Tom Eblen

Splash park, playground among local finalists for $5 million in Knight grants

A finalist project in this year's Knight Cities Challenge competition would create family programming that would use both Phoenix Park and the adjacent Central Library.
A finalist project in this year's Knight Cities Challenge competition would create family programming that would use both Phoenix Park and the adjacent Central Library. teblen@herald-leader.com

Five Lexington ideas are among finalists in this year’s Knight Cities Challenge, which will divide $5 million among a few community engagement projects proposed in 26 cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once owned newspapers.

“I think it’s interesting that almost all the ideas for Lexington all involve the civic commons and civic space,” said Griffin VanMeter, a Lexington marketing executive and community activist who proposed one of the finalists.

His project is called Super Play, a big indoor-outdoor playground for children that also would have amenities to make adults want to go there. He modeled the idea on two similar places, The Commons Playground in Columbus, Ind., and St. Louis’ City Museum.

The Knight Foundation grant he is seeking would pay for a study to look at ideas and locations for the facility, VanMeter said. He doesn’t have a specific site in mind.

The second finalist, called Water for All, would create a splash park and gathering space at Northeastern Park, a small city park at East Short Street and Eastern Avenue just north of Thoroughbred Park.

The project was proposed by the Blue Grass Community Foundation, which this summer plans to put a temporary splash park there with funding from the Gehl Institute, an offshoot of Gehl Studios, a San Francisco-based urban design firm. Lisa Adkins, the community foundation’s president, said the Knight Foundation application seeks money to help build a permanent splash park.

“There is all this pent-up demand that is demonstrated every summer at Thoroughbred Park,” Adkins noted. Children often play in that park’s fountain, even though it is prohibited because the fountain wasn’t designed for that purpose.

The third finalist, Fancy Lex, would be modeled after the Fancy Farm picnic in Graves County, a political speaking event each August that is the traditional kickoff to Kentucky’s fall campaign season. As envisioned by Clay Thornton and the four other University of Kentucky students who proposed it, Fancy Lex would feature Urban County Council members promoting their districts and inviting constituents to discuss community issues

The fourth finalist is called Family-Centered Public Spaces, a joint venture of the Lexington Public Library, Lexington Parks and Recreation, the Lexington Downtown Development Authority and the Blue Grass Community Foundation.

The project would involve complementary programming at Central Library and adjacent Phoenix Park for children and families that would take advantage of both the indoor and outdoor spaces.

The fifth finalist, proposed by the Downtown Development Authority, is called Parking Lot Diaries. It would test ideas and temporary facilities at a city-owned parking lot across Vine Street from the Transit Center.

The city has state funding to build a crosswalk across Vine from the Transit Center to the lot, which will become part of the Town Branch Commons project to create a series of parks downtown along the path of long-buried Town Branch Creek.

“That will dramatically change that area,” Downtown Development Authority president Jeff Fugate said of Town Branch Commons, noting that the Transit Center already has the second-highest level of midday pedestrian traffic downtown, after Short Street.

Fugate would use a Knight Foundation grant to assess what people want to see in that redeveloped area, and it could include temporary “pop-up” facilities such as a produce stand or food truck court.

The local projects were among 158 finalists chosen from 4,500 applications. Winners will be announced in the spring. This is the second year of the three-year, $15 million Knight Cities Challenge.

Lexington had one of the 32 winners last year, but little progress has been made.

The nonprofit North Limestone Community Development Corp., or NoLi CDC, won a $550,000 grant to help buy a 1920s bus terminal on Loudon Avenue and turn it into a public market and local food hub focused on the surrounding neighborhood.

The Lexington Transit Authority owns the building, which it had planned to demolish and then use the site for its new headquarters. Instead, preservationists persuaded Lextran to build its headquarters on a different site further west on Loudon.

Fugate, who also is Lextran’s board chairman, said the agency has been focused on finishing the new building and hopes to sell the old one by summer. Because it was purchased with federal transportation funds, it must be sold at fair market value, as determined by an appraisal that will be done closer to the sale date. So NoLi CDC isn’t certain it can acquire the building.

NoLi CDC director Richard Young said the organization has spent the past year exploring additional fundraising possibilities for the building’s purchase, but it has no commitments he can announce.

The organization also has met with neighborhood residents to find out how they want the building used. One aspect being considered is incubator space for neighborhood residents interested in starting businesses.

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