Some Kentucky business stories to watch in 2014

January 6, 2014

Kentucky’s economy begins 2014 with a vigor not seen since the real estate bubble and Wall Street greed crashed the economy more than five years ago. Still, happy days are hardly here again.

Economist Paul Coomes issued a report for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce last month that showed uneven recovery across Kentucky, based on the growth of wages and salaries. The state as a whole starts the year about 34,000 jobs (2 percent) below 2007, the year before the collapse.

Lexington and Louisville have been slower to rebound than the state as a whole. Owensboro had the strongest job growth, thanks largely to a major hospital construction project and a downtown riverfront redevelopment project financed by a local tax increase and $40 million in federal money.

Federal spending also was responsible for Hardin, Madison and Christian counties being the state’s leaders in terms of wage and salary growth. They benefitted from nearby military bases and the destruction of chemical weapons at the Bluegrass Army Depot.

Eastern Kentucky’s economy is usually the state’s weakest, and that is especially true heading into 2014. The region has lost 6,000 coal jobs recently because of four big factors: cheaper western coal, even cheaper natural gas, dwindling coal reserves in the mountains and stricter regulations to limit the environmental damage and health effects caused by mining and burning coal.

Overall, private business around Kentucky seems to be coming back to life. Although interest rates remain extremely low, community bankers grumble that regulations intended to rein in the excesses of Wall Street and biggest banks have made it difficult for them to lend money.

David Adkisson, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, said the state’s business community overall is poised to do better in 2014 than in recent years. But there are lingering concerns about the financial impact of health care reform.

“There’s growing optimism, but there’s not enthusiasm yet,” Adkisson said of the state’s business climate, noting that Kentucky’s central location is a plus. “That’s an advantage nobody can take away.”

Business people will be keeping a close watch on the General Assembly session that begins Jan. 7. The state budget will again be the biggest issue, with a lot of attention focused on restoring recent cuts to educational investment. But, as usual, there is likely to be little appetite among lawmakers for comprehensive tax reform to address chronic state funding shortages.

Adkisson said some beneficial tax changes are likely, and Kentucky should reap some savings from recent reforms to prisons and state employee pensions.

Here are some economic stories to watch in 2014:

■ Lexington’s huge medical services industry should see a lot of action as major construction projects progress and the Affordable Care Act expands the availability of health insurance.

University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center’s $1 billion expansion should see the completion of its 64-bed cardiovascular floor. Baptist Healthcare Lexington, formerly Central Baptist, will be going full tilt on its $230 million renovation and addition, scheduled to be finished in late 2015. Shriners Hospital is moving forward with plans for a new facility near Kentucky Children’s Hospital on the UK campus.

■ The Federation Equestre Internationale will announce this year whether the 2018 World Equestrian Games will be held at the Kentucky Horse Park. That was the site of the 2010 Games, which were successful thanks in large part to the active sponsorship of Alltech, the Nicholasville-based nutrition supplement company. Alltech also is the main sponsor of the 2014 Games, Aug. 23-Sept. 7, in Normandy, France.

With so many excellent competition facilities already in place, Lexington would seem to be in a good position to again host the Games, providing another big boost to Kentucky’s economy.

■ After five years of delays, construction is supposed to begin soon on the huge CentrePointe hotel, apartment, office and retail development in downtown Lexington. Developer Dudley Webb demolished a block of historic buildings for the project in 2008 but couldn’t get financing to build.

The first step in construction will be excavating a huge underground parking garage without breaching the century-old culvert containing Town Branch Creek. Because CentrePointe is getting some tax breaks, the city required Webb to show proof of construction financing and put up $4.4 million to restore the site in case he runs out of money. The goal is to keep CentrePasture from ending up as CentrePit or CentrePond.

■ This year will see more details about proposals for redeveloping Rupp Arena, Lexington Center and the huge surface parking lots surrounding them. And then there is the visionary plan to create Town Branch Commons, a connected greenway along the path of long-buried Town Branch Creek. They are ambitious proposals that will require even more ambitious financing plans.

■ The state Transportation Cabinet is likely to decide by late this year whether to recommend construction of the I-75 connector highway between Nicholasville and Interstate 75 in Madison County. Boosters say the $400-plus million project would be good for business. But opponents call it a special-interest boondoggle, a waste of public money that would cause substantial environmental damage to a section of the scenic Kentucky River Palisades south of Lexington.

■ A lot of excitement was generated Dec. 9 when more than 1,500 people gathered in Pikeville for a public forum launching a bipartisan effort to create new economic development strategies for Eastern Kentucky. Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican, are leading the project, called Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR.

The coming year will show whether the effort called SOAR, or Shaping our Appalachian Region, amounts to a breakthrough or just more empty talk.

■ Another ambitious economic-development effort is the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement, or BEAM. Mayors Jim Gray of Lexington and Greg Fischer of Louisville launched it with the goal of attracting more advanced manufacturing jobs to the 22-county region around and between the two cities, which already includes Toyota Motor Manufacturing Co. and many of its suppliers.

In late November, Gray and Fischer unveiled a BEAM strategic plan around the ideas of embracing innovation, increasing Kentucky exports and improving education and workforce development. It’s a sensible vision, but whether Kentucky leaders will find the political will to invest in making it happen remains to be seen.

Staff writers Janet Patton and Cheryl Truman contributed to this report. 


Don’t approve CentrePointe without good design, proof of financing

October 8, 2013

Full page photo

 CentrePointe version 6.1, which will be up for approval Wednesday before Lexington’s Court House Area Design Review Board. Rendering by CMMI/Atlanta.

 

If there is one thing Lexington officials should keep in mind over the next few weeks, it is this: there are far worse things you can have in the center of your city than a grassy field.

Developer Dudley Webb will be back before the Court House Area Design Review Board on Wednesday seeking final design approval for his long-stalled CentrePointe project. Webb must convince the board that his proposed development of offices, apartments, restaurants, shops and a hotel is compatible with the surrounding area.

In Webb’s last appearance, Aug. 21, a divided board reluctantly gave partial approval to his latest design — CentrePointe version 6.0 — but wanted more work on some elements. The board’s reluctance stemmed from the fact that CentrePointe 6.0 was a big step backward from the previous, well-designed version.

In response to the board’s concerns, Webb last week unveiled his design “tweaks” as he calls them. But CentrePointe version 6.1 is another step backward. It reminds me of the uninspired stuff that was being built around Atlanta when I lived there in the 1980s and 1990s.

What the board must decide is whether CentrePointe 6.1 is good enough to meet the city’s criteria. Board members should base their decision on a careful evaluation of the design, not pressure from a developer citing the urgency of his own deadlines.

Throughout this process, Webb has made claims about urgency that amounted to nothing. The board was too quick to allow demolition of the block five years ago. Despite all of Webb’s promises, CentrePointe remains an empty field.

At the Aug. 21 meeting, Webb said he needed the board’s quick approval because he risked losing a big office tenant if he didn’t begin construction in October. We are more than a week into October, but Webb has not shown the evidence of financing he needs to get building permits.

One recent development is unlikely to inspire confidence among board members.

EOP Architects, the Lexington firm that designed the excellent CentrePointe 5.0 and presented CentrePointe 6.0 on Webb’s behalf at the last meeting, has quit the project and filed a lien against the property, claiming its fees have not been paid.

You have to wonder at what point city officials — from review board appointees to the mayor and members of the Urban County Council — need to start asking themselves this question: is CentrePointe real or a mirage? That question is important for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, the city asked for state tax-increment financing for public improvements related to CentrePointe. The state is likely to allow Lexington only so much TIF financing authority. While CentrePointe has languished, other downtown projects have emerged that would seem to have much more economic development potential. Is CentrePointe still a horse the city wants to hitch its cart to?

And there is the larger issue of financial viability. Remember the unidentified financier who supposedly promised Webb money but died without leaving a will? If Webb has secured more solid financial support since then, he has yet to prove it.

The biggest risk of CentrePointe is not that it ends up being ugly, but that it ends up being ugly and unfinished. The next-biggest risk is that Webb is allowed to begin construction, runs short of money and then forces the city to make further concessions to keep the project from being abandoned.

Before city officials issue Webb permits to do anything on that grassy field, they should demand two things: show us good design, and show us the money.


Rappelling down Lexington’s tallest tower; living to write about it.

September 25, 2013

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Staff Sgt. Michael Jones helps me negotiate the hardest part of rappelling 410 feet down the Lexington Financial Center: going over the edge. Photo by Pablo Alcala.

What’s the hardest thing about rappelling 410 feet down the side of Lexington’s tallest tower? Leaning back off the platform into thin air and hoping that all of the ropes, buckles and harnesses around you work.

Fortunately, they worked. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this.

I was among the first of about 100 people taking part today and Thursday in the Brave the Blue II challenge, the second-annual fundraiser for the Bluegrass Council of the Boy Scouts of America. The event will raise more than $100,000 for scouting programs in 55 Central Kentucky counties.

The newspaper helped sponsor the event, so employee was supposed to participate. Because I am an Eagle Scout, they thought I would be a good choice. I don’t think the climbing merit badge existed when I was a Boy Scout four decades ago. If it did, I didn’t earn it. I had exactly zero experience with rappelling.

Still, I found myself this morning on the penthouse balcony of the Lexington Financial Center, outside the office of Woodford Webb, president of the Webb Companies, which owns the building.

Webb and his uncle, developer Dudley Webb, stepped out on the balcony to wish me a good trip down. Given some of the things I have written about their proposed CentrePointe project, I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. (They have always tried to be cordial.)

Thanks to a good but brief orientation from Darien Dopp, a staff member with the company Over the Edge, I thought I knew how all of this stuff was supposed to work. But I also knew that if I had problems going down, everything Dopp had just told me would instantly evaporate.

Fortunately, everything went smoothly. By constantly adjusting the rope-control lever to stay in the “sweet spot,” I was able to literally walk down the side of the building. I even looked around occasionally at the view. And what a view it was.

Like a giant mirror, the tower’s glass walls reflected the downtown Lexington skyline.  Off to my left, St. Paul’s Cathedral, which towers over Short Street, lay below me. People and vehicles looked like ants below. It was surprisingly quiet.

Still, I was focused on business: keeping my descent steady and my feet from bouncing too far off the walls. Bouncing, I was told, was not a good idea.

Toward the bottom, I found a new reason not to like pedways. I had to walk a few steps across the glass to make sure I cleared the pedway that connects the tower to an adjacent building across Mill Street.

The whole experience was fun. The only problem: my arms still hurt from trying to keep just the right tension on the lever and rope. Given the other possibilities, I’m fine with that.

I’ll write a longer version of this report later today on Kentucky.com and in Thursday’s Herald-Leader. Plus, I’ll tell you about one of my fellow rappellers, a 79-year-old lady from Nicholasville who is much braver than I am.

Click here to see more photos.


New CentrePointe designs unveiled. What do you think of them?

August 14, 2013

Developer Dudley Webb and EOP Architects today unveiled new renderings for the long-delayed CentrePointe project, the plan for which was recently revised to add more apartments and more office space.

Webb  continues to work on financing for the $393 million project, which he hopes to begin building in October. But he said in an interview that he has secured a major tenant for the office building. He declined to name the tenant, saying that it’s a public company and it’s board still must approve the deal.

Webb released the new renderings ahead of an Aug. 21 meeting of the city’s Courthouse Area Design Review Board, which must approve the project. Webb said the new renderings were designed to show the location, size and scale of the  various buildings so the board can approve that aspect of the project.

“To the extent we have to tweak, we can do that,” he said. “The design will be ongoing.”

What do you think of the new designs? Leave your comments below.

CentrePointe Massing Study CentrePointe Massing Study02 Corner Main and Lime Corner Main and Upper Corner Vine and Lime Corner Vine and Upper Vine and Lime detail Vine and Upper detail

 

 


No money, but Bloomberg Challenge was valuable experience

March 25, 2013

Lexington didn’t finish in the money in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, which gave $9 million to five cities to help them work on big ideas to improve urban life in America.

But Mayor Jim Gray isn’t too disappointed. More than 300 cities applied, and Lexington finished in the top 20, despite having little track record of applying for major foundation grants.

Gray said he and his staff learned a lot about how to do that. They also raised Lexington’s national profile in ways that could pay off in the future with the philanthropic arm of New York’s billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and similar foundations that fund city initiatives.

“I think there will be other bites at the apple,” Gray said in an interview last week. “We have an opportunity to leverage the visibility we got in making top 20.

“This process was a test case for how Lexington can dial up marketing to private foundations,” he added. “We have plenty of room to grow in this model. But what the Bloomberg Challenge showed is that we have the ability to compete.”

Bloomberg officials announced the five winning cities March 12. Providence, R.I., won the $5 million first prize, while Philadelphia, Houston, Chicago and Santa Monica, Calif., were each awarded $1 million.

Lexington applied for funding to speed up creation of CitizenLex.org, an online portal and system within government to collect citizens’ ideas for improving city life, gather the right people in and out of government around them, and track their accomplishments.

The idea for CitizenLex came from the Bloomberg competition process itself. Gray asked citizens to submit ideas for what Lexington should propose to Bloomberg, and he got more than 420 written submissions. So many of the ideas were good, the mayor said, that he wanted to figure out a way to make many of them happen rather than focusing on just one.

Gray and Lexington have yet to receive any detailed feedback from Bloomberg officials about how its application compared to those of the winners.

Many of the winning proposals were more concrete than Lexington’s. But, aside from Providence, none of the winning ideas struck me as being that revolutionary. Except for Santa Monica, all of the winning cities were much bigger than Lexington. Many were cities that, unlike Lexington, have been losing population and experiencing economic decline.

Providence’s idea is a high-tech plan to improve vocabulary and language skills among young low-income children. Research has shown that children from families receiving welfare have smaller vocabularies than their more-affluent peers, contributing to diminished academic performance and job opportunities.

Houston proposed a single-container recycling system, which Lexington already has. Chicago wants to better use city data to track trends. Philadelphia proposed a streamlined system for allowing local companies to bid for city contracts. Santa Monica, the smallest and wealthiest winning city, proposed a project to measure citizens’ overall well-being.

Lexington made a good impression on Bloomberg officials, Gray said, especially because of its high level of citizen engagement in the competition. That could bode well for future grants. The world of megabucks philanthropies devoted to city issues is small, he added, and they pay close attention to what each other are doing.

Gray still plans to push forward on CitizenLex, as funding is available. City officials also are working on pilot projects for many of the good ideas citizens submitted, such as bike trails and LED street lights.

Lexington has applied for a grant for CitizenLex from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The foundation has donated millions to Lexington over the years, because the Herald-Leader was once owned by Knight Newspapers. Grant winners are to be announced in July.

“We’re on their radar now,” Gray said. “People know about Lexington.”

Losing Michael Speaks

MSpeaksFew University of Kentucky deans have had more impact on Lexington in a short time than Michael Speaks, dean of the College of Design for the past five years. He announced last week he is leaving to take a similar post at Syracuse University.

Speaks, a brilliant and ambitious man, had his share of admirers and detractors within the university. Beyond campus, he played a big role in making good architecture and design a topic of conversation among average Lexingtonians.

The Mississippi native arrived here as the CentrePointe controversy erupted. His contacts helped attract international talent to improve CentrePointe’s design and develop world-class plans for the proposed Arena, Arts and Entertainment District and Town Branch Commons.

Speaks will be missed. Whomever succeeds him must keep the conversation going.


CentrePointe 5 years later: still no building, but lots of impact

March 10, 2013

CentreField

 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:

Time lapse: Tearing down a block, one building at a time from David Stephenson on Vimeo.

To read previous CentrePointe columns and see photos of the project as it evolved, click here.

A CentrePointe gallery:


Town Branch Commons designer focuses on green infrastructure

February 10, 2013

A rendering for Scape/Landscape Architecture’s plan for Town Branch Commons, showing how it might look west of Rupp Arena. Images provided.

 

Kate Orff, whose New York landscape architecture firm was chosen last week to design Town Branch Commons, has made a name for herself by looking below the surface and beyond the conventional.

The approach served her well with Lexington’s Downtown Development Authority, which hopes to create green space through the center of the city along the path of the long-buried Town Branch Creek.

Orff said in an interview that her team figured out quickly that the key to this project wasn’t recreating the stream as it used to be, but working with the complex limestone geology and hydrology beneath Lexington’s streets and structures.

She also realized that Town Branch Commons should do more than create beautiful public space to attract people and private development. It should play an important role in solving Lexington’s persistent storm-water and water pollution problems.

In addition to being a partner in the firm Scape/Landscape Architecture, Orff is an assistant professor of architecture and urban design at Columbia University. As founder and co-director of the university’s Urban Landscape Lab, she leads seminars on integrating earth sciences into urban design and planning.

With Town Branch Commons, Orff said she saw an opportunity to accomplish goals that are often seen as contradictory: increasing commercial development and sustainably improving the environment.

“This Lexington project is an amazing opportunity for me to try to bring those two realms together,” Orff said. “I really think that’s the future, this concept of green infrastructure.”

Orff said green infrastructure has many advantages: It is less costly to build and maintain than concrete and pipes. It is less prone to massive failure, because it is less centralized. And it provides the side benefit of public green space.

“But you have to think very systematically,” she said. “It requires more, frankly, of the urban space. It’s more of a dispersed strategy of touching the water where it lands at multiple points in multiple ways. But a more dispersed model leaves you more room for resiliency.”

Orff, 41, grew up in Maryland and earned a bachelor’s degree in political and social thought from the University of Virginia, then a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard University.

She started Scape/Landscape Architecture in 2004. The firm’s projects have ranged from a 1,000-square-foot park in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a 1,000-acre landfill regeneration project in Dublin, Ireland.

Orff has made several national lists of up-and-coming designers. Last year, the organization United States Artists chose her as one of 50 American artists to receive $50,000 fellowship awards.

She was co-author, along with photographer Richard Misrach, of the 2012 book Petrochemical America, which created an ecological atlas of the petrochemical industry’s effects on the 150-mile Mississippi River corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans known as “Cancer Alley.”

Currently, Orff’s firm is doing projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Greenville, S.C., where she is working on an environmental education center with Jeanne Gang, the Chicago architect and MacArthur “genius” award winner who did the site plan for the proposed CentrePointe development in Lexington.

Perhaps Orff’s most high-profile effort is a proposal to restore the Gowanus and Red Hook sections of New York harbor with a system of designed oyster beds. Before harbor dredging and industrialization, oysters flourished there. One oyster has the ability to cleanse 50 gallons of water per day. (She explains the project in a TED talk online. Watch it at the end of this post.)

Her “Oystertecture” plan, which will begin with a pilot project in March, has attracted a lot more attention since superstorm Sandy showed the vulnerability of the Northeast’s urban coast. Orff is part of a task force New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed to study those issues.

To prepare her Lexington proposal, Orff said she studied water flow data and made floodplain maps to understand downtown’s hydrology and geology. For local knowledge and engineering expertise, she engaged Lexington-based EHI Consultants and Sherwood Design Engineers, a major national firm.

Orff also met with city officials to understand Lexington’s consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency, which will require millions of dollars in fixes for long-ignored water quality problems throughout Fayette County.

“Before we ever started to design, we did a very comprehensive series of maps that included flooding, the SSO (sanitary sewer overflow) events and so on,” Orff said. “We had a very clear sense of how water was moving and the amounts of water and what would be possible and what would not be possible.”

Orff said her team also tried to work with what already existed or was proposed for downtown “rather than tearing down and starting over from scratch, because clearly a lot of money has been spent already.”

Orff plans to return to Lexington in a few weeks to meet with stakeholders and the public to gather feedback and ideas. Then, more civil engineering will be needed, as well as a plan for how to build the project in phases.

“We are aiming to refine the plan and provide some alternatives for different areas,” she said. “I think the way our scheme kind of fits within the landscape, it provides a lot of alternatives and backup plans.”

Click on each thumbnail and image to enlarge:


Town Branch Commons: an idea that has worked in other cities

February 3, 2013

Hardly a week goes by that people don’t tell me how they wish the open block where the Webb Companies hopes to build CentrePointe could become a public park instead.

As the block awaits redevelopment, it is planted in grass and surrounded by a plank fence to resemble a horse pasture. It has become a popular gathering place during downtown festivals. (At other times, it is off-limits, just as horse pastures are.)

CentrePasture’s popularity points to a couple of ironies about Lexington.

One is that we have a lot of open space, but little public space. The other is that we are surrounded by some of the world’s most beautiful rural landscapes — an artful blend of the natural and man-made — but our central business district is a generic jungle of concrete and asphalt. There are only a handful of small parks or plazas downtown, and few trees of any size.

Although recent renovations of Triangle and Cheapside parks have been excellent, the comments I hear make me think Lexington residents still yearn for more public space downtown.

Town Branch Creek resurfaces west of Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader photo

The Downtown Development Authority on Monday will choose the winner of a design competition for Town Branch Commons — some form of linear park on city-owned property along the path of the long-buried stream that gave birth to Lexington.

This project would involve bringing parts of the creek back to the surface, either literally or symbolically, to create attractive public spaces for nature and a variety of activities. A jury of design professionals was to recommend a winner to the DDA board after closed-door presentations Friday by the five finalists.

The competition attracted 23 entries. The finalists are among the world’s best landscape architects and designers: Coen + Partners in Minneapolis; Denver-based Civitas; the Netherlands firm Inside Outside; Scape Landscape Architecture of New York; and Copenhagen-based Julien De Smedt Architects working with Balmori Associates of New York.

All five finalists’ designs will be on display at the Downtown Arts Center from Tuesday until Feb. 22, including during Gallery Hop on Feb. 15.

I can’t wait to see the designs, especially after hearing the finalists make presentations about their previous work Thursday at the Lexington Children’s Theatre. They showed amazing projects from all over the world, including in cities such as Bilbao, Spain, that had far more daunting problems than Lexington has.

(An interesting side note is that three of the six presenters were women: design legends Diana Balmori and Petra Blaisse and one of landscape architecture’s rising stars, Kate Orff.)

(Also worth mentioning: several of the landscape architects showed projects that used wetland parks to effectively solve storm-water problems. Lexington officials should remember that as they decide how to spend millions of dollars on storm water issues under terms of the federal consent decree.)

I can already hear Lexington’s naysayers: This whole idea is impractical, unaffordable and frivolous. It is none of that.

The compelling argument for Town Branch Commons is not esthetic, but economic. This sort of urban public space has been an effective way to attract people and investment dollars to cities of all sizes, from Seoul, South Korea to Yonkers, N.Y.

People who have attended recent Commerce Lexington trips have seen it work in Greenville, S.C., where a long-neglected riverbank became Falls Park; and in San Antonio, where a once-buried stream similar to Town Branch became the Riverwalk, now Texas’ second-largest tourist attraction after the Alamo.

New York’s High Line project turned an abandoned elevated rail line into a linear park that has transformed a once-decaying section of lower Manhattan. Despite huge cost overruns, the Millennium Park that Chicago built over an urban rail yard has more than paid for itself with the private development it has attracted.

The kind of public-private partnership envisioned with Town Branch Commons is under way in Atlanta, which is turning an abandoned rail line around the city into 1,300 acres of parks and 33 miles of trails, and in Louisville, which has raised more than $60 million in private money for the 21st Century Parks project that is creating 4,000 acres of linear parkland and 100 miles of trails around that city.

What excites me about the potential of Town Branch Commons was mentioned frequently by the world-class designers who submitted plans. This isn’t about building Disney World in a swamp; it is an authentic reflection of Lexington’s history, geography and culture.

Pioneers chose Town Branch as the site for their town, laying out Lexington’s grid according to the creek’s path rather than a compass. Its banks were where early Lexingtonians gathered for fun and refreshment before the stream was polluted, built over and eventually buried.

Town Branch Commons will require public money and even more private money. But it could be a great long-term investment, one that uses the authenticity of Lexington’s past to create both an amenity and economic generator for the future.


The last thing Victorian Square needs is more empty space to fill

January 14, 2013

The Explorium has occupied a back corner of Victorian Square for 22 years. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Dudley Webb should think twice before letting the Explorium leave Victorian Square, the downtown complex he developed with a lot of city help in 1983, sold in 1994 and repurchased last August.

The children’s museum leases 24,000 square feet in Victorian Square for not much more than it paid when the museum opened 22 years ago. Its rent is considerably less than what other tenants pay.

“Nobody is trying to displace them,” Webb told reporter Beverly Fortune last week. “But we need an understanding that nobody can be on scholarship anymore. Everything has got to work on a businesslike basis.”

The Webb Companies and Jeffrey R. Anderson Real Estate of Cincinnati paid $1.7 million for the 226,000-square-foot complex built behind 19th-century façades on the northwest corner of West Main Street and Broadway. The partners say they plan to spend $10 million to “reinvent” Victorian Square, which has always struggled.

You can’t blame Webb for wanting a good return on his investment. Since the Explorium didn’t have a long-term lease, Webb has every right to replace it with a better-paying tenant. Still, I hope they can negotiate a price that will allow the Explorium to stay, because it is a great resource for Kentucky children.

Ironically, the children’s museum was created in part to draw people downtown and to Victorian Square. While the complex has always had a few interesting shops, galleries, bars and restaurants, it has lacked dynamic anchors to draw crowds and fill up its interior space. The closest it has come to those anchors is the Explorium, deSha’s restaurant and Lexington Children’s Theatre, which owns its own space.

“Reinventing” Victorian Square won’t be easy. But before losing one of its main attractions, Webb should be really sure he has a better anchor tenant signed, sealed and delivered. The last thing he needs is more empty space to fill.

Webb thought he had financing and tenants lined up nearly five years ago when he evicted businesses from a downtown block and demolished 14 buildings for his proposed CentrePointe development. Since then, the block has been an empty field.

 


With Lexington Mall redone, what else is left to redevelop?

January 7, 2013

Developer Phil Holoubek hopes to announce construction plans soon for the Main and Vine property that has been vacant for two years. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Southland Christian Church opened its new Richmond Road campus this weekend on the former site of Lexington Mall, a 31-acre parcel that had been a civic embarrassment for years.

The church bought the long-vacant shopping mall in 2010 from Maryland-based Saul Centers, which had let it languish for more than a decade. Dillard’s, the last store in the mall, closed in 2005.

Once the church develops commercial space at the property’s edge along Richmond Road — a former pond that now looks like a strip mine — one of Lexington’s biggest eyesores should be gone.

If we are lucky, and the economy continues improving, other prominent sites that are ripe for redevelopment might finally get some attention.

The next one that comes to mind is Turfland Mall, which opened in 1967 as Lexington’s first suburban shopping mall. After years of decline, the central mall shut down after Dillard’s closed in 2008. As with Lexington Mall, Turfland was owned by an out-of-state company that seemed to have forgotten about it.

Last month, amid a Hopkinsville bank’s attempts to foreclose on the 367,000-square-foot mall, Lexington developer Ron Switzer bought it for $6 million. He said he plans to demolish all but the Staples store. Staples and Home Depot, which owns its end of the mall, have remained open, along with several businesses in the parking lot.

“What we want to do is take an eyesore and come up with an attractive plan for a development,” Switzer said last month, adding that specific plans are not set.

Turfland Mall was purchased last month for redevelopment.

I wish Switzer the best of luck in revitalizing Turfland. The same goes for the owners of two adjacent properties at Harrodsburg and Lane Allen roads — the former Verizon building, which is for lease, and land long occupied by The Springs Inn. The once-popular motel closed in 2008 and was demolished the next year. A CVS drug store was built on 1.56 acres; the remaining 5.1 acres are for sale.

Another prime redevelopment site that could see action soon is the point where Main and Vine streets come together at the eastern edge of downtown. A former bank, antiques store and alteration shop were demolished in April 2010, and developer Phil Holoubek hoped to replace them with an urban-style mixed-use development.

But Holoubek’s efforts were frustrated by the economic slump, tight credit markets and the city’s inability to build a parking deck on the block.

Holoubek and a Louisville developer then tried to build a CVS drug store on the site, but its suburban-style design faced widespread opposition. The deal died when it was discovered that the site plan hadn’t taken into account an underground utility vault that was too costly to move.

Last week, I was giving Holoubek a hard time about how scruffy his vacant lot has looked for the past two years. I noted the CentrePointe block down the street has been sown in grass and well-maintained while it has awaited development.

Holoubek said he expects by the end of this month to announce a tenant for Main and Vine and a development plan that looks like it belongs downtown. Should that deal fall through, he promised to call in landscapers.

Among other prominent Lexington parcels ready for redevelopment:

■ The 11-acre Continental Inn site at New Circle and Winchester roads. The property was bought by a group of investors, including former state Democratic Party chairman Jerry Lundergan, and most of the dilapidated motel was demolished in 2007. Since then, property owners and the Eastland Parkway Neighborhood Association have sparred over semi-trailers being parked there.

The Continental Inn site is advertised for sale. At the right price, it could make a good location for a car dealership or even a mid-priced hotel, said Ken Silvestri, a commercial real estate broker who keeps a close eye on the Lexington market.

■ The former site of Thoroughbred Chevrolet on Richmond Road between New Circle Road and Man o’ War Boulevard also is a good candidate for redevelopment, Silvestri said. It has been vacant since the dealership closed in July 2010 after General Motors did not renew its franchise.


21c announcement shows downtown momentum

April 15, 2012

Lexington leaders were almost giddy last week after 21c Museum Hotels announced plans to turn the old First National Bank building into one of its award-winning hotels and contemporary art museums.

They had every right to be giddy. It is a big deal, for many reasons, and comes at a pivotal time for downtown Lexington.

The Louisville-based company’s decision to make Lexington its third expansion city after Cincinnati and Bentonville, Ark., validates five decades of public and private struggle to keep downtown from dying. It was a problem shared by most cities during an era of suburban sprawl and often-misguided “urban renewal.”

This $38 million project confirms the wisdom of infrastructure investments by city government and civic-minded foundations and companies, as well as the judgment of developers, entrepreneurs and artists whose creativity and risk have made downtown hop again.

It validates the work of preservationists, who understood the value of Lexington’s built heritage. And it raises the bar for downtown architecture. The 15-story First National Bank building, Lexington’s first skyscraper, was designed by McKim, Mead and White, one of America’s best architectural firms a century ago. The renovation will be directed by Deborah Berke, one of today’s star architects.

More than anything, though, 21c Museum Hotels’ plan affirms those who see great economic development potential in making Lexington a city where the 21st century’s best and brightest people will want to live, work and play — an urban landscape that is as special as the countryside surrounding it.

Steve Wilson, the CEO of 21c Museum Hotels, described Lexington as “a city that is looking forward, and we are thrilled to be part of that.” Craig Greenberg, his business partner, said: “We’re very optimistic about downtown Lexington’s continued revitalization.”

Greenberg said one thing that attracted them to Lexington was the new, visionary plan for redeveloping 46 city-owned acres around Rupp Arena and Lexington Center. The plan calls for renovating Rupp, moving and expanding the convention center, adding mixed-use private development and uncovering Town Branch Creek to create a downtown water feature.

Greenberg said the plan’s success “will be absolutely critical to downtown.” So will more urban housing, he added. The downtown condo market is still recovering from over-building before the recession. But the restoration of historic in-town neighborhoods has continued unabated, and real estate people see increasing demand for moderately priced downtown rental units.

Construction of the mixed use CentrePointe project also is important, Greenberg said. The 21c partners discussed locating there, but things didn’t work out.

Developers Dudley and Woodford Webb now say Marriott will build a much larger hotel at CentrePointe, joining tenants Urban Active gym and Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse. With an architectural plan that since 2008 has gone from bad to excellent, the Webbs are trying to line up construction financing and more tenants.

Having a 21c Museum Hotel across the street should be a big plus for CentrePointe.

Still, while many business people agree there is a market for a boutique hotel like 21c, they doubt there will be enough demand for a big Marriott until the city’s convention facilities are expanded, which could be several years away.

CentrePointe’s ups and downs have attracted a lot of attention, but a bigger story over the past four years has been the tremendous amount of small-scale development downtown, despite the recession.

Much of that was fueled by infrastructure improvements. Fifth Third Bank’s donation of the market house to a renovated Cheapside Park created a magnet for both people and investment, including great new restaurants such as Dudley’s on Short and Table 310, whose owners renovated historic buildings. Several more old buildings are being restored as bars and restaurants, including the soon-to-open Shakespeare & Co. on Short Street.

Meanwhile, Jefferson Street has blossomed as another entertainment district. The new West Sixth Street Brewing Co. at the end of Jefferson is the first piece of what could become a development boom north of downtown near the new campus of Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

Triangle Park reopened last week after the Triangle Foundation completed a beautiful, $1 million renovation that could make it another downtown people magnet.

Where does Lexington go from here? That depends on how well local political and business leaders can execute their ambitious plans and keep the momentum going.

That means continued infrastructure investment: street and sidewalk improvements, bike lanes and paths and more parking facilities, especially on the east and west sides of downtown.

The city’s Design Excellence Task Force must translate “design excellence” into a practical framework of guidelines, policies and procedures that the Urban County Council can turn into law. Those laws must include a ban on speculative demolition of old buildings with high reuse potential, such as occurred on the CentrePointe meadow. And all of that needs to happen soon, before the economy improves and development pressure increases.

While some people in Lexington have always believed in downtown’s potential, it is significant that outsiders see it, too. Executives of 21c Museum Hotels see it. So did the urban design director of the Boston Redevelopment Corp., who made his first visit to Lexington earlier this month and said he was impressed.

“You have all of the ingredients for success waiting to be put together,” Prataap Patrose told me.

After speaking at the University of Kentucky and spending a couple of evenings walking around downtown, Patrose had these recommendations: Plant more trees along city streets. Convert some one-way streets to two-way traffic. Add more bicycle lanes. Widen more sidewalks to allow for more outdoor dining. Encourage more urban apartment development and more revitalization of residential neighborhoods near the city center and UK’s campus.

“When you try to attract businesses, they look at the downtown first,” he said. “Urban design is proving to be a critical factor in making choices. People want to go where there is a good quality of life. You seem to have that here. You need to make the most of it.”


CentrePointe approved: See final design drawings

March 28, 2012

Rendering of CentrePointe along Main Street, where four local architects designed pieces of the building to give it more variety and help it blend in with historic buildings across the street. Rendering by EOP Architects

After four years of public debate and continuous improvement to the design, Lexington’s Courthouse Area Design Review Board today approved developer Dudley Webb’s plan for the CentrePointe mixed-use development. Board approval was unanimous. Nobody from the public spoke against it.

That was because the design is dramatically better than what the Webb Companies unveiled in March 2008 for the block in the center of downtown Lexington bounded by Main, Upper, Vine and Limestone streets.

EOP Architects of Lexington completed the design, with local architects Graham Pohl, David Biagi and Richard Levine contributing signature designs to the Main Street facade to help the development blend in with historic buildings across Main Street.

Approval by the review board was needed because much of the CentrePointe project lies within the boundaries of the old Fayette County Courthouse historic overlay district.

EOP used the basic site plan developed by Studio Gang Architects of Chicago, but made the tower larger to accommodate a Marriott hotel and created a signature building at the corner of Vine and Limestone streets that Webb says will house a Jeff Ruby restaurant and an Urban Active gym.

EOP’s lead architect, Rick Ekhoff, and the other architects made small but significant improvements to their designs in response to feedback from the review board at an informal meeting Feb. 15. The public also got to have a say March 1 at a public meeting at ArtsPlace attended by more than 250 people.

Those improvements included:

  • Adding more windows and design elements to the Upper Street side of CentrePointe, where the service entrance will be.
  • Enlarging a gallery through the middle of the development connecting Main and Vine Streets. It will now be 25 feet wide and 45 feet tall, with a sky-lit roof and retail on each side, Ekhoff said. The gym and reception space outside the hotel ballroom will overlook the gallery, which Ekhoff said will be a good place to display public art.
  • Making improvements in the architects’ facade treatments along Main Street.

Ekhoff said the design took into account the possibility that streets surrounding CentrePointe would be changed from one-way to two-way. And he added that all of the design input from the review board and public had “enriched” the result.

By the end of what has been a long and contentious process, the only change the review board insisted on was removal of a pedway over Upper Street, which Webb agreed to do. With that, the vote was taken and review board chairman Mike Meuser said, “Good luck with this very important project.”

Now that the design has been approved, Webb said it can be used more effectively to market the project to potential lenders and tenants. “It could happen very quickly,” Webb said, adding that three lenders have expressed interest in financing CentrePointe.

The process worked, and the CentrePointe project and downtown Lexington will be much better off for everyone’s effort.

The design of CentrePointe along Upper Street was improved to avoid it looking like a service entrance. Also, the proposed pedway was withdrawn. Rendering by EOP Architects

 


See the latest CentrePointe Main Street designs

March 7, 2012

The Main Street designs, left to right, are by Brent Bruner of EOP, David Biagi, Richard Levine of CSC and Graham Pohl of Pohl Rosa Pohl. The proposed pedway across Upper Street goes behind the circa 1846 McAdams & Morford buiding to the Lexington Financial Center parking garage.

The Lexington architects designing portions of CentrePointe facing Main Street presented renderings at a public meeting at ArtsPlace last week. Here are renderings they provided of their designs. Click on each image to enlarge it.

From Brent Bruner of EOP Architects:

From David Biagi:

From Richard Levine of CSC:

 

From Graham Pohl of Pohl Rosa Pohl:

 

 


Review board likely to nix CentrePointe pedway

March 6, 2012

Lexington's pedways include this one across Main Street. Photo by Tom Eblen

Designs for the stalled CentrePointe development have gone from bad to good for one reason: they must pass muster with the Courthouse Area Design Review Board.

When the hotel-retail- condo project was proposed in 2008, the board appointed by Mayor Jim Newberry to oversee the historic district let developer Dudley Webb do almost anything he wanted. But the board’s expectations have gotten much higher since Jim Gray became mayor 14 months ago.

The board meets March 28 to vote on what is supposed to be Webb’s final design. Based on board members’ comments at a preview Feb. 15 — and further improvements Webb’s architects made in response to that feedback — I expect the designs will be approved, except for one thing: the pedway.

When Webb and his brother, Donald, were remaking Lexington’s skyline with tall towers in the 1980s, they connected them with pedways, enclosed walkways through the sky that keep pedestrians out of the weather and off the street. The pedways provide access to Lexington Center, which includes Rupp Arena and convention facilities, from the Lexington Financial Center, Victorian Square, the Radisson, Triangle Center and the Central Bank building.

About two dozen North American cities built pedway and tunnel systems from the 1950s to the 1980s for people who didn’t want to venture outside on their trips from attached suburban garages to downtown offices and stores. Pedways were seen as safe havens against urban crime and decay, as well as amenities to help downtown retailers compete with suburban malls.

Like most urban planning ideas from the auto-centric second half of the 20th century, about the best thing you can say now about pedways is that they seemed like a good idea at the time.

Pedways might make some sense in harsh-weather cities such as Calgary, Alberta; Minneapolis, and Chicago. But cities below the frost belt have stopped building pedways — and even started tearing them down.

Since 2002, Cincinnati has been in the process of demolishing much of its pedway system. Officials didn’t like the way it limited healthy street life and cluttered the skyline, especially in such places as Fountain Square. They also could see big maintenance costs on the horizon as the pedways aged.

CentrePointe’s first three designs included two pedways, one spanning Upper Street to connect the development to the Lexington Financial Center parking garage. The other would have spanned South Limestone, going to a parking deck beneath Phoenix Park that no longer is planned.

CentrePointe was approved in late 2008 for tax-increment financing, or TIF, which means tax revenue generated by the development could be used to pay for “public” improvements needed to build the project. That included $3 million for the two pedways.

Webb is now proposing only the South Upper Street pedway, which would pass between two historic buildings across the street, the 1846 McAdams & Morford building and the circa 1860 building that houses McCarthy’s Bar and Failte Irish Imports.

When questioned by Courthouse Area Design Review Board member Kevin Atkins, a senior adviser to the mayor, Webb said the pedway was needed for easier access to parking and to provide a sheltered walkway between CentrePointe’s hotel and the convention center.

But Atkins wasn’t buying it, and neither were two others on the five-member board, chairman Mike Meuser and Michael Speaks, the dean of the University of Kentucky’s College of Design.

Speaks seemed especially annoyed by Webb’s suggestion that pedestrians might feel safer in a pedway than on the street. “I live downtown and it’s perfectly safe,” Speaks said. “Probably safer than the suburbs.”

CentrePointe’s redesign process has focused a lot on creating street-level pedestrian activity. The board is loathe to let Webb do anything that would detract from it.

It also seems reluctant to clutter the skyline between two historic buildings on Upper Street. EOP Architects has worked hard to keep that narrow block from becoming a service alley, and a pedway wouldn’t help.

Does the board think a pedway is worth more than $1 million in TIF “public improvements” money? I doubt it. Plus, there is the issue of future maintenance costs. Lexington has recently been hit with big bills for repairing and replacing aging parking garages. The pedways we already have aren’t getting any younger.

For all of those reasons, expect the review board to put its collective foot down and reject the CentrePointe pedway.

 


Looks great: See latest CentrePointe designs

March 1, 2012

Here are the latest architectural renderings for CentrePointe. Click on each image to enlarge it. Credit: EOP Architects.

Good editing makes for better writing. It seems to make for better architecture, too.

EOP Architects and the Webb Companies hosted a packed public meeting Thursday evening at ArtsPlace to show off nearly finished designs for Webb’s proposed CentrePointe project. The designs look terrific, thanks to a long, difficult but ultimately very productive process of architectural refinement and public input.

EOP kept Chicago-based Studio Gang’s basic site plan, which broke up the monolithic tower and pediment from earlier versions of the design, creating a more human scale. Key to that was pushing the tower back along Vine Street and making the Main Street facades more compatible with the rest of the street. Charged with designing a much bigger hotel tower and ballroom that Studio Gang was asked to do, EOP’s Rick Ekhoff and his team have done a fine job of making it look less massive.

EOP’s best addition to Studio Gang’s work is this creative design for the corner of Vine and Limestone streets, which would house a Jeff Ruby’s restaurant, an Urban Active gym and a roof garden. I predict Lexingtonians will either love it or hate it. I love it.

This rendering shows the view of the CentrePointe block from the old Fayette County Courthouse square. The white blocks are just placeholders for four buildings that EOP and three other local architectural (Graham Pohl, Richard Levine and David Biagi) have designed.  I don’t have a rendering of them to share, but they are some of the best-looking parts of the block. They each add individuality to Main Street, yet blend well together, thanks to two months of weekly meetings among the architects.

The hotel tower, which Webb Companies hopes to lease to Marriott, is still a very big space. But EOP has done its best to reduce the monolithic appearance of previous versions. This is the view from across Vine Street.

Ekhoff said the building’s lighting will be key, and this rendering shows an attractive night view that emphasizes the transparence designed into the block.

One big improvement is CentrePointe’s treatment along Upper Street, which by necessity will serve as a service entrance. But this latest design doesn’t turn its back on Upper Street; it minimizes the usual ugliness of loading docks and adds a lot of glass and detail. A ballroom balcony will overlook the street, as will a restaurant and bar.

There’s still a pedway planned to connect CentrePointe to the Lexington Financial Center parking garage across Upper, running between the historic McAdams & Morford Building and the red 19th century building that houses McCarthy’s Bar and Failte Irish Imports. But I suspect the chances that the Courthouse Area Design Review Board will allow the pedway are somewhere between slim and none.

Will CentrePointe be built? That’s a business question that will depend on developer Dudley Webb’s ability to attract financing and tenants. Webb says he has several solid tenants, including Jeff Ruby and Urban Active.  Most hotel people I have talked to still doubt the market for another major convention hotel downtown, especially an upscale Marriott. But that’s for the market to decide.

After four years of controversy, four major redesigns and lots of tweaking, the Webb Companies now has a great plan to sell to lenders and tenants. And he finally has a design that is both practical and an attractive potential asset for downtown Lexington.


CentrePointe process has been good for Lexington

February 19, 2012

I will admit to suffering a bit of CentrePointe fatigue when I went to see a preview of the fifth iteration of Dudley Webb’s still-unfunded downtown hotel, retail, office and condo development. But it was worth the trip.

I liked the designs that were shown informally Wednesday to the Courthouse Area Design Review Board, which must approve them.

Most of all, I realized how valuable this long and difficult process has been. Not only has it improved CentrePointe’s design — assuming the project is ever built — but it has taught Lexington some valuable lessons about the value of good design and public engagement.

CentrePointe was unveiled in March 2008 as a hulking tower that required the leveling of a block of downtown buildings dating to 1826. With no proof that Webb had financing, the review board, some of whose members have been replaced, allowed the block to be cleared.

Public outcry caused Webb to redesign CentrePointe twice — first as another generic tower, then as a squat slab. All three versions would have stuck out like a sore thumb along that human-scale stretch of Main Street.

Without financing, CentrePointe has spent more than two years as a grassy field, which has afforded a nice view of the restored old buildings across Main Street, most notably the Trust Lounge and Bellini’s restaurant.

At the urging of Mayor Jim Gray, Webb hired Jeanne Gang of Chicago — one of only three architects to ever win a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant — to reimagine CentrePointe. After she did some fine work, Webb inexplicably replaced her with EOP Architects of Lexington.

At the same time, Webb added a lot more square footage. After the Louisville-based boutique hotel company 21C decided to look at other Lexington locations, Webb again focused on building a big Marriott hotel with a 10,000-square-foot ballroom.

That meant two elements of Gang’s plan — elegant “tube” towers and public space inside the block — were no longer feasible.

EOP inherited a tough job but has done well. The firm retained Gang’s two biggest contributions to CentrePointe: a less-dense site plan that reduced the size of the tower and pushed it back to Vine Street; and the idea of using several local architects to design varied, human-scale buildings along Main Street.

EOP’s Rick Ekhoff retained much of the look of Gang’s proposed glass office building at Main and Limestone streets. And he designed a stunning building for the corner of Vine and Limestone to house an Urban Active gym. One review board member likened it to the “bird’s nest” stadium built for the Beijing Olympics, but it reminded me more of a forest. Some people won’t like it, but it struck me as the kind of innovative architecture Lexington could use more of.

EOP and three other local architects showed review board members their preliminary designs for Main Street, and they all were thoughtful and original.

The process was pretty remarkable, too. Here were four firms being asked to design side-by-side pieces of urban infill that complemented each other and surrounding buildings without sacrificing originality.

The exercise reminded me of how Lexington has, for so many years, ignored the potential for architecture as public art. That is especially ironic, considering that Lexington has so many examples of it from earlier generations, including the 1849 McAdams & Morford Building and the 112-year-old former Fayette County Courthouse, both right across the street from CentrePointe.

EOP tried hard to make the big tower look less massive, but it is still a big tower.

What bothered review board members most was a proposed pedway across Upper Street and a lack of accessibility to public space inside the block, which has been moved from the first floor to a fourth-floor roof.

Webb loves pedways, those space-age relics that were designed to get people off the street and out of bad weather. He wants a pedway to connect CentrePointe to the garage of his nearby Lexington Financial Center.

Upper Street already will serve as the entrance to CentrePointe’s loading docks, and a pedway would make it even more of a canyon. It also would clutter the view of the McAdams & Morford building and the red 19th century building that houses McCarthy’s Bar and Failte Irish Imports. If the review board does nothing else, it should nix the pedway.

Expect to see further tweaking of CentrePointe’s designs before a public meeting is scheduled next month and certainly before the review board signs off on them.

Lexington might have a bit of CentrePointe fatigue, but the project has become better at each step of the process, both for the developer and for Lexington.

More important, though, it has sent a refreshing signal that design excellence now matters in this city.

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:


CentrePointe soap opera needs good ending

October 30, 2011

I knew that a successful partnership between Lexington developer Dudley Webb and world-class architect Jeanne Gang would require a triumph of hope over experience.

At the urging of Mayor Jim Gray, Webb hired Gang in March to re-imagine CentrePointe, his stalled hotel, retail, office and residential development that for two years has been a conspicuously empty field in the center of the city.

CentrePointe, version 1

Webb’s initial CentrePointe designs were towering monstrosities. But Chicago-based Studio Gang developed a plan that was elegant, inspirational and appropriate to the human scale of downtown Lexington. Gang’s creative approach — and the thoughtful process by which she explained it — charmed a skeptical public.

So what did Webb do? He dumped her.

Gang is becoming one of America’s most sought-after architects. She has designed innovative, successful buildings around the world, including Chicago’s new Aqua tower. Last month, she became only the third architect to receive one of the MacArthur Foundation’s $500,000 “genius” grants.

Webb, on the other hand, has a record of building towers in downtown Lexington that look as if they belong in a suburban Atlanta office park. Works of genius? Not even close.

CentrePointe, version 2

Rather than cap his career by building a Jeanne Gang creation — and score a big marketing coup for himself and Lexington — Webb said last week that he had chosen to go in a “different direction.” He replaced Gang with EOP Architects, one of five Lexington firms that she had brought in to help her.

EOP does not have Studio Gang’s world-class stature, but it has done some excellent work. The firm is capable of producing a good design for CentrePointe, especially if it sticks with Gang’s vision.

That vision includes a varied, human-scale facade along Main Street that complements the interesting old buildings across the street; breathing space inside the block rather than one dense mass; and towers along Vine Street that look special and don’t overwhelm their neighbors.

But an architect can only be as good as his client allows. EOP’s biggest challenge on this job might be keeping its own good reputation intact.

CentrePointe, version 3 compared with version 2

Gang’s departure from CentrePointe is disappointing, but she leaves an important legacy. She set a high bar for new architecture in Lexington. She also showed how builders can honestly engage a community that finally seems to understand that good design will contribute to Lexington’s beauty, functionality and economic success.

The CentrePointe fiasco has made Lexington more demanding of high-profile developments, both their quality and their process. People are less willing to accept the way developers used to do business here: make plans in secret, unveil them with a “like it or lump it” attitude and bulldoze through opposition.

The University of Kentucky’s new Davis Marksbury building has set a high standard for good, environmentally sensitive architecture by which future UK projects will be judged.

Barry McNees has worked hard to incorporate good design and public participation into his plans for the Lexington Distillery District along Manchester Street.

Bluegrass Community and Technical College President Augusta Julian hired talented professionals and encouraged public input for plans for a new campus on the former site of Eastern State Hospital.

The Arena, Arts and Entertainment Task Force has hired world-class architect Gary Bates to oversee a public process for planning the long-term redevelopment of 46 acres of underused city land that include Rupp Arena and the Lexington Center convention complex.

Meanwhile, the Urban County Council’s Design Excellence Task Force is looking at ways to change laws and standards to encourage higher-quality downtown development than what Lexington has seen in recent decades.

All of this work is more significant than CentrePointe. Still, Lexington has a lot at stake in what happens on the block in the center of the city. People will be paying close attention to how Webb and landowner Joe Rosenberg handle that responsibility — assuming, of course, that anyone lends them the more than $200 million needed to build Webb’s dream.

Will CentrePointe help usher in a new era of good architecture in Lexington? Or will it become just another Webb development? I’m still pulling for a triumph of hope over experience.

Jeanne Gang's CentrePointe concept


CentrePointe architect wins $500k ‘genius’ grant

September 20, 2011

Jeanne Gang, left, discusses her CentrePointe design with Richard Levine, one of several Lexington architects working with her on the project, at a public meeting in Lexington in July. Photo by Tom Eblen

Lexingtonians aren’t the only ones impressed with architect Jeanne Gang, whom developers Dudley and Woodford Webb hired earlier this year to redesign their stalled CentrePointe project downtown.

Gang, 47, was chosen today as one of 22 winners of an unrestricted, $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.

The prestigious grants are given each year to talented U.S. citizens or residents who have shown “exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.”

In choosing the architect for the award, the foundation said this: “Always responsive to the specific geography, social and environmental context, and purpose of each project, Gang creates bold yet functional forms for residential, educational, and commercial buildings.”

Gang and her Chicago-based firm, Studio Gang Architects, have built projects all over the world. Her best known building is the 82-story Aqua tower, which opened in Chicago last year.

“An emerging talent with a diverse and growing body of work, Gang is setting a new industry standard through her effective synthesis of conventional materials, striking composition, and ecologically sustainable technology,” the MacArthur Foundation said.

The foundation’s Web site has more about Gang here.

For information about the MacArthur Foundation grants and other winners this year, click here.

Click here to read more about Gang’s work on Lexington’s CentrePointe project.

Here is a short video the MacArthur Foundation produced about Gang.


Chosen planner envisions re-invented Rupp Arena

August 28, 2011

The master planner for the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District has a unique blend of international experience and Lexington knowledge — and some interesting ideas about how this 46-acre chunk of downtown could be redeveloped.

Gary Bates, one of three founders of Space Group, a 12-year-old architecture and urban planning firm based in Oslo, Norway, was chosen over 13 other firms earlier this month by the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force‘s Planning and Design Committee.

The public could get its first glimpse of Bates’ ideas Sept. 7, when the 47-member task force meets to discuss preliminary reports from four committees that have been working since April. The task force’s goal is to develop a plan by early next year for the future of Rupp Arena, Lexington Center and the vast parking lots surrounding them.

“I’m really excited to be back in the U.S. and doing work here,” Bates said in an interview. “For us, it’s a dream project; the right scale and complexity.”

Bates impressed the committee by going well beyond what was asked of applicants, said Michael Speaks, a selection committee member and dean of the University of Kentucky’s College of Design.

Space Group developed several initial scenarios for the district. Bates already was familiar with Lexington because Speaks had brought him here to teach for a year in 2008-09 as the Brown Forman Chair in Urban Design.

One thing that got the committee’s attention was Bates’ belief that Rupp Arena could be renovated and expanded — adding luxury boxes, more seats, high-tech electronics and other amenities — if the Lexington Center convention facility was relocated elsewhere in the district.

“Rupp Arena has this history,” said Bates, who played high school basketball while growing up in Wilmington, Del. “Before we abandon anything, we have to evaluate this enormous value.”

Building a new convention center could be much cheaper than building a new arena, and it would allow both facilities to grow to meet current and future needs, Bates said. “We took a look at the (current) convention center and said this is not sustainable,” he said.

The biggest challenge in moving the convention center would be maintaining close proximity to the Hyatt Regency and Hilton hotels. Bates stressed that it was just one concept to consider. “This was actually a tool to get the discussions going,” he said.

But Speaks said the selection committee was intrigued “by the possibility of having our cake and eating it, too.”

Mayor Jim Gray liked Bates’ concept but said he would want to make sure Space Group’s structural engineering consultants are right that it could be done.

“Reinventing Rupp; that has a real attraction to it,” Gray said. “What I would like us to consider is the relationship of these facilities to what’s going on around them.”

Indeed, much of Space Group’s job as master planner will be to facilitate discussions among all stakeholders. “How do we make sure that the decisions we make today will still be good decisions decades from now?” Bates said.

Among Space Group’s other initial ideas: building high-density housing on the High Street parking lot and bringing Town Branch Creek back to the surface somehow to connect the area with the Distillery District to the west.

Other design-team members include Omni Architects of Lexington and Global Spectrum, a technical firm that specializes in arenas. Other possible facilities mentioned for the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District include an art museum, a small performing arts center and school or university buildings.

After finishing his architectural training at Virginia Tech in 1990, Bates worked in the Netherlands with legendary architect Rem Koolhaas’ firm OMA, eventually becoming director of Asian operations. Bates also has worked on projects with Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, who is redesigning the nearby CentrePointe mixed-use project for The Webb Cos.

Space Group has tackled several big collaborative projects, including Scandinavia’s largest conference hotel, a redesign of Oslo’s central train station and master plans for large developments in Sweden, Korea, Norway and Latvia.

“We want to have Lexington people on our team and have a local office, but also bring in international talent,” Bates said. “You have to give yourself time to get the right people involved at the right time.”


Louisville’s Museum Plaza project bites the dust

August 1, 2011

Developers of Museum Plaza in downtown Louisville have abandoned plans to build the 62-story tower, saying they have been unable to secure financing. Museum Plaza was launched in 2007 by developers Laura Lee Brown, Steve Wilson, Craig Greenberg and Steve Poe, who planned for it to be Kentucky’s tallest building. The Courier-Journal has details here.

The news highlights the difficulties The Webb Companies faces as it tries to finance its CentrePointe project in downtown Lexington —  even with a far better design than the one it tried and failed to finance three years ago.

This rendering shows what Museum Plaza, right, would have looked like on the downtown Louisville skyline.