Tom Eblen

Lexington chose ‘geniuses’ for two big projects. We need even more of them.

A rendering of the plan for Town Branch Commons, a linear park, walking path and bike trail that will run through downtown Lexington from Midland Avenue to past Rupp Arena. The idea is to both make downtown more accessible to people not in automobiles, as well as more green an inviting for both people and commercial development in what is now a concrete canyon.
A rendering of the plan for Town Branch Commons, a linear park, walking path and bike trail that will run through downtown Lexington from Midland Avenue to past Rupp Arena. The idea is to both make downtown more accessible to people not in automobiles, as well as more green an inviting for both people and commercial development in what is now a concrete canyon. SCAPE

For the second time in seven years, a designer working on Lexington’s downtown renaissance has won a “genius” award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

That’s new for Lexington, and it shows this city is once again bold enough to seek out the best up-and-coming talent to prepare for future success.

New York landscape architect Kate Orff was one of 24 people named Wednesday as 2017 MacArthur Fellows. The award is famous for two reasons: MacArthur identifies exceptionally creative but under-recognized people to raise their profile. And it carries a $625,000 prize with no strings attached.

In a 2013 Lexington competition, Orff and her firm, SCAPE Studio, were chosen to design Town Branch Commons, a linear park intended to make the concrete canyon through Lexington’s central business district more beautiful, accessible and valuable for private development.

Orff has focused her career on designing urban infrastructure that is not only functional and attractive but helps solve environmental problems — in Lexington’s case, storm-water management. Two years after winning the Lexington competition, she was picked to head Columbia University’s Urban Design Program.

Lexington and Town Branch Commons — construction of which begins next year — get a lot of attention in the MacArthur Foundation’s bio video about Orff. In an era when mid-size cities are competing for the attention of economic development prospects, that kind of exposure is golden.

In 2011, the MacArthur Foundation recognized Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, who earlier that year was hired to redesign Dudley Webb’s CentrePointe development.

After demolishing an entire downtown block, the local developer admitted he didn’t have money to build his project, whose massive, generic design was widely criticized. Because CentrePointe was getting taxpayer assistance, Mayor Jim Gray put pressure on Webb to improve the design. Gray knew CentrePointe would set the tone for future downtown development. He introduced Webb to Gang, whose CentrePointe redesign was widely praised. Then Webb dumped her.

After nearly a decade of delays, CentrePointe’s garage is almost finished and Webb says construction will begin soon on an office tower and hotel. Webb’s current CentrePointe design is not nearly as good as Gang’s was, but it is a lot better than the versions before she got involved. Gang deserves a lot of credit for that.

You would never know it by most of what has been built in Lexington since World War II, but this was once an architecturally ambitious city.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe is most famous for his work on the U.S. Capitol and the White House. But America’s first great architect had six commissions in then-tiny Lexington, four of which were built. Only one survives, but it is remarkable.

Pope Villa, designed in 1811 for Sen. John Pope, was the most innovative house in early America, a work of genius. But it was so unappreciated by succeeding owners that they changed it every possible way to make it look ordinary. Eventually, it was cut up into student apartments. After a fire in 1987, the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation bought Pope Villa and has slowly been trying to restore it.

Why mention this bit of history? Because then, as now, some Lexington leaders were ambitious. They thought Lexington had the potential for greatness, so they hired the best talent they could find to create high-quality, innovative urban design.

For several reasons, Lexington lost its innovative spirit after the late 1820s. With few exceptions — development of the University of Kentucky is one — that spirit didn’t return until the 1950s. Since then, Lexington has been an innovator in land-use planning and merged city-county government. Not so much in architecture and urban design.

People in Lexington are finally beginning to appreciate our great old architecture and its potential for adaptive reuse. But we have a long way to go when it comes to embracing the possibilities of innovative, modern design. That’s a shame, because creative spaces foster creative thinking.

That is starting to change, thanks to vision and leadership from Gray and several members of the Urban County Council. They realize that if Lexington wants to compete for the best talent and economic development opportunities, the city must, as Gray likes to say, create an urban landscape as special as the rural one that surrounds it.

Here’s my vision for Lexington: Dream big. Become a city of innovation, and look like it. Be the place where future “geniuses” in all fields want to come and create the future.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

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