Thriving cities like Lexington often face a paradox. To accommodate and capitalize upon economic and population growth, planners and developers may opt for aggressive interventions. In the process, they end up jeopardizing the city’s built heritage and imperiling the historic resources that contribute to its unique character, sense of place, and desirability.
The neighborhoods abutting the University of Kentucky are very much caught in this maelstrom of push-and-pull developmental pressures. In the past several years, we have witnessed the rise of several hulking apartment complexes that fill entire city blocks. The Hub, for instance, was constructed upon a surface-level parking lot with limited adverse effects to its surroundings. But others, like the behemothic Gateway Lofts on S. Broadway, have triggered the demolition of historic properties. The loss of the 1887 Thomas Watkins House at that site — the last designed by famed architect-builder John McMurtry — is still keenly felt in preservationist circles.
These projects, however, pale in comparison to a scheme for the E. Maxwell Street corridor that calls for the demolition of at least 12 historic buildings dating from the 1880s to the 1920s. In their place, a 7-story, 700-bed complex would tower over its neighbors. Hagerman Court would be redirected onto Stone Avenue and operate as the exit route for cars emerging from an underground garage.
If this proposal sounds familiar, it is because a rather similar plan was floated in 2019. At that time, a New Jersey-based developer aimed to construct a 10-story, 500-bed tower but pulled out after that design was deemed unfeasible. Yet the parallels with the current situation are striking. In 2022, Ohio-based entity FFF Max LLC purchased these parcels (with the exception of 235 E. Maxwell, which it has not yet acquired). Stavroff Land & Development Inc. of Dublin, Ohio appears to be overseeing permitting and rezoning efforts. Clearly, there is blood in the water on E. Maxwell and Stone Ave, and the speculating sharks are circling.
The 12 threatened buildings are located in the Southeast Lexington Residential and Commercial District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As such, they are eligible for generous state and federal tax credits for rehabilitation. Many of these properties in fact originated as single-family homes and were only converted into student housing in the 1970s and 80s. Renowned experts in tobacco production and mining technology, as well as one congressional representative, once resided in these buildings, which still have “good bones” and integrity despite recent owners’ lackluster upkeep.
The advocates of historic preservation and in-fill development need not be at loggerheads. An example of successful compromise can be found only a few blocks west at Kimball House Square (275 S. Limestone). There, a handful of neglected Italianate and Queen Anne houses were rehabilitated into condominiums and subtly connected to a new, mixed-used section. A separate structure with housing units and garages was also built in the rear and obscured from view. Replicating this model on E. Maxwell and Stone Ave would ensure the integration of the historic buildings into the site plan while maximizing use of the vacant space behind them. All that is required is a bit of architectural ingenuity instead of cookie-cutter designs ill-suited to the parcel’s shape, topography, and location.
As the Athens of the West, Lexington has long been known for its pioneering innovations and creative problem-solving. Surely, this spirit should inform the city’s planning decisions as well?
To sign our petition opposing demolition and to learn about our advocacy work more generally, please visit our website at bluegrasstrust.org/advocacy. The LFUCG Planning Commission will take up the matter on Dec. 14 at 1:30 p.m.
Dr. Zak Leonard is the historic preservation manager at the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.