Second Sunday event previews design for Legacy Trail completion

October 7, 2014

2ndSunday 2014 Handout-R1This rendering shows the proposed design for completing the Legacy Trail along Fourth Street between Jefferson and Shropshire streets. One-street parking would be eliminated to create a 10-foot, two-way bicycle land and 10-12 foot lanes for cars and trucks. People can test the concept 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday during the annual Second Sunday event. Photo Provided

 

This year’s Second Sunday event will offer a preview of what planners propose as the design for finishing Lexington’s popular Legacy Trail: a two-way path along Fourth Street separated from automobile traffic.

The free public event is 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, beginning at the corner of West Sixth and Jefferson Streets, at the Bread Box building and Coolivan Park. Festivities will include kids’ activities, but the main event will be bike riding, running, walking and skating on a coned-off lane of the south side of Fourth Street for 1.6 miles between there and the Isaac Murphy Art Garden under construction at East Third Street and Midland Avenue.

Eight miles of the Legacy Trail between the Northside YMCA and the Kentucky Horse Park were finished in 2010. But bringing the trail into town has been more complicated. The city secured $2.4 million in federal transportation funds to finish the trail, but it has taken time to work out all the details of bringing it into town.

Keith Lovan, a city engineer who oversees trail projects, said the cheapest and safest way to extend the trail across the Northside is what is known as a two-way cycle track on the street, separated from car and truck traffic by flexible posts.

To make room for the 10-foot-wide cycle track, on-street parking would be eliminated. Each car lane would still be 12 to 14 feet wide.

Sunday’s ride will extend to Shropshire Street, but Lovan said Elm Tree Lane and Race Streets also are being considered as ways to connect the Legacy Trail along Fourth Street to the art garden trailhead.

A citizens advisory committee of about 30 people has been mulling this design and other Legacy Trail issues. Detailed work will be done this winter and construction is to begin in the spring.

Lovan expects some controversy, because some on-street parking will be lost and because adding the trail will make street entry and exit from some driveways a little more complicated for drivers.

“I expect we’ll start hearing some of that Sunday,” Loven said of the Second Sunday event, when the trail will be marked off with orange cones. “We intend for this to reflect what the cycle track will look like.”

The hardest part of finishing the Legacy Trail, he said, “Will be getting the support to do this. We’ve had a lot of stakeholder meetings already.” Public meetings will be scheduled later this fall, and planners are going door-to-door talking with residents and businesses on affected streets, Lovan said.

The only other Lexington trail that uses this design is the short section of the Legacy Trail on the bridge over New Circle Road. In addition to cost-savings and improved safety, Lovan said, the two-way cycle track design has been shown in other cities to increase bicycle usage.

“These have been introduced across the country with great success,” said Loven, who oversaw design and construction of the rest of the Legacy Trail. “It provides the user a little more security. You don’t feel like you’re riding in traffic. But it’s more of a visual barrier than a protective barrier.”

I have ridden on cycle track in several American and European cities, and it feels safer for both cyclists and automobile drivers, because they are separated from each other.

When this is finished, there will be only one section of the original Legacy Trail left to do: a short connection between Jefferson Street and the YMCA. Lovan said the city has acquired an old rail line for part of that and is negotiating with the Hope Center to complete the connection. He expects that to be done next year.

The Legacy Trail demonstration marks the seventh year Lexington has participated in Second Sunday, a statewide effort to use existing built infrastructure to promote exercise and physical activity. In most communities, that has meant closing a street for a few hours so people can bike, walk, run or skate there.

The University of Kentucky’s Cooperative Extension Service started Second Sunday and has coordinated activities. The service plans to do several Second Sunday events next year, depending on grant funding, said spokeswoman Diana Doggett.

“We have a community that is willing and interested,” she said. “We just have to nudge that along.”


Knoxville had a plan for revitalizing its historic downtown

July 7, 2014

knox1Knoxville’s Market Square, which dates to the 1850s, has been restored as a restaurant and entertainment district with plenty of nearby parking. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

I hadn’t spent any time in Knoxville, Tenn., since 1988, when I moved away after living there for seven years. I went back recently, and I was impressed with downtown’s transformation.

Knoxville was never a place I associated with good urban design. Planning and zoning always seemed haphazard, at best. Suburbia sprawled out for decades, mostly westward along traffic-choked Kingston Pike.

Like Lexington, two major Interstate highways converge in Knoxville. But instead of going around the city, as was thankfully done in Lexington, I-40 and I-75 went through the middle of Knoxville.

The infamous “Malfunction Junction” was improved while I was living there in the early 1980s, but it still left Knoxville cut up by expressways, on-ramps, off-ramps, bridges and a maze of one-way streets. It was a confusing place to drive, and a difficult place to walk or bike.

Many of those problems remain, but downtown is a different story.

knox2Long a conservative city with divisive politics, Knoxville leaders finally came together to organize the 1982 World’s Fair, which rehabilitated a former downtown railroad yard. That began a transformation that has made Knoxville’s city center the kind of happening place downtown Lexington aspires to be.

I spent a week in Knoxville recently, biking with friends in the nearby Great Smoky Mountains and dining each night at restaurants along Market Square and Gay Street, the main downtown thoroughfare.

When I worked in downtown Knoxville as The Associated Press correspondent, some of its old buildings were vacant and many were in need of repair. When office workers went home each evening, the city center became a ghost town.

“You and I can remember when tumbleweed blew down the streets in the evenings,” joked Alan Carmichael, an old friend who owns a downtown public relations firm, Moxley Carmichael, with his wife, Cynthia Moxley. “Now people pour in from the ‘burbs” for restaurants, bars, outdoor concerts and frequent festivals.

One big factor in downtown Knoxville’s revitalization has been historic preservation and adaptive reuse of old buildings, such as the old JFG Coffee plant and Sterchi furniture company, which are now loft apartments.

It began with the World’s Fair, which restored the old L&N Railroad depot. But the big efforts came in the past decade with restoration of the Tennessee and Bijou theaters on Gay Street and the shops along Market Square, which date to the 1850s.

“We have very few old buildings downtown that haven’t been restored,” said Rick Emmett, the city’s downtown coordinator. “Now we’re spreading that to some of the historic commercial areas beyond downtown.”

Downtown’s restored charm and activity has attracted the chain retailers Mast General Store and Urban Outfitters. Regal Riviera, a new eight-screen movie theater complex, was tastefully integrated into Gay Street.

What made most of that possible was city government’s investment in infrastructure, combined with creative city partnerships with business to finance development.

Perhaps the biggest city investment has been in parking garages a block or two from major pedestrian areas. Parking is free on weekends and after 6 p.m. on weeknights.

The city owns and operates six of 12 major downtown garages. Another garage is under construction. The city donated the land and private interests are building the garage. As part of the deal, evening and weekend parking will be free to the public in perpetuity, Emmett said.

Knoxville’s downtown parking is marketed well, with maps, a smartphone app and a website, Parkdowntownknoxville.com.

“Knoxville has a compact, walkable downtown, but most people have to drive to get there,” Carmichael said. The garages have “made a huge difference in terms of bringing people downtown.”

Another key has been the Central Business Improvement District, funded by an extra tax on downtown property owners. It was controversial when created in 1993 — just as attempts to create one in Lexington have been controversial — but it has been a big success, said Carmichael and Emmett, who both serve on the board.

The tax generates more than $500,000 a year for infrastructure, beautification and grants and loans to help downtown businesses restore historic building façades. Some money also is used to sponsor frequent festivals and events that bring people downtown.

“What that has allowed us to do is fill in the gaps,” Emmett said of the improvement district. “I think it has been huge.”

knox3City-owned parking garages on side streets near popular pedestrian areas has made it easy for visitors and suburbanites to come downtown to dine and shop. 

 


CentrePointe evolution shows benefits of design conversation

May 19, 2014

CentrePointeNowDeveloper’s rendering of the current design for CentrePointe, as seen from corner of Vine and Limestone Streets. Below, the original design rendering unveiled in March 2008.

 

As CentrePointe developer Dudley Webb continues blasting and digging the biggest hole in Lexington history, he has unveiled yet another new design for what he plans to build on top of it.

The city’s Court House Area Design Review Board last week approved what was, by my count, the seventh major CentrePointe redesign in six years. The consensus of the board’s two architects and other design professionals I spoke with is that this design, while still lacking in some respects, is far better than the version it replaced.

centrepointe1Unlike the monolithic tower Webb initially proposed, CentrePointe has evolved into a complex of buildings that fits into downtown without overwhelming it. The new design accomplishes the developer’s goals while respecting the city’s existing fabric and enhancing pedestrian activity.

CentrePointe will be a great addition to downtown — if Webb can get it built.

There are a couple of reasons why CentrePointe’s design has continued evolving. One is that the mix of tenants and uses has changed several times as Webb struggled to put together an ambitious, $394 million project in a difficult economic climate.

As currently proposed, CentrePointe would contain a 10-12 story office building, a 205-room Marriott hotel, a 110-unit Marriott extended-stay hotel, 90 apartments, several luxury condos, a Jeff Ruby Steakhouse, a Starbuck’s coffee shop and several retail stores at street level.

Another reason for CentrePointe’s evolution is that Lexingtonians and their elected and appointed leaders have become more sophisticated about the role design plays in downtown revitalization and economic development. Copying ostentatious towers in Atlanta or Austin is no longer good enough.

Like beauty, good architecture is often in the eye of the beholder. But there are generally accepted principles for good and bad architecture and urban design. That is why the review board process has been valuable in improving CentrePointe, and why city officials should keep pushing for “design excellence” guidelines for future downtown construction.

 

 

 


Creating a city where people want to move, natives want to stay

March 29, 2014

In a 21st-century economy where jobs often follow people instead of the other way around, what assets help a city prosper?

That question has led researchers, civic and business leaders to focus on things previously considered nice but not essential: arts, culture and a sense of place that make people feel engaged and invested in their community.

Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, a dance choreographer-turned-urban planning researcher, has studied one variation on this phenomenon called “creative placemaking.”

She was here Thursday to speak at the annual Lafayette Seminar in Public Issues put on by the University of Kentucky’s Gaines Center for the Humanities. It was co-sponsored by LexArts, the McBrayer law firm, the North Limestone Community Development Corp. and Commerce Lexington.

Nicodemus has researched the economic and social vibrancy created when various community sectors — government, business, non-profit organizations and citizens groups — come together to use arts and culture to strategically shape the physical and social character of a city.

That kind of development has been happening organically in many parts of Lexington in recent years. “Lexington has become a place that people are excited about,” said Steve Kay, an Urban County council member. “This conversation couldn’t have happened five years ago.”

Three recent examples were discussed at the seminar. The first is Walker Properties’ redevelopment of National Avenue, a former light industrial street east of downtown, into a mixed-use retail, restaurant and arts district.

The second was Jefferson Street, which has blossomed into a restaurant district thanks to early investments by Wine + Market, Stella’s Deli and West Sixth Brewery. The brewery’s four partners played a big role in that, because they chose to buy a 90,000-square-foot former bread factory, now called the Bread Box. One of their challenges was figuring out what to do with all of that space.

Rather than just try to rent to other commercial tenants, Ben Self said, they wanted to foster a community of people, businesses and organizations that shared their values and vision for creating a vibrant community. He added that city regulators helped the partners cut through red tape to make it all work.

In addition to the brewery and tap room, the Bread Box now houses a non-profit bike shop, a coffee roaster, artist studios, a restaurant and an urban agriculture non-profit that grows fish and greens for the restaurant. “It just felt like the right way to do it,” Self said. “It’s a development that has a heart to it.”

Later this year, the Bread Box also will house an expanded Plantory, which has co-working space for non-profit organizations. The Plantory has outgrown its space in the Community Ventures Corp. building at East Third Street and Midland Avenue.

A third example in Lexington is the North Limestone neighborhood, where young entrepreneurs have been restoring century-old homes and commercial buildings and starting new businesses.

The North Limestone Community Development Corp. recently won a $425,000 grant from Artplace, a consortium of private foundations, banks and federal agencies that is investing in creative placemaking efforts around the country.

The money will be used to begin renovation of a former factory and 40 old shotgun houses to create studios and homes for artists and craftsmen. The idea is to turn a neighborhood liability — old buildings needing rehabilitation and occupants— into a cultural and economic asset.

An important key to creative placemaking is that, in addition to economic activity, it creates a sense of place that people find attractive. It makes a city a place where natives want to stay or return, and others want to move to.

“What we’re seeing now is a tying together of the economic and the sentimental,” said Jeff Fugate, president of the Downtown Development Authority. “That’s what’s exciting.”

For creative placemaking to reach its full potential, civic and business leaders must make sure public policy supports it and strategic thinking helps small initiatives add up to something bigger.

“It’s about bringing disparate groups together to make something special happen,” LexArts President Jim Clark said. “There is no cookie-cutter way to make a creative place. But you recognize it when you see it.”


Lexington’s Fayette Cigar Store a downtown retail survivor

February 10, 2014

140206FayetteCigar0060

Fayette Cigar Store has been at 137 E. Main St. since Dale Ferguson bought the building in 1977. He resisted attempts by the city to buy the building when it purchased other property on the block, which now includes the Fayette County Court Houses, left, and the Downtown Arts Center, right. Below, Ferguson and a daughter, Dee Bright. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

With all of the talk about the need to attract retailers back to downtown Lexington, I thought it would be good to talk with one who never left.

Dale Ferguson, 75, and his family have been selling newspapers, magazines, tobacco products and sundries downtown since 1928.

That was the year his father, H.C. Ferguson, opened a newsstand on Mill Street. Soon after World War II started, he bought Fayette Cigar Store at 151 West Main Street “when the owner got drafted,” Ferguson said.

When that building was scheduled for a renovation that would have forced him to close for several months, Dale Ferguson bought a bigger building at 137 East Main in 1977 and moved the business. Fayette Cigar Store has been there ever since, despite the best efforts of developers and city officials to buy his property.

Surrounding buildings were bought in the 1980s for a proposed World Trade Center and cultural complex. Eventually, the new Fayette County Court House complex was built on his west side and the Downtown Arts Center on his east side.

At one point, Ferguson said, he agreed to city requests to swap his building for a similar one in the next block, but financial terms couldn’t be reached with its owner. So Ferguson stayed put, through thick and thin, trying to make a living on his 32-foot-long slice of Main Street.

140206FayetteCigar0023Ferguson’s three-story building dates from 1864, with central and rear sections added in the early 1900s. Before he bought the building, bookies operated in the upper floors, which was connected to an adjacent building by a hole in the wall. Now, the upper floors are accessed by an antique elevator.

Modern fire codes would keep Ferguson from using the upper floors for anything but storage and an office unless he could figure out a way to build a staircase.

“That stops a lot of downtown development,” he said, “A lot of these old buildings don’t have fire escapes.”

Ferguson said making Main Street one-way in 1971 hurt business, as did eliminating more and more street parking over the years.

“It was a mistake to do it,” he said of the one-way conversion, but added that he isn’t convinced making Main Street two-way again would do much good. “It’s too late.”

A bigger improvement, he said, would be adding more street parking, preferably angled or perpendicular spaces that would be easier for people to use and accommodate more cars.

During the last streetscape renovation in 2010, Ferguson lost a loading zone in front of his store, which hurt business.

“People would pull up, run in and buy a $200 box of cigars, and be gone in a few minutes,” he said. “They can’t do that anymore.”

But the biggest obstacle Ferguson sees to getting more retailers back in downtown Lexington is high per-square-foot rents.

“If I didn’t own my building, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I blame a lot of it on the Webbs, who overpaid for property and then had to get a return on their investment.” But the biggest problem, Ferguson said, is that too few people work downtown — he suspects less than a fifth as many as did two or three decades ago. The addition of downtown condos over the past decade hasn’t made much difference, he said. But he thinks more big apartment complexes like Park Plaza would help.

Ferguson now runs Fayette Cigar Store seven days a week with help from one of his four daughters, Dee Bright. Thanks to a resurgence in cigar smoking, customers come to the store for its extensive selection of high-end smokes, which are kept in a former bank vault in back. Pipe smoking also is on the rebound as cigarettes decline.

Cigars and fine pipe tobacco are the store’s biggest profit centers. But Ferguson says he doesn’t know what the future holds, noting that all of his main wares — tobacco, magazines, newspapers and greeting cards — have been in decline for years.

Ferguson has tried to fight back by adding niche products such as basic drugstore items and local honey. Still, business is tough.

“I have a pretty loyal customer base,” he said. “Thank God for that.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


Author’s talks will focus on making cities more walkable

January 13, 2014

Urban planners, who in the decades after World War II helped redesign America’s cities and towns around the automobile, have been trying to warn people ever since then that they really screwed up.

Finally, most people are beginning to agree, says Jeff Speck, a veteran city planner and author of the 2012 book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time.

Health professionals cite car culture as a big reason an epidemic in obesity and related physical problems. Economists note that suburban sprawl has become costly to taxpayers because all of the new infrastructure rarely pays for itself. Plus, a lack of public transportation in many areas has put costly burdens of car ownership and maintenance on the working poor.

bookcoverThe environmental movement has had an anti-urban bent since the days of Thomas Jefferson and Henry David Thoreau. But that has changed dramatically.

“And all of a sudden environmentalists discovered that if you live in a city your footprint is much lighter than if you live in sprawl,” Speck said. “In fact, cities are a solution to our environmental crises, both locally and globally.”

Most of all, Speck says, average citizens, from young adults to their empty-nester parents, have embraced cities again. Across the country, home values in walkable, urban neighborhoods are rising much faster than those in the kinds of car-dependent suburbs that have dominated American development since the 1950s.

“Walkable cities actually save us money, make us money and are poised to thrive in the next couple of decades while unwalkable places aren’t,” Speck said in a telephone interview last week from his home in Washington, D.C.

Speck will be talking about these trends — and giving advice to community leaders about how to make their towns more walkable — at a lecture and workshop this week in Frankfort.

Speck will give a lecture at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Grand Theatre on St. Clair Mall, with a book signing to follow. Tickets are $10. On Friday, he will lead a two-hour workshop, beginning at 9 a.m., at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Auditorium, 200 Mero St. Admission is $25.

His visit is part of a conference sponsored by the Kentucky Heritage Council in conjunction with the annual winter meeting of the Kentucky Main Street Program, which works to improve life in the historic centers of the state’s towns and cities. Conference registration, including both of Speck’s sessions, is $100. More information: Heritage.ky.gov.

Most people don’t need convincing about the importance of walkability, he said, but they do need help with strategies for making it happen.

speckSpeck’s book notes that many communities made walking more difficult because they were being designed for other considerations. For example, many streets and intersections are oversized to accommodate the largest-possible emergency vehicles. Fewer but bigger schools and parks have been built because they are easier for officials to maintain and show off than the alternative, which often would be easier for citizens to get to and use.

“The twin gods of smooth traffic and ample parking” took the life out of many once-thriving downtowns, Speck writes, turning them into places that are “easy to get to but not worth arriving at.”

Speck writes that there are four criteria for successful pedestrian areas: walking must be safe, comfortable, interesting and useful. By useful, he means that necessities of daily life — shopping, restaurants and workplaces — must be close and arranged so they can be easily accessed by walking.

Speck’s book outlines 10 steps for city walkability. Those include mixed-use neighborhoods, good mass transit, well-designed and affordable parking facilities, ample trees and bicycle-friendly streets.

The biggest challenge many American cities and towns will face in coming years will be retrofitting mid- and late-20th century suburbs to make them more accessible for aging Baby Boomers and the working poor.

“We’ve laid the groundwork for a major social crisis,” he said.

The best hope is often restoring traditional downtowns and making new developments better for walking, biking and mass transit. That will require changing many ingrained rules and attitudes about traffic and street design.

“Most traffic engineers are really nice people,” Speck said. “But they will wreck your city.”  

Watch Jeff Speck’s TED Talk on walkable cities:


Execution will be key to success of downtown management district

September 9, 2013

NYC2

There are more than 1,200 downtown management districts in cities across the country. New York City has made extensive use of them to transform parts of the metropolis, such as this area of Midtown Manhattan, which was photographed in April. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

The revitalization of downtown Lexington has made a lot of progress in recent years, but there has been a missing link: a well-funded private partnership to take up where city services leave off.

The Downtown Lexington Corp. hopes to fix that. The organization last week started a petition drive among property owners to ask the Urban County Council to create a downtown management district.

Such districts, which have been effective in many other cities, work like a suburban homeowner’s association. Property owners pay an annual assessment that goes to provide amenities and services above and beyond what city government provides.

Lexington’s proposed downtown management district would include 373 properties with 223 owners and a total taxable value of almost $280 million. The proposed assessment would be $1 for each $1,000 of assessed tax value; so the owner of a $3 million office building would pay $3,000 a year, while the owner of a $300,000 home would pay $300.

How that money was spent would be determined by a board of downtown property owners and tenants. Proposed uses include streetscape improvements, better “wayfinding” signage, more marketing and the hiring of “ambassadors” to walk the streets to help visitors and improve safety and security.

State law requires the petition to get support from at least 33 percent of property owners whose holdings total at least 51 percent of property values. But DLC President Renee Jackson said she won’t take the petition to council unless it has support from at least half of the affected property owners.

Even if approved, the management district would have to be reauthorized after five years, and a majority of property owners could vote to disband it at any time.

Since New Orleans created the first management district in 1974, more than 1,200 have sprung up across the country. From a regional perspective, Lexington is late to the party. Louisville’s downtown management district was organized in 1991, Knoxville’s in 1993, Nashville’s in 1994 and Cincinnati’s in 1997.

Louisville’s district, the only one in Kentucky, has worked well.

“The focus on clean and safe in the downtown district has allowed the center city to be managed in a way that is similar to the suburban shopping center,” said Bill Weyland, a major downtown Louisville developer whose projects have included the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory and the Glassworks building.

“It is important for downtowns, which have numerous property owners, to have management districts so that there can be uniform center city services that rival the single-owner competitors in the suburbs,” Weyland added.

I saw the potential of a management district firsthand when I worked in downtown Atlanta between 1988 and 1998. The Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, created in 1995, made a big difference.

No American city has made more extensive use of management districts than New York, which now has 67 of what it calls business-improvement districts that pump $100 million a year into amenities and services. As a frequent visitor to New York over the years, the impact they have had is stunning.

When I was there in April, the pocket parks along Broadway in Midtown Manhattan were clean and beautiful. Tulips, jonquils and hyacinths were everywhere, as were the people enjoying those public spaces. Many of Gotham’s once-mean streets are now family-friendly.

One dramatic transformation is Bryant Park, on 42nd Street behind the New York Public Library. Once a hangout for drug dealers, the park is now a beautiful and popular oasis that has attracted a lot of new private commercial development. The park is managed by Bryant Park Corp., which is funded and overseen by area property owners.

A Lexington downtown management district is a low-risk proposal with the potential to do a lot of good. But it is no silver bullet.

For one thing, the proposed assessment would raise less than $300,000 a year, which really isn’t much money. The district’s board would have to pay close attention to priorities, management and follow-up, while taking care not to duplicate existing efforts by others.

Downtown property owners should get behind this plan, but with the knowledge that leadership and execution will make or break it. Sadly, that is where so many of Lexington’s civic improvement projects sputter and die.

dmdMap

 

IF YOU GO

Downtown Lexington Management District public meetings

What: Public information meetings to discuss a proposed taxing district downtown

When: 9 a.m. Sept. 9; 4 p.m. Sept. 12; noon Sept. 13; and 4 p.m. Sept. 16

Where: Central Bank seventh-floor training center, 300 W. Vine St.

Learn more: Dlmdonline.com

 

 

 


CentrePointe steps back from excellence; other projects shouldn’t

August 17, 2013

130816CentrePointe-Old

The previous design for CentrePointe, above, as seen along Main Street at the corner of Upper Street, had a variety of facades designed by local architects, echoing the architectural diversity on the other side of Main Street.  The new version, below, does not. Also note changes in CentrePointe’s office building, left, and hotel tower, right rear. Renderings by EOP Architects.

130816CentrePointe-New

 

For the sixth time in five years, developer Dudley Webb has unveiled new designs for his long-delayed CentrePointe project. The news last week generated a lot of sighs, eye rolls and I-told-you-so’s.

Lexington has CentrePointe fatigue, and no wonder. Webb’s plans for the $393 million hotel-office-apartment-retail complex have gone from awful to great over the years, and now they seem to have taken a turn toward mediocrity.

Besides, a lot of people doubt Webb will ever get enough financing to develop the most prime real estate in Lexington. The biggest question about CentrePointe is the same as it always has been: Where is the money?

Webb said last week that he wants to begin construction in October to accommodate a major tenant for the proposed office building at Main and Limestone streets. So far, though, he has produced no evidence of financing, which he must have to get construction permits.

The new design was released last week in preparation for Webb’s appearance Aug. 21 before the Courthouse Area Design Review Board, which must approve his plans. Its primary role is to decide if the project’s size and scale are appropriate to the neighborhood.

If you haven’t been following this five-year soap opera, here’s a quick recap: Webb’s initial plan called for a monolithic tower and pedestal, designed by the Atlanta firm CMMI, that overpowered the surrounding streetscape. Public and political opposition led to two redesigns, neither of which were much better.

Then, under pressure from Mayor Jim Gray and with help from Michael Speaks, dean of the University of Kentucky’s College of Design, Webb hired Jeanne Gang of Chicago, one of America’s most acclaimed architects. Studio Gang’s redesign got rave reviews.

But as CentrePointe’s proposed tenant mix changed, Webb replaced Gang with EOP Architects of Lexington. EOP produced an excellent design that included many of Gang’s ideas, from the site plan to the use of other local architects to give the Main Street façade some creative variety.

Now, CentrePointe’s tenant mix has changed again, this time to include more office space and apartments. For the latest designs, CMMI is back working with EOP.

Several architects and design professionals I talked with said the new design isn’t bad, it’s just ordinary and uninspired. But they noted that architects can only be as good as their client allows them to be.

The new design makes the block denser, the tower shorter and the office building more massive. That building’s elegant corner cut at Main and Limestone streets is gone, as are the local architects’ elegant Main Street façades. The apartment/retail building along Main has gone from four stories to seven with a unified façade that looks like modern urban apartment buildings all over the country.

“If you compare it to the first attempt they made, it’s come a long way,” said Speaks, who recently left UK to become dean at Syracuse University in New York. But he added that the new design is inferior to the last two versions.

“The things that made it interesting are gone,” Speaks said. “It’s not bad. It’s just not really good. It’s a missed opportunity. It’s a step back. What they have now is a typical corporate development that could be built anywhere. It’s nothing special.”

Since the beginning, Webb has touted CentrePointe as a signature project that would be a game-changer for downtown. But several factors have always played against that ambition. Webb projects have never been known for great architecture. And this kind of speculative, mixed-used development in a weak economy creates pressure to cut costs, rush schedules and settle for less than ideal.

Another reason for CentrePointe fatigue is that there have been a lot of exciting developments downtown since Webb announced his project in March 2008.

Lexington is being reshaped by many small, creative projects and renovations, especially along Short and Jefferson streets. Plus, two big public projects are in the works: Town Branch Commons and the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District. Both of them really could be “game-changers” — but only if they are done right.

It is one thing for a private project such as CentrePointe to settle for safe, uninspiring design. But if the visionary ambitions for Town Branch Commons and the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District end up being compromised to the point of mediocrity, they will have been a waste of money and effort. They are opportunities Lexington cannot afford to miss.

 


Planning Academy offers good lessons in Lexington growth issues

May 13, 2013

When I moved back here 15 years ago, Lexingtonians were battling with bumper stickers. Builders and developers had “Growth is Good” stickers on their bumpers. Preservationists had “Growth Destroys Bluegrass Forever” on theirs.

It was a pointless debate. Growth is inevitable. The question is how best to handle it.

Fortunately, discussions about growth and development are now less heated and simplistic and more productive. Both sides realize that Lexington’s future depends on steady, well-planned growth that encourages compatible economic development but doesn’t spoil the Bluegrass’ unique beauty and quality of life.

I gained some valuable insights into these issues recently by joining 28 other local people in a program called Citizens Planning Academy. We met two hours each Wednesday morning for six weeks to hear experts speak about all aspects of local growth and planning from a variety of viewpoints.

The program was organized by the land-use advocacy group Fayette Alliance and co-sponsored by the Home Builders Association of Lexington, the Fayette Farm Bureau, the American Society of Landscape Architects and The Plantory, a shared workspace for social entrepreneurs.

While Lexington has made mistakes over the years, it has been trying longer and harder than most cities to manage growth. The city’s first comprehensive plan was adopted in 1931. My house was then at the eastern edge of the city limits. Now, many people refer to it as being “downtown.”

The 1931 plan referred to Union Station, the long-ago-demolished train depot, as the most important building in town. Ironically, it is now the site of the recently renovated Helix  parking garage and the office where people take automobile driving tests and get their licenses.

In 1958 — 15 years before city-county merger — Lexington became the first city in America to set an urban growth boundary to limit suburban sprawl and protect rural land. Over the years, the Urban Services Area has been expanded from 22 percent of the county to about 30 percent.

From the 1950s to the early 2000s, Lexington experienced rapid, automobile-centric growth as residential subdivisions and shopping centers were built on former farmland. In recent years, there has been more focus on urban infill and redevelopment as everyone realized Fayette County’s farmland and open space is precious, finite and a vital to Lexington’s economy, image and quality of life.

Unlike most areas of Kentucky, Lexington is likely to see continued population growth, from a current 302,000 people to about 376,000 by 2030.  How are we planning for that growth?  Here are a couple of trends to watch:

Future growth will likely be more dense, more urban and less dependent on automobiles.

“We’re planning for a different type of population,” said Chris King, director of Lexington’s Division of Planning.

Many aging baby boomers and young people want to be able to walk or bike to work, shopping and entertainment. That means different styles of new neighborhoods and retrofitting older neighborhoods to make them less isolated.

Residential development and revitalization of in-town neighborhoods has been a key piece of the renaissance of downtown Lexington as a mixed-use area. That trend is likely to continue, King said.

That’s good, because it makes more efficient use of land. But increasing density is sure to spark conflict with some existing neighborhoods.

Another big factor in Lexington’s future growth will be outdoor water quality. Many developments in recent decades were built with inadequate infrastructure, which led to storm-water runoff problems and pollution of local streams. The city must spend millions of dollars to remedy past sins and prevent new ones under a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

That means that sewer capacity will limit future growth much more severely in the past. But the consent decree also has prompted city officials to get creative with natural solutions for storm-water management and filtering: permeable pavement, stream-bank restoration and systems for capturing and reusing rainwater.

The exciting Town Branch Commons proposal could be another piece of “green” infrastructure, creating both a linear park through downtown and helping to manage storm-water runoff.

The Fayette Alliance plans another Citizens Planning Academy next year, but dates have not been set. Watch FayetteAlliance.com for more information about how to apply.


CentrePointe 5 years later: still no building, but lots of impact

March 10, 2013

CentreField

 The CentrePointe block awaits development. Photo by Charles Bertram

 

For a project yet to be built, CentrePointe has had a big impact on Lexington.

The most immediate impact was the election of Mayor Jim Gray in November 2010. Were it not for the controversy surrounding CentrePointe, I doubt then-Vice Mayor Gray would have run against, much less unseated, Mayor Jim Newberry.

What Gray understood — and Newberry didn’t — was that CentrePointe focused many people’s longtime frustrations about development in Lexington. People didn’t like the secrecy, the politics and the often-mediocre results.

Most of all, people wanted more say in how their city looks. They didn’t want Lexington’s architectural heritage bulldozed at a developer’s whim. Development occurs on private property, but everyone must look at it and live with it.

Five years later, CentrePointe is still a grassy field waiting for developer Dudley Webb to find financing and tenants. But the project has taught Lexington some valuable lessons.

One lesson is the value of historic preservation. Webb was quick to demolish an entire block, including some buildings that were more than a century old and could have been renovated into unique, valuable space within his larger development.

Lexington’s biggest development trend since then has been for entrepreneurs to renovate fine old buildings and adapt them for new uses — restaurants, bars, stores, offices and homes. These projects make economic sense and preserve Lexington’s history and unique charm.

Another lesson is that good design matters. With CentrePointe stalled and Gray in the mayor’s office, Webb felt pressure to hire top architectural talent and get public input to redesign his project. That work dramatically improved his development plan.

The CentrePointe redesign also helped pave the way for Louisville-based 21c to decide to build one of its acclaimed hotels and contemporary art museums across the street.

The 21c Museum Hotel will be in the century-old Fayette National building, which will get an extensive renovation.

That momentum helped Lexington attract world-class talent to design competitions for two public projects that could transform downtown: the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District and Town Branch Commons.

The arena area plan calls for renovating Rupp Arena, building a bigger convention center and gradually redeveloping more than 30 acres ofunderused, city-owned surface parking lots.

The winning plan for Town Branch Commons would turn marginalized downtown property into a linear park along the historic path of Town Branch Creek. Such projects in other cities have created popular amenities that have attracted many times their cost in new private investment.

Gary Bates, a highly regarded American architect now based in Norway, was chosen to develop the arena district plan.

The winning Town Branch Commons plan was designed by Kate Orff of New York, one of landscape architecture’s rising stars.

Why is such world-class talent suddenly being attracted to Lexington? Because the city has set the bar higher. Why is that important? Because if Lexington wants to attract the best employers, it must create an environment where the best and brightest people want to live and work.

One final lesson from CentrePointe is that Lexington needs better laws and processes to both encourage good development and prevent bad development, especially downtown.

A city task force has spent a lot of time studying “design excellence.” Now, with new leadership from Councilman Steve Kay and help from a consultant, task force members have begun trying to figure out how to turn talk into action.

That won’t be easy. It is not just a matter of creating laws and systems to keep developers from doing bad things. It is about creating laws, systems and incentives so developers can do great things. This will require rules that provide both clarity and flexibility. It will require high standards, but also processes that minimize hassle and unnecessary costs for developers.

I don’t know if the Webb Companies will ever succeed in building CentrePointe. And I worry that the longer the block sits empty, the harder it will be to attract outside investment for other major downtown projects.

But something will eventually be built on the CentrePointe block, and now is the time to make sure that it and other new construction downtown enhances the city rather than detracts from it.

 Watch a video about the CentrePointe block’s demolition:

Time lapse: Tearing down a block, one building at a time from David Stephenson on Vimeo.

To read previous CentrePointe columns and see photos of the project as it evolved, click here.

A CentrePointe gallery:


Days numbered for Lexington’s gaudy, roadside ‘feather’ signs

February 25, 2013

Signs

 Feather signs along North New Circle Road. Photo by Tom Eblen

The days are numbered for those gaudy banners that have been sprouting up like dandelions along Lexington’s major commercial roads.

The Division of Planning has begun a crackdown against those so-called feather signs, which like many of the temporary signs that litter Lexington roadways, are illegal under city ordinance.

Zoning enforcement is first focusing on New Circle Road, between Georgetown and Richmond roads, where the signs seem to be thickest, said Chris King, the planning division’s director. Letters went out earlier this month to property owners, followed by site visits last week.

Properties where the signs remain up after March 18 will be subject to civil citations and fines that under the ordinance could initially be as high as $200 a day. King said enforcement officers also would be going after other types of illegal signs and in other parts of town. In addition to creating “visual blight in the community,” King said, illegal signs can distract drivers and put businesses that obey the law at a competitive disadvantage.

“There has just been an explosion of those things,” King said. “We want to send a message to other businesses, too, that in case you were thinking about it, don’t waste your money.”


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.”

Click on each thumbnail and image to enlarge:


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.

 


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.


Post-game mayhem highlighted neglected neighborhoods around UK’s campus

April 8, 2012

When the University of Kentucky beat Louisville and Kansas to win the NCAA championship last week, the media spotlight focused on more than the basketball team’s talent and Kentucky fans’ pride.

The nation got a vivid look at how far Lexington and UK still have to go in overcoming decades of neglect in some neighborhoods surrounding campus.

What should have been celebrations turned into near riots in the Elizabeth Street neighborhood off South Limestone. There were dozens of injuries and arrests as fires were set and vehicles damaged amid a hail of flying beer bottles.

Things could have been much worse, had not Lexington police and firefighters handled the situation with such skill and professionalism. And after the first and worst night of trouble, new UK President Eli Capilouto issued a stern statement. He urged students to “not be stupid,” and he warned that illegal behavior would result in criminal prosecution and university sanctions.

Some of the troublemakers weren’t UK students or even Lexington residents. Still, the national reputations of both UK and Lexington were tarnished. Will parents of prospective students wonder if UK is a safe environment for their children? Will people interested in moving their families or companies to Lexington wonder about the city’s quality of life?

Last week’s mayhem was a wake-up call to both UK and Lexington officials. They must redouble their efforts to clean up neighborhoods around campus that have been allowed to become little more than student-rental slums.

The problems began in the 1970s, when UK dormitory construction and maintenance began falling behind enrollment growth. About the same time, longtime residents of some nearby neighborhoods built between the early 1800s and early 1900s began dying off or moving away.

Many homes were sold to the university for campus expansion. Others were sold to student-rental entrepreneurs, who either cut up old homes into rental rooms or knocked them down to build boxy apartment complexes.

Once-lovely neighborhoods where many faculty and staff used to live fell into disrepair, as fewer and fewer homes were occupied by their owners. UK’s hands-off attitude reached its zenith in 1998 when officials banned alcohol from campus, which pushed student parties into the surrounding neighborhoods.

Landlords used zoning loopholes to build large dorm-like additions to bungalows and pave over yards, overwhelming those areas with people, cars, garbage and storm-water runoff. Those neighborhoods were not designed for such density.

Diane Lawless, the Urban County Council member who represents those neighborhoods, said the problems have been made worse by spot rezoning and years of building inspection that was “way beyond lax.”

City officials and neighborhood leaders have spent more than a decade trying to catch up to the problem. Studies by the Town-Gown Commission and Student Housing Task Force helped lead to new laws limiting off-campus parties, tightening zoning regulations and halting construction of the “vinyl box” additions. Mayor Jim Newberry’s administration launched a crackdown on code violations.

Still, about 75 percent of UK’s 28,000 students now live off-campus. That compares with only 25 percent of the 1,100 students at Transylvania University, where surrounding neighborhoods have experienced few student-rental problems.

Since Capilouto took office last June, he has made housing and neighborhood issues a priority. UK has launched an ambitious partnership with a private company to replace 6,000 aging dormitory beds and build 3,000 more.

“UK has been working much closer with us on neighborhood issues,” said Derek Paulsen, the city’s new planning commissioner. “But we’re going to be playing catch-up with this legacy for awhile.”

Paulsen’s appointment is another positive sign. For the first time, all city planning, zoning and building regulation will be under one department. Paulsen, an academic, has written several books about designing socially sustainable communities that deter crime.

New apartment complexes west of campus, built on sites once occupied by tobacco warehouses, have taken some of the pressure off older neighborhoods. But those developments bear watching, too. Any area dominated by transient rental property will be less stable than one that includes a good mix of owner-occupied housing.

The upcoming move of the Bluegrass Community and Technical College to the former Eastern State Hospital site could take pressure off the Elizabeth Street neighborhood. But without good planning, zoning, building inspection and code enforcement, Lexington risks the same pattern being repeated in older Northside neighborhoods.

In addition to better planning and zoning and more aggressive enforcement, city officials must clean up the damaged neighborhoods around UK. That will include significant investment in long-ignored infrastructure and more support for owner-occupied homes.

“It’s an economic development issue, because this is what visitors see when they see Lexington,” Lawless said. “What’s good for these neighborhoods and downtown is good for Lexington and the university.”


Review board likely to nix CentrePointe pedway

March 6, 2012

Lexington's pedways include this one across Main Street. Photo by Tom Eblen

Designs for the stalled CentrePointe development have gone from bad to good for one reason: they must pass muster with the Courthouse Area Design Review Board.

When the hotel-retail- condo project was proposed in 2008, the board appointed by Mayor Jim Newberry to oversee the historic district let developer Dudley Webb do almost anything he wanted. But the board’s expectations have gotten much higher since Jim Gray became mayor 14 months ago.

The board meets March 28 to vote on what is supposed to be Webb’s final design. Based on board members’ comments at a preview Feb. 15 — and further improvements Webb’s architects made in response to that feedback — I expect the designs will be approved, except for one thing: the pedway.

When Webb and his brother, Donald, were remaking Lexington’s skyline with tall towers in the 1980s, they connected them with pedways, enclosed walkways through the sky that keep pedestrians out of the weather and off the street. The pedways provide access to Lexington Center, which includes Rupp Arena and convention facilities, from the Lexington Financial Center, Victorian Square, the Radisson, Triangle Center and the Central Bank building.

About two dozen North American cities built pedway and tunnel systems from the 1950s to the 1980s for people who didn’t want to venture outside on their trips from attached suburban garages to downtown offices and stores. Pedways were seen as safe havens against urban crime and decay, as well as amenities to help downtown retailers compete with suburban malls.

Like most urban planning ideas from the auto-centric second half of the 20th century, about the best thing you can say now about pedways is that they seemed like a good idea at the time.

Pedways might make some sense in harsh-weather cities such as Calgary, Alberta; Minneapolis, and Chicago. But cities below the frost belt have stopped building pedways — and even started tearing them down.

Since 2002, Cincinnati has been in the process of demolishing much of its pedway system. Officials didn’t like the way it limited healthy street life and cluttered the skyline, especially in such places as Fountain Square. They also could see big maintenance costs on the horizon as the pedways aged.

CentrePointe’s first three designs included two pedways, one spanning Upper Street to connect the development to the Lexington Financial Center parking garage. The other would have spanned South Limestone, going to a parking deck beneath Phoenix Park that no longer is planned.

CentrePointe was approved in late 2008 for tax-increment financing, or TIF, which means tax revenue generated by the development could be used to pay for “public” improvements needed to build the project. That included $3 million for the two pedways.

Webb is now proposing only the South Upper Street pedway, which would pass between two historic buildings across the street, the 1846 McAdams & Morford building and the circa 1860 building that houses McCarthy’s Bar and Failte Irish Imports.

When questioned by Courthouse Area Design Review Board member Kevin Atkins, a senior adviser to the mayor, Webb said the pedway was needed for easier access to parking and to provide a sheltered walkway between CentrePointe’s hotel and the convention center.

But Atkins wasn’t buying it, and neither were two others on the five-member board, chairman Mike Meuser and Michael Speaks, the dean of the University of Kentucky’s College of Design.

Speaks seemed especially annoyed by Webb’s suggestion that pedestrians might feel safer in a pedway than on the street. “I live downtown and it’s perfectly safe,” Speaks said. “Probably safer than the suburbs.”

CentrePointe’s redesign process has focused a lot on creating street-level pedestrian activity. The board is loathe to let Webb do anything that would detract from it.

It also seems reluctant to clutter the skyline between two historic buildings on Upper Street. EOP Architects has worked hard to keep that narrow block from becoming a service alley, and a pedway wouldn’t help.

Does the board think a pedway is worth more than $1 million in TIF “public improvements” money? I doubt it. Plus, there is the issue of future maintenance costs. Lexington has recently been hit with big bills for repairing and replacing aging parking garages. The pedways we already have aren’t getting any younger.

For all of those reasons, expect the review board to put its collective foot down and reject the CentrePointe pedway.

 


Living Arts and Science Center begins $5 million campaign to renovate, expand and grow

November 15, 2011

Lexington’s Kinkead House is much more than just another historical home. For nearly a century and a half, its occupants have been on the cutting edge of progress.

The mansion was built in 1847 by Abraham Lincoln’s local lawyer, abolitionist George B. Kinkead. After the Civil War, he realized that former slaves would want to own their own homes, so he bought land for them behind his estate. Kinkeadtown became the heart of what is now the East End neighborhood.

A century later, Kinkead’s descendants shared the dream of residents who thought Lexington’s young people needed more exposure to science and the arts. In 1971, they loaned and later donated the mansion and surrounding 1.5 acres to become the Living Arts and Science Center.

The next chapter of the story begins Wednesday, when the LASC launches a $5 million capital campaign to renovate the Kinkead House and more than double the center’s size and programming capacity with a beautiful contemporary addition.

LASC will add a 65-seat planetarium/auditorium, a digital arts center, a recording studio, a children’s art gallery, more classroom and meeting space, and a guest artist’s studio. There also will be a “teaching kitchen” for uses as varied as teaching neighbors to prepare and preserve food they grow in their gardens and classes in chocolate sculpture. A “magic carpet” walkway, which includes outdoor sculptures, will tie the campus together.

The campaign begins with $300,000 in grants and donations, plus a $1 million matching grant from the W. Paul and Lucille Caudill Little Foundation. The LASC board hopes to raise the rest of the money by summer 2013.

“It’s hard to raise $5 million in this environment without some credible reasons,” said downtown developer Phil Holoubek, who with his wife, Marnie, is leading the campaign. “But this project can be a game-changer. We can better serve the community and improve the neighborhood and downtown.”

The LASC’s mission is to use art and science to inspire children and adults. During the past year, more than 6,000 school children from 21 Kentucky counties took field trips to the center, executive director Heather Lyons said. The LASC offered more than 400 classes and workshops, plus frequent community events.

The expansion already is creating buzz, because the Kinkead House addition promises to be one of Lexington’s most exciting pieces of contemporary architecture. It is the work of Louisville’s De Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop, which two weeks after receiving the LASC commission last year won a prestigious Design Vanguard Award from Architectural Record magazine.

Architect Ross Primmer said the design is based on extensive conversations with the board, staff and neighbors of the LASC, which faces North Martin Luther King Boulevard between Campsie Place and East Fourth Street.

“It’s like they were hearing everything we were thinking,” said Kathy Plomin, the LASC’s development director.

The 11,000-square-foot addition is really a separate building, tucked along the south side and back of Kinkead House, complementing the scale of the 7,000-square-foot mansion and surrounding homes. An outdoor classroom separates the two buildings, which are connected by a glass walkway. Parking will move away from the front to create a larger lawn.

Primmer said the addition will have walls of dark-green wood siding and clear glass to visually connect with the outside and allow people to see inside. It will meet environmentally friendly LEED Silver standards and minimize energy use.

Steve Kay, an Urban County Council member who lives on Campsie Place, is excited about the LASC’s expansion and the new programming it will make possible. “We’re thrilled that such a good neighbor is investing in the neighborhood,” he said.

The design follows a trend of modern-style additions to classic old buildings. When designed well, these additions both honor the integrity of the historical structure and become a more functional piece of contemporary architecture.

“The goal is to create something that fits with it, but doesn’t mimic it,” Primmer said of the Kinkead House.

“I think it’s just brilliant,” Mayor Jim Gray said of the design. “This project is an example of great urban planning and great architecture that respects the character of the historic neighborhood and lifts it up. This is extremely exciting.”

 

 


CentrePointe soap opera needs good ending

October 30, 2011

I knew that a successful partnership between Lexington developer Dudley Webb and world-class architect Jeanne Gang would require a triumph of hope over experience.

At the urging of Mayor Jim Gray, Webb hired Gang in March to re-imagine CentrePointe, his stalled hotel, retail, office and residential development that for two years has been a conspicuously empty field in the center of the city.

CentrePointe, version 1

Webb’s initial CentrePointe designs were towering monstrosities. But Chicago-based Studio Gang developed a plan that was elegant, inspirational and appropriate to the human scale of downtown Lexington. Gang’s creative approach — and the thoughtful process by which she explained it — charmed a skeptical public.

So what did Webb do? He dumped her.

Gang is becoming one of America’s most sought-after architects. She has designed innovative, successful buildings around the world, including Chicago’s new Aqua tower. Last month, she became only the third architect to receive one of the MacArthur Foundation’s $500,000 “genius” grants.

Webb, on the other hand, has a record of building towers in downtown Lexington that look as if they belong in a suburban Atlanta office park. Works of genius? Not even close.

CentrePointe, version 2

Rather than cap his career by building a Jeanne Gang creation — and score a big marketing coup for himself and Lexington — Webb said last week that he had chosen to go in a “different direction.” He replaced Gang with EOP Architects, one of five Lexington firms that she had brought in to help her.

EOP does not have Studio Gang’s world-class stature, but it has done some excellent work. The firm is capable of producing a good design for CentrePointe, especially if it sticks with Gang’s vision.

That vision includes a varied, human-scale facade along Main Street that complements the interesting old buildings across the street; breathing space inside the block rather than one dense mass; and towers along Vine Street that look special and don’t overwhelm their neighbors.

But an architect can only be as good as his client allows. EOP’s biggest challenge on this job might be keeping its own good reputation intact.

CentrePointe, version 3 compared with version 2

Gang’s departure from CentrePointe is disappointing, but she leaves an important legacy. She set a high bar for new architecture in Lexington. She also showed how builders can honestly engage a community that finally seems to understand that good design will contribute to Lexington’s beauty, functionality and economic success.

The CentrePointe fiasco has made Lexington more demanding of high-profile developments, both their quality and their process. People are less willing to accept the way developers used to do business here: make plans in secret, unveil them with a “like it or lump it” attitude and bulldoze through opposition.

The University of Kentucky’s new Davis Marksbury building has set a high standard for good, environmentally sensitive architecture by which future UK projects will be judged.

Barry McNees has worked hard to incorporate good design and public participation into his plans for the Lexington Distillery District along Manchester Street.

Bluegrass Community and Technical College President Augusta Julian hired talented professionals and encouraged public input for plans for a new campus on the former site of Eastern State Hospital.

The Arena, Arts and Entertainment Task Force has hired world-class architect Gary Bates to oversee a public process for planning the long-term redevelopment of 46 acres of underused city land that include Rupp Arena and the Lexington Center convention complex.

Meanwhile, the Urban County Council’s Design Excellence Task Force is looking at ways to change laws and standards to encourage higher-quality downtown development than what Lexington has seen in recent decades.

All of this work is more significant than CentrePointe. Still, Lexington has a lot at stake in what happens on the block in the center of the city. People will be paying close attention to how Webb and landowner Joe Rosenberg handle that responsibility — assuming, of course, that anyone lends them the more than $200 million needed to build Webb’s dream.

Will CentrePointe help usher in a new era of good architecture in Lexington? Or will it become just another Webb development? I’m still pulling for a triumph of hope over experience.

Jeanne Gang's CentrePointe concept


Keeneland shows the value of good planning, design

October 11, 2011

Keeneland is a pleasant place to spend an afternoon, a colorful pageant of fast horses and the people who come from everywhere to watch them run.

Keeneland also is a place that can teach many lessons about success. Now celebrating its 75th year, the organization is a model of excellence in racing, hospitality, marketing, community investment, strategic vision, long-range planning and good design.

Those last three lessons were on my mind over the weekend, as Keeneland began its fall racing meet. Perhaps that was because I was there with a group of architects and planners brought together by the University of Kentucky’s College of Design.

Among them was Henk Ovink, a top planner for the government of the Netherlands, a compact nation that does urban planning as well as any on Earth. Ovink has visited Lexington many times, but this was his first time at Keeneland.

He was impressed.

“It is so well done,” Ovink said as he gazed at the track and the farmland beyond. “They have integrated a very big facility beautifully into the landscape.

“If you can do it with this, you can do it with a residential development,” he said. “It isn’t that hard. You just have to pay attention to what you are doing.”

That got me to thinking about one of Lexington’s ironies.

Keeneland might be the ultimate expression of Lexington’s most famous attribute: a uniquely beautiful landscape of horse farms, bounded by stacked-stone and wood-plank fences and dotted with elegant mansions and handsome barns. It is an environment that makes the most of Central Kentucky’s natural beauty.

But it is a built environment — no more natural or accidental than the colorful chaos of an English garden.

The irony is that Lexingtonians, surrounded by this well-designed rural landscape, have paid so little attention to the design and quality of their urban landscape. Unlike Louisville or Cincinnati, this city has little history of appreciating good, innovative architecture, and it has a hit-and-miss record of urban planning.

Since the 1940s, dozens of beautiful downtown buildings have been torn down for parking lots, or replaced by bland boxes of concrete and glass. Lexington has some lovely suburban neighborhoods — but many more cookie-cutter subdivisions of vinyl-clad boxes and cheaply built apartments, some of which quickly became slums.

Local developers have often seen design professionals as costs to be cut rather than as resources to be used to improve functionality and create both beauty and long-term value. Until recently, few residents or politicians objected when Lexington’s landscape was littered with generic junk. “Oh, well, it’s their property,” people would say, rather than, “Is this how we want our city to look?”

As Ovink was admiring Keeneland, I told him some of what track president Nick Nicholson has told me about the thought, planning and attention to detail that his organization puts into the design and care of the buildings and grounds.

Nothing about Keeneland’s look happens by accident, whether it is the architecture of a building, the placement of a bush or the trimming of a tree. Visitors might not realize it, but design excellence is at the heart of the Keeneland experience.

Of course, Keeneland has a lot of money to work with. But that hasn’t always been the case. When the founders turned Jack Keene’s stables into a racetrack, they did it on a shoestring budget during the Great Depression. Still, from the beginning, Keeneland’s leaders focused on excellence and long-term value.

This is a good time to think about Keeneland’s example. One Urban County Council task force is studying opportunities for urban infill and redevelopment, and another is looking at incorporating “design excellence” into the city’s planning and zoning laws and processes.

Meanwhile, a community task force is creating a master plan for the redevelopment of 46 underused acres of city-owned property downtown that includes Rupp Arena and Lexington Center. It is a thoughtful process, and the task force has engaged some world-class design professionals to consider the possibilities.

Quality costs more than junk, but good design doesn’t have to be expensive. As much as anything, it is the result of careful thought and good planning. Will Lexingtonians finally insist on an urban landscape worthy of the rural one that surrounds it?


1 year, 416 miles of Lexington streets, many lessons

August 2, 2011

On a rare warm day in February 2010, Steve Austin began a bicycle ride from his home in Ashland Park. He is almost finished with it.

Austin didn’t set out intending to ride all 416 miles of Lexington streets inside New Circle Road. But the more he rode that afternoon, the more he thought it wouldn’t be that hard.

“Finding the time and the right weather was my biggest challenge,” said Austin, a vice president at Blue Grass Community Foundation.

Austin rode mostly on Saturday and Sunday mornings, but occasionally during heavy weekday traffic, always starting from his home. With a yellow highlighter, he marked off each street on a well-folded city map, but he didn’t keep track of his total miles ridden. He has only a few streets left to go.

“I was really doing an experiment to see if Lexington is a bikeable city,” he said. “The answer is yes. We tell ourselves it’s not because of traffic, but inside New Circle Road is really compact, although it’s more hilly than it looks from a car.”

Austin, who was trained as a landscape architect and land-use lawyer and has spent much of his career as a city planner, said that viewing Lexington from the seat of a bicycle has given him a new perspective.

For one thing, he was impressed by how courteous drivers were to him. And he was struck by how nice Lexington’s older suburban neighborhoods are — even the less-affluent ones. “But we missed a lot of opportunities as we grew from the core by not building greenways along the creeks to connect them,” he said.

“You can live in a great suburb and still have to drive to everything,” he said. “Retro-fitting the urban fabric to make it more pedestrian- and bike-friendly is going to be one of our challenges over the next few decades” as gasoline prices rise and the population ages.

But that won’t be as difficult, or expensive, as it might sound. Austin discovered that New Circle Road is no more than a 30-minute bike ride from anywhere inside it, and the city is filled with lots of streets going the same direction.

“You can ride almost anywhere without getting on a busy road — a Nicholasville Road, a Richmond Road,” he said, adding that Liberty, Mason Headley and Parkers Mill roads can be just as treacherous.

Austin said small things could make a big difference, such as signs marking good bike routes and cut-throughs at key points — a bridge over the creek behind Lafayette High School, for example, or a pathway behind Picadome Golf Course — that would allow cyclists to avoid busy roads.

“Those are incremental costs compared to the benefits we would get for the city,” he said.

Such small improvements could encourage more bicycle commuters. The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey found that only about 1 percent of Lexington’s 143,000 commuters bike to work. “What would it take to get to 10 percent?” Austin wondered.

Austin now bikes to his downtown office several days a week, and he rides around his neighborhood some evenings with his son, who recently got a bicycle for his 9th birthday. Austin, who also has taken up jogging, said he has lost more than 20 pounds and is trying for more.

Austin said his journey also helped him notice things about Lexington that have nothing to do with biking — for example, how some of Lexington’s nicest neighborhoods are only a stone’s throw from some of its most dilapidated. “Yet we’ve kind of compart mentalized things,” he said. “We have mental blinders.”

Austin also noticed University of Kentucky flags on homes in almost every neighborhood. “It sounds kind of cliché, but UK athletics is the unifier, the common reference,” he said. It made him wonder: How powerful would it be if every Lexington child could attend a basketball game in Rupp Arena, if only once?

“I think it’s important for us to get to know our city better,” he said. “And you just don’t get it from the windshield of a car.”