If CentrePointe developer can’t get investor, city should get tough

Not much has changed at CentrePointe since this photo was taken Jan. 27, except that weeds have grown up along the pit's walls. Photo by Tom Eblen

Not much has changed at CentrePointe since this photo was taken Jan. 27, except that weeds have grown up along the pit’s walls. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Ninety days ago, city officials gave developer Dudley Webb 90 days to try to make a deal with an unidentified investor to rescue his long-stalled CentrePointe project.

Unlike previous unidentified investors, city officials know who this one is, and Mayor Jim Gray says he has the necessary deep pockets.

But here’s the question: Will Webb be willing to take a financial hit to get a bailout? He is hardly in a strong negotiating position after more than seven years of false starts and mounting expenses.

Webb couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.

“We don’t really have any news to report right now,” said Mason Miller, an attorney representing the city on CentrePointe. “I suspect by later this week we should know more.”

Webb unveiled plans for CentrePointe in March 2008: a massive skyscraper complex with a Marriott hotel, luxury condos, offices, glitzy restaurants and shops.

Most city officials were dazzled, with the notable exception of then-Vice Mayor Gray, a veteran construction executive. The city allowed Webb to demolish an entire downtown block on no more than promises.

Preservationists were outraged at the loss of historic buildings, several of which were supposed to have been protected by the city. Architects were appalled by Webb’s design, a throwback to generic 1980s architecture that had no relationship to the city around it.

Real estate and hotel experts questioned Webb’s business plan. Details of his financing were sketchy, including a hard-to-believe story about an unidentified foreign investor who died without a will.

Under pressure from city officials, the empty block was planted with grass, creating a pasture that became popular for city festivals. As he searched for financing, Webb toyed with better designs from respected architects, then chose mediocrity.

Nearly two years ago, Webb claimed he had enough capital to excavate the pasture for the first step of his project, a three-story underground parking garage. A skeptical city government agreed to let him dig, but only if he pledged $4.4 million to restore the site if he ran out of money and work stopped. That’s just what happened more than a year ago.

CentrePointe is now CentrePit — a block-square hole in the heart of Lexington. In December, Webb brought in two tower cranes, indicating work might begin. But the cranes have done no work on CentrePointe. They and weeds are all that have risen from the pit.

In April, city officials sent Webb a default notice and threatened to begin foreclosure. A week later, he began talks with the potential investor. City officials gave him 90 days to make a deal. That time is now up.

If Webb makes a deal, we can only hope the investor insists on a better design and business plan.

It doesn’t take a genius to look around Lexington and see what has succeeded while CentrePointe languished: modestly scaled businesses in creatively renovated buildings that speak to Lexington’s history and culture. If Webb hadn’t been so hasty with the wrecking ball, a good architect could have combined old and new to create an attractive, successful development on the CentrePointe block.

Real estate experts say there is demand for first-class office space, high-end rental apartments and perhaps an extended-stay hotel downtown. But a third convention hotel several blocks from the convention center makes no more sense now than it did in 2008.

As people keep pointing out, Lexington needs a new city hall. The current one, in the old Lafayette Hotel building, is long overdue for renovation and would be better suited for a hotel or condos. But I sense little political appetite for building a new city hall at CentrePointe as long as Webb is the developer. A skeptical public would view that as rewarding bad behavior.

If Webb doesn’t strike a deal with this investor, what happens then?

I think city officials should play hardball. Begin foreclosure. Explore options for condemning the block as a public nuisance. That would surely spark a court battle, but it also might prompt Webb to get realistic about a private equity bailout.

It has been painfully obvious for too many years that Webb is in over his head with CentrePointe. But that doesn’t mean Lexington should let his folly continue to suck life out of the downtown renaissance occurring all around it.



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