Thistle Station, the 16-story apartment and retail building proposed last week along Newtown Pike, will be a big test of whether Lexingtonians can practice what they preach about growing their city up rather than out.
At first blush, the $30 million project appears to be a great example of urban infill development, the kind Lexington needs if it wants to avoid paving over more of its precious farmland.
Proposed by a group of local investors led by John Cirigliano, Thistle Station seems to have a lot going for it. For one thing, the site and location are just about perfect.
The development would sit along busy Newtown Pike, across West Fourth Street from the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus. It would be near two popular brew pubs and the Jefferson Street restaurant district and within easy walking distance of downtown.
Yet, there is enough space between this site and surrounding residential neighborhoods that nobody should feel crowded or overwhelmed, even by such a tall building with more than 210 apartments.
The site is now a former lumber yard bordered by railroad tracks. Nobody will be displaced by this project, and no significant old buildings will be lost.
The developers plan plenty of parking, most of it screened from public view, with easy access to Newtown Pike, which will minimize traffic impact on other nearby streets. The building is on a Lextran bus line and will be near both the Legacy and Town Branch trails. The developers plan to build a connecting trail section on their property along Newtown Pike.
Renderings show an attractive piece of contemporary architecture, designed in part by the Lexington firm Pohl Rosa Pohl. Skillful use of classical elements — a base, a middle course and a cap — give the design visual unity.
Although the building would be bigger and taller than anything near it, the first story is wrapped by pedestrian-friendly retail space. A stepped-down face along West Third Street provides a more human scale appropriate to the adjacent historic neighborhoods.
An abundance of glass is framed by textured concrete to resemble brick, with several nice touches, such as open glass corners and subtle balconies. Thistle Station could set a positive tone for future architecture along this important Lexington gateway corridor.
While the downtown condo market has been soft since the real estate bubble burst in 2008, property professionals tell me there is demand for upscale rental apartments downtown. Many young and transient professionals, as well as empty-nest baby boomers, want to live in an urban setting.
Two more positives: Thistle Station is not seeking any public subsidies, such as tax-increment financing. And before going public, the developers briefed leaders of the three surrounding neighborhood associations and scheduled meetings to seek public comment and suggestions. So far, most of the response has been positive.
The developers plan to file papers next month to rezone the property from I-1 light industrial to B-1 business under the city's new form-based guidelines. If approved by the Planning Commission and the Urban County Council in the spring, the developers say the project could be finished and open by fall 2016.
The riskiest aspect of Thistle Station's plan would seem to be the small, ground-floor retail and restaurant spaces. A lot of similar space at other Lexington mixed-use projects is vacant after struggling to find and keep tenants.
Still, making this space available is the right thing to do. Retail is essential to creating vibrant neighborhoods. A few tall housing developments like this could help provide the population density and diversity Lexington needs to help urban shops and restaurants succeed.
I expect Thistle Station will get some opposition — I have never seen a development proposal in Lexington that didn't. People here have always been averse to more density and height. But both will be essential if Lexington is to get serious about promoting urban infill rather than bulldozing more bluegrass.
If properly designed, development with greater density and height can be both attractive and compatible with existing neighborhoods. Thistle Station looks like a good place for Lexington to start proving that point.