Historic Davis Bottom neighborhood continues to undergo changes

WEKU | By Stu Johnson

A lengthy transformation continues in a community near downtown Lexington. You could say discussions began a half-century ago, but the real transition began just over a decade ago.

It’s a tranquil area on this late summer day on Lexington’s DeRoode Street. But, what if the soil could talk about vast changes over the years. The area between Versailles Road and South Broadway was once home to the Davis Bottom neighborhood. Established in 1867, it became a diverse community, home of African American, white European and Appalachian families. After decades of talk, the movement to extend Newtown Pike led to the complete destruction and rebuilding of what had become an economically depressed area. Ed Holmes is president of EHI Consultants. He said a massive federal transportation grant was a difference maker.

EHI Consulting Firm President Ed Holmes
EHI Consulting Firm President Ed Holmes (Photo by Stu Johnson)

“Not only did they pay for building the road, it also paid for building the neighborhood back. They acquired the housing. They acquired everything in that neighborhood and it was about a 25-acre site and the Land Trust now owns that 25 acres,” said Holmes.

Holmes is talking about the Lexington Community Land Trust. The first in Kentucky, the Land Trust owns the land while residents own homes. The idea is to maintain affordability. Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton, who spent many years on the Urban County Council, knows the transition was a monumental task.

“Took a lot of years..you know they had to relocate people and it was very complicated to get everybody out of there first of all and get the improvements made and start building buildings where people could live,” said Gorton.

Driving down Oliver Lewis Way today there’s a large amount of green space along with housing units in the Davis Park community.

Mayor Gorton says she’s not surprised at the pace of the rebuild, considering the complex nature of the transition.

At City Hall this week, 11th District Council Representative Jennifer Reynolds, who represents the neighborhood, expressed hope for further development.

“You know I think that area has so much potential and there’s a lot of folks that live over there that want to see it grow,” said Reynolds.

In addition to revitalization along Oliver Lewis Way, Reynolds hopes more can be done in a similar manner along the Versailles Road corridor.

Ed Holmes’ firm EHI is managing several projects tied into the community land trust property. That includes plans for a 76-unit affordable housing apartment complex and a 4000 square foot multi-purpose community center. That’s expected to open about a year from now.

Plans to construct an indoor farmers market in that area didn’t pan out. Federal coronavirus recovery dollars that could have gone towards that project are now being used for the community center. Holmes said there remains interest in seeing more commercial activity.

“If we realize the retail is hard to go then maybe we need to come up with a model that takes a little bit of both…a farmers market..retail..a mixture of things that would encourage a very entrepreneurial-minded individual invest into the community,” said Holmes.

Holmes said, quote, “We’re not giving up hope, it’s just a challenge and an opportunity at the same time.” He admits the requirement for long-term leases along with what were some environmental brown-field issues could be holding some business interests back.

City park under construction at Davis Park neighborhood
City park under construction at Davis Park neighborhood (Photo by Stu Johnson)

What is eye-catching currently on Community Land Trust acreage is the development of a new city park in the Davis Park neighborhood. Mayor Gorton said it will include a playground, basketball courts, and walking trails… amenities that people who live there can use.

One of those residents is Gweneth St. Hill, a native of Barbados who came to Lexington from New York three years ago. She said her mortgage payment of $735 is manageable compared to housing in New York. And St. Hill’s house sits right across the street from the park under construction.

(Photo by Stu Johnson)

“I like it here, quiet. You can sit down here and watch the cars and everything. The kids like this park when they open it…everybody gonna run around and enjoy themselves, so…I like it here,” said St. Hill.

And so, the sounds nearby could increase a bit later this fall when the park opens. A tree planting is planned in October, and in time, more housing and possibly business plantings will dot the landscape.

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Top photo by Stu Johnson. Republished with permission.