The Downtown Development Authority issued a request on Tuesday for a firm to do a conceptual design to bring the historic Town Branch Creek to the surface for the first time in more than 100 years.
Town Branch flows through downtown in an underground tunnel.
"The idea of day lighting Town Branch has been around for a long time," said Jeff Fugate, president and CEO of the Downtown Development Authority. "Now we are asking the question, 'OK, what would it mean to do this.' We want to see what the possibilities are."
Town Branch Commons, envisioned as a 2-mile stretch of public space through downtown, was a significant recommendation of the Rupp Arena, Downtown Arts & Entertainment master plan developed in 2011 by architect Gary Bates of the Norway-based architecture firm Space Group.
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Bates' idea was to bring the historic waterway to the surface in some form and create a linear park that would thread through downtown, connecting the entertainment district on the west end with the rest of downtown
On Tuesday, the Downtown Development Authority, in partnership with the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government and the Lexington Center Corporation, issued a request for qualifications.
Oct. 18 is the deadline for firms to submit conceptual ideas.
"Imagine a long, narrow park winding through downtown that honors our rich, authentic history — the Town Branch ... our city was founded along its banks," Mayor Jim Gray said in a statement. "That kind of park is a great reason to work downtown, move a business downtown, live downtown, visit downtown or have fun downtown. Other cities have done it with extraordinary results."
The Downtown Development Authority is looking for an urban design firm with experience doing successful large-scale public space projects.
Ideally, the firm needs international urban design experience to bring a broader perspective to Lexington's challenges and opportunities, according to the request for qualifications.
"We are not looking for construction drawings right now but for ideas of what could be imagined, either a re-interpretation of Town Branch or a renovation of Town Branch," Fugate said.
Council member-at-large Steve Kay said unearthing Town Branch was an "exciting possibility."
"I'm glad they're looking at the possibility because it could be something great for downtown. I look forward to seeing what kind of responses they get," he said.
Lexington was settled in 1775 along the banks of the middle fork of Elkhorn Creek, also known as Town Branch.
That is the reason the city has a very long, thin urban core five blocks wide and a mile long, Bates said in an interview last year.
By the late 1800s, the creek was buried in a tunnel that today runs under Midland Avenue and down Vine Street, under Rupp Arena and the Lexington Center, according to research done by Zina Merkin, vice president of Town Branch Trail Inc., for a University of Kentucky research paper in 2001. The creek surfaces just west of the Lexington Center at the Cox Street parking lot.
Van Meter Pettit, founder and president of Town Branch Trail Inc, said Tuesday he was thrilled plans were underway to re-orient the city to a natural resource that has to been buried for more than 100 years and "better develop our existing urban core."
Town Branch Trail Inc. was established in 2001 to build an 8-mile park-like bike and pedestrian corridor along the creek and out to Masterson Station Park. Part of the trail west of downtown has already been built.
Knox van Nagell, president of the Fayette Alliance, a land use advocacy group, said developing a linear park along the creek had economic development potential for the city, particularly "in improving the quality of life needed to attract knowledge-based professionals and retirees essential for the prosperity and growth of Lexington."
If the downtown can become as compelling as Fayette County's rural landscape, "We really can grow our economy in a very sustainable way. Taking advantage of Town Branch Creek can support this strategy," van Nagell said
Fugate said it was premature to put a price tag on the concept.
"We're going to have to leverage private philanthropy, but to do that, we have to have a design," he said. "At this point, we want to know what's possible — what captures our imagination."