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City Hall Proposal Celebrated, Panned At Public Meeting

Josh James
A veiw of the entrance to Lexington's government center on August 14, 2018.

Neighborhood residents, business owners, traffic planners, architects, and even a former vice mayor offered their two cents on a 35-year, multi-million dollar proposal to rehome Lexington's government center Tuesday night.

The debate that’s been simmering for decades came to a boil in council chambers – with backers and detractors queuing up to weigh in on a proposal that would shift government operations into a freshly-oufitted Lexington Herald-Leader building on Midland Avenue and Main Street.

Credit Josh James / WUKY
Public meeting attendees watch the proceedings in an overflow area outside of council chambers, as speakers debate a proposal to move city hall to the Lexington Herald-Leader building on August 14, 2018.

Lopsided Lineup

Listeners tuning in for the first 90 minutes heard only glowing reviews of the plan to move the government center from its longtime home at 200 East Main Street to downtown's edge.

"It's an ideal location. The site is vital, a highly-visible gateway to downtown," retired architect Graham Pohl told a slimmed down version of the Urban County Council (three members recused themselves over possible conflicts of interest). "Next is the opportunity to reuse a critical piece of real estate rather than letting it languish in disuse."

"I think it will energize and expand the whole east end," former Vice Mayor Isabel Yates said, setting the tone for the first half of the hearing.

Others praised the project's potential to consolidate city government, supply an eye-catching anchor for the Town Branch Commons, and save taxpayer money over the long haul. The Herald-Leader reports officials peg year five as the turnaround point at which the new city hall project would become less pricey than maintaining the current setup — a talking point critics worry ignores additional hidden costs. 

Sidelined during this debate, mayoral candidate Linda Gorton told WUKY she hopes the council has been "listening carefully and considering all the good that's been said."

Gorton offered those comments before a more contentious second inning, however. 

Credit Josh James / WUKY
Councilman Richard Maloney questions the financial wisdom of the CRM proposal on August 14, 2018.

Caveat Emptor

Counterarguments weren’t in short supply either — with around a dozen speakers urging the council not to vote for a 35-year commitment they warned could backfire.

Richard Getty, an attorney representing some Bell Court area residents who oppose the plan, added a dose of skepticism to the proceedings. 

"Two-thirds of the people have a vested interest in this project. They're traffic engineers, the architect, the consultant," he cautioned. "Anytime you have something pushed this hard that wasn't scrutinized like it should have been, beware."

Critics knocked the location outside of the city’s core, potential costs not baked into the price tag, and the method used to decide on the project, one of four entertained by a selection committee.

While the city would foot a $5.1 million annual bill — compared to the current $2.4 million spent on all five downtown buildings —supporters point to the city's growing deferred maintenance costs which total around $22 million. The new facility proposed by local developers CRM would add an 800-space parking garade and a new police station. But opponents contend there's no exit strategy for the old buildings.

"You'll gut the downtown, you'll gut the garages, and no one's looked at the economic impact," Julie Goodman said, voicing a concern echoed by several other speakers.

Credit Josh James / WUKY
The street-level view of the current Lexington government center on Main Street on August 14, 2018.

Moving Forward

Even with the divided response, Vice Mayor Steve Kay expects action during next Tuesday's council work session.

"I think everybody understands that this is going to be a difficult decision," he told WUKY. "People look at the issue differently, but I think it was very informative."

Kay said either he or another council member appears likely to move that the city embark on negotiations with CRM. That motion will require two readings and a full council vote. Should the motion pass, the developer would eventually return to the body with a final proposal. That too would need two readings and a council vote.

The current city hall opened in 1918 as the Lafayette Hotel.

Correction (11:00 a.m.): A previous version of this story referred to Isabel Yates as a former mayor. She served as vice mayor.

Update (2:15 p.m.): WUKY was contacted by a source with the Bell Court Neighborhood Association who raised questions about whether attorney Richard Getty represents Bell Court residents that oppose the CRM project. Reached for comment, Getty told WUKY he was hired independently to represent a gentleman and his wife who are against the proposal to move city hall to the current Lexington Herald-Leader building.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.