Gray is right to focus on Town Branch Commons, old courthouse

January 20, 2015

141231Downtown0070Finding a way to renovate the old Fayette County Courthouse, which has been shuttered since 2012, is one of Mayor Jim Gray’s priorities for 2015. Photo by Tom Eblen 


Mayor Jim Gray set the right tone in the first State of the City Address of his second term. After four years of getting Lexington’s fiscal house in order, he said, it is time to make critical investments for the future.

Gray’s strength as mayor has been his ability to tackle previously ignored problems while at the same time articulating an ambitious but sensible vision for Lexington’s future.

The mayor began by ticking off accomplishments, including public safety investments and tens of millions of dollars in cost-savings from restructuring city employee health care and pensions and “value engineering” sewer improvements.

But the heart of his speech was a call to action on two downtown projects that should be high on Lexington’s priority list. He also hinted at a third project, politically sensitive but long overdue.

The first project Gray highlighted is restoring and repurposing the old Fayette County Courthouse, a 115-year-old limestone landmark in the city’s historic center.

When the courts moved to new buildings down the street a dozen years ago, the abused and neglected old courthouse became home to the Lexington History Museum. It was shuttered in 2012 because of lead paint contamination, then officials discovered structural problems.

It is an embarrassment to Lexington to have its most iconic public building uninhabitable. Demolition would be a tragedy. It needs to be restored, but for what?

“The courthouse needs to be imaginative, innovative and functional … a gravitational pull that will attract citizens and visitors,” Gray said.

The mayor wasn’t more specific, but he said an assessment report would be released soon and public meetings would be scheduled in February and March. Gray said he would include funding for the project’s first phase in the budget he submits to the Urban County Council in April.

The best idea I have heard for the old courthouse is to make it Lexington’s version of Chicago’s Water Tower or Boston’s Faneuil Hall — a gathering place for locals and the spot where tourists start their visit to Lexington.

Such a plan could bring back a smaller history museum, as well as rotating exhibits to entice people to visit attractions such as the UK Art Museum and the Headley-Whitney Museum. Distillery and horse farm tours could leave from there, bringing visitors back to the bars and restaurants around Cheapside.

The second project Gray touted — and promised initial funding for in his budget — is Town Branch Commons. It is a brilliant plan to create a linear chain of small parks downtown along the historic path of Town Branch Creek.

Since the creek was buried nearly a century ago, and the railroad tracks beside it pulled up in the 1960s, much of the spine of downtown between Main and Vine streets has been a concrete jungle of parking lots and wasted space.

Turning some of that space into small parks should make downtown more inviting and attract valuable commercial development. The plan will require private as well as public money. It would be built in phases, likely starting with the city-owned parking lot behind the Kentucky Theatre.

“We also need to make plans for the Government Center, a historic building that is costing us far too much to operate and repairs,” Gray said.

The late Foster Pettit, the first mayor of Lexington’s merged city-county government, once told me that moving city offices into the old Lafayette Hotel in the 1970s was always viewed as a temporary solution.

For at least a decade, officials have mused about selling the old hotel to a developer who could restore its beautiful first and second floors and turn the floors above them into apartments or condos.

Such a deal would create more downtown residents, as well as help pay for more cost-efficient city offices elsewhere. One possibility for those offices would be a new building atop the city-owned Transit Center garage.

The biggest misstep of Gray’s first term was his aborted renovation of Rupp Arena and Lexington Center. It failed largely because University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto had other priorities, and Gray ignored the obvious signals.

Gray didn’t mention Rupp in Tuesday’s speech, but he went out of his way to offer an olive branch to Capilouto. He sat beside him at lunch, mentioned him twice in his speech and praised UK as “our cultural, intellectual and economic anchor and engine.”

In his first term, Gray set an ambitious course for a better Lexington. The test of the next four years will be his ability to bring people together to make it happen.

UK building program should go green, save green

March 24, 2012

UK President Eli Capilouto at Richardsville Elementary School in Warren County last month. Photo by Joe Imel/Bowling Green Daily News


When I interviewed Eli Capilouto recently about his first eight months as president of the University of Kentucky, he described a visit to an elementary school in Bowling Green as “my best day in Kentucky.”

The Alabama native went to Richardsville Elementary after receiving a handwritten invitation from second-grader Emma McGuffey. Capilouto said he was impressed by the students and teachers, and by the building where they learn.

That building, which opened in August 2010, was the nation’s first school designed to generate more energy than it uses. Thanks to innovative design and materials, it requires 75 percent less energy than a typical school.

Power consumption also is kept down by geothermal heating and cooling, plus elimination of power-hungry appliances such as deep fryers in the cafeteria kitchen. (That change prompted dieticians to develop healthier school lunches.)

The overall construction cost was about the same as a typical school, except for the addition of solar panels that generate power for the school and local utility grid.

Capilouto said the students gave him a tour of the building and proudly explained the science behind it. “I came back on a high after that visit,” he said. “I’ve never seen a building teach so effectively.”

His ambitious plans for UK include a lot of construction. He wants to renovate or replace many aging academic buildings, renovate 6,000 beds of dormitory space and add 3,000 more beds.

UK has a contract with Memphis-based Education Realty Trust to build and operate a 600-bed dorm. The deal is planned as the first step toward privatizing all student housing as a way to raise construction capital.

I asked Capilouto whether Richardsville Elementary had inspired him to attempt similar energy-efficiency with UK’s new buildings. “We have the same architect,” he replied, referring to the Lexington firm Sherman Carter Barnhart, which is designing the new dormitory.

The dorm will have geothermal systems and will meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards. But initial plans indicate much more could be done to reduce energy consumption and long-term operating costs.

If Capilouto wants to embrace what he saw at Richardsville, much more must be done with this and future buildings. And that process must start soon, before UK negotiates terms of its long-term relationship with Education Realty Trust.

Thanks to projects such as Richardsville Elementary, Kentucky has become the national leader in energy-efficient school construction. Other examples have been built in Warren, Fayette and Kenton counties, and many more are planned.

Berea College has made strides in this area. UK has made a start with the new Davis Marksbury Building. There is plenty of Kentucky expertise on which to draw, including some on UK’s campus.

But people who have been involved with energy-efficient school projects say it is not a process to be entered into lightly. It requires new ways of thinking at each step — from how a building is planned, designed and financed to how it is managed and used after completion.

Highly energy-efficient buildings cost a little more on the front end, although that money is recovered quickly through lower operating costs. Still, it’s a different mind-set.

“There must be a change in culture at all levels,” said architect Mark Ryles, who was a key player in energy-efficient school construction as facilities director for the Kentucky Department of Education. “It will take real leadership and collaboration to make it happen.”

Ryles said the most successful projects have been built in counties where the school board and superintendents were committed to the process and put students’ needs first. The key is to figure out a vision and goals for construction, then shape the business model to accomplish them.

As Capilouto saw at Richardsville, energy efficiency is about much more than cost savings. “The educational benefit is fabulous,” Ryles said. “We now have third-graders going around talking about geothermal.”

If Capilouto and the Board of Trustees were to decide to rebuild UK’s campus as the “greenest” in the nation, it would make a bold statement, create a unique learning laboratory and save a lot of green for Kentucky taxpayers.

It also could make UK more attractive to Emma McGuffey and her fellow college students of the future. They will expect their university’s campus to be at least as advanced as what they had in elementary school.

Secret search, Capilouto’s vague answers at forums leave many at UK wondering what kind of president he will be

May 4, 2011

One professor likened it to the awkward first meeting of a couple in an arranged marriage: Everyone was rushing to figure out whether their new partner was a good match, even though the deal already had been done.

Not only had the deal been done, but the flowers were on their way and the organist was warming up.

On Sunday afternoon, after a secret search, University of Kentucky trustees unveiled Eli Capilouto, the provost of the University of Alabama- Birmingham, as their unanimous choice to be UK’s next president.

Eli Capilouto took questions from faculty, staff and students at forums Monday. Photo by Charles Bertram

Before the trustees confirmed his hiring less than 48 hours later, Capilouto had a whirlwind series of meetings with UK administrators, legislative leaders and the mayor; a reception with alumni; dinner with the governor; and one-hour public forums with faculty, staff and students.

It seemed like a strange way for Kentucky to choose a public official with almost as much influence as the governor and a salary several times larger.

I spoke briefly with Capilouto on Monday and attended the three public forums. My impression was similar to those of many others I talked with: He seemed like a good, smart man with solid credentials and a willingness to listen.

Capilouto didn’t make any missteps. He wisely didn’t try to be a know-it-all. But I heard little from his answers (and non-answers) to a variety of questions that gave me much insight into what kind of UK president he will make.

Like others, I would have liked more time for a thorough vetting. Maybe Capilouto has become a better listener since 2007, when a UAB faculty survey found he was “autocratic rather than democratic and opinionated rather than receptive to new ideas,” according to the Birmingham News. I wonder why several UAB professors contacted by Herald-Leader reporters didn’t want to comment on him. That might be significant — or not — but it would have been a good area for further examination.

Capilouto certainly impressed UK search committee members, several of whom attended the forums Monday. “He’s the complete package,” said Hollie Swanson, president of UK’s Faculty Senate and a search committee member.

He impressed many at the forums by avoiding the lectern and walking the floor below the stage with a lavalier microphone, interacting comfortably with questioners. Students especially seemed to like him, and a couple dozen stayed after their forum to meet him.

Capilouto’s story of flying to Kentucky on his own last week to walk UK’s campus incognito for six hours charmed many people. His measured tone and Alabama drawl were engaging, if not especially inspiring. “I promise you I think faster than I talk,” he told students.

Capilouto seemed to have a good sense of humor and a self-deprecating manner, which should wear well with some of the big-ego lawmakers from whom he must cajole resources for the university.

But Capilouto’s vague responses to questions about his views on major UK issues left many people at the forums wanting more. Nobody expected him to be up to speed on every issue and have all the answers, but he seemed reluctant to tackle many of them, or to convey a vision with any specifics.

Questioners expressed concern that UK’s core academic mission is being shortchanged in comparison with athletics and medicine. They worried aloud that the humanities are becoming a stepchild to science, math and business-oriented programs. They warned of antiquated laboratories and a brain drain caused by stagnant salaries.

They also questioned the university’s cozy relationship with the coal industry, town-gown relationships and the campus’ impact on surrounding neighborhoods. They wanted to know where the new president plans to find money to achieve the lofty UK goals he said he admires.

“There’s no doubt he understands the medical side,” said Carey Cavanaugh, director of the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. The test, Cavanaugh said, will be how Capilouto handles issues and areas where he doesn’t have experience.

“I think this is just the beginning of the journey,” Cavanaugh said.

It would have been good to have more people asking those questions of Capilouto and other finalists for a longer period before this marriage was consummated. Even so, the questions must be answered.