UK is the 800 pound gorilla: Where Will it Sit Next?

UK is the 800 pound gorilla: Where Will it Sit Next?


August 19, 1998

“It was quite apparent that UK could contribute a lot to downtown and downtown could contribute a lot to UK.” -Dan Rowland


ace_cover_980819_UK_eminentdomain“UK is very tough to deal with,” sighs Chapman Burnette. “They drew a deep line in the sand early in negotiations.” Burnette is not a talent scout trading a player to the Wildcats, he is a homeowner. The University, while buying property to build the newly finished W.T. Young Library wanted Burnette’s home. Burnette’s story is not unlike many others who have banged heads with Lexington’s 800 pound gorilla-the University and its (seldom used, but always poised) power of eminent domain.

One Couple’s Plight
“They [UK] were terrible to deal with,” complains Ruth Gordon. Ruth and her husband Emery are an elderly couple whose house stood in the path of the W.T. Young Library. “We [had] offered to sell a few years before, but they weren’t interested.”

When the University did decide it wanted the Gordons’ property, formerly located at 410 Columbia Avenue, it moved on the couple with its full muscle.

“We was willing to sell,” bemoans Ruth Emery, “but they wouldn’t meet our price.” The University’s appraiser listed the Gordon’s property value at $80,000, yet Ruth and Emery wanted $90,000, not an unreasonable price given the neighborhood. “They [UK] were throwing around money like it was nothing. They paid one guy $200,000 just to pick a place for the library. All we wanted was $10,000.”

Conveniently, Jack Graham and Arnold Kirkpatrick, of local real estate firm Kirkpatrick and Company, stepped in with an offer. “We bought [the Gordons’ property] on behalf of UK, in a manner of speaking,” explains Kirkpatrick. “UK is constrained by state rules and cannot pay more than the appraised value for a property. UK has the right to declare eminent domain, but didn’t want to. Being the excellent businessmen we are, we bought it for $90,000 and sold it to UK for $80,000. It wound up as a donation. I have done some business with UK, but there is absolutely no quid pro quo. It was basically a way around a big pissin’ match. The library is a very important facet of the university, it may be as important as the Wildcat Lodge.”

The Gordons sold to Kirkpatrick and Company, but not without an uneasy feeling. “They’re hiding something,” accuses Ruth Gordon.

“There’s absolutely nothing to hide,” answers Kirkpatrick. “To hold up the library over a $10,000 dispute between UK and some nice people in the way of progress is ludicrous. We came up with a solution so UK wouldn’t have to use eminent domain and incur expenses for lawyers on both sides.”

Gordon still bears ill will towards the University. “Because of our age, I think they were discriminating,” alleges Gordon.

Bad Neighbor?
UK’s slow but steady encroachment into its surrounding residential neighborhoods (south down Nicholasville Road) seems to be oozing in the wrong direction. Eminent domain allows the University of Kentucky to continue buying property and expand its borders in a Southeasterly direction while downtown shrivels like a starved grape on the vine.

“UK has a Center for Sustainable Cities. If the Center is talking about sustainable cities, they should look at themselves,” asserts Jeanne Gage of Berea’s Mountain Association for Community Economic Development. “UK’s role should be the same as a good corporate citizen. It seems like there’s a lot of re-development needed downtown as opposed to new buildings.”

Ernest Yannarella, a UK political science professor integrally involved with UK’s Center, refused comment-citing that this was not his area of expertise.

“Instead of re-development, [UK] are talking about new bricks and mortar,” says Jim Gray of Gray Construction. He is quite familiar with these concepts, as his new office space is in the renovated Wolf-Wiles building, downtown. It stands as a virtual monument to the concept of responsible infill. The project is a model of what is possible for downtown’s and Lexington’s future.

Gray adds, “Downtown remains no-man’s land, it is the heart and heartbeat of the city. Downtown is only going to thrive if the vitality of the academic community is felt, it’s an enormous resource.”

But new bricks and mortar are what the University wants and what the students got. The W.T. Young Library, coming in at $58 million, was recently opened at the corner of Columbia and Woodland Avenues. Private funding, made up mostly of a donation by W.T. Young, financed a large part of the three and a half year construction, but public funding fell well short of the mark. With the state legislature’s refusal to get further involved, the city agreed to pony up the additional money needed, in bonds to be paid off by the University.

It is an impressive structure, wired to take the students of UK onto the information superhighway and across the bridge to the 21st century (see sidebar). The surrounding greenspace is a nice touch, and an issue of importance to chief donator W. T. Young. These rolling fields paint a friendly face on the new structure. UK’s tactics in acquiring this property were not as friendly.

Unlike the Gordons’ assertions, age had nothing to do with Chapman Burnette’s run-in with the state institution. Eminent domain stipulates that a state institution must pay the appraised price for a piece of property, but what do you do when UK uses their own appraisers? “UK had someone on their staff appraise my property,” recounts Burnette. “I told them the appraisal was nuts, I said, you’re not even close. I had the property appraised informally, nobody would take on UK. The guy said, here’s your appraisal, but I won’t defend this in court. UK plays hardball. The UK appraiser [at that time] was a retired marine.”

Burnette eventually worked out his differences with UK and came to an agreement, but not without much wrangling. “[UK] will negotiate, but you have to know what you’re doing. UK didn’t want the bad publicity.” Burnette worked out an arrangement with UK in which, in addition to meeting his price, the University agreed to rent a UK owned property to the Burnettes at a discounted rate. “We were satisfied in the end,” states an obviously exasperated Burnette.

The University, to many people’s surprise, is also a landlord. Not just in the sense of student dormitories, but real tangible rental properties throughout the city (see side bar). It is a little known practice, but quite common for the institution to buy property and then use it as student rentals until the land is needed for development. Through demolition by neglect, the University continues to rack up empty lots and neighborhood headaches. Local lawyer and neighborhood activist, Ted Cowen, has come up against this unwieldy practice in his own backyard.

“Our property backs up to the University track and field, we’ve known for seven or eight years UK wants the property. Living there while acquisition is going on is not pleasant. UK uses passive acquisition with no real estate agent fees. It’s advantageous to property owners. One professor on Oldham Avenue sold to UK because, he said, he couldn’t afford not to.”

“The concern,” explains Cowen “is UK acquires property and lets it deteriorate. UK is exempt from zoning and city laws. It’s ominous living there knowing as your neighbors grow old and die, UK might become your neighbor. I’m not against student neighborhoods-students are generally good neighbors-but students are students. As an owner, I fear our neighborhood’s quality of life will decline. It makes sense [for UK to buy the properties], but it’s not pleasant.”

Good Neighbor
The University of Kentucky is not completely neglectful when it comes to the well being of Lexington and its citizens. Many positive factors put a good face on the mammoth institution.

Its national stature as a University with SEC championship teams is a boon to the local tourism economy. As the city’s largest employer, the University contributes over $9 million dollars a year in occupational taxes to Lexington, and over $1.6 million in Fayette County school taxes, according to University of Kentucky News Bureau Director John Scharfenberger. “We employ statewide about 10,000 people.” With the newly opened Downtown Design Center and plans for a basketball museum, some resources are filtering north into the city.

“I was on the committee that Pam Miller appointed on reviving downtown,” offers Dan Rowland, associate history professor and newly appointed director of the Gaines Center for the Humanities. “It was quite apparent that UK could contribute a lot to downtown and downtown could contribute a lot to UK. There have been steps in the right direction-the Design Center-for example, which is the undertaking of the College of Architecture.”

“But,” cautions Rowland, “UK needs to engage the community more deeply. As director of the Gaines Center that is a mandate of mine. All indications I’ve gotten from UK was that they want to promote downtown. But there’s lots of contentious issues [like] the [near] abandonment of Rupp Arena after all the pain [its construction] caused” in the community. (See sidebar.)

“Keeping UK in Rupp Arena was very important,” stresses Mayor Miller “we were able to work out an arrangement that was beneficial to everybody. It was a win-win situation.”

“There is more of a synergy needed,” warns Rowland.

An Attainable Vision
“In my opinion,” agrees Mayor Pam Miller “UK should be turning its face to downtown in every way possible and embracing it. The best example of what’s possible is the Design Center. This is not only a great storefront activity for downtown, but the architects at the Center are providing wonderful services to the community. It has brought a tremendous amount of vitality.”

“It’s a beacon of light, an outpost that has emerged from obscurity,” adds Gray. “Regrettably, I don’t think we yet see much evidence in terms of substantive change. The Design Center is bringing more than just design issues to the surface. [David] Mohney [dean of UK’s School of Architecture] is such a positive force. It takes vision to see [sustainable communities]-David sees things with that vision.”

Mohney, the driving force behind the Design Center has been at the University for only four years, but has instituted a lifetime’s worth of change. His prodding in the direction of an urban-centric point of view has the University looking towards downtown. “Things are better than they’ve ever been,” says an obviously enthusiastic Mohney. “We’ve got a mayor interested in working with the University. We’ve got a president [of the University] who speaks to the mayor on a monthly basis. I think we have a president who understands that UK is Lexington’s largest employer.”

Mohney is an expert in the realm of sustainable cities. He is the kind of visionary personality that is physically apparent, from the spark in his eye to the look of fascination on his face when talking about future improvements. He is the kind of down to earth person, who in the course of an interview, summed up a lot of UK’s growing problems with a quick sketch of grids vs. hubs on a cocktail napkin.

Mohney has been an important part of the architecture community, working with design firms in New York and having been published by many publications including Architectural Record. He has lectured at many prestigious universities, including a stint as Visiting Lecturer at Harvard. Mohney’s extensive and impressive credentials are shadowed only by his unflinching dedication to downtown.

“I’m crazy about David Mohney,” Mayor Miller readily admits. “He is an inspiration to those of us who want to improve the urban design of our city. He is full of great ideas, big and small, to improve our urban core.”

As the University stretches its paws in whichever direction it pleases, lives are being affected daily. As a good corporate citizen, can the University of Kentucky stand by and idly watch downtown become a shadow of its former self? Or, as Lexington’s largest employer, does the institution have the responsibility to move its vast resources in the geographic direction most needed?

New Neighbors-Where Next?
As the W.T. Young Library stands proudly,  in its shadows lurks another prickly issue soon to come to the fore. The dilapidated buildings housing a large portion of the Fraternal community known as the “six pack” lies at the library’s feet. Rachel Kennedy, a local expert on historic preservation, has heard the rumblings of an expected move of the six pack to land not yet owned by UK. Cowen has felt the same tremors. “I have a suspicion that the six pack will be torn down,” he states.

Tony Blanton, faculty advisor to the Greek Affairs office confirmed these suspicions. “The 20 year plan is to have all of the fraternities relocate, one by one, as they are able to. The area [of relocation] is bounded by Rose Street and Woodland, and Euclid and Columbia.”

Big news to those in this vital community, where many houses are still occupied by “non-students” or natives or townies-however you put it.

The University’s expansion seems to have no bounds, and in this case, little public input. Many homes of historic value lie in the path of future fratdom. Likewise, the surrounding community may not feel comfortable with Bluto and company as neighbors.

Many agree that fraternities should be located on campus, as opposed to many that exist outside of UK’s boundaries presently.

“A few years ago UK was approving charters for additional [frats] with no additional space on campus,” recounts Cowen. “What they found was they could get a higher density use property and use it as a frat house. Until recently Aylesford was zoned R2 and up. Frats looked into Aylesford Place. It was a vigorous fight with the board of adjustments, [but] we won. We didn’t want a precedent set. We met with UK to talk about the frat problem. UK expressed surprise that the community was against [a frat moving in]. I find that amazing.”

This kind of disregard or “ignorance” of community feelings seems to typify the common experience citizens have had with the University. That sort of attitude in conjunction with unchecked movement in unwanted direction seems to put UK at odds with its surrounding neighborhoods. UK’s intended directions seems to be toward Chevy Chase, whose neighbor, like it or not, has the state-mandated right to sprawl wherever it sees fit.

UK clearly has the ability to be an outstanding citizen of the community. But like any 800-pound gorilla, it’s worth keeping an eye on it.

Hard Lessons

The building of Rupp Arena

In the late 60s, the city of Lexington decided to keep pace with other like-sized urban wannabes by building an arena/convention center. The hotly debated plan, which factored into many city political races, came to fruition in the mid 70s.

“I know Rupp Arena had a bad effect on the community, it displaced a lot of people,” explains Dan Rowland. “I was in the thick of that.”

An entity known as the Lexington City Corporation plowed its approval through city council and used eminent domain to do away with those in the path of their vision. Even the contrary efforts of newly elected councilwoman Pam Miller couldn’t stem the tide of destruction and construction.

“The Rupp Arena situation displaced a lot of low-income people into a low-income housing market,” continues Rowland. “The effect is hard to document socio-scientifically. A lot of people who were displaced, died rather quickly. People were shattered. It was mostly low-income people who owned their houses and not much else. When they were displaced,” they couldn’t replace what little they’d managed to build up over the course of a lifetime.

Over 200 houses were demolished to make way for the new complex. A lot of those were taken down for parking lots. Many houses were appraised at less than $1,000 leaving people with no house, little money and nowhere to turn.

“The elderly people who couldn’t afford lawyers got the worst deals,” explains Rowland. “They were sort of brow beaten into selling.” He continues, “The ability of the Lexington Center Corporation to use eminent domain was legally cloudy.”

There was a lawsuit filed, on the grounds that the use of eminent domain did not apply because so much was for private profit. But by the time the case was heard, most of the houses had been razed.

Of this shaky legal ground, Rowland contends, “So much was for private profit, as opposed to a state organization needing the land. The LCC used eminent domain like a blunt weapon, [but] they were moreso guilty of a kind of arrogance. Unfortunately there is no mechanism for tracking these [displaced] people.”

Eminent Domain

Lexington uses this tool to acquire the Lyric

The Lyric Theatre, located at the corner of 3rd Street and the Cox Street extension, was a hub of African-American culture in its heyday. The once proud theatre played host to many famous musicians of a bygone era, and was the place to be seen in Lexington night life. Recently the city condemned the property, in order to take it from its current owners. The current owners have let the Lyric fall into a state of disrepair and seem unwilling to renovate or even maintain the landmark.

“The Lyric was condemned and is in appeal before the State Supreme Court, the owners are appealing,” explains city councilman George Brown. “Eminent domain had to be used, we couldn’t reach an agreement with the owners. If the owners were making a good faith effort to fix [the Lyric], the city would have paid more for it.”

Future plans for the important building seem to draw debate, but most feel it will be community centric.

“Citizens will make the determination as to what the Lyric will be,” states Brown.

“We had a workshop in conjunction with the Downtown Design Center,” illustrates Mayor Pam Miller. “Interest seems to be toward a cultural center and the arts, or something to do with young people.”

The courts will decide the Lyric’s immediate fate, but it seems the citizens of Lexington hold the key to its long term future.

Where does it grow from here?

Some facts about the W.T. Young Library:

The library took $58 million and 3 1/2 years to build.

It houses:

37 miles of compact shelving

4000 seats

57 group study/conference rooms

600 computers

3600 network ports

141 miles of data cable

60 miles of voice cable

50 miles of fiber optics cable

All quite impressive, less one fact. Sources at the library confirm that the structure is already near capacity with little room for expansion. W.T. Young himself is in negotiation with the University over the green space around the building. If he gets his way, it will remain untouched, preventing the building of an annex. With the emphasis on digital information, seems the planners forgot about one of the key ingredients to a library-books. Onward digital soldiers.