Keeneland shows the value of good planning, design

Keeneland is a pleasant place to spend an afternoon, a colorful pageant of fast horses and the people who come from everywhere to watch them run.

Keeneland also is a place that can teach many lessons about success. Now celebrating its 75th year, the organization is a model of excellence in racing, hospitality, marketing, community investment, strategic vision, long-range planning and good design.

Those last three lessons were on my mind over the weekend, as Keeneland began its fall racing meet. Perhaps that was because I was there with a group of architects and planners brought together by the University of Kentucky’s College of Design.

Among them was Henk Ovink, a top planner for the government of the Netherlands, a compact nation that does urban planning as well as any on Earth. Ovink has visited Lexington many times, but this was his first time at Keeneland.

He was impressed.

“It is so well done,” Ovink said as he gazed at the track and the farmland beyond. “They have integrated a very big facility beautifully into the landscape.

“If you can do it with this, you can do it with a residential development,” he said. “It isn’t that hard. You just have to pay attention to what you are doing.”

That got me to thinking about one of Lexington’s ironies.

Keeneland might be the ultimate expression of Lexington’s most famous attribute: a uniquely beautiful landscape of horse farms, bounded by stacked-stone and wood-plank fences and dotted with elegant mansions and handsome barns. It is an environment that makes the most of Central Kentucky’s natural beauty.

But it is a built environment — no more natural or accidental than the colorful chaos of an English garden.

The irony is that Lexingtonians, surrounded by this well-designed rural landscape, have paid so little attention to the design and quality of their urban landscape. Unlike Louisville or Cincinnati, this city has little history of appreciating good, innovative architecture, and it has a hit-and-miss record of urban planning.

Since the 1940s, dozens of beautiful downtown buildings have been torn down for parking lots, or replaced by bland boxes of concrete and glass. Lexington has some lovely suburban neighborhoods — but many more cookie-cutter subdivisions of vinyl-clad boxes and cheaply built apartments, some of which quickly became slums.

Local developers have often seen design professionals as costs to be cut rather than as resources to be used to improve functionality and create both beauty and long-term value. Until recently, few residents or politicians objected when Lexington’s landscape was littered with generic junk. “Oh, well, it’s their property,” people would say, rather than, “Is this how we want our city to look?”

As Ovink was admiring Keeneland, I told him some of what track president Nick Nicholson has told me about the thought, planning and attention to detail that his organization puts into the design and care of the buildings and grounds.

Nothing about Keeneland’s look happens by accident, whether it is the architecture of a building, the placement of a bush or the trimming of a tree. Visitors might not realize it, but design excellence is at the heart of the Keeneland experience.

Of course, Keeneland has a lot of money to work with. But that hasn’t always been the case. When the founders turned Jack Keene’s stables into a racetrack, they did it on a shoestring budget during the Great Depression. Still, from the beginning, Keeneland’s leaders focused on excellence and long-term value.

This is a good time to think about Keeneland’s example. One Urban County Council task force is studying opportunities for urban infill and redevelopment, and another is looking at incorporating “design excellence” into the city’s planning and zoning laws and processes.

Meanwhile, a community task force is creating a master plan for the redevelopment of 46 underused acres of city-owned property downtown that includes Rupp Arena and Lexington Center. It is a thoughtful process, and the task force has engaged some world-class design professionals to consider the possibilities.

Quality costs more than junk, but good design doesn’t have to be expensive. As much as anything, it is the result of careful thought and good planning. Will Lexingtonians finally insist on an urban landscape worthy of the rural one that surrounds it?

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