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In-Depth: Could Town Branch Creek Flow Again Through Lexington?

Underneath the heart of downtown Lexington flows the Town Branch Creek. It’s been buried for more than 100 years, but now community leaders are talking about bringing the water back to the surface as part of the creation of a Rupp Arena, Arts, and Entertainment District.

If you look at a map of downtown Lexington, you’ll notice that the streets aren’t situated along the cardinal directions of north, east, south, and west. Traffic on Main Street, for example, runs northwest.

It might not make much sense until you think about the history of Lexington. In 1775, settlers traveled along the middle fork of the Elkhorn Creek, now called Town Branch, and discovered fresh spring water.

“The Town Branch Creek is kind of the DNA, the anatomy of how we became a city and how we developed as a city,” says Van Meter Pettit, president of Town Branch Trail Inc.

Town Branch Trail is a non-profit organization that advocates for the development of a greenway through the city. Zina Merkin, vice-president of the group,  says the area along Town Branch was once home to mills, distilleries, and later a railroad.

“One of the market houses actually was built right over top of the stream. They had loose boards that they would pull them up and sweep the leftover lettuce leaves or whatever into the stream and then put the boards back down.”

As Lexington grew, the land around Town Branch Creek became increasingly valuable to developers, and the waterway developed into a dirty sewer. Flooding was also a huge problem for the community.

By the mid 1800s, Lexington began filling in and covering up Town Branch, which starts its flow near the Jif Peanut Butter Plant on Winchester Road. Moving west through downtown, the first evidence of the creek is actually the sound of the water trickling through two underground culverts. The sound is amplified through outdoor speakers in an art project just outside the Lexington Financial Center.

Town Branch finally comes into view at the Cox Street parking lot behind Rupp Arena. From there it flows through the old Distillery District and out of town toward Masterson Station Park. That’s where Town Branch Trail Inc. has built around two miles of walkway.

For many years Pettit has thought about the possibility of bringing Town Branch back to the surface. When a task force started talking about renovating Rupp Arena and the Lexington Convention Center, Pettit seized the opportunity. He pitched the idea to master planner Gary Bates, who incorporated Town Branch Creek into his presentation earlier this year.

“Had we suggested that half of the Rupp complex be demolished so that the creek corridor and the trail could flow there, people would have just decided that we were mad. But thankfully Gary Bates came to town and made that suggestion for us.”

Bringing waterways back to the urban surface, a process known as daylighting, is not a new phenomenon. Landscape designer Tracy Buchholz researched daylighting as a graduate student at Virginia Tech.

“Most of the time, about 75% of the time, the streams were daylighted to provide a more park-like amenity for people to use and enjoy, particularly in urban settings.”

Buchholz says daylighting a stream faces several legitimate concerns about public safety, environmental issues, and cost.

Van Meter Pettit says Town Branch will never be the natural creek it once was, but believes an urban through downtown Lexington is possible.

“I would not personally advocate that the actual creek be dug up in the center of the city. I think that we can create a waterway which functions a lot like a fountain.

The daylighting of Town Branch and the entire Rupp Arena project are still just proposals and a long way from becoming a reality. The creek has helped tell the story of Lexington’s past, and could one day play a role in the city’s future.

Lexington native Brenna Angel anchored local morning newscasts for WUKY through May 13. She joined the station in March 2010 after previously working for WHAS-AM in Louisville.