A decade and a half after its founding in 1775, Lexington, Ky., had more horses than residents, thanks in part to wide-open fields of calcium-rich bluegrass. The city is still known as the horse capital of the world, but these days people outnumber equines. The economy continues to rely on horses, but humans do a fair amount of schooling at the University of Kentucky (UK) and 14 other institutions. UK’s medical campus created the local healthcare industry, and Lexington’s central location is attractive to corporations—Lexmark, Valvoline, and Tempur-Pedic are headquartered there.
Like many cities, Lexington struggles to grow without destroying its past. “The compelling natural landscape of the thoroughbred farms is a treasured asset that is under constant development pressure,” says Richard Polk Jr., principal at local firm EOP Architects. “Lexington is faced with both the challenge and responsibility to protect this limited and precious asset.”
The city created an “urban service area” in 1957 to preserve the horse country by limiting development to about one-third of Lexington-Fayette Urban County. That put pressure on the central business district, and many historic properties were razed in the name of progress and to meet demand. Recently, however, locals pushed to preserve what was left, and the government has created a redevelopment plan that blends the old with the new.
“Over the past five years, there has been an emphasis on the redevelopment of Lexington’s downtown and surrounding UK campus,” says local architect Michael Jacobs, principal at Omni Architects. “These numerous infill projects have included a range of housing and small-business lifestyles with a full range of low-, middle-, and high-income residents, and student rental options via new construction and renovations of existing buildings.”
Current population: 282,114, up nearly 8% since 2000.
The Class A market was 13.9% vacant midyear 2009; average asking rate: $17/s.f./year.
Median home sale price: $143,000.
• Diverse economy: horses, education, corporations • Natural resources/amenities
• Good business reputation
• Limited developable land • Development pressure on iconic farmlands
• Stalled national economy
“[Some] are looking towards the future and taking risks in the hope that Lexington will embrace a contemporary lifestyle and a built environment to go with it,” says local architect Richard Polk Jr. “The city seems to have awakened to the value of and need for sustainable architecture. [And] there is a desire by officials and residents to grow in a smart manner.”