Town Branch Commons: an idea that has worked in other cities

February 3, 2013

Hardly a week goes by that people don’t tell me how they wish the open block where the Webb Companies hopes to build CentrePointe could become a public park instead.

As the block awaits redevelopment, it is planted in grass and surrounded by a plank fence to resemble a horse pasture. It has become a popular gathering place during downtown festivals. (At other times, it is off-limits, just as horse pastures are.)

CentrePasture’s popularity points to a couple of ironies about Lexington.

One is that we have a lot of open space, but little public space. The other is that we are surrounded by some of the world’s most beautiful rural landscapes — an artful blend of the natural and man-made — but our central business district is a generic jungle of concrete and asphalt. There are only a handful of small parks or plazas downtown, and few trees of any size.

Although recent renovations of Triangle and Cheapside parks have been excellent, the comments I hear make me think Lexington residents still yearn for more public space downtown.

Town Branch Creek resurfaces west of Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader photo

The Downtown Development Authority on Monday will choose the winner of a design competition for Town Branch Commons — some form of linear park on city-owned property along the path of the long-buried stream that gave birth to Lexington.

This project would involve bringing parts of the creek back to the surface, either literally or symbolically, to create attractive public spaces for nature and a variety of activities. A jury of design professionals was to recommend a winner to the DDA board after closed-door presentations Friday by the five finalists.

The competition attracted 23 entries. The finalists are among the world’s best landscape architects and designers: Coen + Partners in Minneapolis; Denver-based Civitas; the Netherlands firm Inside Outside; Scape Landscape Architecture of New York; and Copenhagen-based Julien De Smedt Architects working with Balmori Associates of New York.

All five finalists’ designs will be on display at the Downtown Arts Center from Tuesday until Feb. 22, including during Gallery Hop on Feb. 15.

I can’t wait to see the designs, especially after hearing the finalists make presentations about their previous work Thursday at the Lexington Children’s Theatre. They showed amazing projects from all over the world, including in cities such as Bilbao, Spain, that had far more daunting problems than Lexington has.

(An interesting side note is that three of the six presenters were women: design legends Diana Balmori and Petra Blaisse and one of landscape architecture’s rising stars, Kate Orff.)

(Also worth mentioning: several of the landscape architects showed projects that used wetland parks to effectively solve storm-water problems. Lexington officials should remember that as they decide how to spend millions of dollars on storm water issues under terms of the federal consent decree.)

I can already hear Lexington’s naysayers: This whole idea is impractical, unaffordable and frivolous. It is none of that.

The compelling argument for Town Branch Commons is not esthetic, but economic. This sort of urban public space has been an effective way to attract people and investment dollars to cities of all sizes, from Seoul, South Korea to Yonkers, N.Y.

People who have attended recent Commerce Lexington trips have seen it work in Greenville, S.C., where a long-neglected riverbank became Falls Park; and in San Antonio, where a once-buried stream similar to Town Branch became the Riverwalk, now Texas’ second-largest tourist attraction after the Alamo.

New York’s High Line project turned an abandoned elevated rail line into a linear park that has transformed a once-decaying section of lower Manhattan. Despite huge cost overruns, the Millennium Park that Chicago built over an urban rail yard has more than paid for itself with the private development it has attracted.

The kind of public-private partnership envisioned with Town Branch Commons is under way in Atlanta, which is turning an abandoned rail line around the city into 1,300 acres of parks and 33 miles of trails, and in Louisville, which has raised more than $60 million in private money for the 21st Century Parks project that is creating 4,000 acres of linear parkland and 100 miles of trails around that city.

What excites me about the potential of Town Branch Commons was mentioned frequently by the world-class designers who submitted plans. This isn’t about building Disney World in a swamp; it is an authentic reflection of Lexington’s history, geography and culture.

Pioneers chose Town Branch as the site for their town, laying out Lexington’s grid according to the creek’s path rather than a compass. Its banks were where early Lexingtonians gathered for fun and refreshment before the stream was polluted, built over and eventually buried.

Town Branch Commons will require public money and even more private money. But it could be a great long-term investment, one that uses the authenticity of Lexington’s past to create both an amenity and economic generator for the future.

San Antonio showed power of teamwork, attitude

June 11, 2012

Here is a problem with Lexington: It has always been such a good place to live that residents and their leaders have rarely felt much urgency to strive to make it great.

I was reminded of that again last week, when I accompanied 184 other Kentuckians to San Antonio on Commerce Lexington‘s 73rd annual Leadership Visit.

Like the other four cities I have visited with Commerce Lexington since 2008, San Antonio has fewer natural assets and more inherent problems than Lexington does. Yet, leaders in those cities have accomplished some significant civic and economic improvements.

The lessons of San Antonio were not only what civic leaders have done, but how they did it. Texas is a conservative state, but San Antonio voters have approved bond issues and tax increases for infrastructure improvements because leaders convinced them it would spark private economic development and create jobs.

The key, officials said, has been strong public and private leadership, a can-do attitude, a willingness to take risks and the ability to develop a shared vision and action plans that don’t fizzle out each time political leadership changes.

“Almost every project we have done … has relied on partners,” said Nelson Wolff, a former legislator and two-term mayor who now leads the government of surrounding Bexar County. “It’s all about partners; it’s all about building personal relationships.”

“We have that can-do attitude,” added San Antonio real estate developer Marty Wender. “There’s always going to be naysayers, but Texans make things happen. When people tell me something can’t be done, I love it, because it means I can do it and they won’t try.”

What could that kind of leadership look like in Lexington? For one thing, it could mean dusting off all of the visioning documents and master plans this city has done in recent years, identifying common elements and developing a plan to make them happen. A good place to start would be to complete the Destination 2040 process with an action plan.

It could mean that Lexington’s business and political leaders create a united front to lobby the General Assembly to give the city control over its public safety pension system. The current system’s unfunded liability and outrageous disability rules pose a financial threat that only will get worse until the problems are solved.

Business and government leaders must figure out creative ways to finance the urban infrastructure Lexington needs to attract investment, development and jobs.

The streetscape and Cheapside improvements completed in 2010 have brought new life and economic activity downtown. The next challenge will be continuing infrastructure investment to support that, as well as the organic growth happening in areas such as Jefferson Street, National Avenue and the Distillery District.

It will take a lot of money to fund Lexington’s infrastructure needs, which include the storm water and sewer improvements we must make because past leaders didn’t face up to the true cost of suburban sprawl.

San Antonio leaders are now pushing for a 1⁄8 cent sales tax increase to improve public schools. Lexington needs that kind of local-option sales tax authority for its infrastructure needs. Business and political leaders must find the courage to convince Kentucky’s rural-dominated General Assembly to allow it.

Lexington has made a lot of progress recently in bringing more public participation and transparency to growth and development issues. The challenge going forward will be for leaders to listen to citizens offering different ideas, but not be distracted by naysayers with no ideas to offer.

This is a good time to be having these kind of strategic discussions. The recent Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force process was one of the most effective in Lexington’s history. It brought together a broad group of stakeholders whose research and discussions led to a shared vision that departed from previous conventional wisdom.

Now, the challenge with the Arena District and other downtown improvements is to develop specific action and financial plans. We also must keep the momentum going even though these projects will require decades to complete.

Darryl Byrd, the leader of San Antonio’s SA2020 long-term planning process, summed up the challenge by quoting Edward Whitacre, who was chairman and CEO of AT&T when the company was based in San Antonio.

“It’s all about knowing what you want,” he said, “and getting there on purpose.”

San Antonio showed how to make most of assets

June 10, 2012

Like many people in Lexington who never went on the annual trips Commerce Lexington has been taking to other cities for 73 years, I used to think they were booster junkets of little value.

Last week’s trip to San Antonio was my fifth in a row, and it reminded me of how wrong I had been.

There is no better way to get to know other people than to travel with them. The personal relationships developed on these trips are invaluable, especially as Lexington’s leadership grows more diverse. Progress requires teamwork, and it is easier to work with people you know.

This is also networking with a focus. Each year’s program is designed to get everyone looking at the other city’s strengths and weaknesses through the lens of Lexington. What can we learn to improve our own community and economy?

The shortcoming of these trips is that there is often too little follow-up to capture the learning and turn it into action, although Commerce Lexington is starting to put more emphasis on that.

While there is always something to be learned from these other cities, they are hardly perfect. They do some things better than Lexington does; Lexington does other things better than they do. San Antonio was no different.

Like other cities in low-tax, “business-friendly” states that Commerce Lexington has visited in recent years, San Antonio has experienced strong population and job growth, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the prosperity trickles down. Lexington has higher per-capita income ($28,345 versus $21,812) and college attainment (39 percent versus 23.7 percent) than San Antonio, and a lower poverty rate (17.4 percent versus 18.9 percent).

San Antonio showed the value of creating infrastructure downtown that will attract people and private investment.

San Antonio seemed especially adept at capitalizing on its assets. Nowhere was that more true than at the River Walk, an oasis that has given sprawling San Antonio a beautiful focal point for activity and economic development.

As part of Lexington’s recent Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force process, master planner Gary Bates proposed resurfacing Town Branch Creek, which has been buried under downtown streets for a century, to create a water feature and public commons through downtown.

Many Lexingtonians have doubted that is practical, or even possible. San Antonio changed that perception. River Walk is a totally manufactured amenity that apparently has no more natural water flow than Town Branch Creek.

River Walk, the central section of which was developed by a WPA project in the 1930s, has been so successful at attracting private investment around it that San Antonio has spent $350 million during the past decade to expand it.

Those extensions are creating 13 more miles of linear park linking museums and entertainment districts to the north and the historic Spanish missions to the south.

Since the north section opened in 2009, it has attracted $256 million in private investment.

After seeing what San Antonio started with and what it has now, the Commerce Lexington visitors realized Bates’ idea isn’t so crazy Lexington needs to commission a design and engineering study soon to assess Town Branch’s development potential and what it might cost.

San Antonio showed the benefits of a downtown improvement district, where property owners vote to pay an annual assessment for extra landscaping, upkeep and security. Lexington has talked about creating one for years and might get the effort going later this year.

Lexington could learn a few things from San Antonio about building more parking facilities downtown and providing good signage so drivers can find them. Many of San Antonio’s formerly ugly surface parking lots have been redeveloped as buildings or turned into attractive pocket parks.

San Antonio offered some good lessons in adaptive reuse of old buildings, both downtown and at the successful Pearl Brewery development, which showed the Commerce Lexington group what the Lexington Distillery District could become.

The biggest lessons for San Antonio were not the projects themselves but how civic leaders created them. Those lessons were about public-private partnerships, risk-taking and leadership. I will write more about that in Monday’s column.


Exploring how San Antonio keeps improving the city

June 5, 2012

The Alamo in downtown San Antonio is Texas’ most popular tourist attraction. Nearly 200 pioneers, including a group of Kentuckians with knife designer Jim Bowie among them, perished in the 13-day battle with Mexican forces in 1836. Photos by Tom Eblen


SAN ANTONIO, Texas — On Monday, the 185 Kentuckians visiting San Antonio with Commerce Lexington heard about what this city is doing to transform itself. On Tuesday, they heard more about how it is being done.

The bottom line: public-private partnerships that can bring together expertise, consensus and money from a variety of sources to the table. Those partnerships also include the public, which has approved several bond issues and tax increases to fund new public infrastructure necessary for private enterprise to take root and grow.

“It’s all about partners,” said Nelson Wolff, a former legislator and San Antonio mayor who now leads the government of surrounding Bexar County. “It’s all about building personal relationships.”

A morning panel discussion included Ben Brewer, president of Centro San Antonio, an umbrella group that coordinates downtown improvement efforts; Darryl Byrd, CEO of SA2020, the city’s long-term visioning process; and Felix Padrón, director of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs.

With them on the panel were three Lexingtonians — Mayor Jim Gray, Lexarts President Jim Clark and Jeff Fugate, president of the Downtown Development Authority — to help relate San Antonio’s experiences to what is happening in Lexington.

Byrd said San Antonio’s long-term planning process has been about setting ambitious goals for world-class excellence, developing strategies and partnerships to accomplish them and continuously measuring progress and results. “We try to divorce ourselves from things that keep us thinking small,” he said.

Brewer said Centro keeps that long-term vision in mind as it coordinates a variety of downtown improvement efforts. One key piece is a downtown improvement district, created by property owners in 1999 to fund extra landscaping, cleaning crews and a staff of 50 tourism ambassadors in the center city. Those commercial property owners pay annual assessments totaling about $2 million to fund the efforts to make downtown welcoming and looking its best.

Padrón discussed the role arts now play in improving the economy and quality of life in San Antonio, including a significant investment in public art. “It’s not art for art’s sake, but art for economic development,” he said.

After the morning session, the Commerce Lexington delegation broke up into groups to tour the Blue Star Contemporary Arts Center; Café College, a resource center to help local middle and high school students pursue college educations; the new Mission Reach of the River Walk; a nearby Toyota plant; and downtown attractions and improvement efforts under way beyond them.

I took the downtown walking tour, during which Brewer showed the group longtime attractions such as the Alamo, the River Walk and the circa 1731 San Fernando Cathedral.

Brewer also highlighted such efforts as the “amigos” hired through the downtown improvement district who answer visitors’ questions and help them find their way; adaptive reuse of old buildings to enhance the city’s unique character; improvements in public transportation, including a bicycle sharing program; and conversion of some former surface parking lots into small public parks.

The Commerce Lexington group returns to Kentucky on Wednesday after a morning session focused on applying lessons learned in San Antonio to improvement projects and programs already under way in Lexington.

Follow the trip

Tom Eblen will post updates and photos from the trip’s final day Wednesday at

The skyline near San Antonio’s Alamo shrine is filled with hotels and the Tower of the America’s, built for the world’s fair Hemisfair ’68. City officials say San Antonio attracts 22 million tourists each year, 75 percent of whom are leisure travelers rather than people attending conventions.

San Antonio’s BCycle bicycle rental system has 19 locations throughout the city’s downtown area. The bikes are designed for short trips in the city, but the system’s popularity falls when temperatures rise into the 90s, as they were Tuesday during Commerce Lexington’s visit.

The circa 1731 San Fernando Cathedral, the oldest continuously functioning religious community in Texas, was among the stops on a downtown walking tour that people on the Commerce Lexington trip took Tuesday in San Antonio.


San Antonio trip begins with tour of River Walk

June 4, 2012

The Commerce Lexington delegation began its three-day visit to San Antonio with a boat tour of the River Walk. Photos by Tom Eblen


SAN ANTONIO, Texas — A century ago, when this was the biggest city in Texas, the San Antonio River, which runs through the middle of town, was one of its biggest problems.

When rains came, the river could inundate the city. A 1921 flood killed more than 50 people. When rains didn’t come, the river could slow to a trickle. Once managed by a public official called the Ditch Commissioner, the river became so polluted and overgrown that civic leaders considered trying to bury it.

The river “really was a drainage ditch,” said Richard Perez, president of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. “And a very unsightly drainage ditch at that.

Then, with some creativity and New Deal “stimulus” money, the ditch was transformed in the 1930s into River Walk, now the second-biggest tourist attraction in Texas behind the nearby Alamo.

A 185-member delegation from Commerce Lexington began its 73rd annual Leadership Visit on Monday with a boat tour of the River Walk, which is in the midst of a $358 million expansion on its north and south ends.

“This river project has been an amazing jewel for our community,” said Lori Houston, an official with the San Antonio River Improvements Project, which is helping oversee the public-private effort.

The downtown section of the River Walk has been a tourist destination since the 1950s. It was lengthened to more than three miles for the 1968 world’s fair, called Hemisfair ’68.

During the past decade, the River Walk has been extended both north and south. These sections, though, are designed more to attract local residents than tourists.

The four-mile northern section, called the Museum Reach, connects several local museums and ends at the old Pearl Brewery, a former beer factory that has been transformed into a successful mixed-use commercial development. The Museum Reach has attracted $256 million in private investment to the area since its completion in 2009, Houston said.

The project included $10 million worth of public art, funded with private donations, installed mostly beneath bridges crossing the river. “This is how we turn an ugly underpass into a work of art,” Houston said.

The eight-mile southern section, called the Mission Reach, will connect the Alamo to other Spanish colonial missions in the area. When completed, it will be more of a natural park, with hiking and biking trails. Much of the work involves restoring the river eco-system that was destroyed during years of “modern” water-management efforts.

San Antonio officials said the River Walk is a great example of how local, state and federal government have worked together with private business to create the infrastructure necessary for private commerce to flourish.

Commerce Lexington’s annual Leadership Visit is designed to get Central Kentucky leaders away for three days to network with each other and gather ideas for improving Lexington. Over the years, the trips have sparked initiatives such as bike trails, Thursday Night Live at Cheapside, a small-business loan program and facilities improvement funding for Fayette County Public Schools.

This year’s trip began at Pearl Brewery, where Perez and San Antonio’s city manager, Sheryl Sculley, discussed a dizzying array of local initiatives that include street improvements, recreational trails, libraries, museums and a new performing arts center. Many of those initiatives are being funded with $1 billion in recent bond issues approved by local voters to provide the public infrastructure for business growth.

Despite the borrowing, Sculley said, San Antonio is the only one of the nation’s 10-largest cities that has a triple-A bond rating from all three financial rating agencies.

Sculley said much of San Antonio’s infrastructure focus recently has been on improving public schools and the “liveability” of downtown. That includes a goal of adding 7,500 new housing units in the center city by 2020. “We all know that great cities have great downtowns,” she said.

Before returning to Lexington late Wednesday, the Commerce Lexington visitors will be looking at San Antonio’s accomplishments and strategies and trying to scale them to their own city, which is only one-fourth the size. The trip is funded by several Lexington banks and other companies and the people on the trip, who paid almost $2,000 each to attend.

Follow the trip

Follow Tom Eblen’s updates from San Antonio at

Rivercenter Mall is one of many private developments that have grown up along San Antonio’s River Walk.


River Walk beautified a section of the San Antonio River that was once a drainage ditch.

Vernal Kennedy of Bluegrass Community and Technical College used her iPad to photograph dam locks as her River Walk tour boat passed through them.

Commerce Lexington group heads to San Antonio

June 4, 2012

More than 180 Central Kentucky business and civic leaders will board a chartered jet Monday morning for Commerce Lexington’s 73rd annual Leadership Visit — three days of networking, gathering ideas and discussing strategies to improve Lexington.

This year’s destination: San Antonio.

Huh? At first glance, a metropolitan area of 2.2 million people in the vastly different landscape of South Central Texas would seem an unlikely comparison for Lexington.

San Antonio is about the size of Pittsburgh, where Commerce Lexington made its first joint visit with Greater Louisville Inc. in 2010. And it is considerably larger than last year’s destination, Greenville, S.C., and several other recent ones: Austin, Texas (2008), Madison, Wis. (2009) and Boulder, Colo. (2007).

But when it comes to some aspects of urban development, Lexington and San Antonio have striking similarities. And San Antonio leaders have been especially adept at creating public-private partnerships to get things done, according to the Commerce Lexington officials who organized this trip.

“San Antonio is a city that’s got confidence and strong leadership, public and private,” said Bob Quick, Commerce Lexington’s president.

Mayor Jim Gray and six of the Urban County Council’s 15 members will be on the trip, as will be Fayette County Public Schools’ top two leaders; two legislators; and a host of planning and development officials, business executives and leaders of non-profit organizations.

Rather than gathering ideas for new initiatives, the trip’s agenda is focused on what attendees can learn to help accomplish projects already under way in Lexington.

“How do we apply what we see and learn to move along some of the things we’re already working on?” said Lynda Bebrowsky, Commerce Lexington’s senior vice president of marketing. “What are some of those processes that we can apply here?”

Two areas of focus will be the River Walk, San Antonio’s second-biggest tourist attraction after the Alamo, and Pearl Brewery, a 22-acre mixed-use development in a once-abandoned beer factory at the end of a recent northern extension of the River Walk.

They offer striking similarities to budding Lexington initiatives: the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District; the Lexington Distillery District, and restoration of Town Branch Creek.

The Lexington group also will tour several other areas and hear from a variety of San Antonio officials, including former mayors Henry Cisneros and Nelson Wolff, who now leads the government of surrounding Bexar County.

As I was preparing to cover this trip, I called a former colleague, Audrey Lee, for her perspective. A longtime Herald-Leader reporter, editor and editorial writer, she left Lexington in 2004 for the San Antonio Express-News, where she is now the enterprise editor.

She said San Antonio’s political leaders are particularly strong at marshaling local, state and federal resources to create the infrastructure needed for private investment to thrive. There is less anti-government sentiment there than in most other parts of Texas — military bases have long been a backbone of the local economy — and leaders are not afraid to push for tax increases when they can demonstrate a future payoff.

River Walk, in particular, offers an excellent example for what Lexington can accomplish. “It’s exactly what Town Branch could be,” Lee said.

San Antonio, like Lexington, was founded along a stream whose flow varied greatly with rainfall and, by the turn of the last century, had become a troublesome stormwater sewer through town. Lexington buried much of Town Branch Creek; San Antonio officials considered doing the same thing.

Then, thanks to a Works Progress Administration project during the Great Depression, a downtown section of the San Antonio River was restored, and the River Walk was created. The beautification effort has grown steadily since the 1950s, creating a magnet for tourists and private development.

In recent years, a northern reach of the river has been restored near museums and the Pearl Brewery, a popular development that makes Lee think of what the Lexington Distillery District could become. A southern reach is now being restored with a more natural feel near the region’s old Spanish missions.

Lee said San Antonio and Lexington each have some advantages over the other. San Antonio could be even more successful, she said, if it had Lexington’s merged city-county government, because Texas law makes it difficult for county governments to deal with urban growth.

San Antonio, on the other hand, has the advantage of municipally owned water, electrical and gas utilities, giving the public a greater voice in long-term strategy, Lee said.

Public utility ownership has resulted in more conservation easements to protect San Antonio’s aquifer, as opposed to costly industrial water-supply solutions. Also, there has been considerable emphasis on energy conservation and investments in wind, solar and cleaner-coal technology that will allow an older, dirtier coal-fired power plant to be retired ahead of schedule.