Dudley Webb answers CentrePointe critics

This afternoon, Lexington developer Dudley Webb sent me this letter replying to critics of his proposed CentrePointe development:

I just read with interest your opinions about our project and I welcome them, just as I did those that I heard at the meeting at the Theater on Saturday.

I do have some thoughts about them and wanted to take just a minute to share them with you.

First of all, I was appreciative of their invitation, found it to be very well organized and informative, and appreciated the cordiality with which I was received. My disappointment was that even though I attended the meeting in hopes that I could gain ideas as to how we can better our project, some of those attending relayed to me that they didn’t think I should have been there in that I inhibited their discussion as to how they were going to stop this project. Later that afternoon, I found that this dialogue had again digressed into some of the same old trash talking and personal insults that they had already been directing at us on their Web Pages and Blogging sites. It seems that even the distinguished retired ex-Dean of UK’s Architectural School, a self anointed expert on mixed-use development, had by then joined in with diatribe. To them, all I can say is that they too are entitled to their opinions and that they have been considered. With all of that now said, we still are adamant that what we have proposed is in the best interest of this city and all of its people. More importantly, it should be understood that we are not embarrassed about the many great projects and civic undertakings that we have done here and we certainly aren’t going to start apologizing for them now.

The good news was that I found most of those present on Saturday were very sincere and concerned citizens who care about Lexington and share in our notion that it can and should be the best that it can be. This was why I wanted to attend – to listen to their thoughts and ideas about their vision for our downtown as well as our property at that location. Some there didn’t realize that such a new project there would be downtown’s first in over twenty years and that of the last four major projects that have been done there, it was The Webb Companies that had done them all – some $200,000,000 worth. Some appreciated it, some didn’t and some simply didn’t care.

A few I talked to didn’t agree that our downtown is still somewhat struggling or that it even needs another shot in the arm like this to kick start it again. Some wouldn’t even agree that we want and need more businesses, visitors, tourists and full-time downtown residents, more convention goers, more shoppers, more patrons for our restaurant entertainment venues or more people on our streets down there. Consensus about anything is obviously difficult to achieve, especially when some just simply like it as it is.

The interesting thing is that it was just about three years ago at this time that our local Tourism Bureau encouraged our Company to again get involved by developing a new hotel property in and for our downtown. Their reasoning was that we were losing meetings and conventions to other cities because we did not have enough downtown hotel rooms to effectively compete for this business. At that point, there was consensus on that and that we needed a new Hotel down there. Ironically, the stars seemed to have finally aligned so as to allow us to bring such a world class, $250,000,000 development to our downtown. Now, after expending all of this time, effort and the money to try to make this happen, a few present seem intent on now trying to thwart that effort entirely, or to force us to allow them to impose their own visions and tastes as to what this project should be and what it should look like.

I did also listen intently as they described our buildings in the block as being historic and worthy of preservation. What I didn’t hear though was anyone else in the Theater that was interested in acquiring these buildings so as to preserve them. The fact is that many of these buildings have been sitting there vacant and/or available for many years with no efforts or offers from these people to buy them or to protect from their demise. Neither did I sense that there was anyone there who was prepared to step up and undertake these risks or to expend the time and the effort to make any such a project happen here, whether it be a historic rehab or totally new. As you know, we have repeatedly challenged many of those present and their organizations that if they truly want to save the old buildings or to do a new development on block like they want, they can and should buy these properties from us at our cost and do it themselves. Again though, nobody wants to do that either.

The bottom line is that everybody in town has an opinion about our property and what we are proposing to try to do with it to make our downtown better. Although we appreciate that they have every right to have such opinions, they should also respect that we own the property and that it is our skin that is in the game.

Basically, I think everyone knows that projects like this cannot be designed by Committee, or by consensus. As to the thoughts about conducting some type of design competition to ultimately decide what we build and what it would look like, this might have been a great idea under normal circumstances. However, as our Hotel partner and a major investor in this project has pointed out, this won’t work here for several reasons. The first problem is that we have already hired Architects and Engineers who have been working on this project for more than 18 months now and that we already have contractual obligations with and to them. He also points out that J. W. Marriott will not even consider allowing one of their proposed properties to become a part of such a competition. They have their own design standards, proprietary criteria as well as Architects of preference who design their hotels. Fortunately, they have already arranged for us to work with one of their best on this project and they certainly don’t want us to now throw him out and start over. Although he was appreciative of the idea, he simply feels that it is now far too late for us to go back and start over.

In regards to design, I also listened to several comments during the meeting that were critical of the design of our Radisson Hotel/World Trade Center complex, as well as, our Lexington Financial Center and our Woodlands projects that we also built in the downtown. To that, all we can say is that they were the very best that we could make them at that point in time when the prime rate of interest was floating at above 15% and our downtown was truly floundering. We would also suggest to these folks that they can now second guess and criticize them if they like, but they should also think where downtown would be today without them and the loyal businesses and employees that continue to headquarter, work and/or live down there as a result of these being there. These too were the best that they could be at the time.

Tom, I liken our current situation to when many local critics expressed that they didn’t like the colors that we selected for the historic Victorian Square facades that we were then trying to save and restore. Once again, all we could do was listen, make the best and most informed decision that we could under the circumstances and to then proceed with what we as the owners of and investors in the project thought was best for the project and the downtown. This situation appears to be a similar. This is not to say that we are still not trying to listen or that we have closed the door on our consideration of other ideas. It is just that we have now been working on this project for over two years now and that we cannot drag this out forever. It is time that we recognize the realities involved this opportunity and then move on.

The first reality that everyone seems to have forgotten in all of this is that our Government elected not to adopt the Downtown Master Plan that many of those there yesterday had so steadfastly supported and often refer to when they voice opposition to our project. Instead our City decided by virtue of its latest Comprehensive Plan that it did adopt that this community should grow up through the development of projects like this one for our downtown, rather than out into the horse farms and green belt as others would have preferred. We agree as most do that this was the best and most responsible choice for the City to make, although some there yesterday stated that even though the Downtown Master Plan had been discarded, it was already paid for by the City and should still be respected and enforced. This was also the exact reason that the Fayette Alliance which consists of our most prominent thoroughbred and farming interests have since conditionally endorsed our project.

Strangely enough, absolutely none of the consultants that prepared that Downtown Master Plan ever bothered to contact our Company or many of our other constituents for our thoughts and input during their supposed planning phase, this despite the fact that we are still the largest private owner of real estate in the downtown. Again though, it was our government’s decision to adopt the newest and latest Comprehensive Plan which they did and one would think that we now have every right to rely upon it in the planning our project. The Comprehensive Plan does not impose height limitations for such projects, but to allay concerns, we have even offered to reduce the height of the proposal to 35 stories, this being the absolute minimum number at which our project will work economically. That overture hasn’t been accepted either.

The next reality that we must deal with is that absolutely nobody can develop a major high rise complex there and still save either these buildings and/or their facades. Both Preserve Lexington and The Bluegrass Trust need to pick their battles and focus on the ones that make sense, not on these old buildings of which so little is left. Under the standard that was talked about on Saturday, the Eastland, Southland, Gardenside and Cardinal Valley Shopping Centers are eligible to be deemed as historic which makes absolutely no sense. Again, we are great supporters of historic preservation, but we need to get realistic about this process.

As I said at the meeting, our consultants and contractors have repeatedly reaffirmed to everyone concerned that we can’t save these few old buildings and/or their facades and have this project too. As to those facades, most have long since been torn off and/or modified by prior owners to the extent that they are longer older historic. As to the remainder, they simply will not withstand our having to drill and blast down through 15′ of solid limestone that is under the entire block so as to create the underground parking that the City’s consultants and planners now say they prefer instead of surface garages. What we have since agreed to do though is to donate any of these buildings or any of these facades to anyone who will move and preserve them if they will move them on a timely basis.

The third reality is that like it or not, this is the only location that is now available for high rise development in our center core and where such a project can and should be built. If we cross Main Street, we are then most certainly threatening buildings that are absolutely worthy of preservation. If we go south of High Street, we are again in another historic area that should not be disturbed. This only leaves this one linear strip running east from the Civic Center between Main and Vine Streets where such high-rise developments can be built and most of those blocks already have viable developments on them.

As to the concerns being expressed about the tenants of our old buildings in the block that will be displaced, our representatives and those of the City have been working very diligently with these tenants during recent months and most have already found new locations in the downtown for their businesses. This block will not be the “entertainment venue” that our young people want and our focus should now be in finding a replacement venue for them as well.

As to The Farmers Market, the reality is that we too want them to continue to operate in this same area, have met with them many times and we think this issued is now worked out to where they can do so. I think they will tell you that we have always been a huge supporter of the Farmer’s Market and have always cooperated with them and the City in an effort to insure that they remain downtown. In that regard, we have offered our cooperation to them and the City so as to encourage them to continue to operate during the upcoming season along the 200 and 300 Blocks of West Vine Street blocks that we likewise own. Upon completion of our construction, we would hope that they might then possibly utilize the street space along all three of these blocks along Vine as and when it is appropriate. Although this will be a decision that the City and the Farmer’s Market will ultimately make, I assure you that they have no greater fans or loyal customers than our families, our employees, our tenants, our guests and our business interests.

Tom, I don’t know what more that we can do than what we have done. We own this property and we now want to develop it into something great that everyone will be proud of. We intend to do this in accordance with the goals, objectives and provisions of the Comprehensive Plan as well as the Courthouse Overlay requirements. Unfortunately, this will require us to demolish those old buildings and we have always been up front with the fact that they will need to go. As I told your paper yesterday, if this were the Victorian Square buildings that needed to be saved, we would step up and do it again, but they are not. These are now but fragments of our past and to rationalize that that Abe Lincoln might have one day shopped in one of them is disingenuous. We too are great proponents of the Bluegrass Trust and we have encouraged their representatives in the past to prioritize as to what is truly important to their preservation efforts, then pick their battles and focus on winning them as opposed to being constantly distracted by skirmishes that can’t or shouldn’t be won.

All we can say is that our improvements will meet and/or to exceed the requirements of all our governmental and regulatory agencies, plus will also be the first major LEED Certified and all green high-rise complex to ever be built in this State. Our investors should be applauded rather than criticized. What should not be forgotten either is that this project will generate over 900 jobs during construction and more than 900 permanent jobs once it is complete. This is compared to the 35 full time employees that have been working during the last year within the entire block. Contrary to what was said by someone at the meeting, even though this we are proposing to use TIF bonds to pay for the public infrastructure portion of this project, (those costs that the City would usually have paid for — i. e. street work, sewers, etc.), the City will still receive millions of dollars during the early years of this project and even more once these bonds are amortized. My frustration is that we have given these people all the reasons in the world to love this project, but they still want more which we can’t deliver. Some appear to have simply decided to try to take our property without paying for it or to redesign a new project for us at our expense. Surely, they understand why we aren’t going to agree to either.

Tom, the bottom line is that we agree with Preserve Lexington that it is now time for the designated representatives of that organization, The Bluegrass Trust and all other appropriate parties to sit down with us and hammer out some intelligent compromises about this project so that it can proceed. Like it or not, sooner or later something new and significant is going to be developed on that block and with the costs of the land being as high as it is and the conditions of the properties as bad as they are, the ultimate result and conclusion will be the same – - that these buildings can’t be restored and that their facades cannot be saved. During the interim, those who oppose our project should not be allowed to confuse the public and our elected officials by suggesting that these can and should be incorporated into this project when they know full well that they can’t be. This is a disservice to the project and the public.

We are still hopeful that in the end, reason and compromise will somehow still prevail and that we can then all move on with the business of making Lexington a better place in which to live, work and raise our families.

Thanks for listening,

Dudley Webb,

for Centrepointe, LLC