The CentrePointe block awaits development. Photo by Charles Bertram
For a project yet to be built, CentrePointe has had a big impact on Lexington.
The most immediate impact was the election of Mayor Jim Gray in November 2010. Were it not for the controversy surrounding CentrePointe, I doubt then-Vice Mayor Gray would have run against, much less unseated, Mayor Jim Newberry.
What Gray understood — and Newberry didn’t — was that CentrePointe focused many people’s longtime frustrations about development in Lexington. People didn’t like the secrecy, the politics and the often-mediocre results.
Most of all, people wanted more say in how their city looks. They didn’t want Lexington’s architectural heritage bulldozed at a developer’s whim. Development occurs on private property, but everyone must look at it and live with it.
Five years later, CentrePointe is still a grassy field waiting for developer Dudley Webb to find financing and tenants. But the project has taught Lexington some valuable lessons.
One lesson is the value of historic preservation. Webb was quick to demolish an entire block, including some buildings that were more than a century old and could have been renovated into unique, valuable space within his larger development.
Lexington’s biggest development trend since then has been for entrepreneurs to renovate fine old buildings and adapt them for new uses — restaurants, bars, stores, offices and homes. These projects make economic sense and preserve Lexington’s history and unique charm.
Another lesson is that good design matters. With CentrePointe stalled and Gray in the mayor’s office, Webb felt pressure to hire top architectural talent and get public input to redesign his project. That work dramatically improved his development plan.
The CentrePointe redesign also helped pave the way for Louisville-based 21c to decide to build one of its acclaimed hotels and contemporary art museums across the street.
The 21c Museum Hotel will be in the century-old Fayette National building, which will get an extensive renovation.
That momentum helped Lexington attract world-class talent to design competitions for two public projects that could transform downtown: the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District and Town Branch Commons.
The arena area plan calls for renovating Rupp Arena, building a bigger convention center and gradually redeveloping more than 30 acres ofunderused, city-owned surface parking lots.
The winning plan for Town Branch Commons would turn marginalized downtown property into a linear park along the historic path of Town Branch Creek. Such projects in other cities have created popular amenities that have attracted many times their cost in new private investment.
Gary Bates, a highly regarded American architect now based in Norway, was chosen to develop the arena district plan.
The winning Town Branch Commons plan was designed by Kate Orff of New York, one of landscape architecture’s rising stars.
Why is such world-class talent suddenly being attracted to Lexington? Because the city has set the bar higher. Why is that important? Because if Lexington wants to attract the best employers, it must create an environment where the best and brightest people want to live and work.
One final lesson from CentrePointe is that Lexington needs better laws and processes to both encourage good development and prevent bad development, especially downtown.
A city task force has spent a lot of time studying “design excellence.” Now, with new leadership from Councilman Steve Kay and help from a consultant, task force members have begun trying to figure out how to turn talk into action.
That won’t be easy. It is not just a matter of creating laws and systems to keep developers from doing bad things. It is about creating laws, systems and incentives so developers can do great things. This will require rules that provide both clarity and flexibility. It will require high standards, but also processes that minimize hassle and unnecessary costs for developers.
I don’t know if the Webb Companies will ever succeed in building CentrePointe. And I worry that the longer the block sits empty, the harder it will be to attract outside investment for other major downtown projects.
But something will eventually be built on the CentrePointe block, and now is the time to make sure that it and other new construction downtown enhances the city rather than detracts from it.
Watch a video about the CentrePointe block’s demolition:
To read previous CentrePointe columns and see photos of the project as it evolved, click here.
A CentrePointe gallery: