Create city arts, entertainment area

In the decades to come, families, sports fans, concert-goers and others could come to a Lexington arts and entertainment district for an engaging experience, one that includes restaurants, bars, music venues, shopping and attractive parks.

The area could provide a dynamic urban experience that emphasizes the shared values of the community and the forward-looking optimism of its citizens.

The district could be dense, catering to a wide demographic, providing jobs and being a showcase for people looking to relocate to Lexington.

As a result of an efficient, inclusive and professional process, the Rupp Arena district's unique plan could define Lexington's downtown in the 21st century and make it a nationwide model of planning, architecture and economic development.

The IMG plan, launched by the University of Kentucky in 2009, made the claim that private financing would sufficiently cover not only a new arena, but renovations to several other university facilities, including Commonwealth Stadium. With that option all but off the table, University of Kentucky President Lee T. Todd Jr. and Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart have put the ball in the city's court.

Mayor Jim Gray is right to initiate a task force to study the redevelopment of Rupp Arena; it's worth taking time to identify what a successful project might look like.

First, the era of building new arenas as downtown development projects has long faded. These white elephants were, more often than not, black holes in the urban fabric, with seas of parking and large, unapproachable buildings. Lexington does not need another white elephant.

The renovation of Rupp Arena will not stop at the building's walls. Instead, it will be a larger process of planning and development that includes the areas around the civic center.

For example, despite the Manchester Street tax-increment financing project (1 in the illustration) being only a few hundred feet from the arena, it feels miles away, thanks to the Jefferson Street viaduct and rows of parking.

By considering Manchester an extension of the renovation, both projects will leverage greater added value and economic return. Imagine walking from a UK game or concert to the restaurants and bars along Manchester, possibly via the new Town Branch Trail.

Existing proposals already make suggestions on how to connect these areas. The loading dock side of Rupp, now a banal swath of parking (2), has long been a potential site for an outdoor amphitheater. Now's the best chance yet to make that happen.

Consider also the other sea of parking, the High Street lot (3). Many Lexingtonians still remember the wonderful housing stock that existed prior to Rupp and regret the lack of planning in the current configuration.

Today, with creative planning, that site could again serve as a vital mixed-use area, expand the city's tax base and raise property values.

Triangle Park (4), on the other side of the Civic Center, is already undergoing a major renovation to repair the landscaping of the now outdated park. With help from the best minds in landscape architecture, Triangle Park could become a showpiece for downtown Lexington, especially if the Lexington Civic Center and city government leadership had the audacity to create two-way streets and cut off the Vine Street feeder.

These ideas are not far-fetched. The Lexington Downtown Master Plan includes all of these as recommendations in some form.

Accomplishing these goals will require teamwork. I'd advise the new administration to use this project as a test of its new commissioner-level Department of Economic Development, Preservation and Planning.

For example, private or public financing alone will not be sufficient. This can work to the city's advantage by using the expertise of a development staff to build strong public-private partnerships that will be sustained beyond the arena renovation.

The city can develop design guidelines and form-based zoning codes, according to the very challenges presented by this complex development project. It can modernize the historic preservation processes to include buildings and districts that aren't traditionally historic. And it can return urban planning to the city government by using the Civic Center as the first design project to test its capacity.

That design project should have a simple goal: Create an arena that's on par with Louisville's new KFC Yum Center, while also making the city fabric around it better.