In Search Of Rupp Arena

"Freeing" venue from years of surrounding growth one aim of $241M project

  • by Tim Newcomb
  • Published: August 1, 2018

A project underway in Lexington, Ky., will better connect Rupp Arena to downtown and add more space to the attached convention facilities. (NBBJ)

The mixed-use legacy of Rupp Arena in downtown Lexington, Ky., will gain a modern twist as part of a $241-million project to modernize the home of the University of Kentucky men’s basketball while upgrading the Lexington Convention Center with a new structure connected to Rupp.

What originally opened in 1976 as Lexington Center with a Hyatt hotel, and convention space on the site has undergone expansions over the years. Various additions to the downtown location have muddied the building connections, interrupted public open space, drowned the arena and muffled the history inside the venue. A project designed by NBBJ broke ground in July to change that while creating a new versatile convention center option that merges with Rupp.

“This is a convention center-driven project, but with it, upgrades to the arena are a big part of what is making it come,” said Philip Schmunk, NBBJ senior associate. “One of the major themes is to free Rupp Arena. It has gotten buried, and a big driver is to give Rupp Arena a clear identity.”

The 23,500-seat venue lacks a front door. Really, it lacks an obvious presence in Lexington, blocked by other buildings. Schmunk said the project knocks down a retail center between the arena and hotel and allows a new grand entrance with breathing room around the arena for expansions to the concourses, premium spaces and façade.

Most people now enter Rupp from parking in back of the building on High Street, but a new atrium with 85-foot-high ceilings will wrap the venue and a new grand staircase — dubbed the Catwalk Steps —will offer a grand entry on Main Street facing the city. “It will,” Schmunk said, “have an address and presence it didn’t have before.”

Using metal-encased glass, the new skin around the building will clear views into the arena. Removing foundational walls on the sides of the building will open visibility directly into the bowl during an event to allow “people coming to a game to catch some energy and vibe on the inside.”

By keeping the added façade around Rupp at the lower concourse level, Schmunk said, the traditional square form of Rupp will rise above to maintain the legacy of the arena and “let that history still be visible in the new design.”

Bill Owen, president and CEO of Lexington Center, said that tearing away buildings around Rupp will expose Rupp and offer the opportunity to create a “more iconic and contemporary appearance.” It will also give them space inside to help with crowd movement.

Inside, the increased space allows for four new clubs in Rupp, three of them ready in 2019. Kentucky plans a high-end floor-level club that includes a glass partition to allow members to view players and coaches emerging onto the floor. Also for 2019, expect a pair of midrange clubs at level two. All three will have their own dedicated entries from the exterior. A large-scale club will be added beneath the Catwalk Steps, ready for 2021 when the entire project wraps up. Expect 50,000 square feet of new club space for between 4,000 and 5,000 members, plus an additional 21,000 square feet of new circulation and shared space. There will be no disruption to Kentucky’s home basketball schedule during construction.

Also inside the arena, and ready for 2019, crews will eliminate the bench seating in the upper deck and replace it with 4,800 new chair back seats, reducing overall capacity by about 2,700 to roughly 20,800. The view from the upper deck will improve slightly because it will be made slightly steeper to accommodate the new chairs.

Circulation improves with the Catwalk Steps and a total of 43,000 square feet of expanded concourses. To tie to the Hyatt, a new 75-foot climate-controlled bridge directly connects from the Hyatt lobby to the new Rupp concourse.

The new convention center, which will replace exhibition halls surrounding the arena, creates an outdoor space for events between the two buildings. It also connects the two. Designed so that events can go on simultaneously in the arena and the convention center, organizers can open it up — a major corridor will connect the two buildings — to allow direct use of both spaces.

With everything from the state’s high school basketball Sweet 16 event to NCAA tournaments to religious events using Rupp, tying the new event hall to the arena “creates energy” for those events and eases access and use for the visitors, Owens said.

At 381,000 square feet, the new convention center becomes 40 percent larger than the space available now. That will attract new events, Owens said, a key component in sustaining Lexington as a convention destination.

“When the building was first constructed, it was always an arena, convention center and hotel, so it has this interesting mixed-use legacy for its time that was pretty bold,” Schmunk said. “In some sense, it is maintaining history because the original building was more prominent on the site. If anything, the project is about creating a greater presence liked it used to have.”

  • by Tim Newcomb
  • Published: August 1, 2018