Searching for middle ground downtown

Here’s the way development usually happens in Lexington: A developer comes up with a plan and announces a done deal. Citizens like it or lump it.

But something different happened Saturday. More than 400 people packed the old State Theater downtown to say, “Hey, wait a minute …”

What brought them together was the design developer Dudley Webb unveiled March 4 for CentrePointe, a 40-story (later reduced to 35) hotel, condo and retail complex that would replace a historic downtown block that has become the hub of nightlife for young Lexingtonians. The rally was organized by Preserve Lexington, a citizens group that wants a shorter, more street-friendly and more imaginative building that incorporates most of the 14 structures now on the block.

Photo|Pablo AlcalaThe mood was cautiously hopeful, thanks to the presence of Webb and at least three Urban County Council members. Webb shook hands and sat in the middle of the crowd, which politely applauded when he was introduced. He listened to the presentations and usually applauded with the crowd when speaker after speaker talked about the need to do what’s best for Lexington.

The crowd was shown a rough draft of a documentary film by Griffin Van Meter that was rich with symbolism. In it, senior citizens recalled memories of the block in the 1940s and 1950s, when it was a center of activity. Then, 20-somethings talked about the area’s recent renaissance with clubs like The Dame, Buster’s and Mia’s.

Two architects talked about their work here and in Louisville, turning dilapidated old buildings into attractive, contemporary structures that bring people back downtown.

Vice Mayor Jim Gray explained his idea, reported by Beverly Fortune in Saturday’s Herald-Leader and explained in Gray’s op-ed piece Sunday, for having an international design competition to come up with a better design for CentrePointe. “We can do it,” Gray said. “It’s not too late.”

In an interview afterward, Webb seemed surprised by the size, diversity and passion of the crowd. “It’s a cross-section of the community,” he said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of interest, a lot of concerns. We share those concerns. Everybody wants to do what’s best for downtown Lexington.”

Webb said he is open to ideas for preserving some of the old buildings. But he is doubtful it can be done, given their poor condition and his need for a project big enough to be financially viable.

Webb also said he is willing to consider ideas from a design competition, but cautioned: “One of the difficulties that we have, though, is that we’ve already associated two architectural firms that are well down the pike in terms of doing drawings for the project. If we’re going to consider changes at this point in time to better incorporate the needs and wants of the community, we had better make them fast. We’ve got to move on.”

If Webb seemed skeptical, so did the crowd. At the end of the program, when the moderator read a few questions submitted by the audience to the speakers on stage, the first one was simple: “Is this already a done deal?”

Gray stepped forward to answer. As he tried to explain the government approval process, there were calls for a simple answer. Finally, Gray said, “Is it a done deal? Monosyllabically, no.”

That drew applause from many people in the audience, but not from Dudley Webb.

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Morton’s Row (1826) is the oldest building on the block. Photo/Tom Eblen

Top photo: Dudley Webb at Saturday’s rally. Photo/Pablo Alcala

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to “Searching for middle ground downtown”

  1.   Joe T. Says:

    Every time anyone proposes a new building in Lexington, the Historical Society types start their protests. If someone proposed tearing down an outhouse, they would begin spouting off about the historical significance of the structure. We can’t build in Lexington since it requires destruction of existing buildings. We can’t build in the rural areas because it requires use horse farm land. As long as we have a growing population, we are going to have to have buildings to accomodate it.

  2.   Nick K. Says:

    As things move along with this project, the Webbs will have to proffer up their pound of flesh. The resentment is running deep and the current is pretty swift. The community has been very vocal in what we DON’T want. I believe the real visionary thinking will come out of the discussion of what we DO want. As the developers have alluded to, they are on a timetable, and any decision or agreement has to be expeditious and ‘do-able’. A design competition seems to fit the bill. There are worse models to use that ‘Museum Plaza’, or ’21C’. The Louisville community had the same concerns about “Museum Plaza’ being vocalized by our community–that the building project was ‘out of scale’, and ‘destroys the fabric of the community’. They worked through it efficiently, and by the time the celebrations started, the citizens of Louisville rallied behind the developers and got in line. Museum Plaza and ’21C’ have received international press–in all the travel magazines and national papers. The country is latching onto the idea of integrating the arts into its cultural fabric. The designs for the new University of Kentucky Hospital has an arts program integrated into its construction. How nice it would be to have Lexington covered as a city where art is in the hospitals, on the streets, and in the lobbies of their hotels–an ‘art-themed city’. I think we want to be very careful here about running potentially large investors out of downtown. A lot of people are watching VERY carefully…this is a trial case, and the congeniality and hopefulness with which we choose to conduct ourselves will be the litmus test of future potential developments. What’s the olive branch going to look like, in very real and specific terms? It’s the ‘baby bear’ alternative–somewhere between ‘Museum Plaza’ and ’21C’. Make it art. The Dame is gone. That doesn’t mean that an alternative, like a ‘House of Blues’, couldn’t take its place.

  3.   Diane Lawless Says:

    I think the design as submitted does not meet the criteria for a successful downtown development. We need activity that will draw Lexington residents downtown as well as visitors. We need to match the fabric and brand of our community and learn from successes in other communities. People on the streets, entertainment and art make a successful downtown.
    I hope this will slow down and get more community involvement. We need to make our history as well as our future our most important consideration, not how fast it can get done. Lexington cannot afford any more mistakes. We will be looking at this building for decades. Let’s do it right!

  4.   fairnessfcps Says:

    I do not think Mr. Webb has any idea of the popular resentement directed towards him and his project. Many people are saying, “Enough is enough.”

    For many of us, his letter is simply proof that Mr. Webb intends to do things his way. As he states, he owns the block and the buildings will be torn down. Since moving to Lexington, I have slowly watched as Dudley Webb has attempted to refashion Lexington according to his plans. His comment about the possibility Abe Lincoln might have walked passed the buildings in question shows how he rubukes those of us who value historic preservation.

    Mr. Webb does have the money, but does he have the political power to make the City Council assent to such a tall, hideous building that will disrupt the character of our downtown? We will see how the public responds on Wednesday, won’t we?

    Sometimes pride comes before the fall.