Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Town Branch is part of Lexington's past; can it be the future, too?

Tom Eblen
Tom Eblen

Lexington should have some answers in a few months to old questions about Town Branch Creek. What lies beneath? Would it be practical to resurface some or all of it as a downtown amenity?

Lexington was founded along Town Branch in 1775. But like many urban streams around the world, the creek was abused, polluted and finally buried in culverts more than a century ago.

The Downtown Development Authority last week asked for proposals from firms interested in creating a master plan to use a resurfaced Town Branch Creek, or some representation of it, as a commons through downtown. The plan is due April 30, after which more engineering and financial analysis likely will be needed.

Like many people, I used to be skeptical of the idea. But that was before I saw what San Antonio did with River Walk and read about what other cities are doing to reclaim once-buried urban waterways. Plus what New York City has done with the High Line, an abandoned elevated rail line that is now a hugely popular linear park.

In Yonkers, N.Y., a $48 million project is uncovering six blocks of the Saw Mill River, a tributary of the Hudson that was buried in the 1920s. Two blocks of the stream have been uncovered so far, creating a park-like area with benches, the New York Times reported last month.

The project has been a catalyst for several hundred million dollars of mixed-use development in New York's fourth-largest city. Old industrial buildings are being converted into apartments, offices and commercial space.

The Saw Mill River is "no longer a resource people want to hide," Ned Sullivan, president of the environmental group Scenic Hudson, told the Times. "Not only is it a catalyst for revitalization of the downtown, but now it will become the centerpiece of the city."

Seoul, South Korea, offers an even more ambitious example. In 2005, that city finished a two-year, $348 million project to "daylight" more than three miles of a buried stream called Cheonggyecheon (pronounced Chung-gye-chun) and turn it into public recreation space.

The stream had been the heart of Seoul for 600 years before industrialization and population growth turned it into an open sewer. In the 1950s, it was buried by an elevated highway that has been removed.

Since the project's completion, nearby property values have risen and an estimated 90,000 pedestrians visit the stream's banks on an average day. Like San Antonio's River Walk, it has become a major tourist attraction.

It is intriguing to imagine such an urban green space through downtown, especially one that would highlight the historic authenticity of Town Branch Creek, whose path literally determined the shape of early Lexington.

Town Branch flows underground from its source near the Jif peanut butter plant along Midland Avenue. It crosses Main Street and runs roughly along Vine Street to just past Rupp Arena, where it becomes an exposed stream. Much of the underground path is beneath public streets and rights of way and city-owned parking lots.

Jeff Fugate, president of the Downtown Development Authority, wants this master plan to be creative but realistic. Possibilities could range from resurfacing the creek or parts of it to some sort of symbolic interpretation of Town Branch's historic path.

However Lexington hopes to use Town Branch as a magnet for people and development, it will require philanthropy in addition to public money. Not to mention an inspiring plan. "If you want to leverage philanthropy, you have to have a vision to show people," Fugate said.

Like cities all across America, Lexington is seeing an urban renaissance, with more people wanting to live, work and entertain themselves downtown. Private development and commerce follow smart investments in civic infrastructure, such as the Fifth Third Pavilion at Cheapside and the recent renovation of Triangle Park.

Alltech on Monday will open what is sure to become a popular tourist destination near Rupp Arena. It is a bourbon distillery housed in a beautiful new building beside the Kentucky Ale brewery and a visitors center in a renovated old ice house.

Alltech founders Pearse and Deirdre Lyons know a good brand when they see one. I suspect it is no accident that their newest product is called Town Branch Bourbon.

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