It is difficult to assess Mayor Jim Gray's signature second-term project, the $75 million Town Branch Commons, without mentioning his signature first-term project, the failed $350 million Downtown Arts and Entertainment District, which included a Rupp Arena renovation.
That first-term project suffered from a number of management issues, including:
■ An anti-democratic decision-making process that universalized the views of the city's connected class (University of Kentucky athletic directors, bank presidents, urban developers, imaginary global tourists).
■ A misunderstanding of urban and community vitality, exemplified by a preference for publicly funded "world class" projects whose cost and complexity place other worthy local projects on hold for a half-decade or more.
■ A willingness to divert public money for other city services into one single, massively expensive project.
Town Branch Commons, an urban linear park to run along the route of the city's Town Branch waters, is certainly a better-conceived urban project.
But it already suffers from the same leadership and management issues.
Like the Rupp project, the TBC proposal was approved with the smallest sliver of public input — a five-person juried panel — and without full consideration of public cost.
Like Rupp, the TBC proposal betrays a serious lack of ideas for making the rest of our county livable. Consider that as Gray promotes his urban park — $10 million of it provided by local funds — his budget simultaneously pays a consultant $250,000 to generate a master plan for the rest of Fayette's parks.
Like Rupp, the TBC diverts funds from vital community services to provide crucial operating capital. In this case, the $13 million federal grant that accounts for the only other recognized source of funding requires LexTran, currently mulling route closures and increased fares, to devote $1 million — 5 percent of its $24 million 2015 budget — to help provide matching funds.
The grant's other co-applicants, the University of Kentucky, with a $3.4 billion annual budget, and the Lexington Center, contribute no up-front capital even though the project stands to benefit them significantly more.
To ensure better management of this project, revisions should include:
Shared funding: The proposed cost should be split, with half going to development of other county watershed trails, which offer residents immediate access to live-work-play zones.
Imagine a Hickman watershed trail that connects existing parks from the Tates Creek Ramseys to Veterans Park, terminating in Jessamine County at the Brannon Crossing shops.
Imagine a Wolf Run trail that takes Harrodsburg Road residents through the Hispanic commercial district along Oxford Circle, then to Cardinal Valley's treasure Preston's Cave Spring park.
Fair management: The current TBC proposal calls itself a park, but its funding structure — a $20 million endowment to cover a projected $500,000 to $1 million in annual operating costs — effectively divorces the urban park from the park system. Those operating costs also should aid development and upkeep of all live-work-play trails.
Cost accounting: The TBC feasibility study provides opaque and confusing cost-projections for each of the project's four phases. To cite one example, the Rupp area costs, presented last year as $10 million landscaping costs, have amazingly been reduced to $1.4 million, or 12 percent of the $12 million cost to connect already-existing parks along Midland Avenue.
What are the infrastructure and operation costs for connecting parks in the East End relative to those for installing and maintaining fake waterfalls nearby Rupp Arena? Or for blowing up bike-friendly viaduct crossings along Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Jefferson Street?
More than aesthetic renderings, these financial details will help inform citizen input regarding viability and correct ordering of the project.
Value "local class": Projects defined as world-class tend to cost more, disproportionately benefit the already-connected and restrict residents from effective participation.
As a city, we must ask: Does a $75 million urban commons bring more community value than the $35,000 mountain bike trail at Veteran's Park or the $300,000 in bike-lane construction underway along the commercial corridor of Southland Drive?
By devaluing such projects, city leaders diminish citizen investment, promote community disharmony and create disinvested — less livable — areas throughout town.
Contact your council members to ensure our "commons" does not contribute to those world-class disparities.