Milestones: The First 50 Years
of Planning and Zoning in Lexington

Milestones: The first 50 years of Planning and Zoning in Lexington

The following information is based on “Envisioning the East End: Planning, Representation and the Production of Urban Space in Lexington, Kentucky,” a 2003 Ph.D. dissertation Katherine T. Jones produced for the Department of Geography at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Jones’s work cites hundreds of sources, including interviews and books, as well as planning documents from Fayette County, Lexington, and Lexington-Fayette County, Kentucky. Dr. Jones includes a detailed look at the history of planning for these areas and describes the history of urban planning in the United States.

Note: Until 1920, local governments did not have the authority to regulate the use of individually owned property. Court rulings and state laws that supported community planning and zoning unfolded during the 1920s.

1928: The Lexington City Planning and Zoning Commission launched with seven members, including two representing Fayette County.

1931: The Commission contracted with Ladislas Segoe, a Cincinnati-based planning professional, who developed a new ordinance and the city’s first comprehensive plan. The plan’s main provisions aimed at moving Lexington in the direction of “City Beautiful” standards that were popular at the time. With regard to Black housing, the plan identifies “colored districts” as “unsanitary,” “unsightly,” and costly for the city. While the section on Black housing is small within the larger plan, it is the first formal planning example of what proved to be a recurring planning pattern for some decades: identifying Black neighborhoods as problems presumably caused by and attached to Black people themselves.

Lexington's first plan sets the pattern for the many 20th century plans that follow. Researcher Katherine T. Jones states:

The plan displays virtually no understanding of the living circumstances of African-Americans during this period, instead choosing to blame these residents for poor neighborhood conditions and urban economic problems, while suggesting that the time for “tolerance” was over. Despite the convoluted nature of these arguments, this sort of rationale was to persist, and become the basis for urban redevelopment schemes over the next several decades (Jones 2003, 68).

Jones includes this important footnote:

One reader of this dissertation has noted that, while neighborhoods such as the East End may have been composed mostly of African-American residents, those residents may have been renters rather than owners; the properties may actually have been owned by absentee white landlords. Thus, the responsibility for poor neighborhood conditions may have rested with the city’s white landowners rather than with the African-American tenants (Jones 2003, 68).

1930s: Planning becomes more ‘’professional” as the Depression leads to investments in public works, including funds for more “scientific,” detailed studies of housing and other city conditions. One result, in 1939, was A Real Property Survey for Lexington, Kentucky, produced by the US Public Works Administration. According to Dr. Jones:

The report’s conclusions with regard to housing conditions matched those found in the 1931 Segoe plan—namely, that while housing conditions in the city were generally good, there were significant substandard areas, particularly in African-American neighborhoods (Freed 1983). In years to come, the detailed, neighborhood level analysis conducted for this survey would become the basis for urban renewal plans for the city (Jones 2003, 71).

During the 1930s, Lexington produced its first public housing, which was segregated. Federal policies aimed at supporting home ownership began to make a big difference in White families’ abilities to own homes; those benefits were unavailable to all but a tiny number of Black home owners.

1940s: A group of private citizens formed the Lexington Area Planning Council and contracted with local architect Hugh Meriwether to produce a city plan (1947). The city itself never adopted this plan. The plan reflects the first push toward urban renewal: government-sponsored and -funded demolition of designated problem areas with the intention of rebuilding to increase tax revenue and attractiveness. According to Dr. Jones:

…Meriwether calls for a city-sponsored demolition program, a program that appears to be very similar to (and no doubt influenced by) the federal urban clearance program that was being debated in Washington D.C. at the time (Hays 1985, 74).

1950s: Lexington contracted with the Segoe firm again to produce an official city comprehensive plan (1950). Multiple updates and plans followed during the decades. These local plans reflect some national trends toward neighborhood scale plans and toward planned, funded urban renewal. Lexington’s 1950s plans provided detailed, mapped identification of residential conditions and reflected the national trend toward city-sponsored purchase of “problem” properties for resale at a discount to private developers of both housing and commercial properties.

As Stacy Freed noted in her thesis, the first urban redevelopment initiative in Lexington occurred in 1953 (Freed 1983).

At this time, the Lexington Slum Clearance and Redevelopment Agency was formed as an official agency of the city. According to Planning Commission documents, the purpose of the agency was, “to clear out the blighted sections of the City and return them to a healthy, self-supporting condition in accordance with the City-County Master Plan” (LPZC 1953, 3). Initial efforts of this agency were focused on the Pralltown neighborhood, in the vicinity of Colfax Street, Prall Street and Virginia Avenue. The Agency did a study of the Pralltown neighborhood, but no follow-up action was taken, and no actual urban redevelopment proposal was prepared. (Jones 2003, 87)

As we note in a page dedicated to Urban Renewal in Pralltown, effective opposition by Pralltown neighbors, coupled with the city's failure to plan to house displaced families, contributed to the failure of this Urban Renewal plan to materialize in full form.

The 1950s also mark the beginning of real growth in Lexington’s planning department, assisted by funds from the federal government. In 1953, the city produced a booklet explaining planning, zoning, and planning staff roles to residents. Several plans emerged during the 1950s, but did not address housing or urban renewal.

In 1957, an urban renewal effort focused on Irishtown-Davis Bottoms (now Davis Park) also faltered, failing to receive federal approval in part because of weak plans for relocating residents whom the plan would affect.

Forces in the community increased their support of urban renewal as the 1960s approached. These included the formation of a private citizens’ group that advocated for city planning and urban renewal. In addition, in 1959, the University of Kentucky's College of Law and its Architectural Engineering Section collaborated with a community group, Citizens Association for Planning, to host an "Urban Conference."

1960s: The city’s planning department proposed to the federal government and won approval for an urban renewal project affecting 76 acres near downtown in Lexington’s East End. Supporters of this project were mostly White; many opponents were Black. Opponents collected and presented to the Lexington Board of City Commissioners a petition with more than 3,000 signatures calling for the project to be presented to the voting public in a referendum. The Commissioners eventually agreed, the referendum took place, and the public rejected the plan.

With increased federal and local funding for larger planning staffs, Lexington's planners produced a comprehensive plan in 1967 and a land use plan in 1968 that laid groundwork for future planning approaches and decisions. The 1968 Land Use Plan includes the first explicit emphasis on protecting rural land assets and the first division of the city into 156 rated, neighborhood-based planning segments. For Lexington's formal planning apparatus, this plan marked a turn toward a focus on creating small area plans. Of the 156 identified neighborhoods, planners labeled 13 of them "Low." The plan pointed toward clearance in some of these areas in order to bring about substantial change. The areas identified matched up relatively closely with those labeled as problems in earlier decades.

A second urban renewal plan that won federal approval eventually resulted in the removal of railroad tracks from downtown, a civic center, and significant work intended to make downtown more beautiful. Much of this work followed recommendations made in a 1966 small area plan for downtown prepared by influential consultant Helm Roberts.

Increasing federal dollars funded a major expansion of Lexington’s planning staff. The staff produced a written guide to comprehensive planning and used the guide's tenets to structure planning efforts. Staff worked to include Lexington residents in planning, a change also underway in planning across the United States.

1970s: Federal funding for urban renewal disappeared in the 1970s, replaced to some extent in 1974 by Community Development Block Grants. Local governments controlled block grant expenditures, most of which Lexington planners dedicated to improving streets, gutters, curbs and sidewalks in Neighborhood Strategy Areas (similar to the neighborhoods designated "Low Standard" up until then).

In a late bid for urban renewal, Pralltown residents worked with University of Kentucky architecture students and faculty early in the 1970s to request federal urban renewal funds for redevelopment efforts that the neighborhood invited. The initial proposal failed as federal funds for urban renewal disappeared, but relatively small amounts of federal dollars granted during the planning process eventually supported some changes in the neighborhood.

Late in the 1970s, local government essentially outsourced downtown planning and development to a newly formed Downtown Development Commission, which had government funding and private volunteer staff.

Our conclusion from the first 50 years of Planning and Zoning in Lexington, as presented by Dr. Katherine Jones: For the most part, formal processes of planning and zoning in Lexington-Fayette County work to sustain a status quo in terms of housing segregation even though they are not explicitly discriminatory and racist. That status quo is built on the head start White home owners gained during the 20th century. The inequities began centuries earlier and intensified due to racist and White-favoring policies of federal, state, and local governments during the 20th century.