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Up Or Out: Lexington Growth Debate Rages On As Leaders Weigh 2018 Comprehensive Plan

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) - The future of growth in Lexington is inextricably tied to development and decisions from the past.

In 1983, the city was in the midst of a growth spurt and found itself in need of one key ingredient.

"I think there's got to be continued growth for our downtown," Ralph Coldiron of Wilkinson Enterprises said at the time.

Other agreed.

"We wanna get people living in the downtown area," said merchant Sidney Gall.

Former Mayor Scotty Baesler was supportive as well.

"I think the downtown, hopefully, will be rejuvenated."

Sound familiar? 

While Lexington now is a much larger city, many of the same issues remain the same. Do we become a truly vertical city with a downtown where people want to live, or do we push the limits of the Urban Services Boundary and continue to spread out?

East side, south side, all around the town, Lexington's metropolitan population has surged to more than 300,000 residents. The sprawling outer ring -- anchored by Hamburg Pavilion to the southeast, and Fayette Mall and the new Summit at Fritz Farm to the south -- offers a lifestyle resume that downtown simply doesn't. At least yet.

"There's shopping, there's restaurants, grocery stores," says stay-at-home mother Casey Reffett. "We of course love the school district over here, and we ultimately felt like overall this neighborhood was safe and family-friendly."

City planners, however, say a technology-driven future will change where many of us choose to live. 

"Downtown is the growth model because of people that don't want the responsibility of a house and a yard and a car," says Frank Penn, a member of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Planning Commission.

A recent vote by city planners put a five-year hold on expand the Urban Services Boundary. The city wants infill, meaning construction and redevelopment of underused portions in the urban core.

But many small- and medium-size construction companies say expansion remains key to their survival.

"We're growing out because the consumer demands what is offered as we grow out," says Morgan Franklin of Maynard Builders.

James Monroe of James Monroe Homes says the restrictions will hurt more than builders.

" I think in the long term, restricting growth is going to have a detrimental effect on the economy, on the community and on the middle-class," Monroe says.

According to city estimates, the city will have nearly 25,000 new housing units by 2025. But sheer numbers don't ensure a downtown housing boom.

"We have plenty of great houses to live in downtown, but not a lot of great places that bring density," says Riley Kirn of Bluegrass Sothebys. "We need to get the density, and time is one of the only things that'll get us there, and developers that are willing to take a little bit bigger risk than what they're used to doing."

Also with more time, many think expansion will be inevitable, regardless of growth and development in Lexington's core.

"I don't think there's any doubt that sooner or later we'll expand," Penn says. "The question is, we've got to expand smarter than we have in the past."

If expansion doesn't happen soon enough, some builders say they will look elsewhere.

"We start looking in surrounding counties," says Josh Maynard of Maynard Builders. "We go south to Madison and then we go, maybe, to Georgetown."

Many local builders agree downtown development will have to be shouldered by big companies, perhaps from out of state. They say the price per square foot for development in the core is simply too high for their scale.

Monroe agrees that a refusal to expand the growth boundary ultimately would drive him out.

" I think in five years I don't think I'm building in Fayette County anymore," Monroe says if

The Planning Commission has voted 7-4 to approve the 2018 Comprehensive Plan, which doesn't include expansion of the services boundary. The full council will get the first reading on it tomorrow night.

Check back at LEX 18 and LEX18.com for updates and interviews as city leaders weigh this critical decision for the city's future.

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