Downtown neighborhoods must not bear brunt of infill

Rena Wiseman
Rena Wiseman

The Planning Commission and the Urban County Council recently decided to maintain the existing Urban Services Area boundary and achieve future growth by infill and higher densities.

This decision is chiefly driven by the community’s goal to preserve our rural landscape. Most of that infill may occur in historic neighborhoods surrounding downtown. There is a risk that increased non-contextual infill, high density and high-rise buildings will drastically harm and alter these neighborhoods.

Lexington is unique, not only for its horse farms but also because of the numerous historic single-family neighborhoods within a five-minute walk from the center of downtown. The proximity of these neighborhoods contributes to the vitality of downtown but also makes these neighborhoods a magnet for infill.

Infill can be a valuable planning tool, only if done carefully and with sensitivity to the surrounding neighborhood

The city’s 2017 Housing Demand Study forecasts that nearly 23,000 dwelling units are needed by 2025. At an average of just over two persons per dwelling unit, that equals 46,000 new residents. The 2018 Goals & Objectives and draft planning documents assume that downtown neighborhoods are the most suitable location for the majority of new housing and a significant number of those additional residents.

“Build up, not out” has become an article of faith; city officials and planners believe that high-rise, multi-story apartment buildings are the best housing option for these 23,000 new units. But, five- or six- story or taller apartment buildings are not compatible with historic neighborhoods such as South Hill, Woodward Heights or Northside.

Overly aggressive infill policies intended to maximize density may encourage inappropriate construction, likely assisted by demolition in and around historic neighborhoods. Infill should not become a 21st century version of urban renewal.

Downtown historic neighborhoods should not become the default location for infill. Rural and suburban residents have a responsibility to join with downtown neighborhoods to ensure infill is achieved appropriately and fairly. To that end, the following steps should be considered:

▪ Create a Downtown Neighborhood Alliance with representatives from all downtown neighborhoods. Rural and suburban interests have been well-represented and it is time for urban neighborhoods to have a strong, unified presence before the Planning Commission and the council.

▪ Adopt design guidelines, including height restrictions, to be enforced by the Planning Commission. A few downtown neighborhoods are within historic districts with design regulations, but a more consistent design approach is warranted. Infill will be more welcome if new construction is designed to fit with the character of the surrounding neighborhood.

▪ Overhaul the downtown business frame zoning category created in the 1970s and to provide for better transition and “step-down” into adjacent neighborhoods.

▪ Ensure affordability and housing opportunities for existing residents. The Task Force on Neighborhoods in Transition, led by Vice-Mayor Steve Kay and Councilman James Brown, is beginning to look at these issues. The Planning Commission should monitor this effort and, when appropriate, incorporate recommendations into the Comprehensive Plan.

▪ Convene a symposium to allow rural preservationists and representatives of downtown neighborhoods to honestly and openly discuss their views about growth. The goal would be to develop a unified approach to protect both the rural landscape and downtown neighborhoods. Possible sponsors could include the Bluegrass Trust, the Fayette Alliance, neighborhood associations and the Urban County Government.

Our community has worked hard to develop policies and programs to protect the rural landscape. Now the community must expend the same effort to protect urban neighborhoods. Policies and regulations must be established to make sure that infill is done properly.

Lexington will be an even better city if we can get this right.

Rena G. Wiseman, a retired attorney, is a board member of the Historic South Hill Neighborhood Association.