It's a 12-minute walk from the University of Kentucky to Rupp Arena, but it seems so much longer, architect and planner Gary Bates said Tuesday night.
What if, he wondered, the two could be connected so that walk seemed as short as it really is? What if the distance from the public library to Rupp Arena — about the same as the length of Fayette Mall — didn't seem like a trek across a desert?
Bates — hired to advise Lexington's Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force as it plans for the future of Rupp, the Convention Center and surroundings — challenged a crowd of 200 to envision downtown, UK, Rupp and the Distillery District to the west as a connected whole rather than "islands in the city."
This was an idea session for Bates and his team to present what they've found so far along with some preliminary ideas and then get feedback to guide their thinking going forward. There will be another session in late November and a final plan toward the end of January 2012.
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Bates' ideas are expansive but his research, analysis and presentation were thorough and detailed.
He talked about transportation modes — foot, rail, bus, (create a combined station near the R.J. Corman rail yard with links to other cities), auto ("one-way streets are hurting downtown"), water (incorporate the Town Branch into a park and amphitheatre where the Cox Street parking lot now sits behind Rupp). He talked about removing visual and physical barriers, like the Cox Street bridge and above-ground walkways.
But let's focus on Rupp, which is what got this conversation started.
Bates and his team have gone way beyond the question of whether to renovate Rupp or build a new arena to examining how Lexington can make better use of the excitement created there.
Bates is familiar with Lexington, having taught architecture as a visiting professor at UK, and with basketball, which he played at Virginia Tech. He's been to games here, and he went to this week's Big Blue Madness. What he experienced was a scene of extraordinary excitement inside that evaporated when the event was over.
"Man, 24,000 people just disappeared," he said. "People poured out of Rupp, got in their cars and left."
Bates sees that as a loss to the city. Part of the problem is that Rupp is hidden and landlocked. Surrounded by the convention center and a swath of parking lots, people who come to Rupp aren't encouraged to arrive early or linger after.
Bates suggested the challenge is to "Free Rupp." Move the convention center, enlarge Triangle Park, create more public breathing room around the arena. Install large screens so that those on the outside can experience the action inside, and add transparent walls and roofing to link the interior and exterior.
Free Rupp to let the excitement inside reverberate outside.
There's always a temptation to say "we can't do that," "the time isn't right," "it just won't work."
But Bates was hired to push the task force and with it the community to look wider, deeper, longer into the future — to dream big.
Before we reject any of his ideas, we should remember that, like getting from UK to Rupp, they may not be as hard to reach as we think.