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Downtown water walk helps 'kick-start awareness' about Lexington's Town Branch plan

Nels Rogers, 5, listens to the sound of Town Branch as design consultant Gena Wirth, with SCAPE landscape architecture, looks on in front of a model of the project during the Town Branch Water Walk, part of the Second Sunday series, across from the transit center on Vine St. in Lexington, Ky., Sunday, September 20, 2015. Photo by Matt Goins
Nels Rogers, 5, listens to the sound of Town Branch as design consultant Gena Wirth, with SCAPE landscape architecture, looks on in front of a model of the project during the Town Branch Water Walk, part of the Second Sunday series, across from the transit center on Vine St. in Lexington, Ky., Sunday, September 20, 2015. Photo by Matt Goins Herald-Leader

People interested in the history and ecology of Lexington came downtown Sunday to learn more about Town Branch Commons, the proposed downtown park that would follow the path of the city's historic water source.

The park would include much of Town Branch, the creek that runs beneath downtown Lexington. The park would be a network of pools, fountains and rain gardens stretching from the Isaac Murphy Memorial Garden at East Third Street and Midland Avenue to Cox Street near Rupp Arena.

Gena Wirth, the design principal for SCAPE/Landscape Architecture of New York, which won an international competition to design Town Branch Commons, said the event was designed to let people envision the park.

"If you don't know it's there, you can't get excited about what it could be," Wirth said. "Town Branch is this kind of hidden, unseen thing, and this event is helping kick-start awareness about Town Branch and the role we all play in helping preserve and maintain quality water systems."

Claire Carpenter, a retired University of Kentucky employee who described herself as "somewhat over 60," said she has been following "the possibilities of bringing Town Branch back to daylight for a while."

"Plus, I'm a biker, so this seemed like a natural to come bike the route of the underground stream," Carpenter said. "I think it would be wonderful to take a dirty old stream and culvert and turn it into a city asset."

Town Branch starts near the Smucker plant on Winchester Road where Jif peanut butter is made, Lexington architect Van Meter Pettit said during a walking tour from Midland Avenue to a parking lot across Vine Street from the Transit Center. Lexington was founded on the banks of Town Branch, a tributary of the South Elkhorn.

The creek "was an open waterway along the railroad," Pettit said. "It probably was not full at all times, but it surged especially in wet weather. It generally came out of springs."

After flooding in the 1920s and '30s, Town Branch was paved over and covered by streets. Pointing to blue manhole covers along Midland Avenue, Pettit said: "All these storm sewers go directly to Town Branch, but now it's all culverted. What we call Town Branch is just a system of culverts where we are standing now. It's not until you get to the back of Rupp Arena" that Town Branch returns to the daylight.

Projects in Seoul, South Korea, and Yonkers, N.Y., have brought stretches of urban waterways back into the public light, Wirth said.

Trent Garrison, who teaches geology at Eastern Kentucky University, attended Sunday's event to learn more about the groundwater system and the future of Lexington.

Garrison, 38, of Lexington said he would be interested in biking on the Town Branch path.

"We bike quite a bit, and it would be great not only for us but friends of ours who are interested in the same thing," he said.

Blue Grass Community Foundation has begun a campaign to raise $50 million to build and maintain Town Branch Commons. This month the Urban County Council approved spending $180,000 to hire the foundation to spearhead the private fundraising.

Lexington council approves agreement to launch Town Branch Commons donation drive

In addition to private fundraising, the city is seeking a $13 million federal grant that would be matched by $10 million from the city and nearly $1 million from LexTran.

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