Historic district zoning has been an effective way to improve property values and the quality of life in old Lexington neighborhoods that were subjected to years of abuse and neglect.
So leaders of the Ashland Park Neighborhood Association want to try a new approach: protect their gem before any significant damage can occur.
The Urban County Planning Commission on Oct. 25 will consider a request for H-1 zoning overlay protection for South Hanover Avenue, Desha Road and small sections of five contiguous roads: Fincastle, Richmond, Fontaine, East High and Slashes.
The neighborhood association's 13-member board unanimously supports the request and has spent months assembling a detailed case for it. After a series of public meetings, the association collected signatures of support from a substantial majority of affected property owners.
Still, they must get past a vocal minority and correct misinformation about what restrictions historic designation would place on property owners.
"We just want to ensure the historical and architectural character of our neighborhood and protect our property values," said Tony Chamblin, the neighborhood association's president.
The neighborhood association has received support in its request from city historic preservation officers and the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.
The affected streets were some of the first to be developed from statesman Henry Clay's Ashland estate. Developers hired America's most famous landscape architecture firms to do the work: the Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Mass., whose work included New York's Central Park.
Between 1919 and 1934, the neighborhood was developed into a beautiful mix of single-family homes and apartment houses. There are outstanding examples of many architectural styles popular at the time: Colonial, Craftsman, Tudor, Bungalow, American Foursquare, Dutch Colonial, French Eclectic and Italian Renaissance.
Thanks to its beauty and location, Ashland Park has suffered little of the abuse experienced by some nearby neighborhoods. It remains an excellent model for high-quality, mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood design.
But without historic zoning protection, there are no guarantees for the future.
Chamblin has lived for 20 years on South Ashland Avenue, a part of the neighborhood that got historic zoning protection in 1989. "The residents who live on our street are very, very pleased that that happened," he said.
City records show that property values have risen considerably faster on South Ashland than on nearby unprotected streets. Several century-old mansions have been restored or converted back from apartments to single-family homes. It is, once again, one of Lexington's most beautiful streets.
Studies locally and nationally have consistently shown that historic zoning protection raises residential property values and stabilizes neighborhoods. That is because owners can invest in their homes knowing that the character of the neighborhood won't be degraded.
The entire Ashland Park area was listed as a National Register Historic District in 1986. But that has few of the protections guaranteed by city historic zoning law, which covers more than 1,900 building in 14 districts throughout Fayette County.
Lexington's historic zoning overlay requires property owners to get approval from the Board of Architectural Review for any significant changes to their building's exterior to ensure compatibility with the neighborhood. That process is free, and, in most cases, relatively quick and easy. It also can include valuable free advice from the city's Division of Historic Preservation.
Contrary to popular myth, Lexington historic districts have no restrictions on paint colors, landscaping or interior changes. In fact, the restrictions are less onerous than those in some of Lexington's deed-restricted suburban neighborhoods.
Typically, historic zoning is opposed by two kinds of property owners: those who own rental property and those who want future flexibility to demolish their building or convert it to another use.
Some homeowners object because they fear historic zoning could make it more costly to maintain their home. In some cases, that is true, although city officials say they take economics into consideration when evaluating proposed exterior changes, such as a change in materials for a new roof.
Still, studies have shown that quality maintenance translates into higher property values in historic districts. More investment results in a better return.
It's hard to imagine a residential neighborhood more qualified for historic protection than Ashland Park: Henry Clay, the Olmsteds and as amazing a sample of well-preserved, early 1900s architecture as you will find in any American city.
Planning Commission and Urban County Council approval of this new historic district should be a slam-dunk. Let's hope it is.