Tom Eblen

Knight Foundation gives $237,400 for downtown Lexington projects

During a week-long pilot in March for its Phoenix Forward project, the Lexington Public Library sponsored family activities in Central Library and adjacent Phoenix Park, from children's art projects to an outdoor space where adults could sit and chat.
During a week-long pilot in March for its Phoenix Forward project, the Lexington Public Library sponsored family activities in Central Library and adjacent Phoenix Park, from children's art projects to an outdoor space where adults could sit and chat. Lexington Public Library

High on the list of Lexington’s downtown challenges is Phoenix Park, which since 1989 has uneasily shared a block at the corner of Main Street and Limestone with the Lexington Public Library’s Central Library and Park Plaza apartments.

Thanks in part to the library’s restrooms, public-access computers and shelter from bad weather, the park has been a hangout for poor transients, some of whom are homeless, mentally ill or criminally inclined.

The challenge: How to serve their legitimate needs while keeping the park, library and upscale apartment tower safe and pleasant for everyone else?

As part of this year’s $5 million Knight Cities Challenge, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced Tuesday a $150,200 grant for a pilot project that organizers hope can strike the right balance for improving both the park and library.

“Honestly, it’s a pretty under-utilized space,” Anne Donworth, the library foundation’s development officer, said of Phoenix Park.

The project, called Phoenix Forward, will use the Knight grant to hire urban designers to “bring the library outside and the play space inside,” the application says. This would include several things, Donworth said.

The library will “create temporary physical installations using vibrant and low-cost materials to attract and engage citizens from diverse backgrounds” in the park and on the library’s main floor. The library also will work with city Parks and Recreation staff and arts organizations to create more family-oriented programming, focusing on literacy and education.

The library will buy a “specialized book bike” to bring library materials and free wireless Internet access to the park. Funding would include two Parks and Recreation staff members during a two-month pilot project in the summer of 2017, and an off-duty police officer in street clothes to enhance security, she said.

The big challenge will be attracting more families with young children to an area some people now don’t consider safe, Donworth acknowledged. It will be a balancing act, because it’s a public library and public park. Poor transients are part of the public, too.

“It’s not that we’re trying to kick anyone out; we want to serve them, too,” she said. “We’re just trying to make more people comfortable there.”

For a time, the library had a part-time social worker through to work with transients, but grant funding expired. Hiring a social worker might be part of the long-term solution, Donworth said.

The library did a brief pilot project last month to test some of the concepts. A play area was installed on the library’s main floor — the children’s area is now on the second floor — and lawn chairs and straw bales were put in the park so adults and families could play and socialize.

The library is now in the midst of a long-term strategic planning process.

“I’ve been encouraged by the fact that the library and others have reached out to me,” said Charlie Lanter, who heads the city’s new Office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention.

Lanter said that among the library’s public planning meetings is one next week with transients who hang out in Phoenix Park so they can use the library’s restrooms or public computers to check email and search for jobs.

“It’s good that the library sees them not as a problem to be solved but another customer whose needs can be met,” Lanter said. “There needs to be some programming (in Phoenix Park). One reason people congregate there, for good or ill, is that there’s not a lot going on there otherwise.”

The goal of the Knight Cities Challenge is to pioneer solutions to problems that many cities share, said Lilly Weinberg, Knight’s director of community foundations.

“Downtown libraries are civic assets that can become safe places where all people feel welcome,” Weinberg said. “The question is, how can we make it so all people feel safe in a shared space? Many cities struggle with this.”

Lexington has another winner in this year’s Knight Cities Challenge. The Downtown Development Authority received an $87,200 grant to explore ways to add services to the Transit Center and adjacent areas in anticipation of the nearby Town Branch Commons linear park development.

“There are a lot of folks passing through the transit center each day, and many of them have time on their hands,” said Jeff Fugate, the DDA president and Lexington Transit Authority board chairman, who submitted the grant application.

The DDA will work with 880 Cities, a Toronto consulting firm, to engage Lextran riders in summer 2017 about services they would patronize, which could lead to business opportunities in the redevelopment area.

Lexington is a finalist for another Knight grant competition later this year, called Re-Imagining the Civic Commons, which could bring several million dollars for a local project that could be demonstrations for other cities.

“The issues that are going on in Lexington are problems that every city is struggling with,” Weinberg said. “It feels like your city is pretty open to experimenting.”