Here's a question: What development over the next year or two will have the biggest impact on Lexington's future?
The 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games? The Newtown Pike corridor? Redevelopment around the University of Kentucky campus? Whatever does — or doesn't — rise out of the CentrePointe crater?
Any of those projects would be a good guess. But a decade or two from now, I think they will pale in comparison to the redevelopment of the Eastern State Hospital property into a new campus for Bluegrass Community and Technical College.
In a brilliant land swap announced a year ago, BCTC will move to the 65-acre Eastern State property north of downtown. Eastern State will get a badly needed new hospital on UK's Coldstream property, and UK will get BCTC's current Cooper Drive campus for future expansion.
Why is a new BCTC campus such a big deal? Two reasons. The first is what it will do for the college, and what it will allow the college to do for Kentucky.
"It's almost unheard of today for a community and technical college to have the opportunity to build a brand new urban campus," said BCTC President Augusta Julian.
The college is making long-range plans to determine how its program offerings should change to support the 21st-century economy. Julian thinks it is possible that the college, which has 12,000 students at several campuses, could double enrollment within 10 years.
BCTC has 800 nursing students, so health-related fields are a natural growth area. Julian expects a large need for lab technicians. Other opportunities could include training people for Kentucky's hospitality and tourism industries, and teaching BCTC trade school graduates the business skills they need to start their own companies. Julian thinks the need for retraining older workers of all kinds will be huge.
The second reason this is such a big deal is what redevelopment of those 65 acres of prime real estate could do for Lexington — if it is done right.
How could it be done wrong? Easy: Throw up a poorly planned, automobile-centric campus of nondescript, suburban-style buildings and lots of surface parking. In other words, build the higher education equivalent of Hamburg Pavilion. And then give little thought to how it affects the surrounding neighborhoods or the city as a whole.
Or, officials could take this unique opportunity to use good design, architecture and urban planning to create a world-class campus that will spark quality redevelopment throughout Lexington's north side.
The initial signs are encouraging. BCTC has assembled a talented team of architects and planners who combine deep local knowledge with international vision and experience.
EOP Architects is overseeing the campus master plan along with M2D Design Group, a landscape architecture firm. Ross-Tarrant Architects is designing the first major building, for which $22 million was set aside long ago. The three Lexington-based firms are working with Perkins + Will, an international company based in Minneapolis that has extensive campus-planning experience.
In an especially smart move, Urban Collage, an acclaimed urban design firm, has been hired to look at how the campus can be used to create good mixed-use redevelopment around it — housing, shopping and restaurants.
"It will be a tremendous economic anchor," said Stan Harvey, a partner in Atlanta-based Urban Collage who lives in Lexington. "We just need to work through all the puzzle pieces."
Construction of the new campus could take two decades, Julian said. Even when it is finished, BCTC will probably still have several locations in Lexington, in addition to its satellite campuses in surrounding towns.
The planning schedule is aggressive: Officials hope to finish a campus master plan late this year. Within a few months, there will be opportunities for surrounding neighborhoods and citizens to review and comment on those plans, Julian promised.
"We have to fit into the neighborhood," she said. "We really want to do it right in terms of being visible, transparent, getting a lot of people involved."
Julian said her vision is for an urban-style campus of multi-story buildings. The campus' style and look could depend on whether consultants think any of Eastern State's old buildings are worth reusing. The Kentucky Heritage Commission is looking at that, along with investigating burial sites known to be on the property, which has been a mental hospital since 1816.
Julian is especially interested in looking at mass transit possibilities. That's because BCTC students will still need to go back and forth between there and the UK campus, and because she doesn't want to have thousands of cars passing through the surrounding area each day. The Newtown Pike extension could offer some creative opportunities for that kind of mass transit.
This project has the potential to transform Lexington. The first steps look promising, but the devil is always in the details. It should be everyone's responsibility to make sure it's done right.