Proposal a test of whether Lexington is ready to grow up, not out.

December 20, 2014

thistleAn architectural rendering of Thistle Station, a proposed 16-story apartment building with retail on the first floor. It would be between West Third and Fourth Streets off Newtown Pike.

 

Thistle Station, the 16-story apartment and retail building proposed last week along Newtown Pike, will be a big test of whether Lexingtonians can practice what they preach about growing their city up rather than out.

At first blush, the $30 million project appears to be a great example of urban infill development, the kind Lexington needs if it wants to avoid paving over more of its precious farmland.

Proposed by a group of local investors led by John Cirigliano, Thistle Station seems to have a lot going for it. For one thing, the site and location are just about perfect.

The development would sit along busy Newtown Pike, across West Fourth Street from the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus. It would be near two popular brew pubs and the Jefferson Street restaurant district and within easy walking distance of downtown.

Yet, there is enough space between this site and surrounding residential neighborhoods that nobody should feel crowded or overwhelmed, even by such a tall building with more than 210 apartments.

The site is now a former lumber yard bordered by railroad tracks. Nobody will be displaced by this project, and no significant old buildings will be lost.

thistle2The developers plan plenty of parking, most of it screened from public view, with easy access to Newtown Pike, which will minimize traffic impact on other nearby streets. The building is on a Lextran bus line and will be near both the Legacy and Town Branch trails. The developers plan to build a connecting trail section on their property along Newtown Pike.

Renderings show an attractive piece of contemporary architecture, designed in part by the Lexington firm Pohl Rosa Pohl. Skillful use of classical elements — a base, a middle course and a cap — give the design visual unity.

Although the building would be bigger and taller than anything near it, the first story is wrapped by pedestrian-friendly retail space. A stepped-down face along West Third Street provides a more human scale appropriate to the adjacent historic neighborhoods.

An abundance of glass is framed by textured concrete to resemble brick, with several nice touches, such as open glass corners and subtle balconies. Thistle Station could set a positive tone for future architecture along this important Lexington gateway corridor.

While the downtown condo market has been soft since the real estate bubble burst in 2008, property professionals tell me there is demand for upscale rental apartments downtown. Many young and transient professionals, as well as empty-nest baby boomers, want to live in an urban setting.

Two more positives: Thistle Station is not seeking any public subsidies, such as tax-increment financing. And before going public, the developers briefed leaders of the three surrounding neighborhood associations and scheduled meetings to seek public comment and suggestions. So far, most of the response has been positive.

The developers plan to file papers next month to rezone the property from I-1 light industrial to B-1 business under the city’s new form-based guidelines. If approved by the Planning Commission and the Urban County Council in the spring, the developers say the project could be finished and open by fall 2016.

The riskiest aspect of Thistle Station’s plan would seem to be the small, ground-floor retail and restaurant spaces. A lot of similar space at other Lexington mixed-use projects is vacant after struggling to find and keep tenants.

Still, making this space available is the right thing to do. Retail is essential to creating vibrant neighborhoods. A few tall housing developments like this could help provide the population density and diversity Lexington needs to help urban shops and restaurants succeed.

I expect Thistle Station will get some opposition — I have never seen a development proposal in Lexington that didn’t. People here have always been averse to more density and height. But both will be essential if Lexington is to get serious about promoting urban infill rather than bulldozing more bluegrass.

If properly designed, development with greater density and height can be both attractive and compatible with existing neighborhoods. Thistle Station looks like a good place for Lexington to start proving that point.


After 7 years of excuses, get tough with CentrePointe developer

December 6, 2014

141124CentrePointe-TE0001The CentrePointe block on Nov. 24, 2014. Below, developer Dudley Webb at the site in May and, below, the block before demolition began in 2008. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Fourteen months ago, when city officials were scrutinizing developer Dudley Webb’s financing to decide whether to let him begin excavation and construction of his problem-plagued CentrePointe project, I wrote that there are far worse things to have in the center of your city than a grassy field.

Now we know one of those things: a huge crater, nearly 40 feet deep and an entire city block square. A hole in the heart of Lexington.

Webb’s contractors spent three months last spring blasting, digging and hauling away more than 60,000 cubic yards of rock and dirt to build an underground garage. The three-level, 700-space garage is supposed to be the base of his proposed CentrePointe development of offices, apartments, shops, restaurants and hotels.

Webb said in May that the garage would be finished by late summer. But all he has done is dig a big hole, pour a few footers and make a lot of excuses.

CentrePointe has fallen months behind schedule, causing its major office tenant, the engineering firm Stantec, to cancel its lease agreement.

Instead of building the garage, as promised, Webb has sought more public subsidies. It is the latest episode in a tragedy that has been playing out since early 2008, when city officials let Webb demolish an entire block of historic buildings and popular businesses on nothing more than promises.

140531CentrePit-TE0140Webb has said over and over that he has financing to build. But when it comes down to it, he never really does. And, of course, it is always somebody else’s fault.

In August, Webb asked the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority to issue $30 million in bonds for the garage’s construction to lower his borrowing costs. The state refused, so he asked the city.

Mayor Jim Gray and the Urban County Council also wisely declined, even though Webb’s attorneys assured them that taxpayers would not be on the hook for repayment in case of default.

Even if that is true, city officials are keenly aware that a default on city-issued bonds would tarnish Lexington’s reputation even more than the CentrePointe fiasco already has.

Webb next turned to the Kentucky League of Cities, which agreed to create a non-profit corporation to issue the bonds. That was supposed to happen last week, but Temple Juett, the league’s general counsel, said the issue has been delayed. He did not have a new date.

If and when the bonds are sold, the big question will be whether anyone will buy them. The bonds are to be repaid by a portion of future tax revenues generated by the project. “The only people left holding the bag if there is a default are the bondholders,” Juett said.

Maybe the bond issue will be successful. Maybe Webb has the rest of his financing in place, as he claims. Maybe there will be no further delays, and CentrePointe will be built as promised.

Maybe pigs will fly.

If the bonds don’t sell, I predict Webb will come back to the city with his hand out. He will seek a bond guarantee or some other assistance in addition to the tax-increment financing package he last negotiated with the city and state in 2013.

There is only one appropriate response to any request for more public subsidies for CentrePointe: No. Period.

When Webb assured city officials a year ago that his financing was solid, they forced him to put up $4.4 million as a “conditional restoration agreement” that could be triggered if work at the site stops for 60 days.

That $4.4 million is supposed to be enough to pay for refilling the hole, compacting the soil and restoring the block to its pre-excavation appearance — a grassy field.

If the developer can’t pay, the city can go to court and seek foreclosure on the property, which is owned by corporations set up by Webb and jeweler Joe Rosenberg, whose family has owned much of the land for decades.

Of course, it would make no sense to fill the hole. The city needs the parking garage, just as it needs a vibrant, tax-generating, job-creating commercial development to be built on top of it. The question is whether Webb is capable of ever building either.

Here is what should happen: If Webb can’t finish the garage in a timely manner, city officials should use their leverage to force him and Rosenberg to turn the project over to another developer who can.

For nearly seven years, city officials have bent over backward to try to make CentrePointe a well-designed, successful project. Webb has squandered opportunities and made a lot of promises he hasn’t kept. Enough is enough.

080618CentrePointeBlockTE018

 


Montessori school renovates 1840s home with a rich history

November 15, 2014

141110Montessori0099Calleigh Kolasa, 13, left, Maya Pemble, 12, top right, and Gus Glasscock, 13, trim blackberry bushes outside Providence Montessori Middle School, now located in an 1840s house that for 119 years was the Florence Crittenton Home for unwed mothers. The school uses agriculture to teach everything from science to entrepreneurship. Photos by Tom Eblen

When the House of Mercy opened in 1894, the secluded old home at 519 West Fourth Street seemed like a good place to help “fallen” women. It was in an out-of-the-way part of town, near what was then called the Eastern Kentucky Lunatic Asylum.

What became the Florence Crittenton Home did a lot to help pregnant girls and young mothers with infants for 119 years until last November, when changing state social-work policies forced it to close for lack of funds.

Over the past couple of years, that out-of-the-way neighborhood has been experiencing a rebirth, with a heavy emphasis on education.

The former site of what is now called Eastern State Hospital is becoming the campus of Bluegrass Community and Technical College. Transylvania University has turned an old industrial strip into an athletics complex.

So it is fitting that the old House of Mercy, a handsome brick home that dates to around the 1840s, has been beautifully transformed for a new life as Providence Montessori Middle School.

The school recently completed an extensive renovation, accomplished quickly so fall-term classes could begin. The result will be on display from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday during a public open house. The presidents of Transylvania and BCTC are scheduled to attend.

“This summer was a blur,” said Vivian Langefeld, the Montessori school’s director. “We worked day and night.”

Despite a higher offer from Transylvania, the Florence Crittenton Home board last March sold the 2.5-acre property to the Montessori school for $400,100 — well below market value — to make sure the historic structure wasn’t demolished.

With a combination of donations, fundraising and loans, the school did an extensive renovation led by Matthew Brooks, a principal in the Lexington architecture firm Alt32, and Chip Crawford and Drew McLellan of Crawford Builders. Their work recently earned a Community Preservation Award from the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.

“It would have been a shame to have lost this place,” Langefeld said.

In addition to the tight schedule, Brooks said the biggest challenge was opening up space and light in the building, which had been added to three times since the late 1800s, without compromising structural integrity. The school’s requirement for big, open spaces was much different from the many small rooms the Crittenton Home needed.

Old carpets were pulled up and hardwood floors, including many of the original poplar planks, were restored. Original fireplaces were kept and structural brick was exposed on many interior walls to add to the charm.

Alt32’s staff also designed and built the school’s furniture and lockers from birch plywood, using a high-tech router capable of precisely replicating intricate shapes.

Brooks had a special interest in the project: his daughter will be a student there next year. He said the light-filled space now reminds him of Lexington’s original Montessori school in the St. Peter Claver Catholic Church Parish Hall down the street, where he attended kindergarten in 1972. (In another bit of neighborhood improvement, the church is now restoring and building an addition to that hall.)

In Montessori schools, children learn by doing in an environment with a lot of freedom and self-direction. This school, which has 38 students in 7th and 8th grades, uses small-scale urban agriculture as a vehicle for teaching everything from science to entrepreneurship.

Langefeld said the next step will be to fill the campus grounds with vegetable gardens, rain gardens, berry bushes and fruit trees. Chicken coops and beehives will be added in the spring so students can care for them and sell the eggs and honey.

“We do an entrepreneurial program where they all learn about supply and demand, profit and loss and so forth,” she said.

The house came with a good commercial kitchen, which students use for baking products to sell and fixing their own lunch once a week. A large room on the back will be turned into a shop with woodworking tools.

The school also hopes to develop cooperative programs with Transylvania and BCTC, and to engage residents and businesses in the surrounding neighborhood.

“Montessori’s vision for the adolescent was a non-institutional setting,” Langefeld said. “So this is perfect for that kind of environment, where it feels like they are more a part of a community.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


Award-winning plan for saving bur oak a model for developers

November 9, 2014

141106SchoolOak0058

This bur oak, which tree physiologist Tom Kimmerer thinks is 400 to 500 years old, frames Firebrook subdivision at the intersection of Military Pike, right, and Harrodsburg Road. Ball Homes is developing the property and hired Kimmerer to come up with a conservation plan for the tree. He hopes it will be a model for other developers. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

The most fought-over tree in Lexington is now more noticeable than ever. Cleared of surrounding brush, it dominates the skyline at the intersection of Harrodsburg Road and Military Pike.

The giant bur oak was last in the news 13 months ago, when neighbors cited concerns for its welfare among their objections to Ball Homes‘ plan to develop 25 acres behind it into 42 single-family homes and 196 apartments.

The city rejected another developer’s plan for townhouses on the site in 2008 because the tree could have been lost or damaged.

But Ball Homes’ proposal was approved after the company developed perhaps the most detailed plan yet for conserving one of the giant, centuries-old trees that have been rapidly disappearing.

Last week, that plan won Ball Homes an award from the Lexington-Fayette County Environmental Commission. Tom Kimmerer, a tree physiologist who developed the plan, hopes it will become a model for other local builders and future developments.

141106SchoolOak0037Ball Homes hired Kimmerer, a consultant and former University of Kentucky forestry professor, to work with the company’s regular arborist, Ian Hoffman of Big Beaver Tree Service.

Kimmerer has studied these specimens of blue ash, shellbark hickory and bur, chinkapin and Shumard oak, which grow better and live longer in Central Kentucky than in any other place in America.

Many of these trees were well-established before Daniel Boone set foot in Kentucky nearly two and a half centuries ago. They are icons of the Bluegrass landscape and the oldest living things in Kentucky.

But dozens, if not hundreds, have been cut down or killed in recent decades by development. Because these species don’t reproduce well in urban areas, younger trees have not been growing up to replace them.

Kimmerer last year started a nonprofit organization, Venerable Trees, to research and help people learn how to care for and propagate these trees.

This bur oak had been in the yard of a 1970s house, since demolished. A large driveway was built below its canopy. That kind of soil compaction can be deadly.

So the conservation plan’s first move was to carefully remove the driveway and erect a fence to keep construction equipment at least 72 feet away from the tree. Six inches of wood mulch was then spread on three-fourths of an acre, which will be left open around the tree.

“One of the things I was impressed with about Ball Homes was they didn’t say, ‘This is how much space we’ll give you.’ They said, ‘How much space does this tree need?'” Kimmerer said. “There was some back and forth and a few compromises here and there, but they were quite generous in allocating space for the tree.”

141106SchoolOak0016Rena Wiseman, Ball Homes’ associate general counsel, said the company realized saving the tree was worth the trouble and expense because it would be a symbol for the neighborhood.

“It’s the focal point,” said Lee Fields, Ball Homes’ vice president of development. “Besides, trees going down cost us money. The lots that always sell first are the ones with the trees.”

Kimmerer and Hoffman assessed the tree’s health and removed several damaged branches. They installed a lightning rod to help prevent future strikes.

The tree has long been thought to be more than 300 years old. Kimmerer guesses it is closer to 500 years old. Still, despite lightning strikes over the centuries and hollow spots, the oak is quite healthy.

“There’s no reason in principle why that tree couldn’t live for hundreds of years longer,” he said.

Ball Homes plans to retain ownership of the tree and surrounding land, including the apartment buildings. That should help ensure the tree’s long-term care, Kimmerer said, adding, “Our management plan for this tree goes way beyond just the construction phase.”

Kimmerer is one of only two tree physiologists in Kentucky. As it happens, the other one, UK forestry professor Jeff Stringer, lives in a renovated old schoolhouse next door to the bur oak. For years, he has been closely watching the tree’s health and debates about its future.

“That tree is in really good shape, and this plan should help keep it that way,” Stringer said, adding that its prospects for survival are better than they have been in decades.

In addition to avoiding soil compaction around a tree, Kimmerer said the most important factors in good long-term care include frequent inspections for signs of stress and keeping lawn fertilizers and herbicides away.

“Modern lawn care is anathema to old trees,” he said.

Kimmerer has surveyed many of the open tracts inside Lexington’s Urban Services Boundary, which will eventually be developed.

“There are at least 50 of these ancient trees that are going to get in the way of development or, conversely, could be seen as symbols of a new development,” Kimmerer said. “That’s one of the encouraging things about this project is that the tree will become emblematic of the whole neighborhood.

Award winners

Winners of the Lexington—Fayette County Environmental Commission’s 44th annual awards:

■ Lexington Police Services, for the We Care program.

■ Lexington Women’s Garden Club, for garden on Wellington Way.

■ Idle Hour Neighbors Alliance, for two monarch way-station gardens.

■ Klausing Group, for a vegetative roof, permeable pavers and Pinnacle Home Owners Association Children’s Garden.

■ University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, for Food and Environment Alumni Plaza project.

■ Lakeshore Apartments Association, Andover Management Group and Barrett Partners Landscape Architects, for improvements to the pond at Lakewood Park.

■ Ball Homes, for bur oak preservation plan.

■ FoodChain, for aquaponics project.

■ Pax Christi Catholic Church, for electronics recycling program.

■ Lexington Division of Environmental Policy, for urban tree canopy assessment and planting plan.

■ Bluegrass Greensource, Downtown Lexington Corp., for downtown Trash Bash.

■ Lansdowne Neighborhood Association, for Zandale Park Stream Bank Protection Project.

■ Pinnacle Home Owners Association, for Children’s Garden.

■ Kentucky Utilities, for the Arboretum’s Party for the Planet Celebration.

■ Community Montessori School, Montessori Middle School of Kentucky, for storm water quality improvement and stream restoration project.

■ Clays Mill Elementary School, for Springs Branch storm water improvement project.

 

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


‘Lost Lexington’ a reminder of great buildings and people

November 1, 2014

The cover of Lost Lexington explains why Peter Brackney’s new book is so timely: It shows a mothballed old courthouse in desperate need of renovation beside the gigantic crater that has replaced the city’s oldest business district.

141102LostLexington002Brackney, a lawyer and writer of the local history blog Kaintuckeean.com, said the plight of the old Fayette County Courthouse and the CentrePointe boondoggle were big motivations for writing his book.

So was the University of Kentucky’s controversial demolition this summer of several significant mid-century modern buildings on his alma mater’s campus to make way for new construction.

“Everywhere you see a parking lot, something once stood,” Brackney said in an interview. “I think the more you learn about some of these historic structures, the more you appreciate what we have left.”

Brackney focuses on what is gone, and it is an impressive collection of special buildings and places once central to community life. They include elegant mansions, a racetrack, an amusement park, a football stadium, railroad stations and a private garden that early settlers referred to as “paradise.”

Lost Lexington (The History Press, $19.95) includes a forward by Mayor Jim Gray and many photographs. But what makes it most interesting is Brackney’s thorough research into these places and the remarkable people associated with them. I know a lot about Lexington history, but I learned some things.

Brackney begins with Lexington’s best-known preservation story: the 1955 demolition of the 1798 Hart-Bradford House for a parking lot. That act, and fears that the 1814 Hunt-Morgan House across the street would be next, led to creation of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation and the city’s first preservation laws.

“If you looked at the Hart-Bradford House and didn’t know a thing about who lived there, you would think there was nothing special about it, just a nice two-story brick house,” Brackney said.

brackneyBut, as the book explains, that house was built by Henry Clay’s father-in-law, Thomas Hart, a Revolutionary War veteran and influential land speculator. The next resident was John Bradford, Kentucky’s first newspaper publisher and a major civic leader. Clay was married in that house, and Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan may have been, too.

Few people now remember another longtime resident of the house: Laura Clay, an early champion of women’s rights. She learned about the subject the hard way: watching her father, emancipationist Cassius Clay, cheat her mother out of property after their divorce.

Among the several fabulous, long-gone estates featured in the book is Chaumiere des Prairies, where three U.S. presidents were entertained and the traitor Aaron Burr was held under arrest.

Col. David Meade’s estate was famous for its beautifully landscaped gardens. When he died in 1832, a farmer who bought the property destroyed them with grazing livestock, prompting neighbors to post signs about “paradise lost.”

Brackney tells the stories of such 20th century landmarks as the Phoenix Hotel, Union Station, the Southern Railway depot and Joyland Park. Joyland Park was famous for its amusement rides and the huge dance pavilion where Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw and other big band leaders performed.

One interesting story was about how, for 23 years, the afternoon Lexington Leader gave every white kid in town free swimming lessons at Joyland’s public pool. In those segregation days, the newspaper provided free swimming lessons for black children at Douglass Park.

The book tells about two sporting venues that no longer exist: the Kentucky Association racetrack and Stoll Field/McLean Stadium, the home of UK football games and other community events before Commonwealth Stadium replaced it in 1972.

UK’s recent demolitions and the CentrePointe project, which destroyed more than a dozen downtown buildings and 51/2 years later is nothing more than a hole in the ground, were a wakeup call for historic preservation in Lexington.

But Brackney, who lives in Jessamine County, laments that many other communities still haven’t gotten the message. Nicholasville’s oldest Main Street commercial building, built in the early 1800s, was recently demolished.

“While we do have to balance preservation and progress, we have to make sure there’s an understanding that people lived and worked in each of these places; they’re not just bricks and mortar,” he said.

“Drive down Nicholasville Road, drive down Richmond Road, and there’s nothing that separates them from Glendale, Ariz., or any new city,” Brackney added. “There’s nothing that makes them unique. And it’s Lexington’s history and uniqueness that helps make it a great city.”

If you go

Peter Brackney will speak and sign copies of Lost Lexington:

5:30 p.m. Nov. 3: Thomas Hunt-Morgan House, 210 N. Broadway, hosted by the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation. The event includes a panel discussion about historic preservation in Lexington.

2 p.m. Nov. 9: The Morris Book Shop, 882 E High St.

6 p.m. Nov. 9: Barnes & Noble bookstore, Hamburg Pavilion.

7 p.m. Dec. 2: Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington Green.


Second Sunday event previews design for Legacy Trail completion

October 7, 2014

2ndSunday 2014 Handout-R1This rendering shows the proposed design for completing the Legacy Trail along Fourth Street between Jefferson and Shropshire streets. One-street parking would be eliminated to create a 10-foot, two-way bicycle land and 10-12 foot lanes for cars and trucks. People can test the concept 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday during the annual Second Sunday event. Photo Provided

 

This year’s Second Sunday event will offer a preview of what planners propose as the design for finishing Lexington’s popular Legacy Trail: a two-way path along Fourth Street separated from automobile traffic.

The free public event is 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, beginning at the corner of West Sixth and Jefferson Streets, at the Bread Box building and Coolivan Park. Festivities will include kids’ activities, but the main event will be bike riding, running, walking and skating on a coned-off lane of the south side of Fourth Street for 1.6 miles between there and the Isaac Murphy Art Garden under construction at East Third Street and Midland Avenue.

Eight miles of the Legacy Trail between the Northside YMCA and the Kentucky Horse Park were finished in 2010. But bringing the trail into town has been more complicated. The city secured $2.4 million in federal transportation funds to finish the trail, but it has taken time to work out all the details of bringing it into town.

Keith Lovan, a city engineer who oversees trail projects, said the cheapest and safest way to extend the trail across the Northside is what is known as a two-way cycle track on the street, separated from car and truck traffic by flexible posts.

To make room for the 10-foot-wide cycle track, on-street parking would be eliminated. Each car lane would still be 12 to 14 feet wide.

Sunday’s ride will extend to Shropshire Street, but Lovan said Elm Tree Lane and Race Streets also are being considered as ways to connect the Legacy Trail along Fourth Street to the art garden trailhead.

A citizens advisory committee of about 30 people has been mulling this design and other Legacy Trail issues. Detailed work will be done this winter and construction is to begin in the spring.

Lovan expects some controversy, because some on-street parking will be lost and because adding the trail will make street entry and exit from some driveways a little more complicated for drivers.

“I expect we’ll start hearing some of that Sunday,” Loven said of the Second Sunday event, when the trail will be marked off with orange cones. “We intend for this to reflect what the cycle track will look like.”

The hardest part of finishing the Legacy Trail, he said, “Will be getting the support to do this. We’ve had a lot of stakeholder meetings already.” Public meetings will be scheduled later this fall, and planners are going door-to-door talking with residents and businesses on affected streets, Lovan said.

The only other Lexington trail that uses this design is the short section of the Legacy Trail on the bridge over New Circle Road. In addition to cost-savings and improved safety, Lovan said, the two-way cycle track design has been shown in other cities to increase bicycle usage.

“These have been introduced across the country with great success,” said Loven, who oversaw design and construction of the rest of the Legacy Trail. “It provides the user a little more security. You don’t feel like you’re riding in traffic. But it’s more of a visual barrier than a protective barrier.”

I have ridden on cycle track in several American and European cities, and it feels safer for both cyclists and automobile drivers, because they are separated from each other.

When this is finished, there will be only one section of the original Legacy Trail left to do: a short connection between Jefferson Street and the YMCA. Lovan said the city has acquired an old rail line for part of that and is negotiating with the Hope Center to complete the connection. He expects that to be done next year.

The Legacy Trail demonstration marks the seventh year Lexington has participated in Second Sunday, a statewide effort to use existing built infrastructure to promote exercise and physical activity. In most communities, that has meant closing a street for a few hours so people can bike, walk, run or skate there.

The University of Kentucky’s Cooperative Extension Service started Second Sunday and has coordinated activities. The service plans to do several Second Sunday events next year, depending on grant funding, said spokeswoman Diana Doggett.

“We have a community that is willing and interested,” she said. “We just have to nudge that along.”


Bourbon tour town’s founders escaped years of Indian captivity

September 30, 2014

140922RuddlesMills0064Philip and Michele Foley on the porch of their house in Ruddles Mill, which was built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It will be open for tours Sunday. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

RUDDLES MILL — Since Philip and Michele Foley moved here 35 years ago from Cynthiana, they have worked to restore not one but two houses built in the 1790s.

Few people would be that tenacious — or, as the Foleys say, that foolish. But tenaciousness comes naturally to this town. Its founders returned here after surviving a bloody attack and years of captivity in Shawnee villages near Detroit.

Both the elegant home where the Foleys live and a rough, stone house the town’s founder built for his son will be on tour 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday during Historic Paris-Bourbon County’s annual Fall Open House.

The tour also includes nearby Moore’s Chapel, the 1850s Greek Revival sanctuary of Ruddles Mill United Methodist Church. Tickets are $15, $10 for HPBC members. More information: hopewellmuseum.org.

Even today, few people agree on how to spell this unincorporated community of about 75 households at the confluence of Hinkston and Stoner creeks in northern Bourbon County. It goes by various singular, plural and possessive forms of Ruddle, Ruddel, Ruddell and Mill.

But there is no uncertainty about the town’s founder and namesake. Capt. Isaac Ruddell, a pioneer and Revolutionary War officer, is buried here, too, at Mouth of Stoner Presbyterian Cemetery.

140922RuddlesMills0021In 1779, Ruddell enlarged and fortified pioneer cabins built a few years earlier in a nearby area of what is now Harrison County. But the next summer, a thousand Shawnee warriors and Canadian soldiers under the command of British Capt. Henry Bird attacked Ruddell’s Station and other nearby settlements.

More than 20 settlers were killed, and dozens more men, women and children were taken prisoner, marched to Detroit and held captive for years. After their release, Ruddell and most of his family returned to Kentucky and built a mill here in 1788.

But two of Ruddell’s sons, Stephen and Abraham, had been adopted by the Shawnee and stayed with the tribe for 15 years. Stephen, who married a Shawnee woman and was a chief, rejoined white civilization and became a Baptist preacher and missionary among the Shawnee, Delaware and Wyandot tribes in Ohio and Indiana.

Abraham returned to Kentucky in 1795, and his father built him the stone house the Foleys are gradually restoring near the creek banks. Abraham Ruddell operated a saw and grist mill there for several years before moving to Arkansas and fighting in the War of 1812.

The Foleys have removed wooden additions to the house, rebuilt the chimneys and put a steel frame in the basement to keep the cellar from collapsing. “All I can say is it’s not going to fall down,” she said. “We hope to do more one of these days.”

Things are much nicer up the hill, at the Federal-style house where the Foley’s have lived since 1979. They think the main rooms, each built as a separate unit with thick brick walls, were constructed in the 1790s and early 1800s.

Making the place habitable and comfortable was a long process for them and their two daughters, who are now grown and living near Nashville and Cincinnati.

The biggest chores — aside from electricity and plumbing and restoring the original woodwork — were undoing previous owners’ “improvements”. The Foleys found the house’s original wooden mantles in a barn, but one was badly warped from years of storage. A neighbor built a wood frame to gradually bend it back into shape so it could be returned to the house.

“Every morning we would water it down and tighten the clamps until it got straight,” she said. “At one point, all of the oil paint and buttermilk paint just started popping off.”

The Foleys are retired from state government jobs. They have planted their big yard with more than 20 varieties of magnolia trees, gardens and beds for their business, Ruddles Mills Perennials and Native Plants.

It is one of the few businesses left in Ruddles Mill, which once had several mills and distilleries. The town has many early 19th century structures, most of which are still in use after multiple renovations. People here don’t give up easily.

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


Lessons for Appalachia in Wales’ recovery from coal’s collapse

September 29, 2014

SouthWalesThe Tower Colliery near the village of Hirwaun, in Glamorgan, South Wales, in 2009. Tower Colliery was the oldest continuously worked deep-coal mine in the United Kingdom, and possibly the world. Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press. 

 

People in the remote hills and valleys were subsistence farmers before the mining industry came. For generations afterward, King Coal provided most of the decent jobs and dominated almost every aspect of life.

But mechanization gradually eliminated tens of thousands of mining jobs. When economic and political conditions suddenly changed, most of the coal industry shut down. Communities were left with high unemployment, a ravaged landscape and an uncertain future.

This is the story of Eastern Kentucky. It also is the story of South Wales.

These two regions separated by the Atlantic Ocean share many traits and experiences. Community leaders working to create a post-coal economy in Central Appalachia think there are lessons to be learned from Wales, which has been dealing with many of the same challenges for three decades.

Two longtime coal community leaders from Wales will be in Eastern Kentucky on Oct. 7 to speak about their experiences. The 7 p.m. program at Appalshop Theatre, 91 Madison Avenue in Whitesburg, is free and open to the public.

Hywel Francis and his wife, Mair, are no strangers to Kentucky. They have been coming here for years as part of a community exchange program started in the 1970s by Helen Matthews Lewis, a well-known Appalachian scholar and activist.

“The interest between these two areas has been there for a long time, but it has really picked up as we’ve seen the sudden decline of mining jobs here,” said Mimi Pickering of Appalshop. “We think this is an exciting opportunity for folks to talk with people from another place who have been though this.”

Francis is a member of the British Parliament, a college professor and labor historian. His wife is a founder of Dulais Opportunity for Voluntary Enterprise, known as the DOVE workshop, a women’s education and job-training organization.

South Wales was a few decades ahead of Central Appalachia, both in the development and collapse of its coal economy.

Beginning in the early 1800s, coal mines in South Wales fueled Britain’s industrial revolution and, in many ways, the British empire. At the industry’s peak just before World War I, more than 250,000 men labored in nearly 500 Welsh deep mines and open pits.

As in Appalachia, mechanization steadily reduced mine employment. After World War II, British mines were nationalized. In the mid-1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher closed unprofitable mines, sparking a bitter miners’ strike. The industry all but collapsed and 85,000 miners lost their jobs. Only a few hundred miners still dig coal in South Wales.

Tom Hansell, a filmmaker and professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., is finishing After Coal, a documentary comparing the experiences of coal communities in South Wales and Central Appalachia. He said it will be shown on Kentucky Educational Television next year or in 2016.

Hansell also helped organize a program in Elkhorn City two weeks ago about what Eastern Kentucky could learn from Wales’ tourism industry, which now employs 30,000 people.

A third forum will be at 6 p.m. on Oct. 28 at the Harlan campus of Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College. Richard Davies of College Merthyr Tydfil in Wales will lead a conversation about the role of youth and the arts in preserving vibrant coalfield communities.

While working on his film, Hansell said he made three trips to Wales. He noted that some of its circumstances are different than in Central Appalachia.

Because Welsh mines were owned by the government, laid-off miners got good severance payments to help them start businesses or train for new jobs. Britain also has a stronger social safety net than the United States, including a public health care system.

But Hansell said there is one smart thing Britain did that the United States could emulate: the government invested heavily in environmental reclamation, cleaning up the mess from generations of coal mining.

“There were jobs created with that, but more importantly it provided a foundation for future economic development,” he said.

Another good strategy: community funds have been created around major industrial investments, such as a wind turbine farm built by a Swedish company. The funds are similar in some ways to Kentucky’s coal severance tax, but transparently managed by local community boards rather than state and local politicians.

Wales has a focus on entrepreneurship and small-business development, which organizations such as Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. have done here. Everyone realizes that the future is lots of small employers rather than a few big ones, Hansell said.

“It would be misleading to say that Wales has solved all their economic problems,” he said, noting that unemployment remains high and many people in former mining communities commute to jobs in coastal cities. “But towns have found ways to survive and find creative ways to re-invent themselves.”


UK seminar will focus on challenges of local food economy

September 22, 2014

Creating strong local food economies has become a trend, if not a fad, all over the country. But the prospects in Kentucky seem more promising than in many places.

Kentucky’s fertile soil, temperate climate, abundant water, central location and dispersed population have made the state an agriculture powerhouse for more than two centuries.

Since the collapse of the tobacco economy, more Kentuckians have been exploring ways to recreate and reinvent local food systems like those that prevailed before World War II.

But local food is not just an issue of local economics and self-sufficiency.

It is often more nutritious than food grown in huge quantities and shipped great distances. That’s a big issue as America struggles with an obesity epidemic, lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and soaring health care costs. And local food also just tastes better.

But there are big challenges, from processing facilities to distribution networks. The biggest challenge is this: how can locally grown food be both profitable for farmers and affordable for consumers, especially those with low incomes?

Those questions are at the heart of this year’s Lafayette Seminar in Public Issues, an annual program sponsored by the University of Kentucky’s Gaines Center for the Humanities. The seminar will explore these issues in three programs over the next three weeks, all of which are free and open to the public.

The seminar’s keynote speaker at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Lyric Theatre is Robert Egger, who has spent 25 years feeding and providing food-related job training to poor people in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. His talk is called, “Revealing the Power of Food.”

As a young nightclub manager, Egger volunteered at what he found to be a well-intentioned but inefficient soup kitchen for homeless people in Washington, D.C. The experience prompted him to start D.C. Central Kitchen in January 1989 by getting a refrigerated van, picking up food left over from President George H.W. Bush’s inauguration and delivering it to local shelters.

The non-profit organization uses food donated by hospitality businesses and farms to feed hungry people and train poor people for food-related jobs. During 24 years as president of D.C. Central Kitchen, Egger helped start more than 60 similar community kitchens around the country.

Egger recently moved to Los Angeles to start LA Kitchen, which recovers fresh fruit and vegetables for use in a culinary arts job training program for men and women coming out of foster care or prison. He is author of the 2004 book, Begging for Change: The Dollars and Sense of Making Nonprofits Responsive, Efficient and Rewarding For All.

The seminar’s second session, at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 1 at the Lyric Theatre, is a panel discussion called “Whose Farm to Whose Table?” It focuses on increasing access to local food in Central Kentucky’s underserved communities.

Panelists are community garden activist Jim Embry; Mac Stone, co-owner of Elmwood Stock Farm and a founder of the Kentucky Proud program; Karyn Moskowitz of New Roots Inc. and the Fresh Stop Project; and Ashton Potter Wright, Lexington government’s new local food coordinator. The panel will be moderated by Lexington food blogger and cookbook author Rona Roberts.

The final session, at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 9 at UK’s W.T. Young Library, is a panel discussion moderated by former UK Agriculture dean Scott Smith. It will explore challenges of getting local food into universities, schools, businesses and other large institutions.

Panelists are Sarah Fritschner, Louisville’s local food coordinator; John-Mark Hack, executive director of the Midway-based Local Food Association; UK agriculture professor Lee Meyer; and Tony Parnigoni, Aramark Corp.’s regional vice president.

The topic is especially timely given UK’s controversial move to outsource its dining services to Aramark, the giant food corporation that is putting up $70 million to build new campus dining facilities.

Amid pressure from local food advocates, Aramark agreed to contribute $5 million to a new local food institute at UK and to purchase millions of dollars worth of food from Kentucky farmers.

“There has been a lot of buzz about local food and enhancing access to local food and capitalizing on the agricultural economy of the Bluegrass,” said Phil Harling, a UK history professor who recently became director of the Gaines Center. “We’re trying to bring together a bunch of different strands.”

If you go

  • UK’s Lafayette Seminar this year focuses on local food. All sessions are free and open to the public.

    5:30 p.m. Sept. 24, Lyric Theatre, 300 E. Third St. Robert Egger, founder of LA Kitchen and DC Central Kitchen, speaks on “Revealing the Power of Food.”

    5:30 p.m. Oct. 1, Lyric Theatre. Panel discussion about expanding access to local food.

    5:30 p.m. Oct. 9, W.T. Young Library, 401 Hilltop Ave. Panel discussion about challenges of getting local food into large institutions.


‘Room with a view’ exhibit features Lexington scenes from 1990s

August 23, 2014

140821Tharsing0004The view out the bay window of painter Robert Tharsing’s second-floor studio on High Street in the early 1990s. Below, the old Fayette County Courthouse.  Photos courtesy of the artist and Ann Tower Gallery

 

Before he retired as an art professor at the University of Kentucky, Robert Tharsing did his personal painting in downtown studios, first in the upstairs room of an old house on High Street and then above Cheapside Bar & Grill.

When he was between paintings — or stuck trying to figure out where to go with an abstract canvas — he did what many people do when they need a break: he stared out the window. In Tharsing’s case, he also painted what he saw. The result was about 20 views of the Lexington skyline and scenes of downtown life in the 1990s.

In anticipation of retirement, Tharsing built a home studio in 2001. When he moved, he left most of these paintings stacked in the Cheapside space, which wife Ann Tower uses as storage for her gallery on Main Street. Tharsing never showed them in public — until now.

Robert Tharsing: Room With A View, an exhibit of 14 pictures painted over the course of a dozen years, went up last week in the East Gallery at UK Chandler Hospital. The free exhibit will be up for six months.

140821Tharsing0003“I had seen a few hanging in his studio a long time ago and thought they were interesting,” said Phillip March Jones, who curates the hospital’s art exhibits. “I also thought it was interesting they had never been shown as a body of work.”

Jones said viewers from Lexington will easily recognize these scenes, as well as what has changed, and appreciate the bird’s-eye view Tharsing had from his studio windows.

The vividly colorful scenes are awash in light, but often devoid of people. Most of the time Tharsing spent in these studios was at night and on weekends, before downtown became a popular destination for restaurants, bars and festivals.

“Wherever I’ve been, I’ve always painted the scene as well as other interests I have,” said Tharsing, 70, who has lived in Italy and spends summers in Nova Scotia.

Tharsing said these small pictures were often a release, a distraction when he was working on large, abstract paintings. “It was a way to paint something that’s very tangible that I knew what it was,” he said. “With an abstract painting, I often don’t know what it is. In that sense, it’s like being a novelist; you have to let the characters develop and see what they’re going to tell you about themselves. The painting has to do that, too. It has to tell you what it is, what it’s all about.”

The High Street studio had a big bay window that looked down on Vine Street and a cluster of 1980s office towers. Tharsing said he liked how light played off the buildings, streets and parking lots in different seasons.

“That part of Lexington is all about very simple geometry,” he said. “There’s hardly anything that distinguishes itself as being real architecture. So what you’re left with is these volumes and planes and reflections. More than half the buildings down there have got these mirrored windows, so it’s not only the building I’m looking at but I’m looking at myself through the glass across the street. That interested me.”

Cheapside had more people on the street, and a building that did interest Tharsing: the old Fayette County Courthouse, which was then still in use. The massive circa 1900 building or pieces of it appear in six of 14 paintings in the exhibit.

“I really liked it because there was a lot of coming and going,” he said. “It was very much small-town life.”

Tharsing said “the icing on the cake” came one day when he looked down and saw perennial candidate Gatewood Galbraith in his trademark hat. He was accompanied by a single sign-carrying supporter and was being interviewed by a TV news crew.

To accompany the exhibit, Jones is producing old-fashioned perforated postcard books with 10 of the pictures, for sale ($10) at Ann Tower Gallery, The Morris Book Shop and Institute 193, his nonprofit gallery.

These paintings are reminiscent of the plain, colorful style of Edward Hopper (1882-1967), who was one of Tharsing’s inspirations. Another inspiration was the Venetian landscape painter Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697-1768).

But Tharsing said he resisted Canaletto’s occasional tendency to improve the skyline, tempting though it was in Lexington’s case. “He rearranged the city to suit himself,” he said. “It is like urban renewal; it’s an interesting idea.”


Woodland Triangle street work recalls Lexington area’s history

August 19, 2014

140818Woodland-old1Pearson & Peters Architects now occupies the Woodland Triangle building that in 1911 housed R.L. Jones Grocery. Below, Jeff Pearson and Maureen Peters recreate the old scene, minus apron and horse and buggy. Modern photos by Tom Eblen.

 

140818Woodland-TE0014The just-completed redesign of that funky intersection at East High, Kentucky and East Maxwell streets has sparked recollections of the Woodland Triangle’s history.

Pearson & Peters Architects now occupies the wedge-shaped building in the intersection. But Maureen Peters recalled that in 2006 a woman walked in and showed her staff photos of the building nearly a century earlier, when it housed the R.L. Jones Grocery.

The building dates from 1909 or 1910. The 1911 city directory lists Jones’ grocery, although by the next year there was a different tenant. Except for the awnings, the building’s exterior looks about the same. Peters and her business partner, Jeff Pearson, have done a handsome, modern renovation of the interior.

The street project prompted Peter Bourne, a map-maker for city government, to make sure the work hadn’t removed a city “mile marker” from the 1870s. It had not. The limestone block still stands nearby in Woodland Park.

Bourne recounted on his Lexington Streetsweeper blog how officials decided in 1871 to mark the old city limits — a one-mile radius from the Court House — with a ring of stones, 500 feet apart. If all were installed, there should have been about 66 of them. Bourne can only find the one at Woodland Park and another along West Main Street between Lexington and Calvary cemeteries. Does anyone know of others still in place?

140818Woodland-TE0021On East High Street, just inside Woodland Park, is one of two known remaining “mile markers” erected by Lexington in the early 1870s to mark the city limits Ñ a circle one mile from the Court House.

140818Woodland-old2The interior of the Woodland Triangle building when it was R.L. Jones Grocery, about 1911 Below, architects Maureen Peters and Jeff Pearson in the same room. 

140818Woodland-TE0006


Facade, light show dress up Lexington’s ugliest parking garage

August 19, 2014

140818Helix-TE0025The Helix Garage downtown got a facade of lights to help mask the fact that it is one of Lexington’s ugliest buildings. Photo by Tom Eblen

Lexington tore down one of its most elegant public buildings in 1960 and replaced it with two of the ugliest — a parking garage and the office building now occupied by the Fayette County clerk.

So the new façade and colorful light display on Helix Garage on East Main Street at Martin Luther King Boulevard is a big improvement.

That corner was previously the site of Union Station, which opened in 1907. The imposing brick railroad terminal had a big center lobby and an arched stained-glass window over the front doors.

The last passenger train pulled out of Union Station on May 9, 1957. Three years later, the station was demolished and replaced by the garage — a powerful statement about changes in the way Americans travel.

The garage, originally built for the nearby Stewart’s department store, was never a thing of beauty. But it was literally falling apart when the Lexington and Fayette County Parking Authority (LexPark) put $3.1 million into a structural renovation last year.

LexPark realized the 389-space garage, with its low ceilings and dark interior, also needed a marketing makeover to attract customers and support downtown revitalization.

The name was changed from Annex Garage to Helix Garage, after the shape of the exit ramp that has terrorized generations of teenagers who had to drive down it with a state trooper in their passenger’s seat to earn their driver’s license. (I’ve always wondered how many people flunk their driving test before they even reach the street.)

LexPark spent $40,000 to improve interior lighting. But Gary Means, the authority’s executive director, said more was needed “to cover up what’s a really ugly parking garage in a prominent spot on Main Street.”

Vincent Lighting Systems of Erlanger installed $100,000 worth of colorful, energy-efficient LED lighting on the helix ramp. To improve the façade along Main Street, LexPark chose a design by Pohl Rosa Pohl architects, which worked with Vincent Lighting, Green Giant Lighting of Lexington, Randy Walker Electric of Lexington and ProClad metal of Noblesville, Ind.

That façade, finished last month, is stunning, especially during the nightly light show. (It cost $180,000. Like the other garage improvements, it was paid for with parking revenues, not taxpayer money.)

“The existing building was a concrete frame and little more,” said architect Graham Pohl, who worked on the project with colleague Adam Wiseman. They designed a skin using a steel frame and corrugated plates of various shapes, which house the LED lights.

Means said lighting designers are about finished with computer programming that will allow the garage façade to do a lot more than we have seen so far. He envisions elaborate light displays to the beat of music during the annual Thriller parade and other special effects for downtown festivals.

“At the end of the day, it’s marketing,” said Means, noting that many garage spaces go unused at night by downtown bar and restaurant patrons. “When people start talking about ‘that cool garage with the lights,’ they’ll start using it more.”


Lexington’s under-appreciated Modernist buildings worth a look

August 16, 2014

140814MidCenMod0002People’s Bank on South Broadway has been vacant for many years and is flanked on either side by an apartment building and a parking garage. Architect Sarah Tate says it is an excellent example of good Modernist architecture that has been altered little over the years. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

Controversy over the demolition of several Mid-Century Modern buildings on the University of Kentucky campus this summer marked a change in Lexington’s conversation about historic preservation.

It made it clear that a building doesn’t have to be more than a century old to be architecturally or historically significant enough to be worth saving.

Architect Sarah Tate was most upset by UK’s destruction of the 1941 Wenner-Gren Laboratory, where early NASA space research was conducted. Its front façade featured elegantly curved walls of brick and glass block.

Tate has spent three decades documenting Modernist commercial structures in Lexington built during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.

“There is no doubt that the Modern movement is as extraordinary as any movement in architecture in the history of mankind,” said Tate, who became a registered architect in 1975 and retired five years ago from her firm, Tate Hill Jacobs Architects.

140814MidCenMod0003Modernism was the first architectural movement in centuries that didn’t draw its inspiration from the past. It was the result of wholly original thinking about how buildings should look and how people use them, with an emphasis on clean lines rather than classical forms from antiquity.

“These buildings show how we got where we are now from building Greek temples and office buildings that looked like Greek temples,” Tate said. “They tell a whole lot about the 20th century — how construction methodology changed as materials changed. The Space Age thrust imprinted America’s psyche, and these ’50s and ’60s buildings are the ones that really show that.”

In Lexington, at least, these buildings also reflect the rise of automobile culture and suburban growth — when a horse and university town rapidly expanded with the arrival of new industries and people from elsewhere.

Tate admits that some of these buildings are not great pieces of architecture. “Some of them are awkward,” she said. “Some of them are really bad.”

But others are very well done, said Tate, who hopes to educate people about the Modernist architecture that remains in Lexington in the hope that it can be sensitively reused rather than replaced.

Tate’s favorite Modernist commercial structure in Lexington is People’s Bank on South Broadway, which is almost hidden between an apartment tower and a parking structure beside the Rupp Arena parking lot. It was designed by Lexington architect Charles Bayless and finished in 1961.

Most recognizable for its blue tile walls and zig-zag roof, People’s Bank has been empty for years. But because it didn’t have another occupant after the bank, the building was never altered much.

“It’s just beautifully composed,” Tate said. “It was ahead of its time from the structural engineering aspect. And the detailing is like a jewel.”

Other Tate favorites include the Catalina Motel on New Circle Road, with its huge 1960s neon sign and Roto-Sphere evoking the Space Age; Chapman Printing Co. on Russell Cave Road, which has a curved wall of narrow brick laid “jack on jack” style without overlapping; and a former dairy processing plant on East Second Street.

Another remarkable example is Collins Bowling Center on Southland Drive, whose owners have preserved not only the building’s style but its iconic sign: a giant bowling ball suspended atop three pointed spikes. Tate also loves the clean lines of the bus stop and sign for Gardenside Plaza shopping center on Alexandria Drive.

Other Modernist landmarks in Lexington include the Paul Miller Ford showroom on New Circle Road, whose glass walls rise from the car lot in a dramatic “V” shape; and Lexington architect Ken Miller’s Southern Hills United Methodist Church on Harrodsburg Road, whose copper-roofed sanctuary looks like a space ship.

Tate said many people don’t like Modernist architecture, perhaps because they grew up with it and consider it commonplace — even though it is becoming increasingly rare because of demolition and remodeling.

“But when they understand what it is and how it got that way, they do like it and they can value it,” she said. “It’s hard for people to think of modern buildings as historic. But these tell a story about who we are and how we got where we are.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:

 


Eastern Kentucky jobs outlook: health care and more broadband

August 11, 2014

crouch1Ron Crouch is the director of research and statistics for the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet in Frankfort. He says a growing health care industry in Eastern Kentucky should help offset jobs lost to coal’s decline. Photo by Mark Mahan

 

There is more talk than usual about the need to create jobs and a more diverse economy in Eastern Kentucky because of the coal industry’s decline.

It made me wonder: what are the latest trends? For some answers, I called Ron Crouch, director of research and statistics for the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet. He previously headed the Kentucky State Data Center for two decades and is better than anyone I know at analyzing this sort of information.

People are alarmed because coal-industry employment in Eastern Kentucky has dropped to about 7,300 — half what it was five years ago. Coal-mining jobs have been important to the region because they pay well: about $65,000 a year.

President Barack Obama’s critics have blamed stricter environmental regulations for the sudden drop in coal employment. But the biggest factors have been cheap natural gas and the fact that Eastern Kentucky’s best coal seams have been depleted over the past century; the coal that is left is more costly (and environmentally damaging) to mine.

But Crouch notes that coal employment in Eastern Kentucky has been declining steadily for more than six decades — even accounting for periodic booms and busts — mainly because of mechanization. Coal production peaked in 1990, but coal employment peaked in 1950, when there were 67,000 miners.

Some Eastern Kentucky leaders have pursued manufacturing as a source of new jobs. But Crouch says the long-term prospects for manufacturing aren’t too good, either, also because of automation.

“Manufacturing is coming back to the United States, but not necessarily manufacturing jobs,” he said. “We’re producing far more goods, but with far fewer workers.”

Still, Crouch sees hopeful signs for Eastern Kentucky.

While the region still lags the state in college degrees, high school graduation rates have improved significantly, as have the number of people completing other levels of training between high school and a bachelor’s degree. Many new, good-paying jobs are for people with that level of education.

Those areas include health care as well as professional, scientific and technical services. Some of these jobs pay well. For example, the number of registered nursing jobs, which pay about $55,000, is growing significantly.

Eastern Kentucky’s health care industry should see big growth in coming years. One reason is demographics. Baby Boomers are now entering their 60s and 70s and will require more health services. Another reason is the Affordable Care Act.

“You’re going to see a huge increase in the number of people in East Kentucky who have health insurance,” Crouch said.

Because Eastern Kentucky families are smaller than in the past, there will be less pressure for young people to leave.

“You now have a population with more people in their 40s, 50s and 60s than in their teens and 20s,” Crouch said. “If those young people can get the education and training they need after high school, there will be jobs for them in East Kentucky.”

But many of the growing economic sectors in the region, such as health care, have traditionally been dominated by women, while shrinking sectors, such as mining and manufacturing, have been mostly male. In some Eastern Kentucky counties, women now have higher employment rates than men.

“The good news is the economy has been transitioning to a broader economy,” Crouch said. “But how do you transition a population of males who have been involved in mining and manufacturing to jobs in professional, technical services and food services and health care, which have largely been female?”

Crouch said improving broadband service in Eastern Kentucky, which has the state’s poorest connections to the Internet, is vital.

“That would accelerate the growth in higher-skilled jobs,” he said.

Crouch is troubled that many Eastern Kentucky counties have high percentages of working-age people not in the formal labor force. He thinks many are “getting by” in the cash and barter economy, some of which is illegal.

He also is concerned that much of the job growth has been in low-wage service industries. Because the legal minimum wage hasn’t kept pace with inflation, full-time work in many low-wage jobs doesn’t produce a living wage for a family.

“The good news is that East Kentucky is not having a brain drain, despite what people think; it’s having a brain gain,” he said. “But, as the saying goes, we’re halfway home and have a long way to go.”


‘What’s behind the wall’ beside Jefferson Street restaurants?

July 27, 2014

140722Apiary

This rendering shows what the Apiary will look like when finished this fall. The catering company and event space is in the Jefferson Street restaurant district on the site of a special-effects company’s building that burned in July 2008. Photo: EOP Architects. 

 

Nobody paid much attention to the old industrial building on Jefferson Street until July 17, 2008, when a spectacular two-alarm fire gutted Star Light & Magic, a theatrical special effects company.

Jefferson Street is a much busier place now, having blossomed into a popular restaurant district, so a lot of people are watching and wondering about the construction going on there behind an elegant wall of brick, stone and wrought iron.

For nearly two years, the first phase of the project has been a commercial kitchen for Apiary Fine Catering & Events. When finished in October, the facility also will include The Apiary, an event space designed for an urban infill setting.

The Apiary is owned by Cooper Vaughan, 39, a graduate of Transylvania University and Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in London. Before moving back to his hometown in 2006, Vaughan was a chef at Blackberry Farm, the luxury resort in Tennessee.

140710Apiary0010

Cooper Vaughan

Working in partnership with his parents, Neal and Derek Vaughan of Lexington’s G.F. Vaughan Tobacco Co., he hopes to create a unique 15,500-square-foot food and beverage destination. And, as the name implies, Vaughan said he also wants it to be a hive of activity, a gathering place for people interested in food, wine and cooking.

“We want to be a place other chefs can use when they don’t have the facilities,” he said. “That’s the sort of energy we want around here.”

The Vaughans’ vision for the Apiary included special architecture and landscaping, a place with modern lines but a warm, timeless feel. To achieve that, they hired three top-notch local professionals: architect Brent Bruner, garden designer Jon Carloftis and interior designer Matthew Carter.

The Apiary’s biggest venue will be the 2,000 square-foot Orangery room, which has a 10-foot by 30-foot skylight and 18-foot-tall windows designed to match antique French shutters. When finished, the room will contain orange, lemon and pear trees. There also will be a 1,000-square-foot Winter Room, an intimate tasting room beside the kitchen and a French limestone terrace that can accommodate a big tent.

Salvage materials are a big part of the design. Reclaimed brick, wood flooring and beams came from old tobacco warehouses. Stone was salvaged from a farm that belongs to Vaughan’s uncle. Pavers were once part of a barn at Hamburg Place horse farm. Massive pine doors came from Argentina, and two antique stone fountains in the courtyard are from Europe.

The brick and stone courtyard walls are accented with custom wrought iron created by artists Matthew and Karine Maynard of Maynard Studios in Lawrenceburg.

“They wanted it to have a substantial feel that at the same time is modern and fits into an urban setting,” said Bruner, a principal at EOP Architects. “The level of craftsmanship they wanted is not what you see a lot these days.”

Good planning allowed Carloftis to get a head start on the landscaping so it wouldn’t look new when the Apiary opens. It includes a “green” wall of plantings in the courtyard and a well-established pear tree cultivated espalier-style.

140710Apiary0015

Brent Bruner of EOP Architects

Since the kitchen opened, Vaughan has given rent-free office space to Seedleaf, a Lexington nonprofit. Seedleaf works to increase the supply of affordable, nutritious and sustainably produced local food for people at risk of hunger in Central Kentucky. It sponsors community gardens, restaurant composting programs and classes that teach cooking and food-preservation skills.

The outdoor event spaces will include raised-bed vegetable and herb gardens designed by Carloftis and cared for by Seedleaf. Ryan Koch, Seedleaf’s founder and director, said they will both supply Apiary with food and subtly educate guests.

“It will be a unique opportunity to show how beautiful perennial herbs and some vegetables can be and how important local food is,” Koch said. “If we can help Apiary buy less food off the truck and get more out of their yard, I think people enjoying the space will appreciate that.”

The Seedleaf gardens and other landscaping will be irrigated with rainwater collected in a 12,000-gallon underground storage tank.

Vaughan declined to say how much his family is investing in the Apiary.

The designers’ goal with the building and grounds is to create indoor and outdoor spaces that gradually reveal themselves to visitors as they walk through. Vaughan hopes guests will notice something new each time they come.

“One thing we’ve been able to achieve is that not any one element screams,” he said. “A great event always has these elements of surprise. What’s behind the wall?”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


Morehead space program shows Eastern Kentucky can aim high

July 26, 2014

140721KySpace-TE0025

Zach Taulbee, 21, of Prestonsburg uses a computerized CNC machine to make an aluminum part for a small “cubesat” satellite. Taulbee is an undergraduate and machine shop manager at Morehead State University’s Space Science Center.  Photo by Tom Eblen

 

MOREHEAD — When people talk about diversifying an Eastern Kentucky economy dominated for a century by coal mining and poverty, they often don’t aim very high: low-wage factories and corporate call centers.

But you can see another possibility at Morehead State University’s Space Science Center. Over the past decade, in partnership with the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. and the University of Kentucky, the center has become a world leader in designing and building small, high-tech spacecraft of the future.

One morning last week, I stood with Kris Kimel, president of KSTC, in the center’s control room as engineers used computers to locate two Morehead-built satellites now circling the Earth. Faculty and students use the control room to download data and upload instructions to the satellites as they pass within range of one of the world’s biggest space-tracking antennas, visible out the window on a nearby hilltop.

“This is a different kind of call center,” Kimel said.

Lexington-based KSTC was created 27 years ago as a non-profit corporation to develop innovation-driven, entrepreneurial companies in Kentucky. A decade ago, Kimel saw an opportunity to grow Morehead’s already strong astrophysics program in a new direction.

He realized that the micro-technology then revolutionizing computers and cellphones would also change spacecraft, especially as NASA was turning over much of its traditional work to private industry. Somebody needed to design and build this new stuff, Kimel thought. Why couldn’t it be done in Kentucky?

“We knew we had really smart people here; we knew we had smart students,” he said. “But we had to be aggressive and ambitious and move quickly.”

140721KySpace-TE0086KSTC set up a lab in California’s Silicon Valley. Benjamin Malphrus, chairman of Morehead’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences, and UK engineering professor James Lumpp spent several weeks there in 2005 with about 20 graduate students, learning all they could about new satellite technology.

They collaborated with engineers at NASA and Stanford University. Among them was Robert Twiggs, who helped develop some of the first small satellites, including the CubeSat, which has become an industry standard. Twiggs left Stanford in 2009 and moved to Morehead to teach.

KSTC created Kentucky Space LLC in 2010 as a non-profit corporation to coordinate this university research with industry. Last week, KSTC created Space Tango, a for-profit enterprise, to commercialize the work.

Much of that work involves designing and building CubeSats, which are 10-centimeter cubes packed with off-the-shelf technology and powered by solar panels.

When launched from a rocket or the International Space Station, the satellites take advantage of space’s zero-gravity environment to gather a variety of scientific and commercial research data. Other CubeSat uses range from tracking ships at sea to making high-resolution photographs of Earth for mapping and surveillance. Almost all of Kentucky Space’s hardware and software is designed and built in Kentucky.

“We’re trying to develop a home-grown set of technologies that can integrate into spacecraft,” Malphrus said. “There’s an incredible variety of applications people have thought of, but we don’t even know what all the applications are yet.”

Another Kentucky Space product is the DM processor, whose development was funded by the Defense Department. It is a supercomputer — 20 times more powerful than a desktop computer — that can be built into a small satellite for such applications as on-board processing of high-resolution images. It weighs about 12 ounces.

Kentucky Space, Morehead and UK have had several experiments on the Space Shuttle and International Space Station. They also have built two research platforms on the space station and are developing more.

“We’re clearly one of the global leaders in trying to work on and design this next generation of spacecraft,” Kimel said. “Our specialty is building small machines quickly.”

Kentucky Space also recently announced a partnership with FedEx Corp. to develop a Space Solutions division to help global clients safely move payloads between laboratories and launch sites.

Morehead’s space studies program now has about 60 students. This fall, it will start its first master’s degree program, in space systems engineering, with 10 students. While many are from Eastern Kentucky, about one-third of the students are internationals who sought out Morehead, Malphrus said.

140724KySpace0103Kentucky Space and Space Tango are small, with five contract employees and one full-time engineer: Twyman Clements, 27, a UK engineering graduate who grew up on a farm near Bardstown. But Kimel said a half-dozen small companies already have been created out of Kentucky Space’s work, and he said he thinks that is just the beginning.

Spacecraft might seem an unlikely Kentucky product, but it’s not. Aerospace products have become Kentucky’s largest export, edging out motor vehicles and parts, according to the state Cabinet for Economic Development. A diverse array of aerospace exports totaled $5.6 billion last year — 22 percent of the value of all Kentucky exports.

Economic development strategies are changing from the old model of luring corporate branch plants with jobs that are here today and may be gone tomorrow when incentives run out or cheaper labor is found elsewhere. There is more long-lasting economic impact in creating specialized knowledge and an environment where entrepreneurs can use it to create high-value companies.

“This is not just about education; we’re growing a new industry here,” Kimel said. “If we don’t commercialize this technology, these students won’t stay here, because there won’t be opportunities for them.

“I’m not one of these people who thinks everyone should stay in Kentucky; they shouldn’t,” he added. “But for those that have the opportunity and want to, great. And we want people to come here from other places who are interested in this industry. We want them to say this is the place to be.”

Eastern Kentucky has a long way to go in creating the workforce to support many high-tech companies, but Kentucky Space shows what is possible. It isn’t the only answer for the region’s economic challenges, but neither are low-wage factories and call centers.

“Kentucky historically has done an excellent job of putting together other people’s ideas,” Kimel said. “What we need to start doing is building our own ideas, because that’s where the value proposition is. We have to find things that we can do better than anybody else.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:

 


Plan would create 200 miles of multi-use trails in Scott County

July 15, 2014

legacyGabe Schmuck, 9, left, Nate Schmuck, 5, and their father, Paul Schmuck, rode on the Legacy Trail in Lexington in 2012. Photo by Mark Ashley.

GEORGETOWN — The popular Legacy Trail out of Lexington now stops just short of the Scott County line at the Kentucky Horse Park. But what is now the end of the trail could someday be just the beginning.

Scott County leaders have worked for three years with the regional visioning group Bluegrass Tomorrow and the National Park Service to develop an ambitious plan for Kentucky’s most extensive trails network. Plans call for 200 miles of biking, hiking, horseback riding and waterway trails throughout Scott County.

“Our vision is that this is going to eventually branch out and include the whole region,” said John Simpson, director of Georgetown/Scott County Tourism.

The Bluegrass Bike Hike Horseback Trails Alliance unveiled a draft of the proposed master plan Monday at the monthly meeting of the Georgetown/Scott County Chamber of Commerce.

Alliance leaders hope to finish the plan by the end of the year and begin negotiating property easements, designing trails, raising private money and applying for federal transportation grants.

Some trails would be shared, with bike/pedestrian and horse paths side-by-side, but most would be separate. The plan was developed with help from interested residents during a June 2013 design workshop, and the alliance is eager for more public participation.

At this point, there are no cost estimates, but such a trails network would run well into the millions of dollars. Still, many officials think it would be a great investment.

“This has the potential to have a tremendous impact, economically and socially, on the community,” said Russell Clark, the alliance’s National Park Service representative.

Clark and Rob Rumpke, president of Bluegrass Tomorrow, cited the economic impact that trail systems have had on Damascus, Va., a once-depressed logging town where hikers and mountain bikers now flock to the Appalachian and Virginia Creeper trails; Loveland, Ohio; and Indiana’s Brown County.

The trails alliance has more than a dozen partners, including the cities of Georgetown, Sadieville and Lexington; Scott County Fiscal Court; the state tourism department; the Horse Park; the Kentucky Horse Council; Georgetown College; the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture; the Bluegrass Area Development District; St. Joseph Health System/Kentucky One; and several horseback-riding and cycling groups.

Rumpke said horse trails should be especially popular, given the number of local horse enthusiasts and the tourists who come to Central Kentucky to see horse farms and events.

“We’re the horse capital of the world; why are there so few horseback-riding facilities?” he asked. “This is an opportunity to address that.”

The first step in the plan is to extend the Legacy Trail 6.6 miles from the horse park to Georgetown. Christie Robinson chairs a steering committee that commissioned an engineering feasibility study, which was recently completed. The study estimates the total cost at about $8.3 million, including trailheads, bathrooms and other amenities. It could be built in four phases as money became available.

Georgetown recently awarded the Legacy Trail committee $25,000 as a match to a $100,000 federal grant that it will apply for this fall, Robinson said. That would move the design process forward.

Claude Christensen, mayor of Sadieville, said he sees the trail system as an opportunity to revitalize his town of 303 people at the northern tip of Scott County. Sadieville is applying for “trail town” status with state tourism officials. But it needs trails.

“It’s huge for Sadieville,” Christensen said. “It makes us a destination.”

Simpson, the tourism official, said many Scott County business and government leaders support trails development because they have seen the economic benefit that road cycling enthusiasts have had in the area.

The Bluegrass Cycling Club’s annual Horsey Hundred ride each Memorial Day weekend is based at Georgetown College. This year, more than 2,000 cyclists came from all over North America to ride Central Kentucky’s scenic back roads on marked routes ranging from 25 to 104 miles.

Georgetown hosted a downtown party for the cyclists, who filled Georgetown College’s residence halls and more than half of the 1,100 local motel rooms. A big group from Ontario, Canada, came for an entire week of cycling before the event.

An extensive trail network, along with Central Kentucky’s world-class cycling roads, could make Georgetown a major recreation destination, Simpson said.

“We’re at the starting point of something that could be phenomenal,” he said. “It could bring thousands of tourists to our community and enhance our own quality of life.”


Book chronicles Lexington’s early ‘contemporary’ homebuilder

July 13, 2014

140709Isenhour0001This house,built on Breckenwood Drive in 1958, shows characteristics of Richard Isenhour’s contemporary homes: native Kentucky stone, lots of glass, cathedral ceilings, exposed post-and-beam construction and an effort to integrate indoor and outdoor spaces.

 

Richard Isenhour was a chemical engineer at Dupont in the late 1940s when he questioned his career choice in a letter to the Lexington woman who he would marry.

“The kind of job I’d like would be one that’s creative and always changing, where I can see what I’m accomplishing,” he wrote Lenora Henry. “I’d like to work on things I can improve.”

The Isenhours moved to Lexington in 1952, and he took up the occupation of his father-in-law, homebuilder A.R. Henry. Before long, Isenhour began looking for ways to improve his houses with modern styles and materials, as well as new ideas about how a house should function.

Richard Isenhour

Richard Isenhour

Isenhour went on to earn an architecture degree at the University of Kentucky and design and build nearly 100 unique homes in Lexington between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s. Now locally famous, these “Isenhour houses” were some of the first contemporary-style homes built in Lexington.

Larry Isenhour, a retired architect and one of the Isenhours’ four children, has just written a handsome, well-illustrated book documenting his father’s work: The Houses of Richard B. Isenhour: Mid-Century Modern in Kentucky(Butler Books, $45) He will sign copies at 2 p.m., July 19, at The Morris Book Shop. Information about other book events: Greenschemedesign.com.

Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and later Modernist architects, as well as by contemporary homes he saw in magazines and on family vacations, Isenhour experimented. This was at a time when people from all over the country were moving to Lexington to work at IBM and UK’s new College of Medicine.

His first bold design was for his own family’s 1956 home on Blueberry Lane. It helped Isenhour find clients who wanted something different than a traditional brick box with shutters.

140709Isenhour0008Isenhour’s designs featured post-and-beam construction and open floor plans. They had exposed wooden beams, cathedral ceilings and walls of glass and local limestone. On building lots, he preserved as many trees as possible. His houses seem more spacious than their modest sizes, and they are as much about utility as style.

“Isenhour’s best work is full of light, creating an inspirational sense of the blending of outdoors and indoors,” Lexington architect Graham Pohl writes in the book’s forward.

Jan and Phyllis Hasbrouck, a physician and nurse, came to Lexington in 1962 for his internship. They had grown up in Ithaca, N.Y., admiring contemporary architecture, so when they were ready to build a home, they asked Isenhour to design it.

“I’ve loved every bit of it — the glass, the stone, the openness,” said Phyllis Hasbrouck, who has lived there since 1967. “I feel closed in when I’m in a regular home now where the ceilings are low.”

Larry Isenhour

Larry Isenhour

But Isenhour houses were not for everyone. The book reproduces a 1968 letter a Lexington bank officer sent to one Isenhour client, declining his loan application. “We have difficulty in making the maximum loan on contemporary style homes because they are usually custom designed for a limited market,” the letter said.

Larry Isenhour, who lives in a contemporary home of his own design, began working on the book soon after his father’s death in 2006, collecting old drawings, photos and documents. His goal was to create a chronological catalog of his father’s best work to show how it evolved.

“I worked in almost all of them, either as a kid picking up wood or drawing the plans,” he said. But he never interviewed his father about the thought processes behind his designs — and wishes now that he had. Isenhour also had never written a book. Fortunately, his got help from his wife, Jan, a writer and retired director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

Only one of the 98 Isenhour houses has been demolished. Most have been well cared for, expanded and updated as tastes and technologies changed. They have been especially sought-after in recent years with the renewed popularity of Mid-Century Modern style.

At least four of the houses are now owned by architects. One is Tom Fielder, who got to know Isenhour and his work when he was an architecture student at UK.

When Fielder moved back to Lexington in 1990, he wanted his three children to attend Glendover Elementary School. So he drove around that neighborhood, which has the largest concentration of Isenhour houses, until he found one for sale. Then he called his real estate agent and asked her to put in a contract on it.

“She said, ‘I can’t do a contract on a house when you haven’t even seen the inside,'” he recalled. “I knew that Dick had designed the house and it was next to Glendover school. That’s all the information I needed to know.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


Yes, I wrote this column while sitting on my porch

July 8, 2014

When I traveled the upper South for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution years ago, I noticed a lot of statues of Confederate soldiers on courthouse lawns. I always thought Willis H. Carrier would have been a better choice to memorialize.

After all, the inventor of air conditioning helped make the region comfortable and prosperous, turning the Sleepy South into the Sun Belt. But Carrier’s invention had a drawback, too. Southerners started building houses without porches.

I have lived most of my life in houses built since 1950. One had a patio. Another had a breezeway between the house and garage. Another had a “decorative” front porch too narrow to be of any use.

A couple of my houses had decks. The large deck I built on the back of my 1950s Atlanta home was especially nice. But decks are inferior to porches. There is no roof, and deck railings are rarely as elegant as porch columns and balusters.

porchMy current house was built in 1907. It has a long, wide front porch and a large screened-in back porch, both equipped with ceiling fans. For most of three seasons each year, they are my favorite places to sit and relax. And on cool, low-humidity weekends like this past one, they can be little corners of heaven.

Front porches and back porches are very different places.

My front porch is a public extension of the living room. There is a spring-cushioned swing and two antique rocking chairs I bought cheap from people who thought, as my wife did when I brought them home, that they were worn out.

Both came with caned bottoms and seats that had seen better days. One was re-caned for me by a friend who is an excellent craftsman, in addition to being a retired physician and Air Force general. The other chair may be beyond hope, as the wooden frame looks as bad as the splintered seat and back. It is reserved for skinny visitors.

Old porch rockers have a design feature that makes them superior to those now sold at places such as Home Depot and Cracker Barrel: the back rails are steam-bent just above the seat. As President John F. Kennedy famously discovered, this bend tilts the back to the optimum angle for comfort, whether you are trying to run the world or simply watch it go by.

Front porches are all about watching the world. They are places for getting to know those who live around you, as well as for keeping the neighborhood safe and secure by providing what the urban analyst Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street”.

I have a tradition with a fellow journalist who lives at the end of my street. About once a week, around 6 p.m., one or the other of us will hear the familiar “ding” of an iPhone text message. “Beer on porch?”

On either my porch or his, we discuss life and solve the world’s problems. An award-winning poet recently moved in around the corner, and I have invited him to join us. That should elevate the conversation a notch or two.

Rather than a living room, my back porch is more like an outdoor den, shielded from neighbors and screened from mosquitoes. Becky and I each have a pillowed wicker chair, and there is a dining table barely big enough for two. It is where we go to escape the world rather than to engage or watch it.

We read the newspaper on the back porch most mornings and have dinner there many evenings. It is a great place to relax, if we can ignore the fact that the back yard needs weeding, pruning or watering. Chores should never be visible from a porch.

My porches are cozy places to watch a rain shower, if the wind isn’t blowing too hard. They are ideal for listening to birds and tree frogs — and enjoying the aroma of roasting peanuts from the nearby Jif peanut butter factory.

During this past winter-from-hell, I got a surprise one morning when I looked out at the back porch. The wind had been so strong overnight that an inch of fine snow had been sifted through the screens, covering wicker chairs and all.

So, after I shoveled my sidewalk and front steps, I shoveled my screened-in porch, thinking how funny that would seem come July.


Knoxville had a plan for revitalizing its historic downtown

July 7, 2014

knox1Knoxville’s Market Square, which dates to the 1850s, has been restored as a restaurant and entertainment district with plenty of nearby parking. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

I hadn’t spent any time in Knoxville, Tenn., since 1988, when I moved away after living there for seven years. I went back recently, and I was impressed with downtown’s transformation.

Knoxville was never a place I associated with good urban design. Planning and zoning always seemed haphazard, at best. Suburbia sprawled out for decades, mostly westward along traffic-choked Kingston Pike.

Like Lexington, two major Interstate highways converge in Knoxville. But instead of going around the city, as was thankfully done in Lexington, I-40 and I-75 went through the middle of Knoxville.

The infamous “Malfunction Junction” was improved while I was living there in the early 1980s, but it still left Knoxville cut up by expressways, on-ramps, off-ramps, bridges and a maze of one-way streets. It was a confusing place to drive, and a difficult place to walk or bike.

Many of those problems remain, but downtown is a different story.

knox2Long a conservative city with divisive politics, Knoxville leaders finally came together to organize the 1982 World’s Fair, which rehabilitated a former downtown railroad yard. That began a transformation that has made Knoxville’s city center the kind of happening place downtown Lexington aspires to be.

I spent a week in Knoxville recently, biking with friends in the nearby Great Smoky Mountains and dining each night at restaurants along Market Square and Gay Street, the main downtown thoroughfare.

When I worked in downtown Knoxville as The Associated Press correspondent, some of its old buildings were vacant and many were in need of repair. When office workers went home each evening, the city center became a ghost town.

“You and I can remember when tumbleweed blew down the streets in the evenings,” joked Alan Carmichael, an old friend who owns a downtown public relations firm, Moxley Carmichael, with his wife, Cynthia Moxley. “Now people pour in from the ‘burbs” for restaurants, bars, outdoor concerts and frequent festivals.

One big factor in downtown Knoxville’s revitalization has been historic preservation and adaptive reuse of old buildings, such as the old JFG Coffee plant and Sterchi furniture company, which are now loft apartments.

It began with the World’s Fair, which restored the old L&N Railroad depot. But the big efforts came in the past decade with restoration of the Tennessee and Bijou theaters on Gay Street and the shops along Market Square, which date to the 1850s.

“We have very few old buildings downtown that haven’t been restored,” said Rick Emmett, the city’s downtown coordinator. “Now we’re spreading that to some of the historic commercial areas beyond downtown.”

Downtown’s restored charm and activity has attracted the chain retailers Mast General Store and Urban Outfitters. Regal Riviera, a new eight-screen movie theater complex, was tastefully integrated into Gay Street.

What made most of that possible was city government’s investment in infrastructure, combined with creative city partnerships with business to finance development.

Perhaps the biggest city investment has been in parking garages a block or two from major pedestrian areas. Parking is free on weekends and after 6 p.m. on weeknights.

The city owns and operates six of 12 major downtown garages. Another garage is under construction. The city donated the land and private interests are building the garage. As part of the deal, evening and weekend parking will be free to the public in perpetuity, Emmett said.

Knoxville’s downtown parking is marketed well, with maps, a smartphone app and a website, Parkdowntownknoxville.com.

“Knoxville has a compact, walkable downtown, but most people have to drive to get there,” Carmichael said. The garages have “made a huge difference in terms of bringing people downtown.”

Another key has been the Central Business Improvement District, funded by an extra tax on downtown property owners. It was controversial when created in 1993 — just as attempts to create one in Lexington have been controversial — but it has been a big success, said Carmichael and Emmett, who both serve on the board.

The tax generates more than $500,000 a year for infrastructure, beautification and grants and loans to help downtown businesses restore historic building façades. Some money also is used to sponsor frequent festivals and events that bring people downtown.

“What that has allowed us to do is fill in the gaps,” Emmett said of the improvement district. “I think it has been huge.”

knox3City-owned parking garages on side streets near popular pedestrian areas has made it easy for visitors and suburbanites to come downtown to dine and shop.