Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Rupp concept embraces optimism

Lexingtonians are a practical lot. If we talk about building something, we immediately want to know what it will look like, what it will cost and when it will be finished. And then we want to come up with reasons why it won't work.

The Arena, Arts & Entertainment District Task Force is a different kind of process. It is about bringing stakeholders and the public together with some world-class planning and design professionals to brainstorm ideas and consider possibilities, both for now and the distant future.

Last week, the public heard again from the design team leader, Gary Bates of the Norway-based architecture firm Space Group. Bates, who taught at the University of Kentucky for a year, said part of his role is to be a "provocateur" and spark creative thinking in others.

You may have seen news reports about Bates' latest thinking: Renovate Rupp Arena, don't replace it. Don't expand the convention center, build a new one nearby to "free Rupp" for expansion. Connect the city better with bicycle and pedestrian space including a path to UK's campus he calls The Catwalk.

Also, Bates suggests, better connect the district with the rest of downtown by bringing Town Branch Creek back to the surface in some form and build public space around it. "It's such an enormous opportunity," he said.

Bates' team has offered some interesting ideas. Just as interesting are the basic philosophies behind them. Among those:

Build on what works; abandon what doesn't. This concept is at the heart of Space Group's evolving ideas about Rupp and the Lexington Center shops and convention facilities.

UK officials and fans have been wanting a new arena because Rupp lacks lucrative entertainment space and high-tech gadgetry. Rupp lacks the glamour of Louisville's new KFC Yum Center and its exterior is as sexy as a shipping crate.

But if you put aside arena envy and 35 years of age, Rupp has always served its purpose incredibly well. It is one of the nation's great arenas. Bates approached the issue like this: how could a renovation build on Rupp's intense fan experience and use it to energize the surrounding area?

While Rupp has always worked, the retail space around it never has. The shopping center can be crowded when there's an arena event or convention, but is a ghost town much of the rest of the time. Tenants have always come and gone. Bates suggested moving those shops to face Main Street — still accessible to arena and convention visitors, but more visible to everyone else.

After several expansions and renovations, the convention facilities wrapped around Rupp are scattered on three levels. Expanding the convention center won't solve its inherent design problem and space constraints.

So Bates has suggested building a new convention center — perhaps a cluster of buildings connected by covered walkways — nearby. A task force study shows that renovating the arena and building new convention facilities would cost half as much as the opposite approach. (That is, assuming UK or the city can find the money to do either.)

Adaptive reuse. "There's an incredible collection of old buildings in the downtown area," Bates said. Economics and common sense suggest finding new uses for them.

For example, he said, restore the old First Baptist Church as a performance hall and "rethink" Victorian Square, which has a beautiful facade but interior space that has never worked.

Bates also emphasized adaptive reuse of open space, especially Rupp's vast asphalt parking lots. He envisions a school building, athletic fields and underground and deck parking on the High Street lot; Keeneland-style lawn parking on the west Cox Street lot, which he said would look less like a gully if the Jefferson Street bridge were removed.

Slow cooking. Bates uses this term to describe a philosophy of not trying to make longer-term plans too specific. Especially in places such as the High Street lot, uses should evolve over time as needs change and construction money is available.

Better connect the city, focusing on pedestrians and bicycles. That explains the Town Branch and Catwalk ideas and better connecting bike lanes and trails and "safe" pedestrian streets. Also, he said, increase density downtown, which is only half as dense as it was a century ago.

Perhaps Bates' biggest long-term idea is a public transit hub on the railroad yard northwest of Rupp. But he isn't alone. Keeneland President Nick Nicholson asked the task force to consider a future light rail link to Keeneland and Blue Grass Airport.

Now that is an out-of-the-box idea. In our traditional way of planning, would any Lexingtonian have even had the courage to suggest it?