Attorney Brent Rice knows the first question most people will ask him when they hear he is chairman of Lexington’s Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force: “So, are we going to build a new arena or renovate Rupp?”
“This is about so much more than that one issue,” Rice said. “It’s about a district, not just an arena. It’s a total evaluation of what we have and what the possibilities are.”
Mayor Jim Gray appointed the 50-member task force in April to take a deep, wide and exhaustive look at 35-year-old Rupp Arena, the adjacent Lexington Center convention facility and shopping mall, and the vast parking lots around them.
This 46 acres of city-owned property represent the biggest development opportunity in modern Lexington history. It is strategically located beside the downtown business district, the fringes of the University of Kentucky, the emerging restaurant and entertainment areas along Manchester and Jefferson streets, and five historic residential neighborhoods.
The task force consists of a high-powered group of Kentuckians, most representing specific interests in the property or creative expertise in the many issues that will be involved in redevelopment.
Since April, task force committees have worked behind the scenes to digest previous studies of Lexington Center and coordinate with research being done by other groups, such as transportation planners and convention promoters. They have studied the city’s needs and desires. And they have had meetings with primary stakeholders, from UK Athletics to surrounding neighborhoods.
For example, Rice said, discussions with neighborhood representatives have focused on these two questions: What do you want to see there? What do you not want to see there?
The committees are writing draft reports that will be released Sept. 7, when the process starts becoming more public. Several open meetings will be scheduled in the fall. But citizens already have been offering good ideas, said Stan Harvey, who heads the Lexington office of the respected national planning firm Urban Collage, which is a consultant to the task force.
This privately financed process will cost at least $350,000, and 80 percent of the money has been raised, Rice said. Most donations, including in-kind services, have come from Lexington businesses.
Some of the money will go to hire national experts to study the arena issues. The key question is whether Rupp should be renovated and expanded or replaced. UK Athletics officials and many Wildcat fans — envious of Louisville’s new KFC Yum Center — want a new arena. But many people doubt a new arena is necessary or would be economically viable.
Other money will go toward hiring a top-notch planning and design team to develop a master plan for the district. Proposals for that contract were due last week, and more than 20 firms from across the country applied, Rice said.
Harvey attributed such strong national interest in part to publicity surrounding The Webb Cos.’ hiring of the hot Chicago firm Studio Gang Architects to redesign its proposed CentrePointe project. “Lexington is being seen as a place where innovative things are happening,” he said.
Task force committees also have been looking at how to expand Lexington Center’s convention facilities, which are too small. They also are assessing the need for arts and educational facilities that could go in the district, such as performance space or an art museum.
Then there is the question of commercial property, which would be key to financing the district’s redevelopment. Condos, apartments, shops, restaurants, offices and entertainment venues could be built on some of the 29 acres of asphalt if parking were consolidated into garages.
Rice said the task force’s goal is to give city, state and university leaders the best possible options for creating a dynamic district unique to Lexington’s culture that will be an important economic engine for decades. That is why the process is important.
As the evolution of the CentrePointe project has shown so clearly, you get more creative results and greater community buy-in with an inclusive process that allows the best ideas to surface. The more Lexington citizens get involved in the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force process, the better the results are likely to be.