Revised Downtown Design Excellence Proposal

If you have been following the Downtown Design Excellence saga, and you have a taste for detail and complexity, and you would like to understand where we are and where we are going on this issue, and you have the patience for a long post, read on.

Recent Events

On May 10, 2016, the Planning & Public Safety Committee reviewed the revised version of the standards and guidelines prepared by the Design Excellence subcommittee and voted 6-4 to recommend that the revised version be placed on the council docket for referral to the Planning Commission. Planning & Public Safety Chair Jennifer Mossotti had created the subcommittee and tasked it with reviewing and revising as needed the Design Excellence Task Force’s original proposal. You can view that meeting here, its committee packet here, and the design excellence addendum here.  The addendum includes the zoning ordinance text amendment (PDF pages 1-57) and the Downtown Design Excellence Reference Guide (PDF pages 58-130).  For additional context on Design Excellence, including its history, see my blog posts here.  All documents from the original proposal are available here for reference. If council approves the committee recommendation, the Planning Commission will be asked to initiate the zone text amendments needed to implement the revised standards and guidelines. The council will then need to approve or modify the version approved by the Planning Commission.

What follows is a summary overview of how the subcommittee revised the original proposal:

Design Standards & Guidelines

The standards and guidelines in both the original and revised recommendations apply to the B-2, B-2A and B-2B zones that encompass the downtown area.

The guidelines remain substantively the same.  However, they now apply only when a developer requests public support/incentives for a project.

The subcommittee revised the standards in the following ways:

  • Certain building materials are no longer expressly prohibited. Instead, a percentage of those materials is permitted.
  • In the original proposal a project could not build parking lots in certain locations.  In the revisions an applicant would have the option to seek a conditional use permit, which means he or she must receive design approval from the Board of Adjustment (BOA).
  • The height limit for the urban core portion of the B-2 zones was proposed to be 360 feet.  The revisions contain no height limit.
  • Streetscape requirements are incorporated and include such things as sidewalk pedestrian zone width specifications and amenity zone standards.  The Downtown Streetscape Master Plan influenced these changes.

As with any zoning regulations, a developer may seek a variance from the BOA for any of the standards.  It is also the case that both Urban County Council and the Planning Commission can initiate further amendments to the zone text deemed desirable.  For additional detail, please see the new Downtown Design Excellence Reference Guide available here.

Review Process

In the original proposal all projects in the B-2 zones would have had to follow a design excellence review process by staff or by a newly-created Design Excellence Review Board, with the level of review determined by project type and size.  In the revised version only projects that are in B-2 zones and request public support/incentives would have to follow an additional review process.  That process would be conducted by the Design Excellence Review Office. Creation of the Design Excellence Review Board is not included in the revised recommendation.  All other projects follow existing permitting review processes.  You can see charts of the processes in the Downtown Design Excellence Reference Guide here.

Projects seeking public support/incentives would work through a negotiated master development agreement similar to that required presently for any project requesting Tax Increment Financing (TIF).  In this process, the applicant would work iteratively with the Design Excellence Review Officer through the design guidelines review and approval process. The master development agreement would then require approval by Urban County Council.

Appeals Process

In the original proposal, any appeal from decisions by the board would go to Circuit Court. In the revised proposal, projects that follow existing permitting processes can seek variances/conditional uses through the BOA.  Appeals from a BOA ruling would go to Circuit Court. As noted earlier, projects seeking public support/incentive would create a negotiated master development agreement with LFUCG.  Decisions about a master settlement agreement are not subject to appeal since such an agreement is classified as a negotiated contractual process and not a regulatory process.


In the original proposal the Design Excellence Board would have reviewed and approved any demolition, and a project would not have been able to receive a demolition permit until having first received a building permit.  The revised process will now send demolition requests to the Board of Architectural Review (BOAR) for review and approval. BOAR would then follow existing regulations and procedures applicable to demolition within an H-1 overlay.  Appeals of a BOAR ruling would go to the Council.

Next Steps

While not perfect from my perspective, the revised standards and guidelines are nonetheless worth supporting. They improve the zoning regulations for downtown, encourage thoughtful and responsible development, preserve opportunities for public review when the public provides support, and offer some protection from the least desirable forms of development.  I hope the Planning Commission initiates a zone text amendment consistent with the revised recommendations and that council then approves that zone text amendment.  Taking this long-overdue action will make for a better downtown.

If you have read this far you are either a policy wonk, or you have a dog in this fight, or you are an exceptionally concerned citizen.  In any case, I thank you for your attention.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Consider Gehl Studio’s Research in Your Efforts to Improve Lexington

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has awarded two Knight Cities Challenge grants to Lexington proposals.  Knight offered only 37 awards from a pool of over 4,500 applications.  These honors are yet another indicator of our community’s collective talent and bright future.  If you are one of our engaged citizens brainstorming ways to improve Lexington, please consider the recent local Knight winners in the context of Gehl Studio’s research.  Gehl Studio focuses on mutually beneficial relationships between people’s quality of life and their built environment.  This framework can help you identify and strategically pursue opportunities for our city.

Phoenix Forward, one of the Knight award winners, will pilot new programming and space uses for Phoenix Park and the Central Library. This site has great potential for improvement because, according to the Gehl analysis, it has a high volume of citizens sticking around and low volume of citizens walking by.  You will notice its outlier status regarding that ratio on pages 98-99 of this PDF Gehl Studio’s presentation.  As a Gehl Studio representative discussed in a recent presentation to city leaders, the public space is predominantly occupied by one demographic—the homeless.  He also emphasized that programming around a public space should not displace a demographic but instead should increase the diversity of users.  A monopoly in a public space by any single group makes others feel unwelcome.  I am hopeful that Phoenix Forward, in addition to recent successes by the Office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention, will make this public space more inviting to all Lexingtonians.

The second project is the Parking Lot Diaries, which will test a series of engagement activities for LexTran riders at the Transit Center.  Those experiments will be created with expert feedback from 8 80 Cites, a nonprofit that specializes in designing and analyzing engagement experiences.  The Transit Center’s significance is also supported by Gehl Studio’s research.   While Lexingtonians might consider Cheapside Park to be one of the most trafficked spaces downtown, Gehl Studio’s research reveals that the Transit Center also sees a high number of visitors (see pages 90 and 117 in the PDF).   That space should improve its engagement of pedestrians and the standing of public transportation in our community.   The Parking Lot Diaries intends to advance those goals, and I am hopeful the Transit Center will become a more vibrant public space because of that work.

These Knight-funded projects advance key opportunities highlighted by Gehl Studios’ research.  I encourage our community’s policymakers, grassroots activists, nonprofit leaders, and the public to review this presentation.  It includes Gehl Studio’s framework for thinking about urban design (pages 1-79) and insights for Lexington from the Public Space, Public Life survey (pages 80-123). I particularly encourage you to view pages 110-123 of the PDF.  These slides discuss priority pilot ideas and opportunity areas.  I hope you will review them, and I look forward to seeing more Lexington projects receive honors such as the Knight Cities Challenge awards.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Homeless Data Update and Rapid Rehousing Grant

Vice Mayor Steve Kay thanks volunteers for their efforts to decrease homelessness during a press conference May 2, 2016.

Vice Mayor Steve Kay thanks volunteers for their efforts to decrease homelessness during a press conference May 2, 2016.

I am pleased to share good news regarding our city’s progress in addressing issues of homelessness.  Working with numerous service providers, the newly-created Office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention (OHPI), directed by Charlie Lanter, has helped reduce homelessness (people living on the streets, in a shelter or in transitional housing) by 26% since the program began in 2014.  Chronic homeless–defined as someone with a disability who has been homeless for greater than 1 year or has been homeless 4 or more times in 3 years for a period that totals 1 year or more–has decreased 50% since 2015. Veteran homelessness has achieved functional zero. Newly adopted best practices such as the Housing First Pilot Project, Mental Health Courts, and OneDoor Lexington are improving outcomes.

OHPI also coordinated the successful application for a $333,323 Federal Rapid Rehousing grant to be administered by Community Action Council. Rapid Rehousing refers to providing rental assistance to help families leave shelters and the streets for permanent housing.

I am heartened by the good work our community has done and continues to do to tackle the challenge of homelessness.  Thanks to the decades of dedicated and resilient work of countless activists, including most notably Debra Hensley who most recently helped move this issue forward as co-chair of the Mayor’s Commission on Homelessness, we have made and will continue to make our city more just for those most in need.


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Update

Mayor Jim Gray released the Fiscal Year 2017 (FY 17) proposed budget on Tuesday, April 5, 2016.  As a reminder, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government’s FY 17 will begin on July 1, 2016 and conclude on June 30, 2017.   The administration proposes the budget, which the Council reviews over the coming months.  You can view a video of the Mayor’s budget address by clicking here.

The mayor’s proposed budget  projects operating fund revenue of $345 million. Here are a few highlights:

  • Funds for twenty new police officers and the purchase of body cameras
  • A $3 million investment in aquatics including spraygrounds
  • Affordable housing and homeless prevention and intervention are funded at $2.75 million
  • A youth sports complex in Cardinal Run North has a proposed funding level of $7 million

For a comprehensive and detailed PDF of the proposed budget, please click here.

Council has formed subcommittees of the Budget, Finance, and Economic Development Committee to review the proposed budget.  Each subcommittee covers a different area so that the full budget receives Council’s review.  By clicking here you can view a list of the subcommittees and the Councilmembers who serve on them.

Council will approve a budget by the end of June 2016.  Below is an estimated timeline of events in the budget process:

  • 4/5/16 – Mayor’s Proposed Budget Address
  • 4/14/16 – Council Budget Workshop
  • 4/19/16 – Revenue Projections, Bonding, Debt & Capital Discussion
  • 4/26/16 – Discussion/Analysis of Mayor’s Proposed Budget
  • 5/24/16 – Link Recommendations and Report Out
  • 5/24/16 – Public Hearing Mayor’s Proposed Budget
  • 5/26/16 – Revenue Update/Review Mayor’s Late Items/Review Links/Councilmember Recommendations
  • 6/7/16 – Discussion of Proposed Amendments
  • 6/7/16 – Ratify Budget/Motion to Place on Docket
  • 6/14/16 – 1st Reading of Budget
  • 6/16/16 – 2nd Reading of Budget
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Bluegrass Double Dollars Happy Hour at West Sixth

BGDD Banner

On Thursday, March 24, 2016, you can join Bluegrass Farm to Table and the Blue Grass Community Foundation for an informal happy hour to celebrate Bluegrass Double Dollars.  You can RSVP for the Facebook event here.  If you order a beer flight at the happy hour—or any time in March—you will receive a wooden nickel (worth $1!) to donate to the program.

Frequent readers of my blog are familiar with Bluegrass Double Dollars, a program that doubles the purchasing of power of low-income families when they buy local fruits and vegetables.  You can read more about Bluegrass Double Dollars on the program’s web page here and my previous blog posts here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

OneDoor Lexington Will Better Serve Homeless

LFUCG created the Office of Homeless Prevention and Intervention (OHPI) in 2014 following a series of recommendations from the Mayor’s Commission on Homelessness.  The agency is led by Director Charlie Lanter, a former senior manager at the Community Action Council.  OPHI has made strategic and overdue progress in better serving the homeless, including funding mental health courts.  Now the agency is taking the lead in a more client-centered approach to homelessness with the initiation of the OneDoor Lexington coordinated entry system.

Coordinated entry essentially refers to a way for service organizations to work more closely together to best serve the homeless.  The key is that a client who may need multiple forms of services and support has access to them whichever agency or organization he or she first contacts, so that initial difficulties do not compound over time. For a more thorough summary of coordinated entry, please see this summary from the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

At the organizational level, OneDoor Lexington will include regular meetings of the participating organizations that form the continuum of care (CoC).  Lexington’s CoC is  the planning body in our community that coordinates the policies, strategies and activities toward ending homelessness.  It has a board of 13 members and a broader membership of organizations.  Regularly convening the CoC will improve collaboration and communication so that each organization can better match clients to available services.  For additional information on Lexington’s CoC including a membership application, please click here.

OneDoor will also include a standard form across participating organizations.  This common assessment will be the Vulnerability Index – Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT).   When clients approach an organization for help, they will complete this form and receive an acuity score.  That score will assist in connecting them to the best services given their specific circumstances.

The program will launch at the beginning of May 2016.  OHPI held a training for organizations on VI-SPADT on March 8, 2016.   For more information about the program and/or trainings, please contact Jennifer Oberlin at 859-258-3136.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

US House Subcommittee Features Bluegrass Farm to Table

I am proud to share the news that Urban County Government’s Local Food Coordinator Dr. Ashton Wright recently testified before the United States House Committee on Agriculture’s Subcommittee on Nutrition regarding Bluegrass Double Dollars.  You can view my earlier posts about the program by clicking here.

You can view the full video of the hearing below:

If the video is not visible in your browser, click here to go to YouTube. The meeting starts 14:00 minutes into the video.  You can go to that location by clicking here.  For Dr. Wright’s specific testimony, click here or start the video at 26 minutes and 20 seconds.

The Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) Grant Program supports projects to increase the purchase of fruits and vegetables among low-income consumers. Dr. Wright highlighted the success of the Bluegrass Double Dollars pilot project funded by FINI and identified the lessons learned from the pilot program.  She then provided the following  recommendations to the Subcommittee regarding the FINI grant program:

  1. Encourage strong multi-sector partnerships to develop sustainable incentive programs.
  2. Employ a more comprehensive approach to education in which the state and local SNAP offices work more collaboratively with grantees.
  3. Develop a community of practice, a peer-to-peer network, to share best practices.

Our thanks to Dr. Wright for her hard work in helping make the pilot project a success, and our congratulations to her for being invited to testify before Congress and representing Lexington so well.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Gigabit City Committee Drafting RFP

The Mayor’s Gigabit City Executive Steering Committee is drafting a Request for Proposal (RFP) for Lexington’s fiber optic network.  For additional background on this issue, see my previous blog posts here and here.  The Committee previously released a Request for Information (RFI) on its gigabit city initiative.  An RFI differs from an RFP in that an RFI allows a public agency to learn about possible options without the obligation and expectation to award a contract within a specific timeframe.  In other words, by releasing an RFI, the Committee has taken the opportunity to learn about the variables and technical challenges before initiating the awarding processing required by an RFP

On January 19th, 2015, Chief Information Officer Aldona Valicenti provided the Environmental Quality & Public Works Committee with an update on the project.  You may view a video of the presentation and the packet with presentation slides by clicking here.  Fiber Optic Technology is item 4 on the agenda.  As Aldona noted in her presentation, a fiber optic buildout is a complex project.  The city’s strategic decisions in deploying the fiber optic network will have consequences for decades, so while some enthusiasts of the project have been eager for progress, a deliberate approach is appropriate for the best outcomes.

The Gigabit City Executive Steering Committee will be drafting and releasing an RFP in the coming weeks.  The Committee plans to suggest 2 options in the RFP.  The first option will be a private build in which the city has a level of participation.  The second option will be a public-private partnership model.  The city’s interest in both models relates to a ubiquitous, or equitable, build.  One outcome of a fiber optic network build is that only wealthy residents have access to high speed information delivery.  The city would prefer that this fiber optic infrastructure be available more equitably, and the public investment advances that interest.




Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Update on Rural Recreational Zone Text Amendment

Some constituents have inquired about the status of the rural recreational zoning ordinance text amendment (ZOTA), so I am providing a brief update on where the policy issue stands.   For more background on the ZOTA please see my earlier blog post here.


Here is a timeline of the rural recreational ZOTA’s progress through the legislative process so far:

  • February 12, 2012 – Former Vice Mayor Linda Gorton created the Recreational Zoning Ordinance Text Amendment Work Group to study how to update zoning ordinances regarding possible new opportunities for ecotourism,  agritourism, and other commercial uses in the rural area.
  • May 23, 2013 – The Work Group delivered its final report to Council.
  • June 6, 2013 – The Council approved the final report during a first and second reading at a Council Meeting and instructed the Division of Planning to draft a zoning ordinance text amendment for the Planning Commission to consider.
  • October 23, 2014 – Planning staff present the ZOTA at a Planning Commission public hearing. The Planning Commission made no recommendation to Council at that time. The minutes on this issue from that meeting are available here.
  • March 26, 2015 – The Planning Commission held a second public hearing related to this issue.   The Planning Commission also made no recommendation to Council at that time. The minutes on this item are available here.
  • June 25, 2015 – The Planning Commission held the third public hearing on zoning items on which the ZOTA was part of the agenda. On a split vote the Commission approved an amended version of the ZOTA and recommend approval to Council.  You can watch a video of this meeting here, and you can view the recommended ZOTA by clicking here.
  • August 27, 2015 –  Council voted unanimously to table the recommended ZOTA  rather than give the ordinance first reading. The rationale given for tabling the ordinance was to allow for further council consideration and public input, in part because so many members of council were new and not familiar with the history and the intricacies of the issue . You can view that meeting by clicking here.
  • November 11, 2015 – Planning staff presented a recreational ZOTA workshop and answered numerous questions from Councilmembers.

What is at Issue?

The main area of disagreement when the Planning Commission voted, and the likely area of concern when the issue is before Council, is whether a set of proposed uses for the rural area should be  “principal uses” or “conditional uses.”  Principal uses are always allowed in a zone “by right.” Conditional uses require approval by the Board of Adjustment.  There is a further important distinction between  “conditional use” and  “conditional zoning.”  A conditional use permit is detailed, includes specific restrictions, is reviewed annually, and can be revoked if the holder does not meet the prerequisite conditions.  Conditional zoning, in contrast, only applies once and the zoning cannot be revoked.  I anticipate discussion related to how these differing levels of restriction might apply, for example, to proposals for commercial hiking and biking trails as well as other potential uses.

Next Steps

Given that Council tabled the ZOTA, there is no time constraint for Council to act on the legislation.  However, I expect it will be removed from the table and placed back in active consideration within the next month. Council can then choose to do one or more of the following: refer the issue to a standing committee; create an ad hoc committee to further review the issue; hold a public meeting; hold a formal public hearing with legal notice, docket the legislation for a vote. On so important an issue, which will have substantial and long-range implications for our rural lands, the the challenge is to balance the need for full discussion and consideration with the need to finally take action.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My Support for the Minimum Wage Increase

On November 19, 2015, Urban County Council voted to approve an ordinance raising the minimum wage in Fayette County to $10.10 an hour over the next three years, beginning July 1, 2016.  The vote was 9 to 6 in favor.  The Herald-Leader article about the vote can be found here.

I voted with the majority.  I believe it was the right thing to do. But I also believe that reasonable people can differ on this issue, and that each of the Councilmembers who voted against the proposal had reasonable concerns about the potential impact of the ordinance.  These concerns included the following:

  • The move to $10.10 an hour is too large an increase too quickly
  • The county does not have the legal right to raise the minimum wage above the State or Federal level
  • We should wait until the Kentucky Supreme Court rules on the lawsuit regarding the validity of Louisville’s similar legislation
  • Small businesses and low wage workers would be harmed by the increase
  • Other approaches to providing low wage workers with support would yield more positive results with fewer negative consequences

Though I do not agree with some of the assumptions behind these concerns, I  understand them and took them into account in deciding how to vote.

I supported the proposal because for me there are two deciding factors in this complex issue.  First, the need to provide relief now to the working poor in our community outweighs the concerns about possible negative impact.  The working poor have seen the purchasing power of the minimum wage diminish steadily over the past few decades.  Despite working full time at one and sometimes two minimum wage jobs, many must rely on a variety of government subsidies and support to pay for the rent, the food, and other necessities for themselves and their families. Second, a solid preponderance of evidence indicates that raising the minimum wage is good both for low-wage workers and for the overall economy.

In the discussions on raising the minimum wage, Councilmembers made the point many times that doing so by itself does not solve all the problems of poverty in our community. I agree. Our community needs to continue to look for additional ways to increase education and employment opportunities and to provide other means of support for the working poor. For example, Councilmember Hensley moved to place on the Council docket an ordinance to exempt minimum wage workers from the city’s Occupational License Tax. Council approved my amended version of his motion, to place discussion of the issue in the Budget, Finance, and Economic Development Committee. At an earlier meeting Council approved Councilmember Stinnett’s motion to place into the same committee discussion of additional efforts within LFUCG for workforce development and training. Both proposals are worthy of consideration, and I look forward to continued Council work on these important issues.

I offer thanks to Councilmember Jennifer Mossotti for bringing the minimum wage issue before Council, to all my colleagues on Council for their thoughtful deliberation on this issue in numerous meetings over the last nine months, and to all the citizens who took the time to share their views with me and my colleagues. My thanks also to Jason Bailey and Anna Baumann of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy for their research and analysis of this complex and difficult issue.

You can view more of my thinking on this issue in a series of blogs posted earlier on this site.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment