Lexington leaders occasionally come up with something bold that in hindsight seems like a no-brainer. The proposed land swap between the city and the University of Kentucky looks like one of those things.
This deal better positions both the city and university for future growth. The city gets more than 200 acres of industrial development land in the best possible place. UK gets control of most of the streets its expanding campus has already swallowed.
And the timing could not be better. This deal defuses the only argument with any merit for expanding the Urban Services Boundary at this time: A need for publicly controlled industrial land for economic development.
With the 100-acre Bluegrass Business Park now full, Commerce Lexington officials have been warning that Fayette County will lose future jobs if more “shovel ready” industrial land isn’t made available.
This is the best possible solution to that need: 200 acres already inside the Urban Services Boundary, along interstates 64-75 and near Bluegrass Business Park and UK’s Coldstream Research Campus.
In return for that land, UK would get pieces of 23 streets and alleys that it would then manage and maintain. As part of the deal, UK would commit at least $3 million and the city $1 million to traffic safety improvements in the area.
Not everyone will be happy with this deal. Some people who live near UK’s campus will worry about street closings or restrictions that might make it harder for them to drive where they want to go. I can understand their suspicion. UK has a voracious appetite for property around its campus and it has often not been a good neighbor.
But UK’s growth has long been a necessary part of Lexington’s evolution. UK swallowed up the neighborhood that included my first childhood home in the 1960s. Our home became the Wildcat Lodge parking lot. A massive new residence hall stands there now. My grandparents lived on Dixie Court, one of the streets UK would take over in this deal. UK bought and demolished Dixie Court’s bungalows years ago.
For UK to do its job for the commonwealth, it must continue growing. And I can understand why the university wants to control streets it surrounds. In hindsight, Lexington’s decision years ago to let the state manage some of its key streets hasn’t been in the best interest of creating a modern, livable city. As both the city and campus grow, transportation must become more than wide streets for cars.
I also can understand why residents of Coventry subdivision might be upset. I’m sure they would rather back up to UK farmland than an industrial park. But that’s also a part of living in Lexington growth corridors. My second childhood home backed up to a farm, which is now a subdivision.
This deal includes some other tricky issues, too. State officials must allow UK to sell, rather than just lease, 50 acres in Coldstream Research Campus to companies. UK would use half those proceeds for infrastructure improvements on the 200 acres of industrial land going to the city, and presumably keep the rest, rather than hand it all over to the state treasury.
The state also must allow UK to create a tax-increment financing district on some undeveloped land at Coldstream, which could help attract hotels, restaurants and retail development to what is now a sterile business park. This needs close scrutiny because so-called TIF financing, which was originally intended to subsidize development in decayed urban areas, has gotten out of hand.
Overall, though, this deal reminds me of the brilliant 2008 land swap that saw Eastern State Hospital move to Coldstream, Bluegrass Community and Technical College move to the old Eastern State property and UK take over BCTC’s old campus.
While the details of this deal need vetting, the Urban County Council, the UK Board of Trustees and Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration should figure out a way to make the concept work. Lexington and UK are two of Kentucky’s biggest economic engines, and this deal could make both of them stronger.