New York firm chosen to design Town Branch project through Lexington

A New York City firm — Scape/Landscape Architecture — got the nod from a panel of five judges over the weekend to design Town Branch Commons, a new park to run through downtown Lexington.

The Downtown Development Authority board met Monday to review the plan and give its approval.

Jeff Fugate, president of the Downtown Development Authority, said the plan was inspired by the porous karst hydrology that underlies the inner Bluegrass region, where streams flow along the surface, disappear underground into caves and resurface in unexpected places. There are sinkholes, boils and bubbling springs.

"What really stands out about this plan is how the Scape team came to understand karst hydrology, how a karst water system works as it flows through limestone. It surfaces, pools, submerges and disappears, all in the course of a stream. They gave urban interpretation to that," said Holly Wiedemann, one of the five jurors.

"Their proposal is not pie in the sky. It is real. It's clearly implementable."

The plan divides Town Branch into four sections, and Wiedemann said, "Any of the four stages could be implemented discretely and have an impact on downtown."

The next step is for the Scape team to return to Lexington, have public input on the proposed Town Branch Commons and create a detailed master plan to show how the Commons would fit in with the overhaul of Rupp Arena and a new Lexington Center, the redevelopment of the CentrePoint block, and other proposed public and private partnerships, said Stan Harvey, of Urban Collage and a consultant on the Rupp Arena, Arts and Entertainment District project.

A master plan would include preliminary cost figures. He said there could be many opportunities for public and private partnerships for development along the Commons, plus philanthropic opportunities.

Harvey said he hopes the master plan can be completed by this summer.

The project would be built in phases, which Scape will also detail. "This project is poetic and pragmatic. Any phase of it could start tomorrow," said Michael Speaks, dean of the University of Kentucky College of Design, who was one of the jurors.

Rather than a single long stream, the firm envisions Town Branch Commons as a network of pools, fountains, rain gardens, pocket parks and marshes, starting at Winchester Road and Midland Avenue in Isaac Murphy Park. This is where there originally was a spring-fed pond that became the headwaters of Town Branch.

The creek would flow in its natural state down the west side of Midland Avenue, tie into Thoroughbred Park, turn and flow west along Vine Street, then swing around Triangle Park to the Cox Street parking lot, where the creek surfaces today.

The area behind the Kentucky Theatre and the Government Center, now a series of asphalt parking lots, would become a large greenspace, with grass, trees, fountains, pools, boils and a splash park for children. The Martin Luther King viaduct would be removed and replaced with an elevated pedestrian walkway that the Scape calls The Beach.

"What today is throwaway parking lot land, basically, becomes a front door to downtown," Fugate said.

The plan envisions Vine Street remaining open to traffic but reconfigured, with a green boulevard down the middle from South Broadway to South Limestone. Ideally, Fugate said, Vine Street would have two-way traffic, but the plan would work with one-way traffic as it has now.

Town Branch is buried under Vine Street in two culverts. In some places, the plans call for the creek to remain buried — for example, as it goes under South Broadway.

It would surface behind Triangle Park and flow through what is now the Cox Street parking lot on the west side of Rupp Arena. This area would be converted into a large greenspace and would tie into the creek, which now flows in its natural state at the edge of the parking lot.

A new Lexington Center would be built along West Main Street.

Fugate said he finds the entire plan exciting: "While aspirational, it is easily within the realm of doability."

The city owns much of the land where the Commons is proposed, Fugate said, and that would hold down costs. One of the largest parcels that would have to be acquired is a parking lot owned by Kentucky Utilities between Water and Vine streets, directly behind Gray Construction.

The Scape plan was one of the few proposals in the competition to transform Town Branch into a water-filtration system in its own right. Wiedemann said this was important, considering Lexington is under an Environmental Protection Agency consent decree to clean up its waterways.

The plan did not include a projected cost for the project.

Scape was among the five firms in town last week to present designs for a Town Branch Commons to a panel of judges.

The five finalist firms were each given a $15,000 stipend to pay expenses. The stipends were financed by the University of Kentucky College of Design, the Gaines Center and Fayette Alliance, Fugate said. The largest amount was $100,000 from Nashville philanthropist Lee Ann Ingram, a Central Kentucky horse farm owner and an investor in Shorty's Urban Market on Short Street.

Ultimately, judges said, they thought Scape presented a plan that could be pulled off. Other plans provided some challenges. For example, one firm's plan would have meant removing Vine Street altogether and creating a curving waterway through downtown.

"That would have cost a billion dollars," Speaks told the DDA board members.

The Scape team was headed by Kate Orff, a partner in the firm and an assistant professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Scape's projects are as varied in size and purpose as a 1,000-square-foot pocket park in Brooklyn, N.Y., a 100-acre environmental center in Greenville, S.C., and a 1,000-acre landfill-regeneration project in Dublin, Ireland.

The firm has exhibited work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and in Seoul, South Korea; Lisbon, Portugal; and Hong Kong. Scape's local partner is EHI Consultants.

Speaks said the plan creates the potential for new urban development: new buildings, cafés, art performance venues and recreation areas. He said Scape's proposal is "beautiful, comprehensive, and it can be built."

The winning design for Town Branch Commons along with the four other submissions will be on display through Feb. 22 at the Downtown Arts Center, 141 East Main Street, including Gallery Hop on Feb. 15.

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