Tom Eblen: Question for arena task force is bigger than Rupp

dISCUSSION MORE THAN JUST BASKETBALL; tASK fORCE CHARGED WITH RESHAPING DOWNTOWN

herald-leader columnist,By MeApril 3, 2011 

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.

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

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