Tom Eblen

The Two Jims vary widely on development, urban planning

The two Jims from Barren County who are vying to be the next mayor of Lexington have so many similar goals that it has been hard for some voters to choose between them. They both want to create jobs, improve the quality of life and create a more vibrant economy.

But when it comes to urban planning, downtown development and historic preservation issues, the approaches of Mayor Jim Newberry and Vice Mayor Jim Gray are quite different. That was obvious in separate presentations to the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation. Newberry spoke to the group June 15; Gray took his turn Tuesday.

Newberry articulated a generally laissez faire approach to development, within current city law. He rejected the "bully pulpit" approach that mayors such as Joe Riley of Charleston, S.C., have used to protect historic buildings and ensure that high-profile developments are high in quality and compatible with their surroundings.

A lawyer, Newberry expressed skepticism about proposals for downtown design guidelines or a professional architecture-review process, such as Columbus, Ohio, and other cities have. He seemed wary of processes that could be subjective or infringe on property owners' rights. "I am well aware that the devil is in the details of how those things work," he said.

Newberry has had a cool relationship with preservationists because he has tended to see historic preservation as an impediment to economic development more than a tool for achieving it.

Gray, a builder who heads Lexington-based Gray Construction Co., outlined a much different philosophy. He said that if elected mayor, he would create a commissioner-level job to manage the city's planning, preservation and economic innovation efforts and recruit "the best talent in America" to fill it.

"Preservation is essential because it preserves our brand, our uniqueness, our authentic sense of place," Gray said.

In addition to preserving and creatively reusing old buildings, Gray said he would use his influence as mayor to encourage outstanding contemporary architecture. Lexington needs a combination of the two, he said, to create the quality of life and economic climate that will create jobs and prosperity.

"I have been outspoken in my support of design guidelines," Gray said. "Unlike the mayor, I believe we must do better in planning and developing our downtown. I have seen better" in other cities, where he has managed major construction projects for more than three decades.

"We do a lot of work in other places, and I know there are better planning models, better development models, better building inspection and enforcement models," he said. "Where bureaucratic red tape is less, decisions are better, preservation and growth coexist, and outcomes are outstanding."

Gray's decision to run for mayor grew largely out of Newberry's support for the now-stalled CentrePointe project, in which a downtown block that included several historically and architecturally significant buildings was cleared. The developer's mysterious financing never materialized. Two years later, the block is a grassy field and likely to remain that way for some time.

Gray was critical — and perceptively accurate — about flaws in CentrePointe's economic model, and the development's uninspired architecture and the destruction of old buildings that could have been restored and reused. "When we destroy what gives us our identity, we destroy future opportunities for economic vitality," he said.

"The leadership on these issues starts at the top ... so we don't keep making the same mistakes over and over," Gray said, adding that more urban design and architectural expertise was needed on the city's planning staff.

Both Newberry and Gray strongly support rural land preservation and the Purchase of Development Rights program, and they both are wary of expanding the Urban Services Boundary.

Not long ago, rural preservation was controversial in Lexington because many people thought the only way to have economic growth was to keep developing the way the city had always developed. Now, of course, most people recognize the economic benefits of protecting Lexington's unique horse farm landscape.

Lexington's signature landscape has never just been about natural beauty, but a unique combination of the natural and built environments, both on horse farms and in town. Protecting the best we have, and making sure new development sets a high standard, will be key to future prosperity. It is too important to be left to chance.