When the Downtown Development Authority issued a request for a firm to design Town Branch Commons, bringing Town Branch Creek to the surface for the first time in more than 100 years, it received 23 proposals. Among them were several from nationally and internationally known firms.
"We were overwhelmed with the response," said Jeff Fugate, president of the Downtown Development Authority.
Said Michael Speaks, dean of the University of Kentucky College of Design: "Not only did we receive a lot of entries, but a high percentage of high-quality ones. We had entries from regional firms that were excellent, and from national and international firms that were excellent."
The idea of bringing the historic Town Branch Creek to the surface — a process often called daylighting — has been around for years.
Town Branch Commons, envisioned as a two-mile stretch of green space through downtown, was a major recommendation of the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District master plan.
The plan was developed in 2011 by architect Gary Bates and the Norway-based architectural firm Space Group. Bates' idea was to bring the creek to the surface in some form and create a linear park to connect the entertainment district on the west end with the rest of downtown.
The Commons would include pocket parks, large and small gathering spaces and places for public art.
Lexington developed along the banks of the Town Branch, which is the reason downtown is long and narrow, said Bettie Kerr, director of the city's Division of Historic Preservation. Because of flooding and sewage, the creek was buried in a tunnel that runs under Vine Street.
The only place it comes to the surface is just past the Cox Street parking lot, immediately west of Rupp Arena.
In September, the Downtown Development Authority, in partnership with the Lexington Center Corp. and Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, issued a request for qualifications.
An Oct. 18 deadline was set for firms to submit conceptual ideas.
A three-member committee of Fugate, Speaks and Ned Crankshaw, chairman of the UK landscape architecture department, whittled the list of entries to five principal firms.
Because of the high quality of the responses, the committee decided the finalists should take part in a juried design competition in early February. The public will be invited to a symposium and to see the design presentations.
Members of the jury will be announced later.
Each finalist will receive a $15,000 honorarium plus travel expenses. The money has been raised privately and through sponsorships, according to the Downtown Development Authority.
The jury will make its recommendation to the Downtown Development Authority, the Lexington Center board and Urban County Government.
The Downtown Development Authority will negotiate a contract for a master plan for the Commons.
"People can expect some high-level proposals. We will be the beneficiaries, and the city will get a high-quality project," Speaks said.
Fugate said designs coming out of the competition will "give us something a little more concrete to get started with. What would a Commons look like? Where would it move through downtown? What is the price point?"
All entries are teams made up of firms with different specialties such as architecture, engineering, urban planning and communications.
The lead firms on each of the five teams are:
■ Civitas, a Denver-based firm of architects, urban designers and planners.
■ Coen+Partners, a landscape architecture practice based in Minneapolis.
■ Inside Outside, a design firm with offices in Amsterdam, Netherlands, that addresses interior and exterior space.
■ JDS / Julien De Smedt Architects, which focuses on architecture and design from large-scale planning to furniture, based in Copenhagen, Denmark.
■ SCAPE / Landscape Architecture, a landscape architecture and urban design studio in New York City.
"These firms have all done projects that give them a sophisticated understanding of public spaces and how they function," Fugate said.
Speaks credited the attention that Space Group's master plan for the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District received in the design world for contributing to the number of responses. "There's been a lot of press about it," he said.
"Firms have heard that Lexington is friendly to good design, that the mayor is knowledgeable and wants good design," Speaks said.
"It was not insignificant that (architect) Jeanne Gang came to Lexington to do a plan for CentrePointe. She also did our master plan for UK's College of Design," Speaks said. Gang was in town as recently as two weeks ago for three public lectures as part of the Mayor's Institute on City Design.
Speaks called Gang "a major player" in the design world. "When you have people of that caliber as part of the conversation, it gets to be a small world. These people talk to each other," he said.
The Arena, Arts and Entertainment District project is one of the few "where all the parts are being done in a coordinated effort at the same time," Fugate said, adding that has contributed to interest in Town Branch Commons.
Fugate identified at least one major challenge in bringing Town Branch to the surface: It flows underground through a built-out area, not through an undeveloped locale.
"Design firms will have to be creative," he said.
Mayor Jim Gray said other cities, including San Antonio; Yonkers, N.Y.; and Seoul, South Korea, have brought rivers to the surface with "extraordinary results."
"It makes downtown a destination," he said. "It becomes one more reason for people and businesses to move to your city. There's a real economic impact. It has happened in other cities, it would happen here in Lexington."
But Gray said the design competition would test the public and private sectors' reaction to the concept. "We will get interest or we won't get interest. But first we test the concept," he said. If there is interest in going forward, "then we move toward finding revenue sources."
Eventually, projects where waterways are brought to the surface become public-private partnerships because of the revenue they generate, he said.
Town Branch Commons will be done separately from renovations to Rupp Arena and relocation of the Lexington Convention Center. But "Obviously, they will have to be tied together at some point," Frank Butler, Arena, Arts and Entertainment District project manager, said earlier this week. "It's going to require coordination because Town Branch, literally, runs underneath Rupp Arena."