The Rupp Arena Public Meeting — an overview of current thinking

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BY DAVID SCHANKULA

Early on at Buster’s last night, Stan Harvey put up a slide of an old Adolph Rupp quote about opportunity and told the crowd it was like ol’ Adolph was speaking to us from beyond the grave.

If that’s the case, perhaps it was also Adolph Rupp who poured down thunder and lightning in a deafening hard rain, at times nearly drowning out the speakers during the 90 minutes first public meeting of the Rupp Area task force.

Maybe Rupp’s message about opportunity isn’t about spending hundreds of millions of dollars to fluff Mitch Barnhart and certain others at the University of Kentucky. Maybe it’s about the opportunity to leave Rupp essentially as is, and build a great city around it.

Just as they did a month ago, each speaker made clear this Task Force isn’t about building a new arena.

“This is not about making a decision on anything,” Chairman Brent Rice told the assembled. It’s an investigation, he said.

And talking to those assembled, the folks who took the time to come down and give it a listen, another thing became clear — many people, on both the for and the against, are mistakenly debating one issue: the Arena.

Mitch Barnhart and some loud-speaking Wildcat homers are obsessed with Louisville’s YUM! Center and are posturing like nothing less is acceptable. Others are pointing out the sheer insanity of that position — and it is astonishingly short-sighted.

But there’s much more under consideration and if you talk to the folks running this show, it quickly becomes apparent that the folks in charge understand — and want — an arts and entertainment district. And you may also get the distinct impression they don’t want a new arena.

Speaker after speaker talked not of luxury boxes but of creating a walkable downtown. They spoke of an 800 seat performing arts venue, a public space with amphitheater, on and on.

But there was arena talk, too, so let’s get to it all. What did Gary Bates — head of Space Group, master planner for the Arts & Entertainment District — have to say? The below is an overview. There is much more to say and to discuss, but let’s first lay out essentially what was discussed.

First and foremost, the master planner said our job and his is to turn the critiques — and there are plenty — into a positive message. Then he said he’d share with us a few dreams.

–Big Blue Madness is an amazing event. 25,000 people screaming their heads off. But afterwards… everyone disappears. How do we create a downtown that people think of as a destination? Currently, they come down, go to the event, then immediately get back in their cars and drive away. How can we retain that energy — and by retaining it, can we acclimate people to the idea of a downtown such that they come down at other times, too, not just for basketball, a circus or a concert.

Rupp is remarkable as it is because we are fitting twice as many people into the same cubic space as some new, state of the art arenas (Florida’s, YUM!, etc).

–Rupp is remarkable as it is because it sits right at the center of Lexington. It should remain there, with an iconic sense of belonging.

–Bates took us on a tour through Lexington history, with diagrams and photographs his point simply that he and his team are looking at the whole city. They are looking back across the past changes, how they affected the city and what we can learn. The Rose and Elm expansion, the Transit Center, and so forth. How they separate the city, how they could change in the future. This is not necessarily work Bates is contracted to do, but it would good of us to listen.

–There were maps showing how close the residential neighborhoods come to the core, and how small businesses are weaved throughout downtown (largely, Bates noted, north of Main).

Peoples’ perception of distance is greater than the actual distance. Bates compared Fayette Mall to downtown, the distance is roughly the same, the walk from Rupp to Library is the same as Macy’s to Dillards. But people are only willing to do one by the thousands.

It’s a 12 minute walk to campus, but it feels much longer. How can the flow of students and the foot traffic become an event, one that invites and encourages foot traffic in general, and reduces the parking and traffic burden on event’s day.

The Transpheria. Perhaps the biggest dream, a train station, a transit hub, running trains to the airport, Louisville and beyond. Look at Ann Arbor, Bates said, “it can be done.” The location: the Corman land, at the end of the Cox Street parking lot, right where the old trains station used to be. Whether or not there’s a Transpheria, all roads already lead to the Arts and Entertainment District.

The Mirror. Currently, the downtown core stretches from Rupp to Midland. Taking the same size and reflecting it down Broadway and out Manchester Street, a mirror image creates an extended core which, incidentally, exactly matches the existing Distillery TIF district. The core of this mirror is easily divided up into five minute diameters: five from the Distillery District to Rupp, five from Rupp to the GrasseyFielde and so on, with equal fives stretching up to the restaurant row north of Main and south toward the campus.

Two Way Streets. Bates was clear. The key to creating a downtown is two way streets. Vine is a freeway. Main is inhospitable. And as became evident later, the possible Rupp Area scenarios all seem to want to disrupt that backward street flow. The speed on Vine in particular is too high, hurting the city and the concrete walls are inhospitable. (This was met by loud applause.)

Town Branch. It deserves better. Bates talked often throughout the evening, and included several illustrations, of uncovering the creek currently hidden under the city and bringing it to the foreground as the positive attribute it could be.

The Cox Street Parking Lot. People see it as a drainage ditch. It doesn’t need to be. And it’s not that unusable. The Jefferson Street bridge is unneccessary. What if we removed the bridge, put the street on the ground, and turned what is now a parking lot into… the new convention center, a public space, an amphitheatre, etc. The hill the bridge connects to is not that daunting an incline. But it is daunting enough for kids in winter with sleds.

“Skybridges.” That’s what Bates calls them, and whether you call them that or “pedways,” the answer’s the same: they are barriers. We should get rid of them and we certainly don’t need any more. (The Webbs’ visionary eye for urban design sheds a tear.)

Arts Venue. They’re talking to local arts groups, the university’s arts departments and the public schools about a venue. Finding one to fit all is difficult, but creating a multi-use arts venue (or multiple locations throughout the district) is a key to bringing downtown to life.

–The Lexington Center. This is space is “difficult.” An enormous lobby, nothing about it particularly inspiring. The shops are empty. At lunch on an average day, there are about seven people eating at the Arby’s. That’s it. Bates and his team are “questioning that space.”

–Taking a wider view of the Rupp/Convention block as it is now, Bates wonders how to give the city the visual connections great cities offer, ways to see through the city demonstrating accessibility between parts (for instance, the distance between UK and Rupp seems grand in part because there’s no clear path to it, though there are acres of surface parking, if that’s your thang.) In one view, this meant knocking down everything around the Arena itself and creating an avenue between the refashioned arena and the hotel. In another, High Street curled smoothly into the Distillery District with the Jefferson Bridge sunk to the ground and the parking lot as green space.

–”If Rupp needs to expand, and it does.” There was a quote for the night. There are powerful forces calling for a new arena and those voices could basically care less about the rest of these ideas unless they are in service to the cause of a new arena. That view must be stopped. But there’s a fair question about what really needs to happen to Rupp Arena. The options being set out are and A v. B., but there’s a C. and it’s disservice to the city to overlook that, regardless of the University of Kentucky’s self-serving interest. That’s a longer discussion and should happen, but for now, I’ll leave it at that.

Building a new Rupp and a new convention center is “very difficult.” Bates made clear the obvious financial predicament that everyone but that UK-homer crew seems to realize. This is promising. It’s a further strength of the 47-member committee. The more decision makers who are forced to confront this reality, the better. Fantasyland is a fun place to put your mind, but it’s not a place to make good decisions.

The High-to-Maxwell parking ocean. Could we put residential housing here that flows naturally and meshes well with the surrounding area? Could we put a new arena there, or the convention center? Could we build the convention center underground here with open space above for convention goers and public space, a garden and/or an amphitheater, above?

Rupp Arena has “Great Bones.” This is important. The structure itself is solid. The building is built to last. Tearing that down isn’t just a loss but a waste. This ties into the larger, actual, conversation about rebuilding, renovating or just re-using.

–In one idea for a new arena, Bates showed a slide of a sports park, letting people recreate “in the proximity of greatness.” Surrounding the new arena with soccer fields, tennis and basketball courts. An urban playland. This is a very cool idea, and he showed an image of a project they are working on India, Sports City, that has a similar plan. But again, taking Bates’ overall apparent preference for not building a new arena, this one seems more like a false choice for deluded dreamers to entertain but lose.

–#FreeRupp. In tone and intent, this may well be Bates’ actual plan. Considering the arena as it is now, it is a gem of a space surrounded by an empty, soulless facade. Ripping away that nonsense and leaving the arena standing alone at its center, space is opened up around it, creating that iconic centerpiece. The level at which Bates may be taking this seriously was reinforced by the model city on display after the presentation, the downtown area in question, with Rupp sitting free and alone in a transparent cube:

The explicit point of this transparent view was almost certainly to isolate our visions on the space available surrounding the object in question. But the implicit point couldn’t be clearer.

–To further impress this, Bates went on to talk about an open modeled arena. In which you can see what is inside and into which the outside surroundings flow. His example, the Allianz soccer stadium in Munich:

–With the arena now stripped down to a stand-alone structure, Bates headed into his closing by surrounding the newfound emptiness around the transparent box with the possibilities of an expanded Triangle Park, an new set of buildings along Main, each slide successfully shutting the Vine Street connector that currently starts the race track and turns Triangle Park into an aggrandized traffic island.

Here, Bates came to a close. Rather than a laborious Q&A, he invited everyone to mingle and discuss, to approach him with questions and ideas of their own. People did, and Bates gamely listened… not dutifully, not as a show, but really seeming to listen, huddling with people beside a wall-sized map of downtown and illustrating their ideas onto the map as they spoke. And around the map, people post-it noted additional ideas.

There’s much, much more to be said about all of this, but for now, this seems enough. If you couldn’t be there, this at least offers a basic overview of the thinking and the dreaming. The discussion must continue, but it is clear that for whatever criticisms some might lob in their direction, this task force, and Mayor Gray and Gary Bates in particular, are working on something grand.

Whether Rupp’s thunderstorm was a warning or his quote about opportunity an encouragement is, at best, debatable. What is clear is Lexington could be reshaped in an image less like the concrete tombs of the past fifty years and more like a localized and local-driven city. There is something here and it’s foolish to write it off. What’s worse, though, is pretending a new arena is the solution, let alone a truly viable option.



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