Back to the future: Town Branch could offer authentic amenity

September 29, 2012


Lexington should have some answers in a few months to old questions about Town Branch Creek. What lies beneath? Would it be practical to resurface some or all of it as a downtown amenity?

Lexington was founded along Town Branch in 1775. But like many urban streams around the world, the creek was abused, polluted and finally buried in culverts more than a century ago.

The Downtown Development Authority last week asked for proposals from firms interested in creating a master plan to use a resurfaced Town Branch Creek, or some representation of it, as a commons through downtown. The plan is due April 30, after which more engineering and financial analysis likely will be needed.

Town Branch Creek resurfaces west of Rupp Arena. Photo by Charles Bertram

Like many people, I used to be skeptical of the idea. But that was before I saw what San Antonio did with River Walk and read about what other cities are doing to reclaim once-buried urban waterways. Plus what New York City has done with the High Line, an abandoned elevated rail line that is now a hugely popular linear park.

In Yonkers, N.Y., a $48 million project is uncovering six blocks of the Saw Mill River, a tributary of the Hudson that was buried in the 1920s. Two blocks of the stream have been uncovered so far, creating a park-like area with benches, the New York Times reported last month.

The project has been a catalyst for several hundred million dollars of mixed-use development in New York’s fourth-largest city. Old industrial buildings are being converted into apartments, offices and commercial space.

The Saw Mill River is “no longer a resource people want to hide,” Ned Sullivan, president of the environmental group Scenic Hudson, told the Times. “Not only is it a catalyst for revitalization of the downtown, but now it will become the centerpiece of the city.”

Seoul, South Korea, offers an even more ambitious example. In 2005, that city finished a two-year, $348 million project to “daylight” more than three miles of a buried stream called Cheonggyecheon (pronounced Chung-gye-chun) and turn it into public recreation space.

The stream had been the heart of Seoul for 600 years before industrialization and population growth turned it into an open sewer. In the 1950s, it was buried by an elevated highway that has been removed.

Since the project’s completion, nearby property values have risen and an estimated 90,000 pedestrians visit the stream’s banks on an average day. Like San Antonio’s River Walk, it has become a major tourist attraction.

It is intriguing to imagine such an urban green space through downtown, especially one that would highlight the historic authenticity of Town Branch Creek, whose path literally determined the shape of early Lexington.

Town Branch flows underground from its source near the Jif peanut butter plant along Midland Avenue. It crosses Main Street and runs roughly along Vine Street to just past Rupp Arena, where it becomes an exposed stream. Much of the underground path is beneath public streets and rights of way and city-owned parking lots.

Jeff Fugate, president of the Downtown Development Authority, wants this master plan to be creative but realistic. Possibilities could range from resurfacing the creek or parts of it to some sort of symbolic interpretation of Town Branch’s historic path.

However Lexington hopes to use Town Branch as a magnet for people and development, it will require philanthropy in addition to public money. Not to mention an inspiring plan. “If you want to leverage philanthropy, you have to have a vision to show people,” Fugate said.

Like cities all across America, Lexington is seeing an urban renaissance, with more people wanting to live, work and entertain themselves downtown. Private development and commerce follow smart investments in civic infrastructure, such as the Fifth Third Pavilion at Cheapside and the recent renovation of Triangle Park.

Alltech on Monday will open what is sure to become a popular tourist destination near Rupp Arena. It is a bourbon distillery housed in a beautiful new building beside the Kentucky Ale brewery and a visitors center in a renovated old ice house.

Alltech founders Pearse and Deirdre Lyons know a good brand when they see one. I suspect it is no accident that their newest product is called Town Branch Bourbon.

CentrePointe approved: See final design drawings

March 28, 2012

Rendering of CentrePointe along Main Street, where four local architects designed pieces of the building to give it more variety and help it blend in with historic buildings across the street. Rendering by EOP Architects

After four years of public debate and continuous improvement to the design, Lexington’s Courthouse Area Design Review Board today approved developer Dudley Webb’s plan for the CentrePointe mixed-use development. Board approval was unanimous. Nobody from the public spoke against it.

That was because the design is dramatically better than what the Webb Companies unveiled in March 2008 for the block in the center of downtown Lexington bounded by Main, Upper, Vine and Limestone streets.

EOP Architects of Lexington completed the design, with local architects Graham Pohl, David Biagi and Richard Levine contributing signature designs to the Main Street facade to help the development blend in with historic buildings across Main Street.

Approval by the review board was needed because much of the CentrePointe project lies within the boundaries of the old Fayette County Courthouse historic overlay district.

EOP used the basic site plan developed by Studio Gang Architects of Chicago, but made the tower larger to accommodate a Marriott hotel and created a signature building at the corner of Vine and Limestone streets that Webb says will house a Jeff Ruby restaurant and an Urban Active gym.

EOP’s lead architect, Rick Ekhoff, and the other architects made small but significant improvements to their designs in response to feedback from the review board at an informal meeting Feb. 15. The public also got to have a say March 1 at a public meeting at ArtsPlace attended by more than 250 people.

Those improvements included:

  • Adding more windows and design elements to the Upper Street side of CentrePointe, where the service entrance will be.
  • Enlarging a gallery through the middle of the development connecting Main and Vine Streets. It will now be 25 feet wide and 45 feet tall, with a sky-lit roof and retail on each side, Ekhoff said. The gym and reception space outside the hotel ballroom will overlook the gallery, which Ekhoff said will be a good place to display public art.
  • Making improvements in the architects’ facade treatments along Main Street.

Ekhoff said the design took into account the possibility that streets surrounding CentrePointe would be changed from one-way to two-way. And he added that all of the design input from the review board and public had “enriched” the result.

By the end of what has been a long and contentious process, the only change the review board insisted on was removal of a pedway over Upper Street, which Webb agreed to do. With that, the vote was taken and review board chairman Mike Meuser said, “Good luck with this very important project.”

Now that the design has been approved, Webb said it can be used more effectively to market the project to potential lenders and tenants. “It could happen very quickly,” Webb said, adding that three lenders have expressed interest in financing CentrePointe.

The process worked, and the CentrePointe project and downtown Lexington will be much better off for everyone’s effort.

The design of CentrePointe along Upper Street was improved to avoid it looking like a service entrance. Also, the proposed pedway was withdrawn. Rendering by EOP Architects


Time for tough questions on CentrePointe

June 28, 2010

It has taken me three weeks to get around to writing about the proposed new design for the stalled CentrePointe project downtown.

What’s the pointe? The chances of either the old or new designs being built anytime soon are right up there with pigs flying.

The only reason a new design was made public June 9 is that developer Dudley Webb’s city permission to build expires July 8. He must go before the Courthouse Area Design Review Board on Wednesday at 2 p.m. in the Council Chambers to seek new permission.

Webb first appeared before the board two years ago. He asked to demolish an entire city block to build a 35-story tower with a 250-room four-star hotel, 91 million-dollar condos, 54,000 square feet of retail and office space, several restaurants and a “world-class spa.”

He said CentrePointe would create 1,000 construction jobs for two years and 1,000 permanent jobs thereafter. And he claimed it wasn’t practical to incorporate in the design any of the block’s 14 existing buildings, several of which were historically or architecturally significant.

Webb would never reveal where he was getting the money for this $250 million project, which seemed improbable even before the commercial real estate and lending markets collapsed. But the city board charged with protecting the center of Lexington’s historic character said, sure, go ahead.

The result of that demolition was not CentrePointe, but CentrePasture. So far, it has employed the people who built a plank fence around it and keep the grass mowed.

Truth is, Webb didn’t have the money then and doesn’t have it now, according to his new application. Unlike the go-go days before the real estate bubble burst, few investors are now interested in luxury hotel-condo projects.

Even in its new, scaled-back form, CentrePointe makes no economic sense. But that’s not really the concern of the Courthouse Area Design Review Board. Its job is to apply the overlay area’s design guidelines – something the rest of downtown needs, too – to ensure that new construction fits into Lexington’s urban landscape.

CentrePointe’s new design is less ugly than the old one, but hardly an inspiring piece of architecture. It is 10 stories shorter and has a flat roof with a giant flagpole instead of a “pointe” tower. The façade looks more appropriate to the surrounding area, although it is remains massive.

Webb’s architects made significant improvements to the way the lower “podium” portion of the tower fits in with the street and surrounding buildings. There is much more window glass and street-level retail, making it more pedestrian-friendly.

The board members, whose authority is limited to design issues, should like the changes. But given the damage they allowed to be done on little more than a developer’s broken promises, I hope they will ask some tough questions about the likelihood of this design ever being built.

Rob Morris, a thoughtful blogger on local issues, wrote a long article recently that raised excellent questions about CentrePointe’s financial assumptions.

Morris also questioned the wisdom of Kentucky investing nearly $50 million of future tax money on related “public” improvements – almost half of which would primarily benefit this private development. CentrePointe would have to be a long-term success to generate the tax revenues needed to pay off any debt taken on to fund those improvements. That is an issue I have raised before, and the Urban County Council should take another look at.

Whatever action city officials take, CentrePointe must still overcome a tougher hurdle: a more sober real estate lending market. That’s why I suspect it will be a long time before CentrePasture is anything more than Dudley Webb’s field of dreams.

Lexington Mall: Blight that’s full of potential

November 9, 2009

It’s astounding when you think about it: Lexington Mall has been dead or dying since before this year’s high school graduates were born.

It’s even more astounding when you realize that the 30-acre site could be one of the hottest pieces of real estate in Lexington if it were redeveloped by someone able to think outside the big box.

Built in the 1970s, when malls were all the rage and suburban sprawl was in full bloom, Lexington Mall began declining in the early 1990s. Tenants moved out, complaining that Maryland-based Saul Centers wasn’t maintaining the place.

The last lonely tenant moved out in 2005, when Dillard’s closed its store. Since then, Lexington Mall’s doors have been boarded up and fenced off and its vast blacktop parking lot has cracked and crumbled.

City officials have been wringing their hands over Lexington Mall for years. Developers have tried unsuccessfully to buy it. Every few years, Saul breaks its silence and says the mall will be redeveloped. Then nothing happens.

Lexington Mall is out of sight and out of mind for its absentee landlord. But it has been much on the minds of local developers and landscape architects. Here’s why: The mall sits on a huge piece of prime land inside New Circle Road, situated between the city’s Idle Hour Park and the reservoir.

“It’s one of the few sites in Lexington with a water view,” said Brian Lee, a University of Kentucky landscape architecture professor whose students have studied the site for academic exercises in urban redevelopment.

The property fronts both New Circle and Richmond roads, and it is just 3 miles from downtown by way of the city’s most beautiful, upscale thoroughfare. There are schools, a fire station and shopping nearby.

Developers I talked with agreed that the site shouldn’t be another mall or Hamburg-style big-box retail center.

With a zoning change, they said, the site would be ideal for a “new urban” mixed-use village of one- to five-story buildings with shops, offices, condos and apartments, all situated on traditional streets and buffered by green space. Businesses on the mall’s edge — Home Depot, Applebee’s and Perkins restaurant, and Central Bank — could easily be worked into a new design plan.

“It seems like the idea of a cluster of smaller retail shops around a common green and serving as a village center with perhaps loft residential or office might have some merit,” said Morgan McIlwain, a landscape architect with M2D Design Group. The group’s recent work includes the site plan for the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus on the Eastern State Hospital site.

“It goes nicely with this notion of infill,” McIlwain added. “We could get higher density and not sprawl so much.”

Tom Low, a principal in the Charlotte, N.C., firm DPZ Architects and Town Planners — the firm most famous for designing a similar development in Seaside, Fla. — sent me an interesting diagram of examples for converting a site similar to Lexington Mall into a village-style development.

One developer cited the example also of Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio. I’ve also seen such projects in Charlotte, N.C., and Williamsburg, Va. When the economy and lending environment improves, something like that could make sense.

First, though, executives at Saul Centers need to find a map and remember where Lexington is. Then they need to find a calendar and realize it’s 2009, not 1990.

Then, maybe, they will partner with or sell Lexington Mall to a developer with the vision to turn one of this city’s most prominent examples of urban decay into a vibrant piece of the urban landscape.

Examples of how an old mall can be redeveloped into a mixed-use project with multiple buildings, streets and green space. Image: DPZ

Esplanade: Opening up a street without closing it

November 4, 2009

Maybe creating a vibrant downtown isn’t so much about grand plans as small spaces.

One small space with potential is the block of North Mill Street between West Main and Short streets. It retains most of its old buildings, which now house places to eat, drink and work. Developer Nick Ebbitt is converting the upstairs of several buildings into loft condos.

The block is in the middle of downtown’s emerging action: Galleries, restaurants and bars have sprouted along Short and in Victorian Square; Dudley’s is moving there; Cheapside is alive with the farmers market and other events that will only increase in popularity when a market house is built.

But plans for Mill Street are controversial because developers want to close the street to traffic and eliminate a handful of parking spaces.

I don’t see a big problem with that, but several people, whose opinions on these matters I respect, do. They think it’s important to keep that block as a regular street, at least during the day. Pedestrian malls have been successful in some cities, including Charlottesville, Va., but they have failed in others.

The key seems to be striking a balance between cars and people to create flexible, inviting spaces where people want to spend time and businesses can succeed.

A grass-roots plan by property owners along Esplanade between East Main and Short streets has the potential to do just that. It seems like a good, reasonably priced idea that could be adapted for Mill Street and other places in Lexington, too.

The plan is the work of Gene Williams and Art Shechet, two of the partners in Natasha’s restaurant. Natasha’s developed a loyal following with its high-quality ethnic food, and the business has expanded by adding a music stage with nightly performances by local bands, emerging artists and occasional big-name acts.

Esplanade, which is fortunate to have wide sidewalks, will host a street fair during next fall’s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. And that got the partners to thinking about the possibilities of a more flexibly designed Esplanade that could take advantage of an adjacent, little-used park on the Chase Bank tower property.

They figure the project could be done for less than $500,000 without closing Esplanade — and adding daytime parking spaces to the west side of the street, where there are none now. They also would plant shade trees that would be lighted at night.

In the evenings, resurfaced parking spaces in front of Natasha’s and the Lexington Club could be converted into outdoor dining areas. With some remodeling to open up the Chase park, there could be room for a temporary stage and booths during community events and festivals.

The result would be a small, flexible public square similar to those that help make European cities fun places to spend time.

Architect Farzin Sadr, who owns Natasha’s building and has his offices upstairs, drew up some initial plans. Natasha’s partners have enlisted support from other nearby property owners, including Chase tower and Central Christian Church.

Williams and Shechet unveiled their plan at an Aug. 18 breakfast for Mayor Jim Newberry and Urban County Council members. They soon will ask that the project be added to the city’s downtown streetscape work — ideally before the Equestrian Games.

“We’re latecomers to the table, but we think this plan makes sense and would be a lot of bang for the buck,” Williams said.

“We also think it would move the center of gravity back a bit to the east end,” he said. “We want an anchor here that is social and speaks to an older crowd and more family groups.”

Natasha’s partners think this could be an easy, highly visible downtown success story that would have relatively little cost or controversy. I suspect they’re right.

Wise thoughts on Lexington growth, development

October 26, 2009

In case you missed them, the Herald-Leader carried two excellent op-ed columns Sunday and Monday from two of Lexington’s most knowledgeable and passionate advocates for smart growth and preservation of what’s special in the Bluegrass.

Here’s the Sunday piece by Knox van Nagell, executive director of The Fayette Alliance.

Here’s the Monday piece by Hayward Wilkirson, who was a founding board member of Preserve Lexington, which last year opposed destruction of a historic block that’s now a downtown meadow.

Bluegrass destroys growth, but not forever

October 2, 2009

I returned to Lexington this week after a long vacation to find that CentrePit had been transformed into a grassy meadow, and workers were installing a classic horse-farm fence around the perimeter.

The past half-century of Lexington’s growth has been defined by grassy meadows and horse-farm fences giving way to homes, office buildings and shopping centers.

Dudley Webb may go down in history as the only Lexington developer to do just the opposite. And he did it in the center of town, on a block that has been developed urban space since the 1700s.

Seriously, though, I have to give Webb credit. I’ve always thought his CentrePointe development was poorly conceived and not in the community’s best interests. The fact that he can’t seem to find financing for the $250 million project speaks to some of its issues.

But in this instance, Webb is doing the right thing: Making his demolition site look attractive until he and landowner Joe Rosenberg decide the block’s ultimate fate.

Other local developers of stalled projects, such as at the corner of Richmond Road and Man O’ War Boulevard, and abandoned eyesores, such as Lexington Mall, should follow his lead.

Thank you, Dudley Webb.

Photo by David Perry

Fencing is installed around the CentrePointe block. Photo by David Perry

Downtown success is a two-way street

February 28, 2009

What went wrong with American downtowns during the last half of the 20th century?

A lot, actually. But one big thing was that they were redesigned to work better for cars than for people. It’s no wonder people abandoned them.

Lexington escaped the worst of it. Unlike many cities, Lexington didn’t have an expressway routed through the middle of it. Interstate highways made America’s small towns and rural areas more accessible, but they devastated many cities — cutting up neighborhoods and making downtowns less walkable, welcoming and safe.

Downtown Lexington’s legacy from 20th century traffic engineering efficiency is its one-way street pairs — primarily the east-west corridors of Short and Second, High and Maxwell, Main and Vine and the north-south corridor of Limestone and Upper.

It was all done in the early 1970s with the best of intentions: Make it easier for shoppers to get to and from downtown so the stores won’t move to the suburbs.

It didn’t work. Worse yet, those one-way streets have hampered public and private efforts to reinvent and revitalize downtown Lexington ever since.

Here’s the problem: Cars go faster on one-way streets, especially when lanes are wide. That makes traffic more dangerous, especially for pedestrians, and more noisy. One-way streets hurt business and confuse tourists.

Fortunately, after years of struggle, efforts to revive downtown Lexington are taking hold, thanks to some good planning and more than $300 million in private investment. Mayor Jim Newberry unveiled a new “streetscape” plan Thursday that could make downtown even better.

The plan, developed by Covington-based KKG Studios, would make downtown a more people-friendly place to live, work and play. It would add bicycle lanes and 170 additional street parking spaces during non-peak hours. Wider sidewalks would allow for easier walking and more outdoor dining.

A water feature would be built along Vine Street, following the path of Town Branch Creek, which was buried beneath the street generations ago. A European-style glass pavilion would be built on Cheapside, Lexington’s historic marketplace, as a home for the Lexington Farmers Market and community events.

It’s a terrific plan that could help downtown achieve its potential for contributing to Lexington’s economy and quality of life. It also assumes the conversion of most, if not all, of the one-way streets back to two-way traffic. That follows the recommendation of Lexington’s 2006 downtown master plan.

Plans call for Short and Second streets to return to two-way traffic within 12 months, said Harold Tate, president of the Downtown Development Authority. Limestone and Upper Streets would be made two-way within two or three years. But Tate said further studies are needed before setting a timetable for returning two-way traffic to High, Maxwell, Main and Vine streets.

At Thursday’s news conference, Newberry was pessimistic about returning two-way traffic to downtown’s biggest drag strips — Main and Vine streets. “It’s very complicated,” he said, citing likely pushback from state traffic engineers and others. Newberry said he didn’t expect to see it happen “in my lifetime.”

That makes no sense.

After all, Main Street is two-way in each direction until it reaches downtown. That means traffic speeds up just when it should be slowing down.

“We’ve had a failed 40-year experiment with one-way streets downtown,” said Phil Holoubek, a downtown developer whose projects include Main & Rose and the Nunn Building Lofts.

Once other one-way streets are converted and the Newtown Pike extension is completed in 2014 to route through-traffic around downtown, there’s no reason not to return Main and Vine to two-way, he said.

Van Meter Pettit, a downtown resident who is developing the Town Branch Trail, agrees. “Otherwise, we’re saying that commuter traffic is a higher priority than urban redevelopment, when our master planning is telling us just the opposite,” he said.

Successful cities across America are converting their one-way streets back to two-way and looking for other ways to make their downtowns work better for people than cars. In perhaps the boldest move yet, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans Friday to convert Times Square into a pedestrian mall by May.

Lexington’s city officials and their consultants have invested a lot of time, effort and money in solid plans for revitalizing downtown. They shouldn’t let nay-saying by state traffic engineers or others jeopardize those efforts.

If downtown Lexington is to achieve its potential, it must become a place people want to drive to — not drive through.

New campus could transform more than BCTC

February 10, 2009

Here’s a question: What development over the next year or two will have the biggest impact on Lexington’s future?

The 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games? The Newtown Pike corridor? Redevelopment around the University of Kentucky campus? Whatever does — or doesn’t — rise out of the CentrePointe crater?

Any of those projects would be a good guess. But a decade or two from now, I think they will pale in comparison to the redevelopment of the Eastern State Hospital property into a new campus for Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

In a brilliant land swap announced a year ago, BCTC will move to the 65-acre Eastern State property north of downtown. Eastern State will get a badly needed new hospital on UK’s Coldstream property, and UK will get BCTC’s current Cooper Drive campus for future expansion.

Why is a new BCTC campus such a big deal? Two reasons. The first is what it will do for the college, and what it will allow the college to do for Kentucky.

“It’s almost unheard of today for a community and technical college to have the opportunity to build a brand new urban campus,” said BCTC President Augusta Julian.

The college is making long-range plans to determine how its program offerings should change to support the 21st-century economy. Julian thinks it is possible that the college, which has 12,000 students at several campuses, could double enrollment within 10 years.

BCTC has 800 nursing students, so health-related fields are a natural growth area. Julian expects a large need for lab technicians. Other opportunities could include training people for Kentucky’s hospitality and tourism industries, and teaching BCTC trade school graduates the business skills they need to start their own companies. Julian thinks the need for retraining older workers of all kinds will be huge.

The second reason this is such a big deal is what redevelopment of those 65 acres of prime real estate could do for Lexington — if it is done right.

How could it be done wrong? Easy: Throw up a poorly planned, automobile-centric campus of nondescript, suburban-style buildings and lots of surface parking. In other words, build the higher education equivalent of Hamburg Pavilion. And then give little thought to how it affects the surrounding neighborhoods or the city as a whole.

Or, officials could take this unique opportunity to use good design, architecture and urban planning to create a world-class campus that will spark quality redevelopment throughout Lexington’s north side.

The initial signs are encouraging. BCTC has assembled a talented team of architects and planners who combine deep local knowledge with international vision and experience.

EOP Architects is overseeing the campus master plan along with M2D Design Group, a landscape architecture firm. Ross-Tarrant Architects is designing the first major building, for which $22 million was set aside long ago. The three Lexington-based firms are working with Perkins + Will, an international company based in Minneapolis that has extensive campus-planning experience.

In an especially smart move, Urban Collage, an acclaimed urban design firm, has been hired to look at how the campus can be used to create good mixed-use redevelopment around it — housing, shopping and restaurants.

“It will be a tremendous economic anchor,” said Stan Harvey, a partner in Atlanta-based Urban Collage who lives in Lexington. “We just need to work through all the puzzle pieces.”

Construction of the new campus could take two decades, Julian said. Even when it is finished, BCTC will probably still have several locations in Lexington, in addition to its satellite campuses in surrounding towns.

The planning schedule is aggressive: Officials hope to finish a campus master plan late this year. Within a few months, there will be opportunities for surrounding neighborhoods and citizens to review and comment on those plans, Julian promised.

“We have to fit into the neighborhood,” she said. “We really want to do it right in terms of being visible, transparent, getting a lot of people involved.”

Julian said her vision is for an urban-style campus of multi-story buildings. The campus’ style and look could depend on whether consultants think any of Eastern State’s old buildings are worth reusing. The Kentucky Heritage Commission The Kentucky Archaeological Survey — a partnership between the Kentucky Heritage Council and the UK Department of Anthropology — is looking at that, along with investigating burial sites known to be on the property, which has been a mental hospital since 1816.

Julian is especially interested in looking at mass transit possibilities. That’s because BCTC students will still need to go back and forth between there and the UK campus, and because she doesn’t want to have thousands of cars passing through the surrounding area each day. The Newtown Pike extension could offer some creative opportunities for that kind of mass transit.

This project has the potential to transform Lexington. The first steps look promising, but the devil is always in the details. It should be everyone’s responsibility to make sure it’s done right.

Could Lexington learn something from Columbus?

February 1, 2009

Lexington, like most American cities, created a complex system of zoning regulations a generation or two ago to make its bustling downtown more neat and orderly.

In recent years, like most American cities, Lexington has been trying to figure out how to make its dull and dying downtown bustle again.

That’s because people are attracted to vibrant downtowns — especially the young, creative people who are the engines of the 21st-century economy.

The issues are complex, but one thing many planners, developers and citizens have come to agree upon is that those strict rules — and the bureaucratic systems and adversarial cultures that have grown up around them — can be a big part of the problem.

It’s a Catch 22: The rules, regulations and government processes designed to improve a city as it grows can sometimes have the opposite effect. That’s because developers and regulators sometimes don’t have enough flexibility to use common sense or foster excellence.

“There’s certainly a feeling that we can do better,” said Chris King, Lexington’s chief planner.

Lexington simplified downtown zoning three decades ago, and that has helped. The city’s Infill and Redevelopment Task Force and several public and private organizations continue to study the issues, look at what other cities are doing and recommend changes.

Last week, the Downtown Lexington Corp. hosted a delegation from Columbus, Ohio, whose members talked about what happened when that city tore up the downtown rule book and took a different approach. The result, they said, has been a more vibrant, attractive downtown with more than $1 billion in new private investment and a steady increase in residents.

It all began in 1996, when Columbus formed a 22-member committee to study downtown development issues. The group, which represented the various stakeholders and interest groups, wrote an ordinance that scrapped many of the city center’s old zoning rules.

The ordinance set out a vision for downtown as “every one’s neighborhood” — a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly place where people would want to live, work and play. And it created the Downtown Commission, a nine-member board appointed by the mayor with enormous power and flexibility.

By law, the commission must be made up of people who live or work downtown and include a variety of interests — a developer or Realtor, an architect, a landscape architect or urban planner, a historic-preservation professional and a land-use lawyer.

The commission was charged with finding ways to make new development work — and to make it well-designed and compatible with its surroundings. “It’s totally subjective,” said Harrison Smith, an 80-something real estate lawyer who has headed the commission since its creation.

Developers like the system because they can go one place for approval — rather than a host of city agencies with narrow interests — and get decisions quickly. Rather than rejecting developers’ plans, the commission and its staff work with them to improve plans and make them acceptable. It shifts the conversation from, “You can’t do this, because … ” to, “You can do this, if … ”

Commission meetings are open to the public, and anyone can speak — no time limits. Decisions can be appealed to the City Council. But in more than 10 years, only two developers’ applications have been rejected and none has been appealed, Smith said.

“We do in 60 days what it would typically take a year to do,” said Kenneth Cookson, a Columbus attorney and downtown activist. “And, boy, have we spawned competition in the design community. They have had to take it up a notch or two.”

Want to tear down an old building to make a parking lot? It won’t be approved. Want to do a big, creative sign on your building that some people might consider public art? It will be approved — if the commission thinks it makes downtown look better and not worse.

“The key — and it’s a risk — are the people (on the commission),” Smith said. “It doesn’t work unless you get pros.”

King, the Lexington planner, was intrigued by Columbus’ approach and thought some elements of it might work in Lexington. “It would take a lot of vetting,” he said.

Vice Mayor Jim Gray was impressed and said he might appoint a task force to “examine it and see what makes sense here.” But he echoed Smith’s caution that such a powerful, flexible commission is only as good as its members and their mandate.

“They seem to have created a framework that encourages good, sympathetic and compatible development, and it’s market-driven,” Gray said. “It’s good for the developers and good for the city.”