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Lexington struggling without downtown design guidelines

May 13, 2010

A controversy over the design of a proposed CVS drugstore in downtown Lexington shows the importance of establishing design guidelines before a redevelopment push.

Workers hang a new sign at The Creme Coffee House in downtown Owensboro. The business was one of the first in downtown Owensboro to work through new design regulations, and the process turned out to be longer than expected. (M-I photo by Jenny Sevcik)

As reported by Linda Blackford and Beverly Fortune in today’s Lexington Herald-Leader, city officials are working with the developer of the drug store to make it fit in better with downtown architecture and design, but is doing so without over-arching design guidelines.

From the article

At issue is the design of the CVS pharmacy destined to sit at one of downtown Lexington’s most high-profile entries. City officials are working with Louisville developer Gary Joy to make the store look less like a big box in a strip mall and more like something that is appropriate for downtown.

Joy has made some changes to the design but not enough for a local non-profit called Progress Lex, which has started a petition drive to make the design better (www.progresslex.org/lexington-deserves-better/).

There is one thing on which the two sides do agree, however: the need for design standards for new construction in all of downtown Lexington.

Unlike many other urban areas around the country, Lexington does not have broad-based design standards to make sure new construction downtown is historically and architecturally sensitive to what’s already there.

The city does have a design review board that approves plans around the old and new courthouses downtown. Besides that zone, only historic districts have rules that require property owners to get approval for exterior changes. The CVS location is not in a designated historic district, but it is considered part of downtown.

Joy said it’s been a challenge to “try to define what urban design is.”

Last year, the city of Owensboro adopted new downtown overlay districts and regulations to avoid just these types of situations. The creation of a downtown design administrator position, which is filled by Nathan Nunley, is an added bonus since there is now someone who can act as a go-between for developers and local officials.

As is seen in this case in Lexington, businesses will make design considerations to accommodate the surrounding areas and make the building better fit in with its neighboring structures.

From the article –

The CVS design has come a long way from its initial stages, (Graham) Pohl, (a local architect who serves on the board of Progress Lex), said: “It was really bad. It’s all about branding, and it’s not about a response to the urban condition.”

Most suburban CVS stores are windowless, stucco boxes with big red doors and red CVS signs on every side.

The compromises on the downtown store include a facade that is about two-thirds brick, more uniformity to the windows, a wrought-iron fence with stone columns; exterior gooseneck lighting fixtures, and an aluminum door rather than a bright red one in the front.

It will also have parking and a drive-through window. Traffic can access the lot from either Main or Vine streets.

Joy is meeting with city planning staff later this week to work out additional details, including more windows. He said it’s the first time he’s been asked to design an urban-looking CVS in Kentucky.

But while compromise might be found working on individual projects, it’s beneficial to local officials and developers alike to have set standards in place so that everyone knows the expectation going in. In Owensboro, those regulations cover setbacks, building facades and signage.

So far, there have not been any large projects to work their way through the new process in Owensboro, and the regulations must have some flexibility along with officials that are willing to work with developers. Though there’s been no true test of Owensboro’s new system, at this point it seems preferable to the challenges Lexington is facing with its downtown redevelopment.

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