Editorial: Don't squander opportunity for town-gown planning

After a decade of town-gown talks, the planets are aligned. If Lexington and its expanding higher education sector miss this moment, it could be 50 years, if ever, before another such opportunity arises.

Now is the time to summon our best planning and design chops, for leaders to lead and for the public to get engaged in imagining and building a college town where a wide range of people will be eager to live, learn, work and invest.

It's not just the University of Kentucky's aggressive plan to build and replace student housing that creates this opportunity, though UK, as always, is the 800-pound gorilla.

North of downtown, Transylvania University is growing and Bluegrass Community and Technical College's Newtown campus is under construction.

Limestone and Jefferson streets have become lively corridors, sparks that make campus and community more attractive. Will all the change and expansion enhance or stifle this hopeful scene?

It's very important to get this right.

The urgency of the moment is reinforced by a report released last week by town-gown guru Omar Blaik. Lexington's higher ed and other institutions paid for Blaik's advice because of his success in turning around declining Philadelphia neighborhoods surrounding the University of Pennsylvania.

Blaik is now president of U3Ventures, a real estate development and consulting firm that specializes in helping universities integrate with their surroundings to create vibrant areas.

As such, he's seen a lot of conflicts over noise, trash and parties when students invade traditional neighborhoods — but nothing, he told reporter Linda Blackford, on the scale of the impact UK has had on its environs.

One key to reversing that decline is putting student housing close to walkable corridors that mix commercial and residential development. Also key: attracting faculty and staff back to campus neighborhoods.

"The opportunity is tremendous — we rarely find a city mayor and university president and a city council and civic leaders who are all aspiring for the same thing," Blaik told Blackford. "But as much as we believe the potential is tremendous, we also believe the time is now, because if this student housing gets built in a different way, the opportunity will be lost."

Mayor Jim Gray and UK President Eli Capilouto should take the lead in making the most of this rare opportunity.