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Land Matters: We Have a Winner

Lexington, Kentucky, has so much going for it. It’s got the thoroughbred thing, hence all the pretty white fences around the Bluegrass horse farms (and the plane at the airport marked First Class Equine Travel, which, by the way, is windowless). It’s the home of Kentucky basketball, which a liberal friend from Kentucky insists is the only thing she and Senator Mitch McConnell will ever agree on. A big university. Handsome neighborhoods. And, as goes the region, it’s got plenty of bourbon.

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Right now, it also has a mayor, Jim Gray, and other leaders who realize Lexington has lost something. Actually, two things. It has lost vibrancy downtown, but, as important, it’s lost a creek called Town Branch, around which Lexington was born in the 1700s, a little northwest of downtown. That’s where some early distilleries were, though they didn’t survive Prohibition. The creek is still there, but it’s buried under Vine Street, a colorless one-way street that zips through the center.

The city wants to bring Town Branch back to life for a couple of miles along Vine Street and into the neighborhoods nearby. I was on a jury of five people in early February to look at proposals by five finalists in the Town Branch Commons competition. There were several assuring things about the competition. One was that people in the city seem so enthusiastic about its prospects—the day before the jury, there was a well-populated symposium to learn who the designers were, and the mayor showed up for a hurried but heartfelt display of excitement. Another was that it was driven by the landscape from the start. The sponsor, the Lexington Downtown Development Authority, had obviously looked wide and looked hard for its short list. We saw proposals by Civitas, Coen + Partners, Inside/Outside: Petra Blaisse, JDS Architects with Diana Balmori, and the winner, SCAPE/Landscape Architecture, which won $200,000 to develop its proposal.

All of the teams had big changes in mind for downtown Lexington. But whereas the creek was way underground, there was a focus on the surface, or above it—huge landform buildings by JDS near the basketball arena that were cool but pointless; a sort of floating shelf through downtown by Civitas; and heavy real estate programming by Inside/Outside, though the city farms proposed by Shane Coen, FASLA, struck a chord.

A jury is looking for something quintessential. Like the others, Kate Orff, ASLA, the founder of SCAPE, started her presentation with a couple of polished introductory images of the project. But then she showed rough pictures of the sinks, swallets, and boils of water around the limestone karst that lies under the Lexington area. There was an explanation of how those formations could translate into strategies to push Town Branch from underground up to the street in similarly surprising ways, to have the water cleaned as it moves through the city, and to tell the whole story, materially, in limestone along its course (this will please the bourbon crowd, which owes its life to the limestone water). There was much more. SCAPE had a large, floodable park at one end, a soft stream to run along the other, a major overture to the university on the south, a downtown plaza and playground, a development strategy that could start small, a populist identity campaign, and a grasp of the surrounding real estate, informed not least by the experienced local planning firm it invited onto its team. It was a hit in every way.

These sorts of urban landscape competitions are coming up more frequently, and something good is going on. Waller Creek in Austin, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the Seattle Waterfront, the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities—all of these recent searches have basically been driven by landscape architecture and won by landscape architects. This is not yesterday, when cities like these, and Lexington, would just call in planners, architects, and engineers to remake their cities with alien, grandiose ideas and, perhaps, bury their creeks.

Bradford McKee
Editor

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