One argument against expanding the Urban Services Boundary was illustrated by a recent article about the spate of Lexington restaurant closings.
At least five Lexington restaurants have closed in the past few weeks, and more closings are likely, my colleague Janet Patton reported. One big reason: The Summit at Fritz Farm, which opened in May at Nicholasville Road and Man o’ War Boulevard with more than two dozen new restaurants.
“You can’t add that many (restaurants) in less than six months and not have some carnage,” said Brian McCarty, co-owner of Bluegrass Hospitality Group.
Restaurants come and go, and competition weeds out weak players, which isn’t necessarily bad. Fritz Farm was already inside the Urban Services Boundary, and debates about how that land should be developed went on for years.
Still, the $156 million mixed-use complex on the former Fritz family farm illustrates an important point: While new development creates some new economic activity, it almost always cannibalizes existing businesses and development within the city.
During Lexington’s decades of rapid suburbanization — roughly the 1960s through the 1990s — the central business district and many once-prosperous neighborhoods fell into decline. It even happened in some new areas that within just a few decades went from farmland to new suburb to blighted castoff.
But within the past few years, many once-neglected parts of Lexington have seen a renaissance. And it hasn’t just happened downtown and in the historic neighborhoods surrounding it. For example, Turfland and Lexington malls have been redeveloped and Southland Shopping Center has come back to life.
Where I live is a great example of how Lexington neighborhoods can rise, fall and rise again. When my house was new in 1907, it was part of Lexington’s fanciest outer suburb, and its first sale merited a mention in the Lexington Herald.
But by the 1930s, when people were leaving for new homes then being built in Chevy Chase, my end of the street was “red lined” on the infamous lender maps as being in decline. What is now my house made the paper again in 1971, when it was rental property and the site of a major drug bust.
Now, though, my neighborhood and those surrounding it are experiencing rapidly rising home values. An army of renovation contractors have found steady work.
As with the recent restaurant closings, there are many reasons for this, from improved public schools to the fact that many people no longer want to be isolated in car-dependent suburbs. Neighborhoods that are good for walking and biking and are close to downtown amenities are once again popular.
But I think a big reason for Lexington’s urban revival is that the Urban Services Boundary hasn’t been expanded for 21 years. Instead, city policy has focused on infill and redevelopment. That has resulted in a lot of progress, and it has helped focus city resources on repairing and improving existing infrastructure rather than creating new infrastructure in expansion areas.
The Urban County Council on Thursday will consider whether to expand the Urban Services Boundary as part of setting goals and objectives for the next five-year comprehensive land-use plan.
At this point, an outright expansion proposal is unlikely, because public sentiment is strongly against it. Plus, there is simply no need to expand now, especially if the city is able to get 200 acres of economic development land as part of a proposed land swap with the University of Kentucky.
But some wealthy and powerful interests want expansion, so this is what people should watch for Thursday: A surprise amendment like the one that was narrowly defeated last week. As Vice Mayor Steve Kay and others correctly pointed out, that amendment would have created a loophole in the name of “flexibility” that could have allowed landowners and developers to destroy the whole concept of the Urban Services Boundary.
It is no accident that Lexington was among the first cities in America to create a growth boundary. That was done in 1958 to protect Lexington’s signature equine industry and agricultural economy. Since then, this unique countryside has been recognized by the World Monuments Fund as one of America’s most distinctive natural and cultural landscapes.
The Bluegrass landscape is a finite resource, which means Lexington can no longer afford to cast off any urban neighborhood in pursuit of greener pastures. Every acre counts, and we need to focus development for the foreseeable future within the current Urban Services Boundary.