Daniel Rowland: Why is UK dumping Omar Blaik plan that had community backing?

collaboration under way ignored

October 1, 2012 

Daniel Rowland, a former University of Kentucky faculty member, is a board member of ProgressLex.

  • At issue: Aug. 24 Herald-Leader article, "UK picks planning firm to assess campus growth" and May 17 Herald-Leader article, "Study aims to revive campus community; with surge in rental units near UK and Transy, smarter development urged"

As a member of the Historic South Hill Neighborhood Association, I recently received a copy of a letter from Tom Harris, vice president of external relations for the University of Kentucky, asking for our input in an updated campus plan to be carried out by Sasaki Associates of Boston.

Over my 38 years as a board member of our neighborhood association, as well as a faculty member of UK, I am very familiar with the university's relations — or lack of them — with its near neighborhoods. After years of silence, the university has met, in the past 20 years or so, with neighbors. Now comes yet another invitation to start, yet again, a constructive dialogue.

Sasaki is to update the campus plan completed in 2002 by Ayers Saint Gross of Baltimore. As noted in the Herald-Leader, Sasaki would provide advice on where to locate the planned new dorm space for some 9,000 students. I took an active part in the Ayers Saint Gross planning process, which I think worked well, but the idea of 9,000 student beds was certainly not on the table at that point.

The article also reported that Bob Wiseman, UK's vice president of facilities, said he was "in negotiations with urban planner Omar Blaik." These negotiations seem to have gone nowhere.

While I am only slightly familiar with the work of Sasaki Associates, I do know that Blaik made several visits to Lexington and was hired by an alliance of crucial institutions, including UK, Transylvania University, Bluegrass Community & Technical College and Bluegrass Community Foundation, the city and numerous other sponsors — including the Fayette Alliance and Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation — to produce a preliminary report on potential town-gown synergies.

In the report, Blaik urged UK and other higher-ed institutions to collaborate closely with the city in planning for growth, particularly the location of student residences. Blaik is a nationally famous expert on town-gown planning, and is largely responsible for transforming the Philadelphia environment around the University of Pennsylvania in a series of moves that drew national attention and is the subject of a book by former Penn president Judith Rodin, The University and Urban Revival: Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the Streets (The City in the Twenty-First Century).

What I can't understand in Harris' letter is that he completely omits any mention of Blaik and all the work he has done on precisely the questions the letter raises for our neighborhood. Instead, he introduces yet another firm. Why can't UK hire Blaik to work with Sasaki to help find the best location for these 9,000 students?

Blaik has already met with all the most important players, and has a good relationship with city planners and Mayor Jim Gray. His expertise is undeniable. He already has credibility with the public in Lexington. Sasaki Associates is now opening new conversations with many of the same people Blaik has met with and will have to develop a new relationship with city planners and the mayor. Most important, Sasaki will be working outside of the collaborative and inclusive structure that commissioned the Blaik study and presumably will report only to UK.

This is one more example of the crying need for UK and the city to work together for the good of both. President Eli Capilouto and UK have already refused to offer strong support to the legislature for the creation of a Rupp Arena Arts and Entertainment District.

Although Harris' letter is full of fine-sounding words about the importance of a vibrant community, the apparent decision not to hire Blaik is one more piece of evidence that UK does not place a high priority on its relationship with Lexington and with the other institutions that collaborated to bring Blaik's expertise to bear. Instead, it prefers once again to chart its own path.

I am painfully aware of the financial restrictions UK faces. Lexington certainly has its own set of financial problems. For this very reason, it is way past time for Capilouto and UK to work closely with Gray and all the other collaborating institutions in a genuine effort to work with Lexington, in this case by continuing the relationship with Blaik instead of setting out on its own — yet again.

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