Jim Gray’s excellent idea taking shape in Lexington Center transformation

Architect’s rendering of the Rupp Arena exterior after renovation is complete.
Architect’s rendering of the Rupp Arena exterior after renovation is complete. NBBJ + EOP Architects

Austerity and ambition made strange bedfellows in Jim Gray’s first State of the Merged Government speech in January 2011.

The new mayor was blunt about the challenges facing Lexington’s government, including underfunding of police and fire pensions and an unbalanced budget strained by the Great Recession.

Through the budgetary gloom, Gray also identified some opportunities; most notably he called for a redesign of Lexington Center and Rupp Arena. We opined that “transforming one of downtown’s anchors from citadel into cityscape” sounded like a good idea, “even if it’s awhile before the money is available.”

On Thursday, ground will be broken for that transformation, a vision that Gray has steadfastly pursued during his two terms as mayor.

The design is not quite as dramatic — or expensive — as what was unveiled at the end of a public process. But the final plan stayed true to the essence of the original which had heightened expectations and generated excitement.

The revamped Lexington Center will have more meeting space, bringing larger conventions to Lexington, but it also will be more inviting and pedestrian-friendly for people who live here. “Freeing Rupp,” breaking the monolith into separate buildings, connected by outdoor walkways called the Cat Walk and the Gorge, will create a more appealing scale and a livelier experience for visitors.

The adjacent Town Branch Park, to be privately funded, will be a destination, gathering place and link to the Distillery District.

The $241 million project will be financed with state and local dollars but mostly from revenue generated by Rupp and the convention center.

The University of Kentucky has pledged to keep the Wildcats at Rupp until at least 2033 under terms that help make the project feasible, a recognition that a more vibrant downtown is good for UK.

Gray, who also led the old courthouse’s restoration, has long been fascinated by what makes cities work. Before entering politics, he took time off as an exec in his family’s construction firm to study urban design as a Loeb Fellow at Harvard.

Gray is leaving office at the end of the year, but his ideas will enrich life in Lexington for a long time to come.

He would be the first to say that building grand structures is easy compared with building the consensus required to realize a project like reimagining Rupp and the convention center, an achievement Gray calls “nothing short of a miracle.”