Changing the face of northwest Lexington

Herald-Leader columnistJuly 13, 2009 

Conversion of the Eastern State Hospital property into the new campus of Bluegrass Community and Technical College is perhaps Lexington's most important urban redevelopment project in decades.

So it is good to see that the people running this project seem to be serious about doing it right.

BCTC President Augusta Julian assembled a strong planning team that has been working for months in consultation with a diverse group of specialists and stakeholders. Now, you can have your say.

Officials will hold a public forum to seek comments on the campus master plan at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the North Lexington YMCA at 381 West Loudon Avenue.

"We have made every effort to talk to everyone," said Stan Harvey, a principal in the design firm Urban Collage. "Even though we've come a long way, it's early enough in the process that it can still be refined."

A second public hearing will be scheduled in the fall, when the site plan is near completion.

The project was made possible by a brilliant land swap announced last year: Eastern State, one of the nation's oldest hospitals, will get a new facility on the University of Kentucky's Coldstream property on Newtown Pike. BCTC will get a new campus on the Eastern State property. UK will get BCTC's Cooper Drive campus for future expansion.

The new BCTC campus will be a landmark project for several reasons.

For one thing, it is a rare opportunity to build a new college campus for an institution experiencing huge growth and rapid change to meet the needs of Kentucky's 21st-century economy. Julian sees the possibility that enrollment could double from the current 12,000 students within a decade.

But the planning team wanted to avoid the classic commuter-school design — an island of buildings surrounded by a sea of surface parking. The plan calls for more than 60 percent of parking to be in structures along railroad tracks, with surface lots concentrated near the "back" of the campus along Loudon Avenue.

Morgan McIlwain, landscape architect with M2D, said a lot of thought was given to how to integrate mass transit into the plan, as well as bicycle and pedestrian access. Officials plan to incorporate into the campus a part of the proposed Legacy Trail — a bike and pedestrian trail that ultimately will link downtown Lexington to the Kentucky Horse Park.

The planning team also realized that the campus will have a huge impact on redevelopment of the surrounding area, which includes the YMCA, Lexmark and Coolivan Park.

The team estimates that 88 acres of surrounding property is now either vacant or "underutilized." Much of it is old industrial land that Harvey hopes can be rezoned for high-density residential, commercial and other private developments that he expects to grow up around the campus.

A lot of thought has been put into Fourth Street, which will connect the campus to nearby Transylvania University, and Newtown Pike, the extension of which will connect it back to UK and the Cooper Drive campus.

The 48-acre Eastern State site, which has been closed to the public since the hospital began operations there in 1816, was something of a mystery. When Loudon Avenue was extended many years ago, workers discovered 4,500 graves that were reburied there in an area that will be maintained as a cemetery.

The planning team has worked for months with the Kentucky Heritage Council and others to survey the site. Surprisingly, no more graves have been found, Harvey said.

The team is recommending the renovation and reuse of four of the dozen buildings now on the site. Those include the white-columned administration building, the hospital's most recognizable structure, and an architecturally significant 1906 "laundry" building.

But it turns out that the most historic feature of the property is the front lawn, whose design has essentially been unchanged since 1816. McIlwain said the lawn will be preserved, as well as the relationship of buildings to Fourth Street and Newtown Pike.

Plans call for the campus to eventually have about 14 buildings of three to five stories, with a total investment exceeding $500 million over two decades. A new state law will require construction to adhere to "green" building standards. That could include roof gardens and water-permeable paving.

In addition to Urban Collage, the project team includes several top local firms: EOP Architects, M2D Design Group landscape architects and Staggs and Fisher engineering. International firms on the team include Perkins + Will, which specializes in campus design, and HDR civil engineers.

The new BCTC campus will change the face of northwest Lexington. Now's the time to have your say about what that face should look like.

Reach Tom Eblen at (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415, or at teblen@herald-leader.com. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.

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