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Newly-unveiled Town Branch Commons a 'love letter to downtown Lexington,' designer says

Visitors head toward the ribbon cutting for Lexington's Town Branch Commons Trail on October 13, 2022.
Josh James
Visitors head toward the ribbon cutting for Lexington's Town Branch Commons Trail on October 13, 2022.

It’s been a decade in the making — Lexington’s ambitious Town Branch Commons Trail. Thursday marked the debut of the new artery in the heart of downtown.

Water babbles along the edge of the newly-christened Town Branch Commons, a downtown trail that’s part of a project that started more than 10 years ago. That idea: a multifunctional pathway, parkway, and greenway winding through downtown tracing the same route as the city’s foundational water source, Town Branch Creek.

Thursday, the ribbon-cutting ceremony drew officials from the mayor to the governor to the man who was there when the original plan was crafted, former Lexington Mayor Jim Gray – who told WUKY the idea wasn’t an easy sell at first.

"Often I would get rolled eyes or crossed eyes and not two thumbs up," the former mayor recalled. "But eventually, over time, we started getting two thumbs up."

So how does Gray feel today when he sees the trail come to life?

"Well, if I don't get emotional, then I'll smile real big and say that it's fantastic to see a dream come true. You know, it's as simple as that," Gray said.

As simple as that, but — as Gray stressed — the ambitious development took a community of people to bring to fruition. The project itself is a testament to persistence, surviving two mayoral administrations, the pandemic, and ups and downs in the budget.

At the helm of the design was Kate Orff, a celebrated landscape architect, who called the finished Town Branch Commons a “love letter to downtown.” She said the just over two-mile mile long trail, which takes travelers past businesses, entertainment venues, restaurants, and parks, is already the envy of other communities.

"The eyes are on you now. This is a significant, signature accomplishment. Cities and town across the United States are trying to envision and implement projects exactly like this."
Kate Orff, Founding Principal of SCAPE Landscape Architecture

The trail will ultimately lead find its way to the planned Town Branch Park near the Central Bank Center. That final piece is set to begin construction next year.

From the City of Lexington:

A 10-year, 2.2-mile journey ended this morning with an official snip of a ribbon and a celebration to officially open Town Branch Commons Trail.

Mayor Linda Gorton, Governor Andy Beshear, former Mayor Jim Gray, and Congressman Andy Barr joined dozens of walkers, cyclists and folks who work or live downtown for the festivities.

“This trail is a path to economic vitality, to healthy living, and to our beautiful Bluegrass countryside,” Mayor Linda Gorton said. “It’s the kind of quality of life investment that people in Lexington treasure, and visitors travel here to enjoy.”

The trail is the vision of former Mayor Jim Gray, who won a federal TIGER grant in 2016 to provide most of the funding. “Town Branch Commons was a 10-year project born of imagination, persistence, determination and a lot of hard work by a lot of people,” said Gray, who is now Kentucky Transportation Secretary. “It’s a great example of the power of improved transportation to connect communities, boost the quality of life and offer a safe, multi-modal system that meets the needs of all its users.”

Trail construction cost $22 million with additional funding coming from local resources and state or federal grants.

Governor Beshear said, “The completion of the Town Branch Commons corridor is a major milestone in the history of Lexington. Built along the path of the city’s foundational waterway, Town Branch Creek, this forward-looking trail succeeds on every level. It is a beautiful and multifunctional parkway, pathway and greenway that is encouraging both healthy activity and economic development all along the route. Congratulations to the public servants and generous private donors who have made this ambitious project a reality.”

And Congressman Barr said, “The Town Branch Commons project connects our parks, people, and businesses in downtown Lexington in a way that will boost commerce and recreation. I was honored to support this initiative and deliver a federal grant that helped power its completion. I want to thank all of the local officials and private citizens who came together to achieve this multi-year project for our community.”

The design of the trail celebrates the Bluegrass by bringing iconic elements through the heart of the city. It features lush stormwater landscaping using native grasses, flowers, and trees, and a modern interpretation of Lexington’s dry-stacked limestone fences and paving details inspired by the karst geology found across Kentucky.

Trail designer Kate Orff, a prominent landscape architect who has designed projects around the world and is the founding principal of SCAPE, was in Lexington today to join in the celebration. “It’s been an honor for SCAPE to work with Lexington for over a decade to achieve their goal: a legacy open space that honors the spirit of Bluegrass country. This is a testament to years of collaborative work—grant proposals, public education initiatives, iterative design, and work with local artisans to craft a space for all Lexingtonians.”

The trail has already received national recognition. It was awarded the 2022 Environmental Excellence Award by the Federal Highway Administration.

While the project is mostly known as a transportation project, it is also a green infrastructure project. The project features native plantings and over 300 trees, tripling the urban tree canopy on this stretch of downtown roads. It adds nearly two acres of planting areas along the corridor. The design addresses storm water runoff with the implementation of urban rain gardens and bioswales, engineered planting areas designed to collect and soak up rainfall while cleaning pollutants from the water.

The trail roughly follows the path of historic Town Branch, Lexington’s original water source, through downtown. It is 14 feet wide with a multi-use path along Midland Avenue. On Vine Street separate paths are provided for walkers and cyclists. The trail accommodates all users, while still retaining the same number of vehicular lanes on Vine Street and Midland Avenue.

A ride or walk along the trail passes by or near Lexington businesses, entertainment venues, restaurants, art, and parks, including Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden, Charles Young Park, Northeastern Park, Thoroughbred Park, Phoenix Park, Henry A. Tandy Centennial Park, Triangle Park, and, coming soon, Town Branch Park.

Town Branch Commons links Lexington’s two major trails, Town Branch Trail and the Legacy Trail, producing 22 miles of uninterrupted trail, the hub of a growing, citywide trail system.

Funding partners include the Federal Highway Administration, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, the Kentucky Division of Water, the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority, and the Lexington Area MPO. Contractors and consultants included Pace Contracting, Gresham Smith, SCAPE and AECOM.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.