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