After a century of looking outward, cities large and small are experiencing a renewed interest in downtown, taking stock of what was lost and building on what resources remain. Some cities like Lexington, Kentucky, are literally peeling back layers of history and returning to their roots. An invited competition comprising five internationally recognized firms is reimagining a lost waterway now running beneath city streets as a vital asset to downtown and an organizing armature of public space to guide future development around a new sports, arts, and entertainment district.
Lexington was founded along Town Branch Creek in 1775, a meandering waterway that sustained initial settlement and helped launch a thriving Bourbon distilling industry along its banks. As the city grew and industrialized, the creek fell victim to pollution and neglect and was eventually rerouted, buried, and forgotten for over a century.
Courtesy Space Group
In April, 2011, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray created a task force to evaluate 62 acres of parking lots and underutilized parcels surrounding Rupp Arena, home to the University of Kentucky, bringing on Norway-based architecture firm Space Group to create a master plan. Space Group principal Gary Bates proposed rethinking downtown’s geography, centering on the arena to weave together the city’s historic center with the adjacent Distillery District, rebuilding the city’s outdated convention center, and renovating the arena in the process.
Michael Speaks, Dean of the University of Kentucky College of Design, said Bates pushed the city to look at the larger picture of downtown development. “Although Bates’ brief was to look at Rupp Arena, the convention center, and the surrounding parking lots, he knew the idea needed to expand into downtown. But to get people to focus, you need to center on Rupp,” he said. “The proposal gathered a lot of visual interest and got a lot of people excited.” Several high profile projects in the area continue to generate interest in downtown, including boutique hotel by Deborah Berke Partners and a large-scale mixed-use project called Centrepointe, previously master planned by Studio Gang and now moving forward under EOP Architects.
Courtesy Space Group; Courtesy EOP Architects; Courtesy Lexington Distillery District
Building on Bates’ master plan, the Lexington Downtown Development Authority (DDA) issued a RFQ to daylight, or uncover, the downtown segment of Town Branch Creek with new pocket parks along its route. After an overwhelming response from firms across the country, the DDA invited five firms to study the feasibility of the project and create detailed proposals of how Town Branch Commons might look. The five teams are led by Denver-based Civitas, Minneapolis-based Coen+Partners, Inside Outside from the Netherlands, Danish firm Julien De Smedt Architects, and New York-based SCAPE / Landscape Architecture.
Each teams’ proposal will be presented on February 1 following a symposium organized by the University of Kentucky. Speaks said each firm will present previous work showing the benefits of large-scale urban interventions like the High Line in New York. “Part of the competition is to show the city five speculations that are realistic,” Speaks explained. “But this is not purely speculative. The competition is an attempt to bring a new level of talent to Lexington.” The symposium will be moderated by Michael Speaks, Aaron Betsky, Director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and Landscape Architecture magazine Editor-in-Chief Brad McKee.
Following the symposium, a jury will select a winning proposal and the DDA will award $200,000 to further develop their concept and establish financial feasibility. The winning design will eventually be used to bolster public support and help with private fundraising.