Architect presents ideas for Rupp and surrounding area

planner leads lively discussion on downtown's future

bfortune@herald-leader.comOctober 19, 2011 

Coming up with ideas for an arena and arts and entertainment district for downtown Lexington is a give-and-take process, architect Gary Bates told about 200 people gathered at Buster's Tuesday night.

Bates presented ideas for the district at a meeting hosted by Lexington's Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force, a 47-member group of community leaders exploring the future of Rupp Arena and the surrounding area.

Mayor Jim Gray appointed the task force in the spring. It has raised $350,000 to finance its work, including hiring Bates in August as master planner for the project.

The future of Rupp Arena is an important component because Rupp is an "energy generator," Bates said. But his firm, Space Group, based in Oslo, Norway, is looking beyond the arena and Lexington Center to the entire downtown area.

"We're not presenting solutions tonight on what Rupp or Lexington Center will look like," Bates said. "We're presenting our research on downtown, and we want to get information back from you that we can put into the process we will be engaged in over the coming months."

Ideas presented Tuesday included:

 Converting the Cox Street parking lot into a park with Town Branch creek running through it.

 Building a 4,000-seat outdoor amphitheater, perhaps in the Cox Street area.

 Taking down the Jefferson Street viaduct that is a visual barrier and makes the Cox Street parking lot seem like it is in a "gully."

 Allowing two-way traffic on Main and Vine streets. "Maybe it will never happen," Bates said. "But the speed on one-way streets is too high. It's hurting downtown."

 Finding ways to more closely link the University of Kentucky to downtown. It's a 12-minute walk from the UK campus to Rupp Arena, "but the distance seems much greater," Bates said. A challenge will be to find ways "to pull UK and downtown physically and intellectually closer together."

 Separating Rupp Arena from the Lexington Center. Rupp might stay where it is, but its walls and roof would have transparent coverings to let light into the arena, while allowing people on the outside to see in. Bates said building a new arena and and a new convention center would not be feasible unless the economy changes.

 Building a new Lexington Center, perhaps underground on a portion of the High Street parking lot, with a roof garden and large skylights.

 Finding ways to "free Rupp" visually and physically, since it is hemmed in by streets, parking lots and the Lexington Center.

Bates attended the UK basketball teams' Big Blue Madness on Friday night, and he said he was inspired by the powerful fan experience in Rupp. Immediately after the game, he went outside, wanting to be part of the post-event celebration. But there was none.

"Man, 24,000 people just disappeared. People poured out of Rupp, got in their cars and left," he said. There needs to be a way to expand the fan experience both before and after the game, he said.

People who attended the workshop were enthusiastic with the ideas presented.

"I like the idea of leaving Rupp and moving the Lexington Center," said Dave Elbon, a UK computer programmer. "And get rid of the Jefferson Street viaduct. With the new Oliver Lewis Way bridge, we don't really need it."

Robert Bolson, a copy writer with the National Tour Association, said he was "exhilarated by the discussion."

"People tend to pigeonhole this discussion into whether we need a new arena or not, but what Bates is looking at is so much larger. He's looking at the future of downtown — the housing, the transportation, the entertainment and cultural activities. It's so much larger than one block on High Street," Bolson said.

Lexington attorney Foster Ockerman Jr. said he liked Bates' creativity. He was especially impressed with the idea of creating a transportation hub by moving the Lexington Transit Center closer to the R.J. Corman railroad yard, which is a stone's throw from Town Branch creek. A bike path is planned along the creek.

Another public workshop is planned for late November. A finished plan for the arts and entertainment district, plus recommendations for an arena and convention center, will come at the end of January 2012.

Reach Beverly Fortune at (859) 231-3251 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3251.

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