Saturday, November 9, 2013

LFUCG To Get A "New" Building?

The Mayor has a plan to build a new city hall. Just like the previous administration and the one before that. Actually, such plans have been around since the birth of the LFUCG.

The Gray administration says that it sees the need, or “a” need to build a new city hall. The cost of necessary repairs is set at $6.3 million, which looks to be down from the $30 million cited during the Newberry days. Important government offices are currently spread between several buildings and along what should be “prime” Main Street frontage. What I think is the greatest need is that an aging hotel should never have been made into an office building in the first place.

I can remember back when Lexington was preparing to bring the City and County governments together, a contingent of local officials took a trip to Indianapolis, itself recently merged, for ideas and examples. First off, there was a new 25 story government center from which to guide all services – Lexington did not take that track.

That is not to say that we did not look at doing so, because we did do a space study on all of the buildings then in use by government. How and where to join the police and fire departments. Bringing the streets and roads folks together. And then there was the expanding administrative staff just to pull it all off. We needed one building but it would have to wait.

Recall that this was less than a dozen years after Urban Renewal and downtown blocks were being developed by others (we had the new Rupp Arena complex to prepare and complete) like Garvice Kinkaid and Kentucky Central Insurance. Their new building would leave a vacant former hotel available and Lexington took an option on it while researching a new complex in the Rose/Main/Vine triangle.

One year later, hoping to get their own new building, the city sold the property to Ashland Oil and their Valvoline subsidiary for an interim space. Alas, no new space was forthcoming for the city and they again looked at the aging, inadequately altered hotel before finally buying it in 1982.

Early on in the LFUCG's occupancy it began to show just how much the building was aging. The air conditioning cooling tower on the roof caught fire on workday and that prompted a review of all safety and evacuation measures. Roofing leaks and other system overhauls became more and more common. Fire alarms and stuck elevators were a weekly occurrence. Meeting and providing service to the public proved challenging.

It seems to me that high interest rates, inflation or recession have been highly prevalent during or immediately after discussions of a new city hall come to light. In times of true government surpluses, it looks to me that there was no discussion of a new government home place.

Forty years down the road from the beginning of merger and the prospects of a modern, fully functional office building seem no closer than in 1974.

The move of Lexington's Municipal Building from 136 Walnut St to Main St did not cause the decline in viable storefront businesses but it could not halt it either. It may have been the implementation of one-way streets through downtown or simply the lure of suburban free parking for the retail, but the foot traffic has gone. The Mayor sees this latest move as a way to revitalize this block.

A claim has been put forth that the city “monopolizes” 200 feet or more of prime retail space on that one block, yet the remainder of the storefronts there have the primary entrance onto Water St, a sidewalk-less wide alleyway. Even the electronics store, Barney Miller's, easily the most active retail location on that side of the street, has most customers enter from the rear. If I recall correctly, it was the heralded conversion from retail to office of the Wolf Wile building by Gray Construction that kicked off this trend.

The Chase bank building, when built as the new home of First Security Bank, wiped out an entire block of older (and maybe historic) structures which contained viable retail spaces. Nary a word was raised in protest if I recall and Phoenix Park held three good sized retail establishments in the old hotel building. All of that “prime retail” Main St space gone and the general public seems to be fighting the ability of CentrePointe to try to re-establish it.

If the City is successful this time and a new government center is raised atop one side of the Lextran garage, will the main entry come off of E. High St or Martin Luther King? Will we see a more traditionally styled city hall or a modern take like Toronto, Ca.? In a project of such a civic nature will we have as much controversy over the look of the building as we have had on CentrePointe? Only time will tell.

One last observation. In the ongoing discussions about bringing the University and downtown closer together, is this the next move since the University has begun the massive dorm project a little more than a block away?

Parts of downtown are flourishing and other parts are taking note and learning. As has been pointed out here and elsewhere, the growing, revitalization of Lexington's downtown is not government led. It may be that efforts of government control can hinder the natural course of what Lexington residents and business owners can accomplish on their own.

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