn't been officially approved," Withers said. "We all have our fingers crossed, but until it happens, we aren't going to pop that champagne."

Hayward Wilkirson, president of the nearby Historic South Hill Neighborhood, said of the news, "I find it very exciting to know we are going to have an infusion of that creativity and artistic activity almost right in the center of our neighborhood."

McGoodwin bought a tobacco warehouse on Bolivar Street in 1993 and turned it into a retail center with Lazer Quest as the anchor in 1995. He saw potential with it being close to campus.

He closed Lazer Quest in 2003 to undertake a $5.5 million project to turn the tobacco warehouse into apartments.