Our local government will decide on the old courthouse soon. The mayor has proposed spending $22 million on it in the budget before the council.
If the council agrees, the city could be committed to $100 million or more in future management, maintenance, security and utility costs. It could become an annual drain on the budget without recourse.
There are only vague inferences of how the old courthouse building would be used and none of them can support the costs. No responsible person would commit $22 million without viable usage. That's government at its worst.
There is a better public use for that space. Our city needs a downtown park that can become part of the innovative proposal to bring historic Town Branch to the surface again and provide a dynamic, tourism-friendly landscape to our city.
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Over decades, our local government has had an uncanny ability to make the wrong decisions on major building projects.
The decision to rebuild the Lexington Opera House in 1976 was wrong on many levels. The location on a short block dictated a facility too small for the touring shows it was meant to attract and dropping the number of seats from 1,400 to 800 removed the underprivileged from attendance.
There was room for a new performing arts center, like the one Louisville enjoys, on the hill across from Rupp Arena, but pressure to preserve a historic facade resulted in a decision that forever compromises the Lexington Opera House.
When the old courthouse stopped being useful, a new courthouse should have replaced it, but that decision was not made. We now have two new courthouses. Local government gave us a camel with two humps instead of the Thoroughbred we needed.
If the architects had known Short Street was going to stay open, they could have designed one spectacular building that arched over the street, providing a world-class landmark for our city.
One good decision by local government was converting the Carnegie Library into the Carnegie Learning Center. That was a well-reasoned, natural transition. Yes, it was worth a few million dollars to restore the building, which did not have the massive problems the old courthouse has now. Cost does matter. Function does matter.
One of the vague usages mentioned for the old courthouse is for special events. That's what the Carnegie offers now. Why would local government create competition for a very limited number of special events?
History is not just about buildings. It is about people and events.
The statue on the front corner of the old courthouse block is of John C. Breckinridge, a Confederate general whose family's history of public service is unrivaled. Just a block away, the Rev. Robert Breckinridge, father of the Kentucky public school system and advisor to President Abraham Lincoln, preached against slavery at the historic First Presbyterian Church.
Like many Lexington families, the Breckinridge family was torn by the Civil War.
A new park at the old courthouse site should be called Breckinridge Square. It could incorporate the dubious history of adjoining Cheapside marketplace. We have tremendous opportunity to link Breckinridge Square to Gratz Park with walking tours that offer visits to historic, architecturally rich churches, Henry Clay's law office, the Hunt Morgan House and the Carnegie Center.
Gray wants to leave a mark, particularly downtown. With the conversion of the old courthouse area into a beautiful, meaningful, new park and the implementation of the Town Branch project, he will deliver the most sweeping improvement to the landscape of Lexington since Mayor Fred Fugazzi removed the railroad from downtown.
One hundred years from now, history will not remember the old courthouse building. But history will recall what happened on that square in the years before the courthouse was built, and it had nothing to do with justice.
More than any piece of land in Lexington, local government should build a new park on that square, which will let us reflect on our past and help to heal old wounds for future generations.