Tom Eblen

New year’s challenge: How can Lexington attract good jobs, not just more sprawl?

The entrance to the University of Kentucky Coldstream Research Park entrance off of Citation Boulevard. UK wants city officials to allow it to add multi-family housing to the 735-acre office and industrial park to try to attract more development.
The entrance to the University of Kentucky Coldstream Research Park entrance off of Citation Boulevard. UK wants city officials to allow it to add multi-family housing to the 735-acre office and industrial park to try to attract more development.

Which comes first: the chicken or the egg? As Lexington officials wade back into controversial issues of growth, development and land-use planning this year, that old riddle could be central to the debate.

With demand for development finally picking up after the 2008 financial collapse, there is renewed pressure for another expansion of the Urban Services Boundary, which since 1958 has sought to control sprawl and protect Fayette County’s farmland and signature landscape.

The biggest issue will likely be “economic development” land, because a large chunk of local government revenues come from occupational taxes. Some factories have bypassed Lexington for surrounding counties in recent years, but that seems to have been more a function of land prices than availability.

When the Urban Services Boundary was last expanded, in 1996, more than 500 acres in two locations, near Interstates 64 and 75, was set aside for future factories and offices. Almost none of it has been used. Meanwhile, the University of Kentucky’s 735-acre Coldstream Research Campus still has 200 acres available for development.

One thing that has hindered Coldstream since its creation in 1992 has been that UK won’t sell land, only lease it. That is because the university can keep lease revenues, but any money from any land sales would go to the state treasury. That policy is unlikely to change.

An issue Lexington faces in attracting jobs — especially in high-paying, knowledge-based industries — is that people now want to work in mixed-use developments rather than office parks. Many young people want to live near where they work. Even more, people want restaurants, coffee shops and brew pubs nearby. These are not just nice amenities, but places where people network and brainstorm ideas.

UK will ask city officials next month for a text amendment to Coldstream’s zoning so about 20 percent of the campus could be developed with apartments, townhouses and retail services. The university also wants permission to build more densely — the minimum lot size now is five acres — to make better use of green space and make Coldstream more pedestrian-friendly.

Another factor driving UK’s request is a 2011 state law that allowed university research parks to take advantage of tax-increment financing to build infrastructure. But TIF-financed development needs sales tax revenues to work.

UK’s request makes a lot of sense, for several reasons.

Coldstream’s 1980s design has long been out of date. As Central Kentucky’s premier site for research-oriented companies, Coldstream must keep up with the market. Lexington’s economic future depends on the kind of innovative talent those companies attract, in part because many of those people will go on to become the city’s future entrepreneurs.

In 2009, UK hired a respected urban planning firm to create a master plan it now wants to use. It is a good plan, and, as part of their approval, city officials should make sure UK sticks to it, or a plan at least that good.

Another reason city officials should approve the zoning text amendment is that Coldstream passes the chicken-and-egg test. Coldstream’s current facilities are 95 percent occupied, with about 2,350 people working there for 56 organizations.

In other words, Coldstream is a proven economic development site, and it deserves the chance to try new approaches that have proven successful at other research parks around the country. As long as the city ensures that whatever UK does there is high quality, it’s a no-brainer.

But the Urban County Council should proceed cautiously with another zoning text amendment proposal, already approved by the Planning Commission. It would allow additional kinds of business, residential development and other “supporting” uses on as much as 20 percent of the 500 acres of economic development expansion land. The concept is similar to what Coldstream wants to do. But here’s the difference: there’s nothing there now. Neither chicken nor egg.

Will these additional “supporting” uses actually attract companies with high-paying jobs to that land? Or will it just become more sprawl with low-wage service jobs? How much “supporting” development should be allowed before job-creating companies have committed to moving there?

A 16-member work group, which includes the landowners, has been working for two years on the proposed zoning text amendment. The ideas behind it make a lot of sense, but design and execution will be key. Council members should weigh the proposal carefully to make sure any chicken-and-egg assumptions are all they are cracked up to be.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen