Tom Eblen

Town Branch Park could be the most significant addition to downtown since Rupp Arena

Exciting things have been happening in downtown Lexington: the Fifth Third Pavilion at Cheapside; the 21C Museum Hotel, renovation of the old courthouse, improvements to Lexington Center and a burgeoning restaurant scene.

But these pale in comparison to the potential of Town Branch Commons, a linear park through the central business district’s concrete canyon, otherwise known as Vine Street. If you doubt that, look at the latest plans unveiled Monday for Town Branch Park at the west end of the commons in what is now a huge parking lot.

“Great cities have great parks and public spaces for all of their citizens,” Mayor Jim Gray said, adding that such amenities improve the quality of life and promote economic development. “It’s an investment in our citizens today and future generations.”

This park could be transformative — the most significant thing to be built downtown since Lexington Center and Rupp Arena in 1976.

But it will take money. Much of Town Branch Commons is being funded by federal, state and local funds, but about $30 million in private donations is needed to build Town Branch Park and two smaller parks long the commons.

The fundraising campaign began Monday with the announcement that $5 million has been pledged by an eight-person advisory board and a few others, including the mayor and his family and Louisville’s James Graham Brown Foundation. Raising another $25 million won’t be easy, but I think it can happen.

There is a lot of money in and around Lexington, yet the city’s history of major philanthropy has been spotty. It’s not that Lexingtonians aren’t generous; they are. The problem, I think, is that Lexington’s civic vision has never been very big. It you want people to open their wallets, you must capture their imaginations. Town Branch Park has the potential to do that.

SCAPE Studio of New York, which won an international competition to design Town Branch Commons, is headed by Kate Orff, one of America’s most innovative landscape architects. Her plan artfully packs a lot into the 10-acre site: A “great lawn” with an amphitheater for public gatherings; a recreation field; a bicycle and pedestrian path connecting 22 miles of trails; dining facilities; a creekside boardwalk; a dog park and a children’s area with a playground and splash park.

The commons traces the historic path of Town Branch Creek, which was buried downtown in culverts nearly a century ago after it became little more than a storm sewer. SCAPE has a good plan for bringing the stream back to the surface in Town Branch Park and recreating natural banks. It is a realistic “look but don’t touch” strategy. The creek will become a visual spine for the park, crossed by several pedestrian bridges. But where visitors actually come into contact with water at a waterfall and splash park, it will be clean water from city pipes.

As important as the park’s design is its programming and management plan, which is being developed by Biederman Redevelopment Ventures of New York, a national leader in the field. Biederman transformed New York City’s Bryant Park from a drug den into a civic jewel. Since then, it has created many successful park plans around the country. Town Branch Park will be managed by a non-profit, public-private partnership to provide frequent programming as well as active management, security and maintenance.

People in Lexington love nothing more than getting together downtown for a concert or festival. It happens most warm weekends at Courthouse Plaza, whose design is less than ideal for the purpose.

Town Branch Park would quickly become Lexington’s living room. That’s a vision a lot of people can buy into.