As a born-and-raised Lexingtonian, and now 25 years old, I recall the time when Lexington Mall gave something to this city. It provided retail closer to downtown, a job source and represented the main entrance to the city. It was significantly more than the aging structure and massive amount of unused pavement it is today.
The recent news that Southland Christian Church is in line to purchase the property was disheartening, to say the least. I am a cradle Catholic, and live my faith every day, so this is not an issue of religious bias.
The reality here is that the use of that entire site as a church removes all the potential that the many bright minds have envisioned for the site. Furthermore, the church itself, outside of the religious services, provides very little to the city and community around it. The church is tax-exempt, so the city loses tax revenue. Once Southland Christian completes its makeover of the property and buildings, the only time it will look truly different from its current state (meaning not vacant) is during services. This is limited to a couple days a week. Otherwise, it will remain a big building and a big empty parking lot (with more parking to boot) the rest of the week — still not a desirable gateway into the center of Lexington.
Finally, the church is based on the unlimited-resources model of the last several decades. As a city, we must get beyond the auto-centric model.
Over the last decade or so, the University of Kentucky Landscape Architecture Department has used the site multiple times as a design studio project. Although these design projects were simply learning exercises for students, they were always partially realistic for the potential of the site. The visions often involved a redevelopment of the site to include mixed uses such as office, retail and residential.
Ideally, this site would operate as a transit-oriented development and form a substantial commitment by the city to a more sustainable transportation future for Lexington. To further the sustainable, or "green," elements of this vision, many have also included elements like green roofs, urban gardens, affordable housing and other ideas in the design of the property.
The students envisioned a site where the uses actually contributed to the city of Lexington — financially through taxes, to the community around the site as a walkable destination/employment base and to the environmental health of the city through green infrastructure and urban gardens. The list goes on and on.
Clearly, the issue here was not a lack of a vision for this site. The issue, rather, is that a clear lack of visionary planning and leadership exists within the Urban County Government. This starts at the top with Mayor Jim Newberry and extends fully into the Division of Planning. Newberry's approach to planning and development issues is laissez faire — whatever happens, happens (CentrePointe).
Second, the Division of Planning, which "helps create plans for future land use, farmland preservation, conservation, development activities and development patterns" has wholly failed in its mission. A mega-church satellite campus that is entirely automobile and oil-dependent and that fails to provide anything other than faith-based benefits to Lexington, represents a complete breakdown.
This city is full of bright individuals who should demand more of their leaders in government, and demand that these leaders have a vision and plan for a sustainable 21st century Lexington — not a replication of the last century.