Town Branch Commons designer focuses on green infrastructure

February 10, 2013

A rendering for Scape/Landscape Architecture’s plan for Town Branch Commons, showing how it might look west of Rupp Arena. Images provided.


Kate Orff, whose New York landscape architecture firm was chosen last week to design Town Branch Commons, has made a name for herself by looking below the surface and beyond the conventional.

The approach served her well with Lexington’s Downtown Development Authority, which hopes to create green space through the center of the city along the path of the long-buried Town Branch Creek.

Orff said in an interview that her team figured out quickly that the key to this project wasn’t recreating the stream as it used to be, but working with the complex limestone geology and hydrology beneath Lexington’s streets and structures.

She also realized that Town Branch Commons should do more than create beautiful public space to attract people and private development. It should play an important role in solving Lexington’s persistent storm-water and water pollution problems.

In addition to being a partner in the firm Scape/Landscape Architecture, Orff is an assistant professor of architecture and urban design at Columbia University. As founder and co-director of the university’s Urban Landscape Lab, she leads seminars on integrating earth sciences into urban design and planning.

With Town Branch Commons, Orff said she saw an opportunity to accomplish goals that are often seen as contradictory: increasing commercial development and sustainably improving the environment.

“This Lexington project is an amazing opportunity for me to try to bring those two realms together,” Orff said. “I really think that’s the future, this concept of green infrastructure.”

Orff said green infrastructure has many advantages: It is less costly to build and maintain than concrete and pipes. It is less prone to massive failure, because it is less centralized. And it provides the side benefit of public green space.

“But you have to think very systematically,” she said. “It requires more, frankly, of the urban space. It’s more of a dispersed strategy of touching the water where it lands at multiple points in multiple ways. But a more dispersed model leaves you more room for resiliency.”

Orff, 41, grew up in Maryland and earned a bachelor’s degree in political and social thought from the University of Virginia, then a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard University.

She started Scape/Landscape Architecture in 2004. The firm’s projects have ranged from a 1,000-square-foot park in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a 1,000-acre landfill regeneration project in Dublin, Ireland.

Orff has made several national lists of up-and-coming designers. Last year, the organization United States Artists chose her as one of 50 American artists to receive $50,000 fellowship awards.

She was co-author, along with photographer Richard Misrach, of the 2012 book Petrochemical America, which created an ecological atlas of the petrochemical industry’s effects on the 150-mile Mississippi River corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans known as “Cancer Alley.”

Currently, Orff’s firm is doing projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Greenville, S.C., where she is working on an environmental education center with Jeanne Gang, the Chicago architect and MacArthur “genius” award winner who did the site plan for the proposed CentrePointe development in Lexington.

Perhaps Orff’s most high-profile effort is a proposal to restore the Gowanus and Red Hook sections of New York harbor with a system of designed oyster beds. Before harbor dredging and industrialization, oysters flourished there. One oyster has the ability to cleanse 50 gallons of water per day. (She explains the project in a TED talk online. Watch it at the end of this post.)

Her “Oystertecture” plan, which will begin with a pilot project in March, has attracted a lot more attention since superstorm Sandy showed the vulnerability of the Northeast’s urban coast. Orff is part of a task force New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed to study those issues.

To prepare her Lexington proposal, Orff said she studied water flow data and made floodplain maps to understand downtown’s hydrology and geology. For local knowledge and engineering expertise, she engaged Lexington-based EHI Consultants and Sherwood Design Engineers, a major national firm.

Orff also met with city officials to understand Lexington’s consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency, which will require millions of dollars in fixes for long-ignored water quality problems throughout Fayette County.

“Before we ever started to design, we did a very comprehensive series of maps that included flooding, the SSO (sanitary sewer overflow) events and so on,” Orff said. “We had a very clear sense of how water was moving and the amounts of water and what would be possible and what would not be possible.”

Orff said her team also tried to work with what already existed or was proposed for downtown “rather than tearing down and starting over from scratch, because clearly a lot of money has been spent already.”

Orff plans to return to Lexington in a few weeks to meet with stakeholders and the public to gather feedback and ideas. Then, more civil engineering will be needed, as well as a plan for how to build the project in phases.

“We are aiming to refine the plan and provide some alternatives for different areas,” she said. “I think the way our scheme kind of fits within the landscape, it provides a lot of alternatives and backup plans.”

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What are rankings worth? Depends how you use them

July 10, 2011

How can Lexington be both the nation’s most sedentary city and the fourth-best city for business and careers? Those seemingly contradictory rankings came out recently in Men’s Health and Forbes magazines.

The laziness award from Men’s Health — that peerless monthly guide to flatter abs and better sex — gave people a good laugh at Lexington’s expense. I didn’t hear the news for several days; I was with a large group of Central Kentucky friends in Virginia, where we were bicycling 300 miles up and down mountains.

When I returned home, I also discovered that Forbes had ranked Lexington No. 4 in its annual Best Places for Business list, up from 9th last year. (Louisville ranked No. 14.)

I don’t put much stock in magazine rankings, which are designed mostly to draw attention to magazines. But people love lists, no matter how suspect they seem. The good rankings give us something to brag about; the bad ones, something to fuss about — or think about.

The slap from Men’s Health was another reminder that Kentuckians need to adopt healthier lifestyles. One more reminder came last week, when two public health groups reported that nearly one-third of all Kentuckians are obese, making this the nation’s sixth-fattest state.

Maybe the drumbeat will persuade more Kentuckians to give up smoking, cut back on fatty foods and sugary drinks, and get more exercise. Lexington lags many cities when it comes to bicycle lanes, trails and a pedestrian-friendly environment that allows physical activity to be part of everyday life. But recent improvements show that when facilities are built, Lexingtonians will use them.

Forbes said it arrived at its list by weighing a series of metrics, including job and income growth, cost, quality of life and educational attainment. Lexington ranked higher than all of the cities that Commerce Lexington members have visited in recent years to gather improvement ideas: Greenville, S.C., was No. 60; Pittsburgh, No. 69; Madison, Wis., No. 63; Austin, Texas, No. 7; Boulder, Colo., No. 44; and Oklahoma City, Okla., No. 28.

Most Commerce Lexington trips have focused on downtown development and quality-of-life improvements — important factors in long-term economic vitality. All of the cities visited have offered good ideas for Lexington. But as last month’s trip to Greenville showed, Lexington has more going for it than we often assume.

Some Lexington businessmen — impressed by Greenville’s success in recruiting industry — were quick to tout South Carolina’s low-tax, low-regulation, anti-union environment. But economic statistics show a more complicated picture.

Before Forbes ranked Lexington a whopping 56 places above Greenville, I was looking through the “regional economic scorecard” that Clemson University economists compile for Greenville’s leaders.

Greenville considers Lexington one of its “peer” cities, and our metropolitan area outperformed theirs in almost every measure on the scorecard: work-force education, cost of living, knowledge workers, innovative activity and capacity, entrepreneurial environment, employment diversity and high-wage employment opportunities.

Even more telling, Lexington leads Greenville in per-capita income, perhaps the best measure of economic health. (Still, both places trail the national average, and the gaps have widened in recent years. That is neither a healthy sign nor an argument for “business-friendly” low wages.)

Economists in both South Carolina and Kentucky say one of the main keys to long-term economic prosperity is education. Still, many business and political leaders find it easier to fuss about taxes, regulation and unions than to make significant, long-term investments in education.

What lessons should we draw from economic comparisons? In a nutshell, Lexington should more aggressively build on its strengths and focus on initiatives that will promote long-term, broad-based economic prosperity.

And what about all of those magazine lists? Be neither discouraged nor deluded; just consider them tools. Brag about the Forbes ranking — it might bring in some business — and use the Men’s Health ranking to rally support for mending our unhealthy ways.

Lexington is neither as good nor as bad as others say we are. But if we are smart, we will use both the praise and criticism to get better.

Will Lexington leaders act on Greenville’s lessons?

June 19, 2011
Knox White, left, the mayor of Greenville, S.C., leads a group of people from the Commerce Lexington across the Falls Bridge, a suspension pedestrian bridge that replaced an ugly highway bridge over a waterfall that has become a city park. Photo by Tom Eblen

Greenville Mayor Knox White, left, leads a group from Commerce Lexington across Falls Bridge, a suspension pedestrian bridge that replaced a highway bridge over a waterfall that has become a city park. Photo by Tom Eblen

One of the most valuable things about Commerce Lexington’s annual “leadership visit” is that it brings together nearly 200 people who spend three days looking at Lexington’s strengths and weaknesses through the lens of another city.

Last week’s trip to Greenville, S.C., was my fourth, and I found it the most useful. Perhaps that was because Greenville’s relative size, assets and challenges are more similar to Lexington’s than are those in Pittsburgh, Madison or Austin.

In many respects, Lexington is better than all of those cities. It was easy to sense some of Greenville’s shortcomings, despite city leaders’ positive spin. But the point of the trip was to learn from what they do better than we do.

The primary lesson was that beautiful, high-quality urban development can improve both quality of life and economic vitality. Since the 1970s, Greenville has transformed an ugly, car-choked downtown into a garden spot where people want to live, work and play. Economic prosperity has followed.

Greenville is more politically and socially conservative than Lexington, and much of what city leaders did was controversial. But they did it, and it worked.

The city transformed a Main Street the size of Lexington’s from a sun-baked, four-lane highway into a pleasant two-lane, two-way gathering place. It is shaded by big trees and filled with shops, restaurants, sidewalk dining and plenty of parking in diagonal street spaces and artfully disguised garages. A neglected riverfront and waterfall became a gorgeous public park surrounded by new development.

Downtown is now beautiful, inviting, unique to Greenville — and twice as big as it was. Old buildings have been restored and adapted to new uses. Contemporary mixed-use developments have been built and are successful. There are a variety of performance halls, sports venues and museums. The renaissance is growing in all directions, and nearby towns are emulating it.

What can Lexington learn from Greenville? Here were my takeaways:

Articulate a simple vision that almost everyone can embrace. That is different from launching a task force or commissioning a detailed study that will gather dust on a shelf. Simply agree on a vision such as this: Lexington’s urban and suburban spaces should be worthy of the beautifully unique countryside that surrounds them.

Leaders must lead. As the Lexingtonians saw in Greenville, that means taking risks, working together and figuring out creative ways to accomplish goals. It means entrepreneurial partnerships among government, business and nonprofits. It also means inclusive, transparent planning and long-term strategies.

Demand excellence. Greenville raised the bar for downtown development with design guidelines and an architectural review process. Developers know they must meet high standards — and that city officials will work with them to overcome obstacles to mutual success.

Remember when the developer who wanted to build a one-story, suburban-style CVS drugstore on Lexington’s Main Street said the retailer wouldn’t do better? Well, a two-story, urban-style CVS is under construction on Greenville’s Main Street. When finished, it will look like it has always been there.

I asked Mayor Knox White to explain Greenville’s redevelopment vision in a nutshell. “Downtown is all about the walking experience,” he said. “The architectural guidelines, the landscaping, everything. It’s a religion with us.”

Build on success. Greenville’s revitalization was an intentional, long-term process. Partnerships were formed to create world-class anchor projects and beautiful public spaces that would attract private investment around them. Civic leaders were not afraid to dream big and take risks.

Greenville leaders said they always have a “next big thing” on the horizon. Lexington achieved much during the three years before last fall’s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. We need a “next big thing” on which to focus.

This is a time of great opportunity for Lexington. Over the next couple of decades, Lexington will redevelop three huge tracts of urban land: the 46 acres around the Civic Center and Rupp Arena; the adjacent Distillery District; and the area surrounding the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus at the old Eastern State Hospital site.

Greenville shows what can be done, and the visitors from Lexington left talking like converts at a tent revival. But as we all know, even the most sincere believers can backslide when distracted.

Will Lexington stop being satisfied with good enough and try for great? Can those who went to Greenville help articulate a clear vision for Lexington and mobilize the community behind it? Will our leaders lead?

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Public-private efforts fueled Greenville renaissance

June 16, 2011
Restoration of the Reedy River and land surrounding it in Greenville, S.C., has been an anchor for downtown revitalization. River Place, left, is a $63 million mixed-use development built on city-owned land as part of a successful public-private partnership. Photo by Tom Eblen

Restoration of land around the Reedy River has provided a key anchor for downtown revitalization in Greenville. River Place is a private mixed-use development built on city-owned land. Photo by Tom Eblen

GREENVILLE, S.C. — In the early 1970s, downtown Greenville “was pretty much a dead zone,” Nancy Whitworth, the city’s economic development director, told 193 visitors from Commerce Lexington on Thursday, as she showed old pictures of a four-lane Main Street with sun-baked sidewalks.

After her morning talk, the visitors took a walk down a very different Main Street, the work of three decades of serious planning, investment, public-private partnerships and, more than anything, a consistent vision of pedestrian-friendly beauty that city leaders were trying to achieve.

The first champion of the effort was longtime Mayor Max Heller, who died Monday at age 92. A Jew who moved to Greenville from his native Austria to escape the Nazis in 1938, his European background made him realize the way to bring life back downtown was to make it a beautiful, inviting place where people wanted to spend time.

Main Street was reduced to two lanes and diagonal parking and trees were added. Those trees are large now, providing a beautiful, shaded canopy for sidewalk dining for nearly 100 restaurants in the city center.

The revitalization took place over many years as strong city leadership, coupled with support from the business community and private developers. Several public-private anchor projects over the years attracted private investment around them.

“Our public sector is willing to step up and take risks, and the private sector is willing to back them up,” Whitworth said. “It takes both.”

The first anchor project was a Hyatt Regency hotel, where the Commerce Lexington group is staying. Others have included a privately financed baseball stadium and a performing arts center.

But perhaps the two most spectacular projects were River Place and Falls Park, both built along a once-neglected stretch of the Reedy River in what officials said used to be one of the seediest parts of Greenville.

River Place is an air-rights project; the city owns the land and a $14 million parking garage, but developer Bob Hughes put together the mixed-use development of several buildings on top of it, which represents more than $63 million in private investment.

“It’s impressive,” Lexington developer Dudley Webb said after Hughes gave the group a tour.

Falls Park was once a gulch with a 1960s concrete highway bridge that hid a waterfall. Knox White, who has been Greenville’s mayor for 15 years, said the city spent $1 million to remove the ugly bridge, then spent millions more to turn the gulch into a garden-like park with an amazing pedestrian suspension bridge over the falls.

As he walked the Lexington visitors over the bridge on a beautiful Thursday afternoon, the park was filled with people. Dozens of children waded at the foot of the falls.

“Most people in Greenville hadn’t seen the waterfall before we built the park,” White said. “Now, you can come down here at 10 o’clock at night and there will still be people in the park.”

What lessons can Lexington learn from Greenville’s success? I’ll write about that in my Sunday column.

Charm before the storm: Greenville’s Wyche Pavilion

June 15, 2011

Before a violent thunderstorm Wednesday evening sent trash barrels flying through the air and Commerce Lexington visitors running for cover, the group enjoyed a reception at the Wyche Pavilion, a shelter made from the ruins of one of Greenville, S.C.’s oldest industrial buildings beside the Reedy River in downtown. The pavilion is a great example of “adaptive reuse” of a historic structure that speaks to Greenville’s authentic heritage as a textile mill town and manufacturing center.

At BMW driving school, team-building begins at 80mph

June 15, 2011

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Because Commerce Lexington’s annual “leadership visit” is as much about creating trust and good working relationships back home as it is about getting ideas from the city being visited, organizers try to begin each trip with a team-building exercise.

That is why the first stop for the 193 Kentuckians on this year’s trip to Greenville was the BMW Performance Driving School.

“So what do I do now?”  Eli Capilouto asked our instructor through the open car window.

The University of Kentucky’s president-elect was sitting behind the wheel of a BMW M3 sedan with 414 horses under the hood, lawyer David Smith beside him and Keeneland Vice President Vince Gabbert and me in the back seat. We were about to see how fast Capilouto could drive a slalom course without killing us.

“At home I drive a 12-year-old Buick,” Capilouto deadpanned to the instructor. “Is this anything like it?”

“Well, they both have four wheels,” the instructor replied.

Capilouto said it was his second time around this track Wednesday. His first set of passengers gave him mixed reviews. “They said my driving was like my bowling — I knocked down a lot of pins,” he said. “The cones were not my friends.”

The three of us tried not to gasp as Capilouto roared down the straight-away and into the first turn. You could feel the trust building, though, as he successfully negotiated each fast turn, slamming on the accelerator and brake in turn.

“I have new-found respect for the university!” Gabbert said as we all changed seats so he could take a turn at the wheel. “I used to have a Camero. I still miss it, as you might can tell.”

Driving school was an exciting start to the three-day visit, during which Greenville officials will show off their successes in downtown revitalization and economic development. A big piece of that economic development has been BMW, which was attracted to Greenville nearly two decades ago and now employs 7,000 workers here who will build 240,000 vehicles this year.

In addition to the slolam course, BMW’s customer driving school offered several other tests of skill, including an off-road course where the Kentuckians could put a BMW X5 sport-utility vehicle through its paces, and a polished-concrete pad where two drivers would see how fast they could round corners in a BMW 135i sedan without spinning out on the wet pavement.

This team-building experience got rave reviews.

“You could feel the power; it was awesome!” said Vice Mayor Linda Gorton, who usually drives a Honda Accord.

“It was super fun, and we got to meet so many people,” said Mary Allison Belshoff, executive director of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s Lexington affiliate and my driving partner on the wet-pavement racetrack. “When you put people in unnatural environments, they get to know each other in interesting ways.”

The rest of the trip’s agenda includes tours, presentations, speeches and discussions, but no more high-speed joyriding. The group flies back to Blue Grass Airport late Friday afternoon. You might want to avoid Man O’ War Boulevard about then, just in case.

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Lexington leaders give Greenville a second look

June 15, 2011

This is the week each year when Commerce Lexington takes several dozen business and civic leaders to another city for three days of networking and brainstorming about how to improve Lexington.

Nearly 200 people are leaving on chartered jets Wednesday morning for Greenville, the largest city in the Upstate region of South Carolina. Although a much smaller city than Lexington, Greenville is the center of a metro area with 172,000 more people.

The annual “leadership visit” went to Greenville in 1995, but Commerce Lexington thought the city was worth a second look. Greenville has continued to prosper, thanks to smart economic development, good urban planning and successful public-private partnerships.

The city that once called itself “textile capital of the world” is now home to a mix of companies, many from Europe, including BMW and Michelin. A big part of Greenville’s strategy was revitalizing its urban core and improving the quality of life.

“They focused on what makes the city unique and special,” said Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, whose family-owned construction company helped build BMW’s facilities there. “It’s become a city that reaches out globally, not a big city but a city with a modern, cosmopolitan sense.”

Greenville’s downtown revitalization was sparked in the 1970s by a mayor who immigrated from Austria. He thought a beautiful, pedestrian-friendly European approach was a good antidote to the car-centric, asphalt-everywhere path that had contributed to urban decay.

That meant downsizing some streets, adding trees, restoring old buildings and removing a highway bridge over a neglected gulch of the Reedy River. The river was cleaned, the gulch transformed into a park and the four-lane bridge replaced by a unique pedestrian bridge.

“They have reclaimed that whole space, and it has had an amazing effect on the downtown,” said Jeanne Gang, the renowned Chicago architect whom Dudley Webb recently hired to redesign the stalled CentrePointe project in downtown Lexington. “They have an amazing set of beautiful urban elements that they’ve done over time.”

Gang’s firm, Studio Gang Architects, is completing designs for two signature projects in Greenville: Reedy Square and the Blue Wall Center.

Reedy Square will be the “town square” that Greenville hasn’t had, plus a showcase for regional attractions and culture. “It’s both a place for the locals to go hang out and a place that turns visitors on to what all there is to do in the Upstate,” Gang said.

Blue Wall Center, a 175-acre area at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, will have a visitors center, gardens and trails for people to get a taste of the local mountains. “We’ve been calling it speed-dating with nature,” Gang said. “It’s both a landscape and a building that work together to be this kind of visitor destination.”

Lexington can learn some things from Greenville, but how much of that learning will be converted into action? That is a frequent criticism of these trips — at least by people who don’t go on them.

Commerce Lexington President Bob Quick said there has been action. For example, Lexington’s Thursday Night Live and Minority Business Development programs began with ideas from the 1995 Greenville trip. “Sometimes it takes years for things to come together,” he said.

Last year, Commerce Lexington went to Pittsburgh with Greater Louisville Inc. The most popular idea from Pittsburgh — replicating Bill Strickland’s Manchester Bidwell program for inspiring and teaching job skills to young people — has been stalled by the weak economy, Quick said.

But many of Manchester Bidwell’s concepts will be used in the Fayette County Public Schools’ new agri-science vocational program, which begins this fall on Leestown Road. “Some of the things that we’re going to be doing are very similar to what Strickland is doing,” outgoing Superintendent Stu Silberman said.

Quick said the biggest benefit from last year’s trip has been stronger relationships among leaders in Lexington and Louisville, which has led to more cooperation on common issues and economic development initiatives.

Networking is always the biggest benefit of these trips. Sometimes it takes getting away from work and the patterns of everyday life to build new relationships that will help turn good ideas into successful action.

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