By Van Meter Pettit
Downtown Lexington is in the midst of a major comeback by just about any measure you can make.
We have produced more new housing downtown in the last few years than in many preceding decades. The Lexington Center-Rupp Arena Complex has been dramatically improved. The fine building stock of our historic urban neighborhoods has enjoyed a big boost in investment and a shift back to home ownership. Major urban stakeholders — schools, universities, churches and hospitals — have made major investments in staying downtown. It is a place full of life, with concerts, parades, footraces, sidewalk cafes and children playing in fountains.
Success has a thousand parents and probably as many people deserve thanks for downtown Lexington’s turnaround.
A dense downtown is an efficient economic engine for the whole state that can create a world-class quality of life while avoiding the negative affects of sprawl. This, in turn, will attract and retain the young talent needed to maintain and increase our economic vitality.
So how do we build on this successful pattern? How do we make Lexington competitive with an Austin, Portland, Boulder, Madison or Charleston? As Vice Mayor Jim Gray says, how do we raise the standards of our B-minus downtown to match our A-plus landscape?
There are no shortcuts. It takes planning, coordination and cooperation among all downtown public and private organizations and stakeholders — and significant public investment. This level of open and transparent team play can happen only with an inclusive government that welcomes civic engagement.
That engagement has happened recently with the creation of a Downtown Masterplan and a Newtown Extension area plan. An urban streetscape plan is in the works, and a citywide 2040 visioning process is under way.
But these great starts are undermined by a number of big urban projects that have been conceived behind closed doors, then unveiled as “done deals.”
These include the redesign of Bluegrass Aspendale and Ann Street; the new Rupp Arena proposal; the deal involving Eastern State Hospital, Bluegrass Community and Technical College and the University of Kentucky’s Coldstream Research Campus; and, now, the CentrePointe development.
Each one of these big projects has merit and is potentially beneficial to our city, but that is beside the point. They all were either specifically excluded from the Downtown Master Plan (for now obvious reasons) or they disregarded its recommendations. Public input has been minimal at best or came after the fact as a means of damage control.
Each time a big idea is foisted on the community without prior public input, it undermines the civic engagement and buy-in necessary to make downtown succeed.
We can’t have it both ways. If civic volunteers feel as if our most important projects are not open for discourse, they will lose faith in the process. Downtown needs significant public funding to spur the private investment necessary to grow our economy. With public investment (tax incentives included) comes real public oversight.
Downtown needs a permanent public-private oversight board to guide the area’s development. We will never take our city from good to great without a coherent and transparent process to make decisions large and small about downtown. Our economic future depends upon it.