New architect impresses CentrePointe skeptics

For anyone who has followed the three years of controversy surrounding the Webb Companies’ CentrePointe project, the scene this evening inside the sweltering Lexington History Museum was almost surreal.

A standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 people — many of them CentrePointe’s biggest critics — listened intently for an hour as Webb’s new architect described her vision for the project and the conceptual processes her firm used to create that vision.

Almost to a person, the audience liked what Jeanne Gang of Chicago-based Studio Gang Architects had to say.

Afterward, people crowded around to talk to her, ask questions and offer suggestions. The models of potential site plans that Gang showed were rough, because she said she wanted public input. But her ideas were clearly well thought-out.

This gathering was nothing like the “done deal” press conference three years ago that unveiled the first of many iterations of the stalled hotel-condo-retail-office development proposed for the block of old buildings that Webb demolished in the center of Lexington.

Gang talked about her ideas for the two-acre site, which I summarized in this column after I spoke with her Wednesday. (Read more details and reaction here and here from reporter Beverly Fortune.)

Gang also talked about how Kentucky architects would be hired to design pieces of the project to give it variety and local flavor. A couple of Lexington architects I saw there said afterward that they were planning to apply.

The gathering was hopeful, encouraging and, I must say, exciting. Still, the best way to describe Gang’s work so far is that it is a good start, with much more work to be done. Gang has clearly done a thoughtful analysis of Lexington and the site’s surroundings. She seemed genuinely  interested in ideas and suggestions from people at the meeting, who ranged from concerned citizens to some of Kentucky’s best architects.

Gang said the local architects she will hire as consultants would be chosen and notified by June 30. A second public meeting will then be scheduled to introduce those architects, who will focus mostly on the look of several buildings facing Main Street.

Gang said she also would then show more refined ideas for the two towers that would house offices, condos and a hotel, although much of that will eventually depend on what tenants Webb can secure.

CentrePointe is a risky chicken-and-egg proposition, especially in this economic environment. The Webb Companies can’t built CentrePointe — or whatever it ends up being called — until it has financing and tenants. But Webb can’t attract tenants or financing without something impressive to offer.  I have to think the odds for success are substantially greater if Webb follows through with Gang and is able to show prospects an imaginative plan by one of the world’s best up-and-coming architects.

“Today is a new day,” Woodford Webb, president of the Webb Companies, told the crowd. “We are looking at the project in different ways and are open to new ideas.”

Those new ideas are off to a terrific start. But, as I wrote Wednesday, keep your fingers crossed.