Landscape architect helped shape the face of Lexington

September 23, 2013

Aten

Retired landscape architect D. Lyle Aten.  Photo by Tom Eblen

 

You may not have heard of Lyle Aten, but if you live in Lexington, you see his life’s work every day.

Since moving here in 1952, the landscape architect has had a hand in creating master plans and site designs for more than 60 projects in Central Kentucky.

Aten and his firm helped design neighborhoods such as Eastland, Cardinal Valley, Lansdowne, Stonewall, Merrick Place, Hamburg, Hartland, Beaumont and Wellesley Heights.

His shopping centers include Lexington Green, Hamburg, Beaumont, Tates Creek Center, Lansdowne, Lansbrook and Palomar.

Aten helped with the realignment of Main and Vine streets downtown and the epic reconstruction of Paris Pike. He worked on the IBM campus, Commonwealth Stadium, Coldstream Research Park and the Lexington Legends’ baseball field.

He helped plan Lexington’s Jacobson and Phoenix parks, as well as several state parks, including the lodge complex at Lake Barkley.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” said Aten, 86. “I was in the right place at the right time. And, most of the time, I had clients who let me do what I thought was right.”

Aten grew up in Macomb, Ill., and didn’t know what a landscape architect was until a career counselor gave him an aptitude test and pointed him toward the profession and the University of Illinois.

“Fortunately, I was on the GI Bill or I couldn’t have done it,” he said.

His timing was perfect: one of his instructors was Hideo Sasaki, who would go on to become one of America’s most influential landscape architects and the longtime head of Harvard University’s landscape architecture program.

After graduation, Aten joined the Peoria, Ill., firm Scruggs & Hammond, which sent him to Lexington to work on a couple of projects. Kentucky had only a half-dozen landscape architects at the time, he said.

“That was good and bad,” Aten said. “People didn’t know what a landscape architect was. It wasn’t about putting bushes around a house.”

As Lexington began an era of rapid growth, the Scruggs & Hammond office Aten headed found plenty of work and grew to 30 employees. In addition to design work, Aten taught as a longtime adjunct at the University of Kentucky, wrote several local environmental ordinances and, after retirement in 2000, served eight years on the city planning commission.

All of that made me think Aten would be a good person to talk with about development in Lexington — the successes, the mistakes and lessons for the future.

Lexington has a better history of planning and managing growth than most places. That has included protecting rural land and fertile soils with the nation’s first Urban Services Boundary and the Purchase of Development Rights program.

“Very few places in the United States have gone through this process, where we give value to our environment,” he said.

But a lot of mistakes were made, too.

“The first thing you have to do is to find out what nature is doing and respond to nature’s systems,” Aten said. “When you start to conflict with those systems, you get into some expensive problems.”

Among Lexington’s mistakes: trying to bury or reroute streams, which contributed to flooding and water-quality problems. The best example of that was the decision a century ago to bury Town Branch Creek beneath downtown.

“Now we’re going back and rediscovering the quality of that drainage way there and making it an asset rather than something you turn your back on,” he said.

Aten has been impressed with the master planning processes being used for the Rupp District and Town Branch projects downtown, he said.

“I think it can work out real well,” he said. “I really appreciate the approach that the mayor is taking to these things.”

The key to good planning and design decisions, Aten said, is a process that includes sound research, a collaboration of talented professionals and public involvement.

Metro Lexington must find better ways to increase density, do more mixed-use development and limit sprawl, especially in low-tax counties surrounding Fayette where tax revenues never manage to pay for sprawl.

“We have to learn to live closer together in more quality ways,” Aten said. “But you fit the city to the land. You don’t alter the land to fit the other pattern.”


Winning Town Branch design is both best and most practical option

February 4, 2013

Conceptual sketch of a proposed park between the Kentucky Utilities and Phoenix buildings along Vine Street as part of the winning design for Town Branch Commons. Illustration: Scape/Landscape Architecture PLLC

 

All five finalists submitted imaginative plans for Town Branch Commons, but the entry from Scape/Landscape Architecture PLLC was the clear winner.

Scape’s plan is the most authentic to Lexington. It is the most practical and affordable. It disrupts current traffic patterns the least. And it highlights the role natural ecology can and should play in solving Lexington’s storm-water problems, not only downtown but throughout Fayette County.

Kate Orff, the New York firm’s lead partner and a rising star in the world of landscape architecture, is well-known for paying close attention to the natural ecology of places where she designs. She clearly did her homework on Lexington.

The inspiration for Scape’s plan goes deeper than Town Branch Creek. It showcases Central Kentucky’s karst geology, where water unexpectedly rises from and disappears beneath limestone formations just below the lush Bluegrass soil.

Rather than trying to rebuild a long-buried creek, Scape’s plan artfully creates water features that interpret the region’s natural springs, pools, sinks and boils at strategic points along the creek’s historic path. They would rise and fall with the seasons.

One thing that made her plan the most practical and affordable is that it can be done in phases, as money is available. Also, the city already owns almost all of the land it would need and should be able to acquire the rest of it.

Property for the two largest pieces of this linear park is now surface parking lots. So two of downtown’s ugliest and most under-utilized pieces of land would become beautiful magnets for people and surrounding private investment.

Unlike the other finalists, Scape’s plan calls for minimal change in current traffic patterns. The biggest proposed change would be replacing the Martin Luther King Boulevard viaduct between High and Main streets with a pedestrian walkway to a new park below. But, if necessary, the project could still go forward if the viaduct remained.

The plan also would eliminate the crook at the west end of Vine Street around Triangle Park, which city leaders have been trying to close for years. It also would rearrange some lanes and sidewalks on Vine Street to make space for a boulevard-style park in the center of the street between Limestone and Broadway, but without significantly reducing traffic capacity. Ideally, Vine Street would go from one-way to two-way traffic, but it wouldn’t have to.

The plan would create green space downtown that would act like rain gardens to manage and filter storm water using much of the existing underground infrastructure. That aspect of the plan is brilliant.

City officials should be looking throughout Fayette County for places where stream restoration, rain gardens and other natural techniques can be used to manage runoff and filter runoff from streets, parking lots and development. In many places, this approach could be more attractive and less costly than traditional engineering solutions.

In both result and process, this Town Branch Commons design competition has been remarkable. After getting proposals from 23 firms, Lexington chose five finalists and gave each a $15,000 honorarium to work on a detailed plan. That money was donated by the Nashville family of Lee Ann Ingram, an investor in Shorty’s Market on Short Street.

The result was that Lexington got the benefit of having five teams of the world’s best landscape architects and urban designers take a deep look at the city’s issues and propose detailed solutions — at no cost to taxpayers.

How could little Lexington attract such talent? One reason is the personal connections Michael Speaks, dean of the University of Kentucky’s College of Design, has in the global design community. Another is Mayor Jim Gray’s vision for a world-class downtown. And another is the successful Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force process, which engaged a world-class master planner (Norway-based Space Group) and is now following through on its recommendations.

Lexington has a lot of work to do before these grand plans can become reality. But, for the first time in a very long time, it at least has some truly grand plans.

Click on photos to see larger images. For more images and information, go to Townbranchcommons.com.