University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto's vision of a more vibrant and welcoming campus will fall short if it stops at UK's boundaries.
Capilouto's ambitions for new construction, especially replacing outdated residence halls, provide a remarkable opportunity for fostering more of that "college town" feel that has oddly eluded Lexington.
UK's past decisions about student housing and alcohol use have had devastating consequences for areas near campus, turning once vital neighborhoods into student slums. Capilouto's plan to house more undergraduates on campus creates an opportunity to restore neighborhoods to places where UK faculty and staff will again want to live.
In fact, the interfaces among campus and residential and commercial areas create all kinds of opportunities to make UK and Lexington more appealing to the smart young people they are both trying to attract.
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Making the most of these opportunities will require imagination and smart planning. UK will have to break out of its tradition of planning in isolation from the city around it.
While an institution as big as UK is slow to change, there are promising signs.
UK is helping hire consultant Omar Blaik, an expert on town-gown planning. Transylvania University, the Downtown Development Authority and Bluegrass Community Foundation are also helping pay for his advice.
As a vice president at the University of Pennsylvania, Blaik oversaw the revival of deteriorated and dangerous areas around the Philadelphia campus. Blaik, who delivered the Lafayette Seminar lecture at UK's Gaines Center for the Humanities last winter, will have some good ideas.
The important thing is for the right people to listen and act.
The Town-Gown Commission is well established and has the support of Mayor Jim Gray who has served as its co-chair.
Gray is sharply focused on enhancing downtown, which is just a few blocks from UK's northern boundary. Capilouto says he relies on open processes to yield good results. The stars could be aligning for the years of work on town-gown relations to pay off. Or, we could discover it was all just lip service.
UK has already issued a request for proposals from private developers to design an honors dorm and recommend how to sequence the construction of new dorms and the demolition of old dorms over a multi-year period. UK hopes to award a contract for construction of the honors dorm on the playing field behind Haggin Hall by the end of the year and begin construction next year.
Like the old dorms UK wants to replace, the new residence halls would have a life span of 40 to 75 years. It's worth taking the time to do the planning to get the most value possible for UK and its surroundings from such a big investment.