When I was a baby, my parents and I moved to Lexington, Kentucky. My mom had left behind debilitating rural poverty in eastern Kentucky. My dad had left behind a then-fairly stagnant Louisville. Before I could talk, we bounced around the southeast from apartment to house to apartment as my dad served in the military and started looking for a job in the automotive industry. We might have left Kentucky altogether at this point. But eventually, he found a good job at the Toyota plant in Georgetown.
My parents bought our home shortly thereafter, a house off of Todds Road that was built thanks to a recent expansion of Lexington’s urban growth boundary. Later that year, we celebrated my sister’s first birthday there. A lot has changed, but my parents still live in that house. Whenever I think about the course my life has taken, I think about how different things would have been if we hadn't found a place like Lexington.
Between now and 2025, Lexington is projected to add 40,000 new residents. I start off by sharing personal history because, when we talk about migration and development in Lexington, it’s easy to forget the human reality of these issues. Each of these 40,000 abstractions is a human being with hopes, fears, and needs. Many of them are Kentuckians who, like my mom, come from places where there is no opportunity. For them, Lexington is a beacon of hope — a place where they can find a great job, reach their fullest potential, raise a family or start a business.
When we talk about how Lexington needs to change in the years to come, we can frame it as something like: “How do we add 40,000 new residents without crossing X housing cost threshold?” But I prefer to think of it this way: How do we keep Lexington (and cities like it) a place that is livable and affordable for people like my young parents? It’s a massive undertaking and now is the time to start taking this question seriously. This vital question is something cities across the country should be considering too.
We essentially have three options:
Option 1: Do nothing.
First, we could do nothing. We could keep our existing zoning ordinance and allow a trickle of new development through our complicated and costly rezoning processes. And why not? We already have some nice communities and beautiful buildings. Lots of new development would mean some communities lose their character and some new building may be torn down, and who wants that?
Of course, the inevitable result of this option is stagnation, killing the very community we seek to preserve. As demand booms and supply stays flat, poor Lexingtonians would be the first to be forced out. The change that is underway in once-working class communities in North Limestone and Kenwick would kick into overdrive. Children in Lexington would grow up, find a lack of affordable housing, and leave the city. Retiring parents in Lexington would get a big payout from selling their homes and retire outside of the city. Both trends would, in the long term, steadily kill off Lexington’s unique culture.
New migrants from the hills of eastern Kentucky and the industrial husks of the Midwest would find themselves having to live in neighboring cities like Nicholasville and Georgetown. They would be forced to take hour-long automobile commutes into the city, worsening congestion and air quality. A once special city — a place of hope for young and ambitious Kentuckians — would gradually devolve into an exclusive country club. I don’t consider this a viable option and you shouldn’t either.
Option 2: Develop the fringes.
A second option is to allow more development on the periphery. Personally, I don’t think this is quite as bad an idea as many of Lexington’s elites seem to think. After all, those modest homes on the edge of town house a great deal of Lexington’s working and middle class. As I mentioned above, I grew up on one such expansion of the Lexington urban growth boundary, which acts as the outer bound on permissible development in the city and is occasionally expanded. Any and all new housing has an important role to play in easing the rising cost of housing over the coming years.
All that said, peripheral development alone isn’t a sustainable option. For starters, without a system of finely-tuned impact fees, new low-density development on the edge will require new infrastructure (think roads, firehouses, and sewage lines) that doesn’t pay its own way. This means that residents in existing urban areas will have to subsidize it either through higher taxes or public service cuts. Given the car-oriented nature of this pattern of development, this option could worsen the city’s already growing traffic problem. We could implement a congestion fee to address this, which effectively charges commuters that drive during high-traffic times in order to incentivize commuters to find other modes of travel. We could also legalize and encourage private transit options and scale up existing public transit services.
At the end of the day though, it seems unlikely that local, state, or federal officials will have the foresight or courage to undertake these dramatic policy changes. With all this in mind, it isn’t hard to see why the Lexington City Council narrowly voted to keep the urban growth boundary as it stands today, effectively rejecting this option. As much as I like new housing in all its forms, this just doesn’t seem like a viable option politically.
Option 3: Build new housing in the center of the city.
This leaves us with a final option: we could build a lot of new housing in Lexington’s existing urban neighborhoods. More and more, Lexingtonians want to live in neighborhoods that are walkable and have a mixture of uses. This is especially the case among the thousands of young professionals who graduate from the University of Kentucky each year. The demand is there; it’s really only our current planning policy that stands in the way.
In many ways, this option would actually be a reversion to Lexington’s traditional development pattern. Consider two of our best historic neighborhoods: Gratz Park and South Hill. In each of these neighborhoods, our predecessors got the most out of the land: buildings cover most of the lot, with tiny front setbacks bringing the building up to the street and little off-street parking. Both neighborhoods enjoy a mixture of uses and densities, skillfully integrating multi-family and single-family housing with shops, offices, and museums.
Lexington’s wealthiest residents pay top dollar for homes and condos in these neighborhoods. Yet our zoning code makes it effectively illegal to build the exact same kinds of buildings on vacant lots all around town. It keeps us from turning small single-family homes into small apartments where housing is most in demand. We could fit a lot more housing into Lexington if this weren’t the case.
When you’re sitting in traffic or trying to find parking for a University of Kentucky basketball game, it might seem like there’s no more room in downtown Lexington. But if you really take a look at the city, it’s clear that we currently waste a lot of space.
Vast swaths of area within New Circle Road, including much of our downtown, is covered by surface parking (look at 339 West Short Street for a notorious example). Some of these parking lots might always exist, so long as most Lexingtonians live in far flung suburbs. But many of these lots could be converted into urban mixtures of housing, retail, and office space, if only so much of our downtown and inner suburbs weren’t restricted to suburban style-commercial and residential zoning.
How backward is it that it would be easier to build a fast food joint next to the university campus than it would be to build some desperately needed new apartments?
On your way out of town, pause to consider how much space we waste along our corridors. With brick-and-mortar retail in a downward financial spiral, sprawling corridors like Harrodsburg Road, Richmond Road, and Nicholasville Road are the grayfields of tomorrow.
Today, our planning policy dooms this land to be wasted. It need not be so. Yesterday’s parking deserts and empty big box stores could be tomorrow’s urban neighborhoods, supporting a mixture of dense apartments, townhomes, and single-family homes. Sprinkle in retail, restaurants, and offices, and you have a recipe for wonderful new urban neighborhoods. If we’re looking for a place to put 40,000 people, upzoning these corridors is one obvious option. Once the density arrives, we could even start looking into improving transit in Lexington. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
When you have inherited something wonderful, it is incumbent on you to protect it and pass it along to the next generation. Many Lexingtonians misinterpret that “something wonderful” as the assortment of buildings we have today. But the “something wonderful” I have in mind is a Lexington that continues to grow and change in unpredictable ways, that provides an affordable platform for the meaningful things in life. This is true in cities and towns across the nation; an obsession with freezing our communities in time has turned them into exclusionary places, and prevented the very transformations and incremental changes that have — over decades and centuries — made them the beautiful places we love.
If we’re going to pass along the Lexington that provided a home for my young parents — and my sister and I — on to the next generation, we will need to add a lot of new housing. And if we’re going to do that, we need bold leadership in eliminating the artificial barriers that hold back Lexington’s growth into America’s next great city.