Tom Eblen: 'Creative placemaking' has people excited about Lexington

Herald-Leader columnistMarch 29, 2014 

In a 21st-century economy where jobs often follow people instead of the other way around, what assets help a city prosper?

That question has led researchers, civic and business leaders to focus on things previously considered nice but not essential: arts, culture and a sense of place that make people feel engaged and invested in their community.

Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, a dance choreographer-turned-urban planning researcher, has studied one variation on this phenomenon called "creative placemaking."

She was here Thursday to speak at the annual Lafayette Seminar in Public Issues put on by the University of Kentucky's Gaines Center for the Humanities. It was co-sponsored by LexArts, the McBrayer law firm, the North Limestone Community Development Corp. and Commerce Lexington.

Nicodemus has researched the economic and social vibrancy created when various community sectors — government, business, non-profit organizations and citizens groups — come together to use arts and culture to strategically shape the physical and social character of a city.

That kind of development has been happening organically in many parts of Lexington in recent years. "Lexington has become a place that people are excited about," said Steve Kay, an Urban County council member. "This conversation couldn't have happened five years ago."

Three recent examples were discussed at the seminar. The first is Walker Properties' redevelopment of National Avenue, a former light industrial street east of downtown, into a mixed-use retail, restaurant and arts district.

The second was Jefferson Street, which has blossomed into a restaurant district thanks to early investments by Wine + Market, Stella's Deli and West Sixth Brewery. The brewery's four partners played a big role in that, because they chose to buy a 90,000-square-foot former bread factory, now called the Bread Box. One of their challenges was figuring out what to do with all of that space.

Rather than just try to rent to other commercial tenants, Ben Self said, they wanted to foster a community of people, businesses and organizations that shared their values and vision for creating a vibrant community. He added that city regulators helped the partners cut through red tape to make it all work.

In addition to the brewery and tap room, the Bread Box now houses a non-profit bike shop, a coffee roaster, artist studios, a restaurant and an urban agriculture non-profit that grows fish and greens for the restaurant. "It just felt like the right way to do it," Self said. "It's a development that has a heart to it."

Later this year, the Bread Box also will house an expanded Plantory, which has co-working space for non-profit organizations. The Plantory has outgrown its space in the Community Ventures Corp. building at East Third Street and Midland Avenue.

A third example in Lexington is the North Limestone neighborhood, where young entrepreneurs have been restoring century-old homes and commercial buildings and starting new businesses.

The North Limestone Community Development Corp. recently won a $425,000 grant from Artplace, a consortium of private foundations, banks and federal agencies that is investing in creative placemaking efforts around the country.

The money will be used to begin renovation of a former factory and 40 old shotgun houses to create studios and homes for artists and craftsmen. The idea is to turn a neighborhood liability — old buildings needing rehabilitation and occupants— into a cultural and economic asset.

An important key to creative placemaking is that, in addition to economic activity, it creates a sense of place that people find attractive. It makes a city a place where natives want to stay or return, and others want to move to.

"What we're seeing now is a tying together of the economic and the sentimental," said Jeff Fugate, president of the Downtown Development Authority. "That's what's exciting."

For creative placemaking to reach its full potential, civic and business leaders must make sure public policy supports it and strategic thinking helps small initiatives add up to something bigger.

"It's about bringing disparate groups together to make something special happen," LexArts President Jim Clark said. "There is no cookie-cutter way to make a creative place. But you recognize it when you see it."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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