Planner says it's too early in process to determine Rupp's future

The exterior of Rupp Arena and The Lexington Center from West High Street
The exterior of Rupp Arena and The Lexington Center from West High Street

A downtown arena — whether a new or renovated Rupp Arena — can be the catalyst to unlock the potential for a proposed Arena, Arts and Entertainment District in Lexington, the master planner hired by a task force said Wednesday in an introductory meeting where he emphasized no decision has been made about the current home of the Wildcats.

Gary Bates, one of three founding members of a Norway-based architectural and design firm called SpaceGroup, told the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force that he had no early leanings about whether to renovate Rupp or tear down the existing arena and build a new one.

"At this point, all options are on the table," said Bates, hired to do a master design plan for an arena, convention center and entertainment district.

The meeting was for an update on work by the 47-member task force's three major committees.

Two major recommendations from these committees were to significantly expand the city's convention facilities and optimize Rupp for maximum fan experience and future revenue.

Bates called Rupp "a major part of the identity of Lexington."

"Any architect, of course, says it's a great opportunity to build a major facility," he said. "I think we have to look at all options. The most important thing for us is how to preserve the atmosphere of Rupp."

He described the atmosphere as "amazing" and "incredible."

"When you go there, you go for the total college basketball experience. It has incredible atmosphere. That atmosphere has to be protected at all costs," Bates said.

A small portion of Rupp is dubbed the E-Rupp-tion Zone, but Bates said after the meeting, "The whole thing should be called the E-Rupp-tion Zone."

Asked how that special atmosphere could be preserved in a new arena, Bates said the question is "How do you improve the fan experience ... at the same time, maintaining what I call the whole thing as an E-Rupp-tion Zone? That's what's exciting about Rupp to me."

University of Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart was asked later if he detected things trending toward a renovation of Rupp. "I don't think there is any trending at all. I think they said about four times today that all things are on the table, and I think all things are genuinely on the table. At least they better be," he said.

Asked if it would be feasible for UK to temporarily play in another arena if Rupp is renovated, Barnhart said it would be difficult, in part because it would put UK at a competitive disadvantage.

"You're not in your home gym," he said. "We have created a wonderful home-court advantage in our gym, and you give that up when you are away from there."

Among other task force recommendations were to bring Town Branch Creek back to the surface and connect it with the Distillery District to the west of Lexington Center, perhaps build an art museum and a small performing arts center.

The Need, Use and Benefit Committee is chaired by Wil James, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Georgetown; the Planning and Design Committee is chaired by former Mayor Pam Miller; and the Technical Advisory Committee is chaired by Bill Owen, president and CEO of the Lexington Center.

SpaceGroup's headquarters is in Oslo, but Bates is from Wilmington, Del. After graduating in architecture from Virginia Tech in 1990, he worked with internationally acclaimed architect Rem Koolhaas' firm OMA in Amsterdam, eventually becoming director of Asian operations.

He has also worked on projects with Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, hired to redesign the CentrePointe mixed use project for The Webb Companies.

His firm is working with Omni Architects of Lexington and Global Spectrum, a technical firm that specializes in arenas.

Bates said he expected to deliver the first major draft of the master plan by late January or early February.

Bates is already familiar with Lexington because he taught on the UK College of Design faculty in 2008-09 when he held the Brown Forman Chair in Urban Design. He was hired for the endowed position by Michael Speaks, dean of the College of Design, and a task force member.

Later in the day, Bates and Mayor Jim Gray briefed members of the Urban County Council and Lexington's legislative delegation.

Gray said fully developing an arts and entertainment district would potentially take several years, adding, "We're at the first step of a 10-step process." He said it could take 25 years to fully develop any plan.

"The pressure is not on so much to rush, rush, rush. We can take time to do things right — to examine the costs, the best solutions," Gray said.

Council member Julian Beard said the fact that the city already owns the 46 acres in the proposed arts and entertainment district "is a huge advantage."

He agreed with Gray that the city was not on a schedule to quickly develop the district. The only time element is that UK's contract with the city expires in 2018.

State Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo asked how new buildings would be funded. Task force chairman Brent Rice said it would have to be through a combination of public and private money.

State Rep. Susan Westrom said it was important that the legislative delegation be kept apprised of SpaceGroup's work. She praised Gray for briefing legislators.

"Communication, early on, is extremely important. There are so many possibilities here. We want to be kept informed and I compliment the mayor for including us."

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