Developer’s parking idea makes sense for downtown Lexington

June 29, 2014

140623ChurchSt0088This rendering shows an architect’s conception for a two-level parking garage that veteran developer Robert Wagoner proposes building along Church Street to replace a random group of nine surface parking lots. The garage would help encourage redevelopment of gaps between buildings on Short Street, shown as green boxes. Photo provided.


Veteran suburban developer Robert Wagoner has spent his past four years of retirement studying urban Lexington, as well as Greenville and Charleston, S.C., which have been much more successful at downtown revitalization.

Yes, he says, historic preservation and high-quality new architecture are important. But Wagoner thinks the real key to urban revitalization is the unglamorous infrastructure that businesses and customers take for granted in suburbia, such as hidden delivery and garbage facilities and easy-to-use parking. Especially parking.

That belief led Wagoner and 17 friends he recruited from the design and construction fields to volunteer their time and talents to develop an ambitious concept for the emerging four-block entertainment district along Short Street between Limestone and Broadway.

Robert Wagoner

Robert Wagoner

Their goal was to create more convenient, attractive, efficient and urban-appropriate parking and service facilities, and to encourage redevelopment of gap lots along Short Street where buildings were demolished decades ago and were replaced with haphazard surface parking.

The main element of this plan would be an attractive, two-level parking structure along Church Street. But Wagoner also proposes replacing most parallel parking along Short Street with easier-to-use angled parking.

In all, Wagoner says, the 370 parking spaces now in that four-square-block area could grow to 450 spaces that would be more accessible and user-friendly. At the same time, it would allow many surface parking lots to be redeveloped with new buildings to house stores, restaurants, offices and apartments.

“We need to have more thought put into our comprehensive land-use process for a parking strategy downtown,” Wagoner said. “All you have to do is look at these other cities and see what they’re doing.”

Wagoner also wants to create service areas to stop noisy delivery trucks from having to idle on the street, clogging traffic and making outdoor dining unpleasant. Centralized, hidden waste areas with trash compactors would be a big improvement over dumpsters, grease pits and Herbies scattered all over within public view.

He is now talking with property and business owners and contacting organizations such as the Downtown Development Authority, the Downtown Lexington Corp. and the Lexington-Fayette County Parking Authority (Lexpark).

“It’s probably the single most important project since the Cheapside Park renovation,” said Bob Estes, owner of Parlay Social and Shorty’s market, and president of the Cheapside Entertainment District Association. “It would really create the infrastructure for the continued development and growth we need.”

Making this plan happen will be a challenge, because the four-block area has 12 parcels with 10 owners. There are nine surface parking lots with 16 entrances. It will need support from property and business owners, the city and private investors, he said.

The plan would require clipping off the rear addition to one Short Street building. Wagoner also would like to demolish a law office building at the southwest corner of Church and Market streets and move the recently renovated Belle’s Bar building over to Short Street.

The key will be getting property owners to work together, trading some of their sites for space in new, infill buildings on Short Street, parking spaces in the garage or a share of parking garage revenues.

“Creative air rights is integral to all of this,” he said.

Executing the plan would be complex, but Wagoner says everyone could come out a winner. Downtown would be more vibrant, business activity would increase, property values would rise and the city would collect more tax revenues.

What I find exciting — even visionary — about this plan is that the same approach could be used for many other small areas of urban Lexington. It could be part of the parking solution needed to help the city redevelop huge, underused surface lots around Rupp Arena.

Wagoner has spent two years refining these ideas with help from other development professionals: Donna Pizzuto, Harvey Helm, Ken Sallade, Jon Cheatham, Steve Graves, Mike Huston, Aaron Bivens, Joe Rasnick, Joe Nolasco, Steve Albert , Rob Wagoner, Shane Lyle, James Piper, Jonathan Rollins, Tony Barrett, Joey Svec and Matt Fleece.

Their volunteer design work includes renderings and a video presentation with three-dimensional modeling. (See below.)

Wagoner said he is open to better ideas from others. His goal in this retirement venture is not to make money, he said, but to make downtown Lexington more successful. And, perhaps, to salve some guilt from having helped create suburban developments decades ago that contributed to downtown’s decline in the first place.

“Ours is a throwaway society that consistently produces urban decay as a byproduct of suburban success,” Wagoner said. “We have no other option (but redeveloping urban areas) if we are to protect what makes us special. No other city is like ours, ringed by such a unique signature” of horse farms and natural beauty.

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

Watch this video Robert Wagoner and friends put together about the proposal:



Click here to read Tom Martin’s Q&A with Robert Wagoner.


Time to press ‘pause’ on Rupp Arena and focus on rest of plan

May 31, 2014

 tbcTown Branch Commons would create a linear downtown park along the historic path of Town Branch Creek, which was buried underground a century ago.


Almost all of the talk and controversy about Lexington’s ambitious Rupp Arena, Arts & Entertainment District plan has focused on the arena. It reminds me of the old saying about the tail wagging the dog.

Renovating Rupp Arena is the most costly piece of the plan, especially because it would involve rebuilding the adjacent convention center. The total price is estimated at $351 million.

Rupp may seem like the dog, but it’s really just the tail when you look at the big picture. The dog is more than 30 acres of under-utilized parking lots south and west of the arena.

This sea of asphalt is ripe for redevelopment. It is well-located between the central business district and the University of Kentucky campus. These vast tracts of city-owned land, if properly planned and patiently developed, could become a huge economic and civic asset.

Ground leases to developers on the High Street lot could generate millions of dollars for public improvements, such as turning the Cox Street lot into much-needed green space as part of the outstanding Town Branch Commons plan.

That is why Mayor Jim Gray and the Lexington Center board should step back, take a deep breath, and refocus their energy on the dog instead of the tail. They thought they needed to renovate Rupp Arena first to generate excitement for the rest of the plan. That seemed logical, but it hasn’t worked, for many reasons.

First, Louisville’s costly KFC Yum Center hasn’t lived up to financial expectations, making taxpayers and legislators skeptical of another big arena project. The late rollout and changing details of Rupp’s financing plan didn’t help.

Then there are legitimate questions about public priorities. Would a fancier Rupp Area be nice to have? Sure. Is it essential? No.

Another issue is the economics of replacing the convention center. The space is oddly configured with no good way to expand. But the Lexington Center Corp. still owes $18 million from the last renovation a decade ago.

This is the big question: Would the convention center generate enough more business to make it worth tearing down the current facility to build a new and bigger one? Many people are skeptical.

But the biggest roadblock to a Rupp renovation has been UK’s lack of interest. President Eli Capilouto has made it abundantly clear that he thinks UK needs new academic buildings, laboratories and residence halls more than a basketball palace.

That’s a big switch from the past. UK officials have grumbled about Rupp’s perceived shortcomings since the late 1990s and have pushed renovation or replacement schemes ever since.

If Capilouto is serious about focusing on academics instead of athletics, I say good for him. That attitude is long overdue at UK. But it means the mayor must take a new approach.

Rather than continuing to push for a Rupp renovation now, Gray should focus the city’s energy on Town Branch Commons, which will make the concrete corridor along Vine Street more inviting to people and businesses. As the 2009 renovation of Cheapside showed, smart investment in public infrastructure attracts economic development.

The mayor should push to fund infrastructure to support the emerging redevelopment of Manchester Street, the future Rupp District’s western gateway. That includes finishing Town Branch Trail and linking it to the Legacy Trail.

Most of all, Gray and the Lexington Center Corp. should quickly flesh out a long-term redevelopment plan for the 22-acre High Street lot and start making deals. A good plan will encourage good development — and prevent bad development.

For example, the High Street lot would make a much better site for LOOK Cinemas’ proposed IMAX theater complex than the historic district across Broadway it wants to build in, which would set a terrible precedent.

Redevelopment also means replacing most of those surface parking spaces with more space-efficient garages, both near Rupp and in other key spots around downtown. Dispersed garages would get more frequent use than dedicated Rupp parking, plus they would give arena audiences more reason to patronize downtown businesses rather than hopping in their cars and driving home after an event.

Rupp and the convention center must be dealt with eventually. But, as all of the controversy has shown, those plans could benefit from more thought, economic analysis and salesmanship.

Waiting a year or two on a Rupp renovation also might make UK a more willing partner. UK’s Rupp lease expires in 2018, but the Wildcats will still need a place to play basketball. Having preached academics-first, Capilouto would lose credibility if he then tried to build a costly on-campus arena.

It’s time to refocus this discussion. The real economic potential of an arena district is the district, not the arena. Transformation will not come from making good facilities better, but from turning more than 30 acres of barren asphalt into a vibrant addition to the city. Lead the dog and the tail will follow.


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 for more information about how to apply.

2-way streets would boost downtown’s revival

December 5, 2011

As a boy in the late 1960s, Ken Silvestri worked weekends at his grandfather’s fruit stand outside the McCrory’s store on Main Street, where the Lexington Public Library now stands.

Shoppers were beginning to leave downtown for the new Turfland Mall and other suburban stores, “but there were still lots of people on the street,” he recalled.

Then, in 1971, Main and Vine streets became one-way thoroughfares to speed traffic through the city. Other downtown street pairs were converted to become one-way including Short and Second; Maxwell and High; and Limestone and Upper.

“After Main became a one-way street, the traffic was moving so fast it changed the complexion of the place,” Silvestri said. Fewer people walked by, and it was harder for drivers to stop to buy apples and oranges. Sales dwindled at his grandfather’s fruit stand. “After a while, he just closed it,” he said.

Many people now want to return those streets to two-way traffic. The Downtown Master Plan calls for it. The Urban County Council has endorsed it. Mayor Jim Gray has commissioned a study to assess the business, traffic and environmental impacts.

Although Gray favors the switch, he wants a big-picture review and solid data before making any decisions, Scott Shapiro, a senior adviser to the mayor, said in a presentation Thursday to The Lexington Forum.

That review should be completed within 12 to 18 months, Shapiro said. The state Transportation Cabinet must sign off on changes, he said, but state officials “have been great to work with so far and have been very encouraging.”

Many cities that created one-way streets downtown about the time Lexington did have switched back and been glad they did, Shapiro said. But every city and street is different. No matter what decisions are made, some people will complain.

“My experience,” said former council member David Stevens, “has been that we have 300,000 traffic engineers in Lexington, and they all think they know what is best.”

Here is the central question: Does Lexington want a downtown that is better to drive through or come to?

One-way streets do move traffic faster. Suburbanites who commute to downtown offices like that, as do people coming and going from the area’s big events. One-way streets can also be less problematic for emergency and delivery vehicles.

Warren Rogers, a construction executive who said he has looked at cities that switched one-way streets back to two-way traffic, said accidents rose. That makes sense: motor vehicles may be traveling slower, but they mix it up more with each other, as well as with pedestrians and cyclists. And there are simply more pedestrians and cyclists on two-way streets.

“It’s about priorities. Is our priority the car, or is it people?” said Renee Jackson, executive director of the Downtown Lexington Corp., which represents downtown businesses and property owners. “Two-way traffic really is better for business.”

Two-way traffic encourages more people to use sidewalks, businesses have more visual exposure and streets are easier to navigate, especially for tourists and newcomers. Added traffic flexibility can ease congestion by providing more alternative routes.

While the city’s big traffic study is a good idea, here’s the thing: traffic, like water, tends to naturally make its way around obstacles. That’s what happened recently when sidewalk improvements reduced traffic on Main Street and shut it off completely on South Limestone. Drivers adapted.

Downtown is coming back to life, and eliminating most or all of the one-way street pairs is an important next step to making the heart of Lexington more pleasant and prosperous.

Silvestri, the boy who worked at his grandfather’s fruit stand, grew up to be one of Lexington’s major commercial real estate brokers. He says eliminating the one-way streets downtown will be especially good for smaller, locally owned businesses. It will help create jobs and lower vacancy rates, which in turn will raise property values and tax revenues.

Many Lexingtonians will still prefer suburbia to downtown, and that’s fine. Silvestri lives near Hamburg Place, which he points out has its own vexing traffic issues. “But at least,” he said, “the streets over there are two-way.”

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?

Lexington leaders give Greenville a second look

June 15, 2011

This is the week each year when Commerce Lexington takes several dozen business and civic leaders to another city for three days of networking and brainstorming about how to improve Lexington.

Nearly 200 people are leaving on chartered jets Wednesday morning for Greenville, the largest city in the Upstate region of South Carolina. Although a much smaller city than Lexington, Greenville is the center of a metro area with 172,000 more people.

The annual “leadership visit” went to Greenville in 1995, but Commerce Lexington thought the city was worth a second look. Greenville has continued to prosper, thanks to smart economic development, good urban planning and successful public-private partnerships.

The city that once called itself “textile capital of the world” is now home to a mix of companies, many from Europe, including BMW and Michelin. A big part of Greenville’s strategy was revitalizing its urban core and improving the quality of life.

“They focused on what makes the city unique and special,” said Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, whose family-owned construction company helped build BMW’s facilities there. “It’s become a city that reaches out globally, not a big city but a city with a modern, cosmopolitan sense.”

Greenville’s downtown revitalization was sparked in the 1970s by a mayor who immigrated from Austria. He thought a beautiful, pedestrian-friendly European approach was a good antidote to the car-centric, asphalt-everywhere path that had contributed to urban decay.

That meant downsizing some streets, adding trees, restoring old buildings and removing a highway bridge over a neglected gulch of the Reedy River. The river was cleaned, the gulch transformed into a park and the four-lane bridge replaced by a unique pedestrian bridge.

“They have reclaimed that whole space, and it has had an amazing effect on the downtown,” said Jeanne Gang, the renowned Chicago architect whom Dudley Webb recently hired to redesign the stalled CentrePointe project in downtown Lexington. “They have an amazing set of beautiful urban elements that they’ve done over time.”

Gang’s firm, Studio Gang Architects, is completing designs for two signature projects in Greenville: Reedy Square and the Blue Wall Center.

Reedy Square will be the “town square” that Greenville hasn’t had, plus a showcase for regional attractions and culture. “It’s both a place for the locals to go hang out and a place that turns visitors on to what all there is to do in the Upstate,” Gang said.

Blue Wall Center, a 175-acre area at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, will have a visitors center, gardens and trails for people to get a taste of the local mountains. “We’ve been calling it speed-dating with nature,” Gang said. “It’s both a landscape and a building that work together to be this kind of visitor destination.”

Lexington can learn some things from Greenville, but how much of that learning will be converted into action? That is a frequent criticism of these trips — at least by people who don’t go on them.

Commerce Lexington President Bob Quick said there has been action. For example, Lexington’s Thursday Night Live and Minority Business Development programs began with ideas from the 1995 Greenville trip. “Sometimes it takes years for things to come together,” he said.

Last year, Commerce Lexington went to Pittsburgh with Greater Louisville Inc. The most popular idea from Pittsburgh — replicating Bill Strickland’s Manchester Bidwell program for inspiring and teaching job skills to young people — has been stalled by the weak economy, Quick said.

But many of Manchester Bidwell’s concepts will be used in the Fayette County Public Schools’ new agri-science vocational program, which begins this fall on Leestown Road. “Some of the things that we’re going to be doing are very similar to what Strickland is doing,” outgoing Superintendent Stu Silberman said.

Quick said the biggest benefit from last year’s trip has been stronger relationships among leaders in Lexington and Louisville, which has led to more cooperation on common issues and economic development initiatives.

Networking is always the biggest benefit of these trips. Sometimes it takes getting away from work and the patterns of everyday life to build new relationships that will help turn good ideas into successful action.

Follow the trip on Twitter

I will be posting updates from the trip on Twitter. Follow me here.

UK design college’s River Cities project gets notice

April 25, 2011

How do you turn liabilities into assets, then use them to improve the economy? That is a challenge facing the University of Kentucky’s College of Design and leaders in three Kentucky cities along the Ohio River.

While the work in Henderson, Paducah and Louisville is still in early stages, it could soon get some international attention. UK hopes to receive confirmation next week that its Kentucky River Cities project has been chosen for inclusion in the 5th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam in April 2012.

The architecture and urban planning exhibition, held every other year in Holland, says it “aspires to stimulate a wider discourse on the relationship between our environments and the quality of our lives.” Next year’s Biennale will explore new ways of planning and creating more sustainable cities, which over the next few decades are projected to house 80 percent of the world’s people on less than 3 percent of the earth’s surface.

The exhibition will focus on three cities — Rotterdam, Istanbul, and Sao Paulo, — but will include other examples of innovation around the world. “It’s a big deal to be included,” said Michael Speaks, dean of the UK College of Design. “They get a huge number of applications from all over the world.”

Henk Ovink, director of national spatial planning for the Netherlands and a Biennale organizer, has visited Kentucky three times to speak at the college and observe the River Cities project.

The River Cities project began nearly four years ago as a five-day design workshop in Henderson by the college and the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles, where Speaks then directed the graduate program. Several people from those schools were Henderson natives, and they were trying to help local business and civic leaders imagine how to redesign and revitalize the cities to adapt to the changing economy.

After Speaks moved to UK a year later, “The Henderson Project” was broadened to include other Ohio River cities that face similar issues. Along with local leaders and design professionals, the college is working with UK’s Center for Applied Energy Research and architects from Los Angeles, Detroit, Holland and Norway.

“It’s an opportunity to show that design is not just about aesthetics,” Speaks said. “Good design can be a real economic value-adder, and it can change the economics and cultural makeup of cities.”

UK students also are working on redevelopment ideas for an area of Louisville’s West End near the Ford Motor Co. plant and investigating long-term possibilities for reusing a former uranium enrichment plant in Paducah.

But most of the work has been in Henderson, with a focus on the Henderson Municipal Power & Light Plant No. 1, an old coal-fired plant that was decommissioned a few years ago.

Originally, city leaders thought the power plant needed to be demolished to redevelop the area. But Speaks said that has turned to looking for ways to renovate the huge plant for uses such as a convention center, offices for energy-related companies or even an IMAX movie theater.

“We have tried to make ourselves part of these communities,” Speaks said, by working closely with local leaders to help create design solutions that will meet their needs and achieve their goals.

The River Cities project is an example of how Speaks wants the college to become a state resource, offering design-related help for economic and social issues. Another example is a project that has designed attractive, affordable and energy-efficient homes that can be mass produced at idle houseboat factories around Lake Cumberland. Another idea on the horizon: creating a Kentucky Mayor’s Institute for Design to help local officials with urban planning issues.

This kind of collaboration could have applications far beyond Kentucky, which is why the Biennale is interested in showcasing UK’s work.

Chick on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

Whether Rupp Arena is renovated or replaced, this huge, strategic area deserves a world-class makeover

April 3, 2011

For 35 years, Rupp Arena has been one of the great college basketball venues. Photo by Jonathan Palmer

Should Rupp Arena be renovated or replaced?

That has been a hot topic since Mayor Jim Gray announced plans in January to create the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force to study redevelopment of the Lexington Center complex.

The 47-member task force Gray appointed last week will soon begin the process of creating a long-term plan. It should be a lot more than a study to determine the future home of the University of Kentucky’s basketball team.

Lexington Center and the surrounding city property is 23-times larger than the infamous CentrePointe block, and almost as strategically located. What happens with this property could transform downtown Lexington — or be a huge missed opportunity.

The arena question is an emotional one. This is Final Four weekend, after all, and Louisville’s new $238 million KFC Yum Center has given many citizens of Big Blue Nation a serious case of arena envy.

UK Athletics officials want a new arena because it would give them more space to create luxury facilities to rent to wealthy fans. But is a new arena in the best economic interests of Lexington and its taxpayers?

Jim Host, the Lexington resident and UK booster who was the force behind building Louisville’s arena, thinks a Rupp renovation makes more sense. Host, who declined Gray’s request to chair this task force, has said 35-year-old Rupp Arena should be remodeled into the Wrigley Field of college basketball.

Gray, who came to the mayor’s office with more than three decades of major construction experience, has indicated that he also favors a Rupp renovation.

I suspect they are correct, but the issue needs to be decided with a thorough financial analysis.

While the arena question is important, the task force must be focused on the bigger picture. That means fixing old mistakes and making the most of opportunities to jump-start a part of downtown already on the rise.

Rupp and Lexington Center were created as part of the tragically misnamed “urban renewal” process that swept the nation after World War II. A largely African-American neighborhood of historic homes was bulldozed to create acres of surface parking for the new Rupp Arena and what was then called the Civic Center.

The complex emerged as a fortress island, surrounded by surface parking and symbolically walled off from downtown by the Triangle Park fountain and the Vine Street curve. Lexington Center is a huge civic asset, but less than it could be.

Lots of people have ideas for redeveloping Lexington Center’s vast asphalt desert. Once the economy recovers, there will be demand for more affordable downtown housing and retail space. Lexington needs a performing arts venue comparable to Centre College’s Norton Center in Danville and Eastern Kentucky University’s new Center for the Performing Arts in Richmond. Some people dream of an art museum.

What makes this property so important is its location. It is surrounded by unique community assets: the Mary Todd Lincoln House, Historic Pleasant Green and Main Street Baptist churches, Victorian Square and the revitalized neighborhoods of Woodward Heights, the Old Western Suburb and what remains of South Hill.

Lexington Center is near three emerging restaurant and entertainment districts, along Jefferson and Manchester Streets as well as downtown, where the renovated Triangle Park can play a key connecting role.

The whole area has attracted significant private investment in recent years, from new and restored homes to Alltech’s Kentucky Ale brewery. Alltech also has renovated the old Ice House into a visitors center, and it plans to build a distillery and restore two adjacent Victorian homes.

This task force of well-qualified Lexingtonians with a variety of perspectives is an important first step in the process. Task force members should identify Lexington’s needs, desires and dreams for this area. The next step will be to raise $350,000 in private money to hire world-class experts to help design and execute a plan.

These 46 acres cry out for a higher level of urban planning and architectural excellence than Lexington has been accustomed to in recent decades. The opportunity is too great, and the stakes are too high, to do anything less.

Mayoral forums highlight development views

July 21, 2010

The two Jims from Barren County who are vying to be the next mayor of Lexington have so many similar goals that it has been hard for some voters to choose between them. They both want to create jobs, improve the quality of life and create a more vibrant economy.

But when it comes to urban planning, downtown development and historic preservation issues, the approaches of Mayor Jim Newberry and Vice Mayor Jim Gray are quite different. That was obvious in separate presentations to the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation. Newberry spoke to the group June 15; Gray took his turn Tuesday.

Jim Newberry

Jim Newberry

Newberry articulated a generally laissez faire approach to development, within current city law. He rejected the “bully pulpit” approach that mayors such as Joe Riley of Charleston, S.C., have used to protect historic buildings and ensure that high-profile developments are high in quality and compatible with their surroundings.

A lawyer, Newberry expressed skepticism about proposals for downtown design guidelines or a professional architecture-review process, such as Columbus, Ohio, and other cities have. He seemed wary of processes that could be subjective or infringe on property owners’ rights. “I am well aware that the devil is in the details of how those things work,” he said.

Newberry has had a cool relationship with preservationists because he has tended to see historic preservation as an impediment to economic development more than a tool for achieving it.

Gray, a builder who heads Lexington-based Gray Construction Co., outlined a much different philosophy. He said that if elected mayor, he would create a commissioner-level job to manage the city’s planning, preservation and economic innovation efforts and recruit “the best talent in America” to fill it.

“Preservation is essential because it preserves our brand, our uniqueness, our authentic sense of place,” Gray said.

Jim Gray

Jim Gray

In addition to preserving and creatively reusing old buildings, Gray said he would use his influence as mayor to encourage outstanding contemporary architecture. Lexington needs a combination of the two, he said, to create the quality of life and economic climate that will create jobs and prosperity.

“I have been outspoken in my support of design guidelines,” Gray said. “Unlike the mayor, I believe we must do better in planning and developing our downtown. I have seen better” in other cities, where he has managed major construction projects for more than three decades.

“We do a lot of work in other places, and I know there are better planning models, better development models, better building inspection and enforcement models,” he said. “Where bureaucratic red tape is less, decisions are better, preservation and growth coexist, and outcomes are outstanding.”

Gray’s decision to run for mayor grew largely out of Newberry’s support for the now-stalled CentrePointe project, in which a downtown block that included several historically and architecturally significant buildings was cleared. The developer’s mysterious financing never materialized. Two years later, the block is a grassy field and likely to remain that way for some time.

Gray was critical — and perceptively accurate — about flaws in CentrePointe’s economic model, and the development’s uninspired architecture and the destruction of old buildings that could have been restored and reused. “When we destroy what gives us our identity, we destroy future opportunities for economic vitality,” he said.

“The leadership on these issues starts at the top … so we don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over,” Gray said, adding that more urban design and architectural expertise was needed on the city’s planning staff.

Both Newberry and Gray strongly support rural land preservation and the Purchase of Development Rights program, and they both are wary of expanding the Urban Services Boundary.

Not long ago, rural preservation was controversial in Lexington because many people thought the only way to have economic growth was to keep developing the way the city had always developed. Now, of course, most people recognize the economic benefits of protecting Lexington’s unique horse farm landscape.

Lexington’s signature landscape has never just been about natural beauty, but a unique combination of the natural and built environments, both on horse farms and in town. Protecting the best we have, and making sure new development sets a high standard, will be key to future prosperity. It is too important to be left to chance.

Watch Charleston mayor’s Lexington talk here

April 3, 2010

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley’s talk in Lexington about the secrets to creating a great city environment generated a lot of buzz.

Riley’s talk March 3 was the subject of a forum by Lexington’s four mayoral candidates a week later, and it has been a frequent topic of civic conversation since then. I wrote this column about what he had to say.

If you missed Riley’s excellent presentation, you can watch it below. He talked about how the South Carolina city has used historic preservation and good urban planning to create a place that’s good for both tourists and residents. His visit to Lexington was sponsored by the Gaines Center for the Humanities at the University of Kentucky and The Fayette Alliance.

The second video is of the mayoral forum March 10, in which all four candidates responded to his remarks. (Videos posted on the Wildcat Student TV channel on Vimeo. Thanks to Bill Johnston for the links.)

Smart Growth by Joseph Riley (Mayor – Charleston, SC) from Wildcat Student TV on Vimeo.

Lexington, KY Smart Growth Mayoral Forum from Wildcat Student TV on Vimeo.

Charleston mayor’s ideas right for Lexington, too

March 6, 2010

Joe Riley is an evangelist for historic preservation, good urban design and proven strategies for making cities more livable and economically successful.

He founded the national Mayors’ Institute for City Design. The Joseph P. Riley Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Studies at the College of Charleston is named for him. But Riley’s best credential is his day job: since 1975, for an unprecedented nine terms, he has been the mayor of Charleston, S.C.

People who know Charleston often remark on what a great city it is — the beautiful waterfront, the Spoleto arts festival and the colorfully painted historic homes. Those old enough to remember what the city used to be like talk about how much it has improved.

During Riley’s tenure, Charleston’s annual tourist trade has increased from 1.7 million to 4.4 million visitors. At the same time, the city has often made lists of the best places to live and do business.

Riley was in Lexington last Wednesday to speak to an overflow crowd at the Downtown Public Library. Many civic leaders were there, as well as all four candidates for mayor.

With a rapid-fire PowerPoint presentation that lasted for more than an hour, Riley flashed slide after slide showing Charleston’s transformation from the time when “our downtown almost died.”

The pictures showed dozens of dilapidated buildings restored to elegance and commercial success; modest but well-designed public housing so attractive that expensive condos were later built across the street; neighborhoods and commercial streets rescued from neglect by city leaders who demanded and got high-quality private development; an elegant public park on what was once a waterfront eyesore.

“A big challenge was this vacant lot right in the middle of downtown,” Riley said at one point, prompting the crowd to erupt in laughter. “Oh, you have one of those, too?”

A key factor in Charleston’s success has been historic preservation. “We work hard to keep the bulldozers out,” he said.

Historic preservation hasn’t been so much about preserving the past — “we’re not a movie set or a theme park,” Riley said — but about creating an authentic, irreplaceable and human-scaled environment where people naturally want to be. The city also insists that new development be well-designed, well-built and, well, worthy of being in Charleston.

That means having effective laws and regulations, but also the kind of professional architectural review processes Lexington lacks. Such a process helps ensure that new development is appropriate, well-designed and in the best interests of the entire city and not just an individual developer or property owner.

“Try not to plop things down,” Riley said of new development. “Make it work. Make it fit.”

Excellence is often achieved with that last 5 percent of effort, the mayor noted. He repeatedly gave examples of using his political skills to make sure old buildings were saved, money was found to restore them and proposed new construction added to rather than detracted from the rest of the city. Riley said he once called then-President Bill Clinton to insist that a new federal building respect Charleston’s downtown esthetic.

“There’s never an excuse to build anything that doesn’t add to the beauty of a city,” Riley said, acknowledging that “the political land mines are all over the place.”

Successful cities put a lot of emphasis on beautiful public space that attracts people. “The things of value are increasingly the things we own together,” he said. “When you build a great public realm, the private money and development will follow.”

Riley’s strong leadership is controversial; he has always had a re-election opponent, and last time he had three. But Riley’s approach has clearly worked for Charleston and most of its citizens. He was re-elected for an eighth time in 2007 with 64 percent of the vote.

City-building is a complicated stew, but the principles Riley outlined are simple: vision, leadership, and a commitment to long-term value for the entire city rather than just short-term profit for individuals.

When Lexington has followed those principles, it has enjoyed some of its greatest success: creating the Urban Services Boundary in 1958; restricting rural lot sizes in 1964 and 1999; starting the Purchase of Development Rights program in 2000; and creating historic districts over the past 50 years (often, though, after significant damage was already done.)

Lexington has failed when it ignored those principles and allowed tacky, vinyl-box housing, commercial sprawl, haphazard architecture and, since the 1950s, the destruction of classic downtown buildings to make way for parking lots, drab concrete boxes and ego-driven glass towers.

“Our success as a culture, economic and otherwise, will depend on our cities,” Riley said. “We must treat them as precious heirlooms that we inherit and hold in trust for future generations.”

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.

Vancouver seminar brings out Lexington issues

May 30, 2009

It takes a pretty good seminar to keep me inside on a warm, sunny Saturday when I could be out biking. But Planning for Livability and Sustainability: Lessons of the Vancouver Achievement for Lexington and the Bluegrass was fascinating.

The seminar today at the University of Kentucky was organized by UK professors Ernest Yanarella and Richard Levine. It was a followup to a similar seminar at the Kentucky Horse Park in 2007.

About 40 people attended, including Vice Mayor Jim Gray, Urban County Council member Diane Lawless and David Mohney, chairman of the Downtown Development Authority. I wish some others from council, the city planning staff and Commerce Lexington whose name tags I saw on the registration table had been able to come.

Ian Smith, Vancouver’s former senior planner and now project director for the 2010 Olympic Village, gave a terrific presentation about how his city has in just the past two or three decades transformed itself by bringing many segments of the community together around the goals of making Vancouver a model for urban livability and environmental sustainability.

Early next week, I’ll write more about that, as well as about the presentation by Mark Roseland, director of the Centre for Sustainable Community Development at Simon Fraser University near Vancouver. He talked about what that university is doing, and the role universities can play in helping a city and region improve its environment and economy.

But here was an interesting sidebar from today’s session:

Gray, who has been critical of the Downtown Development Authority for supporting the secretive development of the controversial CentrePointe project, said during a discussion that Lexington’s council members and the mayor need more help and leadership from senior planning staff members to make good policy decisions.

“We don’t have the level of competence that our city deserves in these roles,” Gray said. He added that Lexington government needs a change of political culture to allow senior staff members to feel empowered to seek out innovative ideas and help lead policymakers and the public toward good solutions.

That brought a sharp response from Mohney, who in addition to being the DDA chairman is a UK College of Design professor and former dean who has worked for years to involve students in helping Lexington do a better job of urban planning.

“It’s a tough town to make this work,” Mohney said. “It’s going to take time.” (quote corrected from initial post)

Lawless jumped in, complaining that the city’s bureaucracy is too fragmented. “It’s often like a shotgun, with each pellet being powered by a different division,” she said. “We need an urban planner who has that over-arching vision.”

Lawless said the result is a slow decision-making process where each interest group works with a different part of city government, but there’s too little coordination, leadership or vision. To help with that, she is pushing to have 16 recommendations from the lengthy Downtown Master Plan process finally adopted into  law.

Mohney noted that Lexington was at the forefront of American urban planning in 1958 when it created a growth boundary to protect Bluegrass horse farms. “The problem is we did nothing after that to redefine our growth strategy,” he said.

Lawless said this is a good time to do that, noting that the current mayor and council seem to have the political will to address tough, long-neglected growth issues. “The only way it’s going to happen is for us to roll up our sleeves and do something about it,” she said. “Now is the time.”

Soon, it was time for Roseland to begin his presentation. But the discussion continued for a few minutes on Twitter, with Gray, Mohney and Lawless — along with me and local bloggers Eric Patrick Marr and Taylor Shelton — typing away on their BlackBerrys.

Thanks to that social media platform, several hundred people could follow that conversation. It even prompted one of them — Rob Morris, owner of Lowell’s Toyota repair shop downtown and a budding blogger — to leave work and come over to listen to the rest of the seminar.

A novel approach to downtown development

April 14, 2009

Like many journalists, I’ve always dreamed of writing the great American novel.

I have an idea for one. I even have a title: All That Glitters.

Here’s the plot: A real estate developer announces plans to build a massive tower in the center of town. He touts it as an economic boon. He calls it DazzlePointe, with the extra “e” on the end to add some class.

Some of this developer’s previous projects have been successful; others haven’t been. For various reasons, some people in town don’t trust him. But most of the city’s powers that be are, well, dazzled by his proposal.

Think of it as The Music Man without the music.

The developer has been secretly working on DazzlePointe for a couple of years. But when he unveils the renderings, they show a generic tower that looks as if it was designed in a couple of weeks.

The developer’s business plan is suspect. It’s straight out of the fast-buck days of a real estate bubble that’s getting ready to pop: A luxury hotel, nearly 100 million-dollar condos, upscale shops and restaurants.

Where’s the money for DazzlePointe coming from? It’s all cash, the developer says, but it’s coming from a foreign investor whose identity he can’t disclose.

The developer says he needs government help, in the form of tax-increment financing, to make the project truly special. Unless, that is, people want to ask too many questions; then he can build it on his own, but it will be much less special.

The money is in place, the developer says. He’s ready to go. Except for one thing: The block contains some very old buildings that his silent partner has let crumble for years while city officials looked the other way.

Many good architects say some of the old buildings are special. They say they could be incorporated into a beautiful contemporary structure that would be better for the city and still accomplish the developer’s financial goals. But the developer scoffs. The old buildings must go! City officials snap to attention, and the bulldozers roll in.

With the DazzlePointe site now cleared and ready for construction, everyone waits. And waits. Months go by. Then, city officials are told that the mysterious investor died. Months ago. Without leaving a will. But don’t worry, the developer says. Everything will be fine.

How will the novel end? I’ve thought about several possibilities.

The developer might find the money and build his tower, only to see it fail within a few years (perhaps after he has sold it and pocketed a handsome fee). The real estate bubble has burst, taking much of the economy with it. The tower’s business plan makes less and less sense with each passing day.

Another ending could be that the developer doesn’t really have the money to build DazzlePointe. But now, with the block cleared, he and his partner have more flexibility to build something else there. Except for the loss of the old buildings, things work out fine, because the new project makes more long-term sense than DazzlePointe ever did.

Of course, a third ending could be that DazzlePointe is built and is a long-term success, defying all of the skeptics — and all of the nation’s economic trends. But it has been years since I read many fairy tales, so I doubt I could write a good fairy-tale ending.

The part of this plot where I’m stuck isn’t the end; it’s the middle. I’m to the point where the DazzlePointe site is a big hole, the mysterious investor is dead and nothing seems to be happening.

How do the powers that be react? Do they continue taking everything the developer says as gospel? Or do they finally begin asking tough questions and demanding answers?

Here are some of the questions they might ask: When did the mysterious investor die? When did the developer find out? How long did he know it before telling government officials? Was it before the block was cleared? Was it before application for tax-increment financing was made or approved? Are there legal issues here that authorities should investigate?

As I said, this is the part of the novel where I’m stuck. How the powers that be react at this point could have a big effect on how the end of this story is written.

On second thought, maybe I should just stick to journalism. I probably wouldn’t make a good novelist. After all, this plot is so implausible, who would ever believe it?