Connecting the dots of vacancy and abandonment in Lexington’s East End

At approximately 6:30pm on Saturday, August 8th, the building standing at 500–502 East Third Street on the corner of Race Street collapsed into a heap of rubble. For those who passed by the building with any regularity, the collapse was neither a surprise nor, in many ways, unwelcome. The building that once served the surrounding community as a grocery store and pharmacy came to a rather inauspicious end, as it is estimated to have sat vacant for the last twenty years or more.

But the minor disaster at 500–502 East Third Street isn’t just an isolated incident to be remarked upon and then forgotten once the dust has cleared. This event should instead be cause for reflection on the broader context that gave rise to it, and its connections to some of the larger problems facing our city, and the East End in particular. Because several key pieces of context went unreported in the media initial coverage of the building’s collapse, it’s perhaps unclear to many how the somewhat extraordinary event of a building falling in on itself is indicative of some larger set of problems…

First, none of the local media outlets reporting on the building collapse noted that the property is owned by Charles Finnell (though this was mentioned in a more recent follow-up article in the Herald-Leader), who, according to Fayette County PVA records, lives at 336 Ridgeway Road in Chevy Chase, far from the property he allowed to fall into disrepair, and, ultimately, the ground. This distance from the East End — both literal and metaphorical — is reinforced by reports that the ‘For Sale’ sign posted on the building listed a disconnected telephone number, and that the Lexington Fire Department was having difficulty contacting the owner of the building in the aftermath of the collapse.

Properties owned by Charles Finnell, in relation to his home address

The second piece of information missing from reporting on the collapse is that this isn’t the only property Charles Finnell owns in Lexington, the East End, or even on this particular block. Indeed, apart from his home address, the Fayette County PVA lists a total of 16 other properties owned by Finnell or registered in other names to his home address at 336 Ridgeway Road, as visualized in the map above. These 16 properties include the three lots adjacent to the now collapsed building along Race Street, as well as a few others in the East End, all of which appear to range from complete abandonment to simple dilapidation. That is, the abandonment and eventual demise of this particular building is just one part of a much wider pattern of neglect across a number of properties in the area. Finnell is, in short, a typical absentee landlord.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the now-collapsed building was already on the radar of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, as it was slated to be taxed at a higher, punitive rate due to its vacancy. Why some of Finnell’s other properties were not similarly included on the Vacant Property Review Commission’s list, and why the commission’s designation didn’t seem to warrant greater attention — or swifter action — from Code Enforcement, are open questions worth asking of city officials.

But, ultimately, these unreported issues point to the broader context that gave rise to this particular event — that throughout Lexington, property ownership is concentrated in the hands of relatively few owners, many of whom live quite far from the slew of properties they own, and some of whom allow their properties to fall into varying states of disrepair without much in the way of discouragement or disincentive. And though the Vacant Property Review Commission’s ability to levy punitive taxes on the owners of these vacant properties is one step in the right direction, the fact that just 97 properties were initially identified as being vacant — only 69 of which will end up being taxed at the higher rate due to appeals — points to the limitations of this approach, as it’s almost certain that there are more than 97 vacant properties within the city. Indeed, LFUCG data from 2010 lists a total of 4,373 vacant properties in the city.

Official city data on vacant properties in the city’s northeast quadrant from 2010 (L) and 2015 (R)

But of these 97 vacant properties, approximately 40% are located in what might collectively be called the northeast quadrant of Lexington, bounded by Broadway to the northwest, Short Street to the southwest, Midland Avenue to the southwest, and New Circle Road to the northeast — more than any other comparable area in the city. No individual owns more than three properties targeted by the Vacant Properties Review Commission, though approximately 22% of the 84 individuals that appear as owners on the listing live outside the city of Lexington altogether. Perhaps most startlingly, these 84 individuals own a total of 697 other properties throughout the city of Lexington, 218 (or 31.2%) of which are located in the northeast end of Lexington. The map below visualizes the (often quite distant) connections between these properties and their owners, drawing a line between the locations of the properties with the locations of their owners (whether home or business addresses).

Properties owned by the owners of vacant properties, connected to the owner’s contact address. View Interactive Map

And while all of this data is only a partial snapshot of the problem, it’s more than fair to say that the East End in particular has borne the brunt of the problems of vacancy and absenteeism. It’s important that we recognize, however, that these problems are not new, nor do they originate within the East End itself. Instead, we should look both further back in time and beyond the boundaries of the East End to understand the persistence of these problems.

The East End was initially established in the Civil War era on the less-desirable land at the periphery of the town plat, in order to house free black people, as well as slaves who ‘lived out’ in their own residences while still bound to their owners in all other ways. In 1920, over a half-century after the Civil War, it is estimated that only 12% of East End residents owned their own homes, meaning that the patterns of absentee ownership we see today go back at least a century. Shortly after this time, the East End was just one of the many predominantly black areas of the city to be ‘redlined’ by banks and the federal Home Owner’s Loan Corporation, cutting off the neighborhood’s access to credit and only further entrenching the relations of private landlordism that persist to this day.

1936 Home Owner’s Loan Corporation ‘redlining’ map of Lexington

But these uneven geographies of property ownership didn’t warrant mention in Lexington’s first comprehensive plan in 1931, which simply described the East End a mass of “unhealthy, unsanitary settlements [that] are a menace to health and safety in the city, and a constant drain on the economic resources of citizens”. Even some two decades later, the city’s 1950 comprehensive plan determined 83.8% of all homes in predominantly black areas of Lexington, including the East End, to be in substandard condition.

The perennial threat of urban ‘renewal’ from the city government — the most notable attempt at which was staved off in 1963 — meant that many, including absentee landlords, were hesitant to invest in properties that were under imminent threat of demolition, as happened to a number of other predominantly black areas of the city in the mid-20th century. But even without the wholesale demolition of the neighborhood, the combination of absenteeism, neglect and the occasional piecemeal effort at ‘revitalization’ has done significant damage to the neighborhood’s residential and commercial building stock, as seen in the map below.

1958–1970 Sanborn Fire Insurance map of the East End, from Dollins (2011)

These processes of stigmatization, neglect and demolition that have been at work in the East End for some time are themselves just one part of a broader process of urban transformation. The abandonment of properties by landlords like Charles Finnell is not somehow the opposite of the gentrification underway in the North Limestone and Jefferson Street corridors; these processes are instead intimately interconnected and dependent upon one another. The lack of both public and private investment in these neighborhoods over long periods of time has set the stage for a class of landlords — absentee or otherwise — to gobble up bunches of real estate on the cheap, reshaping surrounding neighborhoods in such a way as to maximize their private gain at the expense of the community and common good. For these individuals and the associated financiers, developers and real estate agents, it makes little difference whether one refurbishes a historic building into an upscale bar or leaves a shotgun house to fall into disrepair while continuing to collect rent, so long as the profit margins are high enough.

And while neighborhood resident Thomas Tolliver was quoted in the Herald-Leader as saying that the now-collapsed building “opens up an important piece of property for redevelopment”, taking a wider view makes it hard to see this building’s collapse as a victory in and of itself. It remains to be seen what the redevelopment of this property (and the surrounding area) will look like, and whose interests it will serve. A number of buildings within a block of the Third and Race intersection are already owned by some of the area’s biggest landlords, and developers associated with a variety of more upscale projects in the downtown and North Limestone areas have also acquired properties nearby, some as part of — or perhaps attempting to capitalize off of — the recently-created TIF district meant to ‘revitalize’ the East End.

So even if the actions and approaches of individual landlords or developers can range from the more-to-less benign, the concentration of property ownership in a smaller and smaller number of hands, many of which tend to be from outside the neighborhood, means that the future of the East End continues to be shaped largely by a select few individuals with little personal stake in the area. Whether the news of the day is the collapse of an abandoned building or the construction of an upscale mixed-use development meant to lure ‘the right kind of people’ into long-neglected areas of the city, it’s of the utmost importance that we treat these processes and places not as separate or isolated, but rather fundamentally interconnected and mutually-constituted.

NOTE: The work above was substantially aided by, and draws directly upon, readings of Rachel Dollins’ 2011 Master’s of Historic Preservation thesis from the University of Kentucky, “East End and Davis Bottom: A Study of the Demographic and Landscape Changes of Two Neighborhoods in Lexington, Kentucky”, as well as Katherine Jones’ 2003 doctoral dissertation from the Department of Geography at UK, “Envisioning the East End: Planning, Representation, and the Production of Urban Space in Lexington, Kentucky”.