All five finalists submitted imaginative plans for Town Branch Commons, but the entry from Scape/ Landscape Architecture was the clear winner.
Scape's plan is the most authentic to Lexington. It is the most practical and affordable. It disrupts current traffic patterns the least. And it highlights the role natural ecology can and should play in solving Lexington's storm-water problems, not only downtown but throughout Fayette County.
Kate Orff, the New York firm's lead partner and a rising star in the world of landscape architecture, is well-known for paying close attention to the natural ecology of places where she designs. She clearly did her homework on Lexington.
The inspiration for Scape's plan goes deeper than Town Branch Creek. It showcases Central Kentucky's karst geology, where water unexpectedly rises from and disappears beneath limestone formations just below the lush Bluegrass soil.
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Rather than trying to rebuild a long-buried creek, Scape's plan artfully creates water features that interpret the region's natural springs, pools, sinks and boils at strategic points along the creek's historic path. They would rise and fall with the seasons.
One thing that made her plan the most practical and affordable is that it can be done in phases, as money is available. Also, the city owns almost all of the land it would need and should be able to acquire the rest of it.
Property for the two largest pieces of this linear park is now surface parking lots. So two of downtown's ugliest and most under-utilized pieces of land would become beautiful magnets for people and surrounding private investment.
Unlike the other finalists, Scape's plan calls for minimal change in current traffic patterns. The biggest proposed change would be replacing the Martin Luther King Boulevard viaduct between High and Main streets with a pedestrian walkway to a new park below. But, if necessary, the project could go forward if the viaduct remained.
The plan also would eliminate the crook at the west end of Vine Street around Triangle Park, which city leaders have been trying to close for years. It also would rearrange some lanes and sidewalks on Vine Street to make space for a boulevard-style park in the center of the street between South Limestone and South Broadway, but without significantly reducing traffic capacity. Ideally, Vine Street would go from one-way to two-way traffic, but it wouldn't have to.
The plan would create green space downtown that would act like rain gardens to manage and filter storm water using much of the existing underground infrastructure. That aspect of the plan is brilliant.
City officials should be looking throughout Fayette County for places where stream restoration, rain gardens and other natural techniques can be used to manage runoff and filter runoff from streets, parking lots and development. In many places, this approach could be more attractive and less costly than traditional engineering solutions.
In both result and process, this Town Branch Commons design competition has been remarkable. After getting proposals from 23 firms, Lexington chose five finalists and gave each a $15,000 honorarium to work on a detailed plan. That money was donated by the Nashville family of Lee Ann Ingram, an investor in Shorty's Market on Short Street.
The result was that Lexington got the benefit of having five teams of the world's best landscape architects and urban designers take a deep look at the city's issues and propose detailed solutions — at no cost to taxpayers.
How could little Lexington attract such talent? One reason is the personal connections Michael Speaks, dean of the University of Kentucky College of Design, has in the global design community. Another is Mayor Jim Gray's vision for a world-class downtown. And another is the successful Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force process, which engaged a world-class master planner (Norway-based Space Group) and is now following through on its recommendations.
Lexington has a lot of work to do before these grand plans can become reality. But, for the first time in a very long time, it at least has some truly grand plans.