Arena master planner: Rupp could be renovated if convention center moved

Herald-Leader columnistAugust 28, 2011 

The master planner for the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District has a unique blend of international experience and Lexington knowledge — and some interesting ideas about how this 46-acre chunk of downtown could be redeveloped.

Gary Bates, one of three founders of Space Group, a 12-year-old architecture and urban planning firm based in Oslo, Norway, was chosen over 13 other firms earlier this month by the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force's Planning and Design Committee.

The public could get its first glimpse of Bates' ideas Sept. 7, when the 47-member task force meets to discuss preliminary reports from four committees that have been working since April. The task force's goal is to develop a plan by early next year for the future of Rupp Arena, Lexington Center and the vast parking lots surrounding them.

"I'm really excited to be back in the U.S. and doing work here," Bates said in an interview. "For us, it's a dream project; the right scale and complexity."

Bates impressed the committee by going well beyond what was asked of applicants, said Michael Speaks, a selection committee member and dean of the University of Kentucky's College of Design.

Space Group developed several initial scenarios for the district. Bates already was familiar with Lexington because Speaks had brought him here to teach for a year in 2008-09 as the Brown Forman Chair in Urban Design.

One thing that got the committee's attention was Bates' belief that Rupp Arena could be renovated and expanded — adding luxury boxes, more seats, high-tech electronics and other amenities — if the Lexington Center convention facility was relocated elsewhere in the district.

"Rupp Arena has this history," said Bates, who played high school basketball while growing up in Wilmington, Del. "Before we abandon anything, we have to evaluate this enormous value."

Building a new convention center could be much cheaper than building a new arena, and it would allow both facilities to grow to meet current and future needs, Bates said. "We took a look at the (current) convention center and said this is not sustainable," he said.

The biggest challenge in moving the convention center would be maintaining close proximity to the Hyatt Regency and Hilton hotels. Bates stressed that it was just one concept to consider. "This was actually a tool to get the discussions going," he said.

But Speaks said the selection committee was intrigued "by the possibility of having our cake and eating it, too."

Mayor Jim Gray liked Bates' concept but said he would want to make sure Space Group's structural engineering consultants are right that it could be done.

"Reinventing Rupp; that has a real attraction to it," Gray said. "What I would like us to consider is the relationship of these facilities to what's going on around them."

Indeed, much of Space Group's job as master planner will be to facilitate discussions among all stakeholders. "How do we make sure that the decisions we make today will still be good decisions decades from now?" Bates said.

Among Space Group's other initial ideas: building high-density housing on the High Street parking lot and bringing Town Branch Creek back to the surface somehow to connect the area with the Distillery District to the west.

Other design-team members include Omni Architects of Lexington and Global Spectrum, a technical firm that specializes in arenas. Other possible facilities mentioned for the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District include an art museum, a small performing arts center and school or university buildings.

After finishing his architectural training at Virginia Tech in 1990, Bates worked in the Netherlands with legendary architect Rem Koolhaas' firm OMA, eventually becoming director of Asian operations. Bates also has worked on projects with Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, who is redesigning the nearby CentrePointe mixed-use project for The Webb Cos.

Space Group has tackled several big collaborative projects, including Scandinavia's largest conference hotel, a redesign of Oslo's central train station and master plans for large developments in Sweden, Korea, Norway and Latvia.

"We want to have Lexington people on our team and have a local office, but also bring in international talent," Bates said. "You have to give yourself time to get the right people involved at the right time."

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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