Where’s the water? That was the most frequent comment I heard from readers after city officials unveiled the first renderings of Town Branch Commons.
The initial plans by SCAPE, the New York landscape architecture firm designing the linear park through downtown Lexington, focused on the bike path, pedestrian facilities and the associated trees, plants and stone walls. There were good reasons for that.
But city officials and the designer promise Town Branch Commons will have plenty of water, both from clean sources and from what for a century has been a mostly buried stream and storm sewer through the central business district.
SCAPE’s concept, which the city chose four years ago from among 23 entries and five finalists in an international competition, was never about creating a canal through downtown, which would have been impractical for many reasons.
Kate Orff, the renowned landscape architect who heads SCAPE, proposed a linear greenway along Town Branch’s path with both literal and figurative “expressions” of the historic creek that prompted pioneers to settle here in the late 1700s.
At the same time, Orff wanted the park to help clean up Town Branch, which gathers pollutants as it flows under downtown from its source, a spring near the Jif Peanut Butter factory on Winchester Road.
“What we showed was not the entire vision,” Orff said in an interview after renderings were shown at a public forum March 28. “We’re trying to be both visionary and realistic.”
One realistic consideration is that the pedestrian and bike facilities integral to Town Branch Commons must be designed and built first because of deadlines set in federal transportation grants.
A day after the first renderings were released, SCAPE sent another one showing water features along Midland Avenue. They include Town Branch water, which is relatively clean at that point, and rain gardens to catch and filter runoff, Orff said.
As Town Branch Commons goes further into the city, things get more complicated.
“The visual impression, the experience will be this contiguous expression of water in many forms, but we do have to be very mindful of the current water quality,” Orff said. “So there’s a series of linear rain gardens and stream expressions that are truly the Town Branch water, and then we’ll have a series of interactive play fountains and splash pads.”
Runoff from all that water — clean water from the fountains and splash pads and naturally filtered rainwater off the street — will eventually end up in the Town Branch culvert, which resurfaces as a creek just west of Rupp Arena.
Officials want the creek to have more water volume where it comes out of the culvert. That is now part of the Cox Street parking lot, but it will become Town Branch Park. The big question is how clean the water will be by then.
“I think it will be significantly improved,” said Orff, who directs the urban design program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and has worked extensively on projects that have improved water quality in New York Harbor. “But there’s never a silver bullet for water quality.”
It may not end up being safe enough to wade in, she said, but it will be cleaner and more scenic.
“What we would aspire to do — and, of course, we have to go through several plan reviews and regulatory reviews — is essentially change the cross-section of the creek at that point to flatten the grade and let the water become more of a meander,” she said. “That will create this much more ecological riparian system. That, we think, will be a real draw and a popular element for bird watchers and for nature lovers.”
City officials have about $40 million in federal, state and local money for Town Branch Commons, which will pay for both underground and above-ground infrastructure extending from the Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden at East Third Street and Midland Avenue through Vine Street downtown and out Manchester Street through the Distillery District on Town Branch Trail.
That money also will pay for a bike path connector from Town Branch Park to the Legacy Trail along Newtown Pike. It also includes replacing the sanitary sewer along Midland and repaving Midland and Vine streets.
There are efforts under way through the Blue Grass Community Foundation to raise about $30 million more in private money to build out Town Branch Park and Karst Commons, a park on what is now a parking lot across Vine Street from the downtown Transit Center.