UK design dean: Rupp redo would invigorate city's brand

Question: What does good architectural design and good urban planning mean to downtown?

Answer: It helps unlock economic potential.

Q: Why plan an investment now, when times are tough?

A: To be ready to roar out of the recession when the economy improves.

Q: Is all of this talk about Rupp Arena just about basketball?

A: It's about a state-of-the-art arena, and more. It's about creating a livable and energetic downtown. It's about art and arts education. It's about investing in our brand. It's about the economic potential of both the city and the University of Kentucky.

Those questions are at the heart of the work of the task force appointed by Mayor Jim Gray last March to study Rupp Arena, Lexington Center and the 46 acres the city owns that surround the facilities.

As a member of the Task Force and as dean of the UK College of Design, I have focused my attention on the quality of the project's design work. It's fantastic!

The Rupp Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force hired Gary Bates and his firm, Space Group, as master planners for the district. The group's final report to the Urban County Council and Lexington Center Board is scheduled for the end of January.

The initial results from Space Group's study are compelling and should be implemented. How that might happen, and more importantly, how the proposals will be funded, are questions now on the table.

To be sure, these are big questions, but there is little question that Bates and Space Group provided us with a visionary proposal that, if implemented, will not only create a more livable and energetic downtown, but will also enhance the brand, and thus the economic potential of both the city and the University of Kentucky.

At the center of the proposal is Space Group's strategy to "free Rupp," as Bates described it in two exciting public presentations. That decision came after an extensive comparison of the advantages of reinventing Rupp or building a new facility. The group found that reinventing Rupp is the best option for many reasons, including lower costs.

For Bates, freeing Rupp literally means stripping away the building's existing industrial skin and replacing it with a more transparent one. The resulting glass-and-metal box makes the entire game experience more accessible to a larger public.

Looking through the transparent building facade from the large plaza formed by the building entry, fans can be seen moving through the building on two large blue escalators and through open corridors before entering the light suffused, hallowed basketball cathedral.

Freeing Rupp means the excitement inside Rupp overflows outside, as fans without a ticket enjoy games on large video screens in the arena plaza.

Freeing Rupp means escaping the uncomfortable embrace of Lexington Center's retail and convention space, which is unappealing and, according to a recent study, undersized and uncompetitive.

Bates' solution is clear in aerial views of the district. One image shows the area as it exists today. The other shows a free-standing, re-imagined Rupp, fronted on Main Street by new retail shops. In addition there is a big-enough-to-be-competitive convention campus of five distinct buildings in the Cox Street parking lot.

Also in the Cox lot, Bates proposes removing the Jefferson Street Viaduct and creating an open park along the path of historic Town Branch.

The High Street parking lot is transformed into an arts district, featuring a school, residential and commercial space and a Cat Walk processional path to UK. Bates' design allows Lexington to reclaim and re-stitch its authentic urban fabric, now lost in a sea of parking.

Bates has proposed a design-focused district, which other cities have used very successfully to attract new businesses and talent.

Such districts have helped cities burnish their image, and enhance their brands. Well-designed public spaces, buildings, parks and even infrastructure are now recognized as ways to add economic value.

In New York, redevelopment of the derelict High Line elevated railway into a new, elevated urban park has transformed the lower west side of Manhattan into an economic engine generating $2 billion in private investment.

In Miami, developers have even used world-renowned architects to design parking garages. From Seoul, South Korea, where designation as "world design capital" has transformed the city into one of the most spectacular in Asia, to the design-led redevelopment of Syracuse, great design has become not only a quality of life issue, but an economic engine.

And with Gary Bates' plan, it can happen here ... by design.

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