Centre College is considering razing several buildings on the edge of its downtown campus and paving a new parking lot, but the project still needs approval from the Danville Architectural Review Board.
Last week, Centre applied for a certificate of appropriateness before the ARB, seeking permission to demolish four residential buildings — 118-124 N. Fifth St. — the college started acquiring last year near the intersection with Main Street. James Leahey, Centre's associate vice president for legal affairs, who presented the school's plan to the ARB, said talks are also ongoing with the owners of Bob's Auto Detailing at the corner of Fifth and Main about acquiring that lot.
Leahey said immediate plans are to tear the buildings down and put in a 44-space campus parking lot. Drawings presented last week show the lot bordered by trees and a small brick wall on the Main Street side similar in appearance to other brick structures on Centre's campus.
In addition to the deteriorating internal and external condition of the rental properties, the oldest of which date back to the early 20th century, Leahey said the block had become a source concern for students and faculty. Increased criminal activity has drawn frequent attention from law enforcement and made those who live in the area leery of living near or even walking down that part of Fifth.
Although he wouldn't rule out construction at the site in the future if a need and money arise, for the time being Leahey said the priority is creating a more attractive and less perilous eastern gateway to campus.
There are also environmental concerns about leakage from the gas station site.
Leahey said renovating the existing buildings or building new structures on the site to make them habitable would be cost prohibitive because it may require excavating tons of dirt and finding ways to make the buildings themselves safe. In his report to the ARB, Leahey sited a private environmental engineer's report and findings from the Kentucky Environmental Protection Cabinet that showed contamination from underground tanks previously at the service station had migrated north onto the rental properties.
"If we could rehab the buildings at a reasonable cost, we would do that," Leahey said.
Because Centre does not have plans or funds budgeted for a building on the property, Leahy said a parking lot could make the land useful while providing an impermeable surface to prevent more seepage.
The ARB voted to table the college's request to take down the buildings until engineers and architects weigh in on the structural integrity of the buildings and the feasibility and cost of renovating them. The board suggested the college consult with Kentucky Heritage Council, which has engineers and architects on staff experienced with restoration. ARB member Mary Jo Joseph has consistently opposed demolishing buildings downtown, particularly for the purpose of additional parking, and favors some attempt at adaptive reuse for the properties, including the auto shop.¿She appreciates the quality of work Centre does when it develops property, but said the plans could create a barrier to interplay of “town and gown” on the margins of campus, while chipping away further at residential property downtown.
Joseph acknowledged several residents of Broadway, which dead-ends at Fifth Street, told the ARB during Centre’s presentation they would rather see a parking lot than blighted property that attracted criminal activity. However, she noted that if Centre's plan moves forward, the historic Broadway neighborhood will essentially be surrounded by parking lots once the library's planned lot on the corner of Broadway and Fourth Streets is complete.
Joseph would like to see a more stringent and easily executed codes enforcement process so buildings in historic areas don't reach the point where people believe the best option is to knock them down. She said additional long-range planning that focuses on at-risk properties may be necessary.
Centre also applied for a certificate of appropriateness to demolish the service station, although no deal has been finalized for the property. The planned parking lot is contingent on working out a purchase of that property.
It is unclear whether Centre will be able to gather the necessary information in time for the ARB next meeting in mid-August, but Leahey said the school has hired Ross Tarrant Architects to assess the buildings. Any necessary remediation could delay work on the parking lot, but the college will move forward as soon as possible if the plan gains approval.
"We respect the process and it is one that requires due diligence on our part," said Michael Strysick, Centre's director of communications. "We are happy to address any concerns (ARB) has."