The Town Branch Commons renderings being unveiled Tuesday show an attractive and practical compromise for improving downtown’s concrete canyon, otherwise known as Vine Street and Midland Avenue.
The understated, elegant design of this 3.2-mile linear park is very Lexington. Kate Orff, the renowned landscape architect whose New York firm SCAPE won a 2013 competition for the project concept, did a good job of balancing many competing needs.
The plan creates a protected bicycle path through downtown, connecting the Town Branch and Legacy Trails into what will be a continuous route of 22 miles — and even farther once the Legacy Trail is extended to Georgetown.
This is a big deal and long overdue. Now, the only cross-downtown bicycle route is the bike lane going west on Main Street. It isn’t protected and is frequently blocked by delivery vehicles. Want to go West to East? Good luck on either Short or Vine streets. Not only will this path provide safe passage through downtown, it will give cycling visitors and commuters easier access to cross streets.
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“It’s a transportation network that can be used for far more than just recreation,” Mayor Jim Gray said.
SCAPE’s design also improves the pedestrian experience with a wide, protected sidewalk through the city shaded by trees and bordered by bushes, plants and a short wall reminiscent of the iconic stone fences of the rural Bluegrass.
Despite these additions, the plan doesn’t eliminate any full lanes of vehicular traffic, although it does make them narrower and safer. Good downtown traffic flow doesn’t require a drag strip, which is what Vine and Midland have become.
I got an early look at the Town Branch Commons renderings, which will be shown in more detail at a public meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Thomas Hunt Morgan House, 210 North Broadway. The city also will unveil some designs, which I haven’t seen, for connecting Town Branch Trail to downtown along Manchester Street.
One of the misconceptions about Town Branch Commons is that it would resurface historic Town Branch Creek, which flows beneath the area in an underground culvert where it was buried nearly a century ago.
Not only will Town Branch Creek not be brought back to the surface, but this project doesn’t disturb its culvert, except to provide places for more and cleaner water to flow into it, project manager Jonathan Hollingers said.
Orff, who will attend Tuesday’s public meeting, said in an interview that Town Branch Commons will have several water features, both for play and for decoration, although the renderings I saw showed few details. She said some water features will help channel and filter stormwater into Town Branch.
Orff wouldn’t be specific about what trees and plants will be used along Town Branch Commons, although she is aware of downtown’s poor history of growing street trees or anything else outside a pot. Part of the design challenge, she said, will be to provide trees and plants with enough soil, water and room to grow.
Citizens should pay close attention to these designs because, unlike many before them, they will be built. City officials have secured nearly $40 million in state, local and federal funding for Town Branch Commons. Construction is to begin later this year and is to be completed by July 1, 2020.
The Town Branch Fund, a private fundraising effort led by businesswoman Ann Bakhaus, is working to raise $31 million more to create two parks and amenities along the commons. The largest would be on the West end, beside the expanded Lexington Center, between what is now the Jefferson Street overpass and Oliver Lewis Way. The other would be on existing parking lots across from the Transit Center.
Gray describes Town Branch Commons as “critical 21st-century infrastructure to attract the best people and companies and investment to Lexington.”
Here’s another way to think about it: In the 1960s, railroad tracks were pulled out of this corridor and replaced with a highway, symbolizing society’s shift from trains to cars and trucks. This latest reinvention keeps the cars and trucks but adds access for pedestrians and cyclists. More than anything, though, it emphasizes this idea: Cities aren’t just for transportation machines; they’re for people.