Report calls on UK to build housing that benefits downtown Lexington

Houses on Conn Terrace with the new University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Hospital in the background, in Lexington, Ky. Wednesday, May 16, 2012.  A new report by a national town-gown expert says UK, Transy and BCTC must work together and focus on issues like housing that can create better neighborhoods and a more vibrant downtown. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff
Houses on Conn Terrace with the new University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Hospital in the background, in Lexington, Ky. Wednesday, May 16, 2012. A new report by a national town-gown expert says UK, Transy and BCTC must work together and focus on issues like housing that can create better neighborhoods and a more vibrant downtown. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff Herald-Leader

The University of Kentucky is preparing to replace and greatly increase its student housing, and where that happens is crucial to the well-being of Lexington, according to a new report.

Much of UK's student housing is located away from walkable commercial corridors, and a better solution would be to create mixed-use spaces closer to the core of downtown Lexington, concluded Omar Blaik, an expert in town-gown communities.

Blaik has written a $45,000 study on the problems and promise of the community bordered by UK, Transylvania University and the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College location on Fourth Street.

Building student housing in the right locations can help harness the economic promise of the higher education institutions and produce a more vibrant city core, Blaik said.

"The opportunity is tremendous — we rarely find a city mayor and university president and a city council and civic leaders who are all aspiring for the same thing," Blaik said in a phone interview. "But as much as we believe the potential is tremendous, we also believe the time is now, because if this student housing gets built in a different way, the opportunity will be lost."

The report uses census data to prove what many residents know: student rental housing around the UK campus has exploded and pushed out many families, including the faculty and staff who work there.

The report found that while 68 percent of employees at the three schools live inside Lexington's urban services area, only 7.7 percent live near those campuses.

During the past two decades, neighborhoods such as Montclair have seen the percentage of rental units spike from about 10 percent to 50 percent, while those even closer to UK, such as Aylesford and Columbia Heights, have rates closer to 80 percent and 90 percent.

Elizabeth Street, the center of riots after UK won the NCAA men's basketball championship in April, has seen its rate of rental units increase from 45 percent to 64 percent during the past 20 years. Corresponding data on the percentage of non-family households largely matches these trends.

Mayor Jim Gray called the report "a big step in the right direction."

"Facts are stubborn and they're compelling," he said. "This data confirms what many have been observing, living through and struggling with for a long time. These neighborhoods should be assets to this university, but instead they've been marginalized."

UK has a tremendous responsibility to the neighborhoods around it, and past UK policies — or lack of them — have been detrimental, the report concludes.

The banning of alcohol on campus in 1998 might have sent some students off campus, Blaik said, but UK's decision to build so few dorms in the past 40 years has had a far larger effect. In response, landlords started adding big additions to family houses, putting numerous students in what once were family neighborhoods. Clashes over noise, trash and parties ensued.

Blaik said UK has many of the same problems as urban campuses around the country, but "the scale of the impact of the institution on the surrounding neighborhoods, I haven't seen that kind of scale before."

As a vice president at the University of Pennsylvania, Blaik oversaw the revival of deteriorated and dangerous areas around the urban Philadelphia campus. He's now the president of U3Ventures, a real estate development and consulting firm that specializes in helping universities integrate with their surroundings to create vibrant areas.

His study was funded by the three educational institutions, several individuals, Commerce Lexington, the Blue Grass Trust, the Blue Grass Community Foundation, Fayette Alliance, the Downtown Development Authority and the city.

The report echoes a similar one conducted in 2002, when Lee T. Todd Jr. was president of UK and Pam Miller was mayor.

The College Town plan said UK needed at least 4,000 more beds and suggested replacing the parking lots around Memorial Coliseum with new buildings for UK's business and law schools, among many other suggestions of how to create a more vibrant town-gown connection.

Much of the plan centered on redeveloping the area between UK and downtown, including an executive MBA building on a grassy lot on High Street near Calvary Baptist Church that still sits empty.

Blaik praised UK President Eli Capilouto's plans for new housing, which are expected to create 9,000 new beds in a partnership with a private developer. A new 600-bed residence hall is under construction near the William T. Young Library.

"Where that new housing will go and how it will get done and how it will be implemented to create the vibrancy is still up in the air," Blaik said. "I applaud their commitment to building student housing, and we are in discussions with them about where those discussions are and how it can benefit the neighborhoods and the campus."

Bob Wiseman, UK's vice president for facilities management, said the northern portion of UK's campus is bordered by urban areas, while the southern end is in a more suburban area. There are plans to replace and expand much of the student housing between Limestone and Avenue of Champions, but a lot of new housing also will be placed farther south, where large dorm towers now sit.

"I think we'd have opportunity for good solid discussion, particularly on north campus, for how we achieve the community and the university's goal of connecting with downtown as well as assisting in neighborhood redevelopment and stabilization," Wiseman said.

Gray expressed optimism moving forward. "We have a new president (at UK), fresh beginning and willingness to engage this issue in a meaningful way, examine it carefully, including examining the resources we're going to need," he said.

John Michler, former president of the Aylesford Neighborhood Association, also praised the report.

"Omar Blaik has a real understanding of how to use the university as an economic stimulant," Michler said. "This was pointed out by a former study on town-gown relations. Blake is just saying it better and more precisely."

The Aylesford neighborhood has one of the highest rates of rental units and non-family households.

"Certainly, Blake's recommendation on where to build dorms is totally on target," Michler said. "Rather than isolate students inside the university, we have said all along for downtown to have a true revival, it is important to have more people living in and close to downtown."

For example, building student housing on what is now a university-owned parking lot between South Limestone and South Upper Street "would be a far better use for that land than a barren, asphalt plot," Michler said.

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