After announcing Tuesday that the state would find money to bury power lines along the Newtown Pike extension, Gov. Steve Beshear remarked that if we hadn't done this project right, we would have regretted it for decades.
He's right about that. And it's scary how close it came to being done wrong.
Many people deserve credit for quickly changing the course of this project and saving it from mediocrity, including Beshear, Mayor Jim Newberry and several Urban County Council members.
But after city officials take their bow, they need to take a hard look at why this sort of thing happens too often in Lexington.
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The Newtown Pike extension has been on the drawing board in one form or another since the 1930s. As dreams turned into designs over the past few years, city officials promised the project would create a beautiful new gateway into Lexington, complete with a "signature" bridge.
Somehow, though, those dreams and promises didn't make it into the state Transportation Cabinet's blueprints.
Many people — including council members — just assumed the power lines would be buried, rather than strung up on poles like those that clutter much of Lexington's skyline. Not so.
Architects Graham and Clive Pohl, brothers who own property along the Newtown Pike corridor, sounded the alarm after Kentucky Utilities contacted them about buying an easement to string lines.
That created public outcry, prompting Newberry to ask Beshear for state help in paying to bury utilities and the governor to shake loose some Transportation Cabinet contingency money.
"Citizens got our attention on this issue," Beshear said.
It was a good save all around. But the bigger issue is why the save was needed.
Lexington has come a long way recently in creating a vision for excellence in downtown development. Part of it is a desire to "clean up for company" before the Alltech FEI 2010 World Equestrian Games. Part of it is the realization that quality of life is a key to economic development.
But if Lexington is to stop settling for second-best, we need to find the missing link that too often keeps vision from becoming reality.
Settling for second-best is how we get buildings like the suburban-style High Street Post Office and the federal prosecutors' building on Vine Street, which looks like a cheap suburban hotel. It's how we allow the city's historic core to be demolished for ego-driven, pie-in-the-sky projects like CentrePointe and the World Coal Center.
We're getting better with vision, but we often seem to lack the structure, leadership and will to make it happen.
The Downtown Development Authority has traditionally seen its mission as facilitating the plans of private developers, although, since the CentrePointe fiasco, Chairman David Mohney has talked about the need to serve a broader public interest. Still, the DDA has limited power.
Great cities seem to find ways to make developers, businesses, government agencies and utilities build in ways that are good for the whole city and not just themselves.
These cities don't do it by trying to write rules for everything or creating dense bureaucracies that discourage development. They do it by requiring that major projects undergo public scrutiny and professional review by people with expertise in urban design and planning.
Last winter, I wrote about how the nine-member Downtown Commission has guided the revitalization of the urban core of Columbus, Ohio. Many other cities also have effective design review boards to make sure new parts of the urban landscape fit in and contribute to the whole. Those boards have broad authority, and they don't settle for mediocrity.
Distillery District developer Barry McNees said the ability of officials to find a way to bury power lines along the Newtown Pike extension is a promising sign for future development in Lexington.
"It begins to define the kind of urban DNA we want for downtown," McNees said. "A lot of the concern was, if we're willing to compromise at the beginning, where will we end up?"