How would you #FillCentrePit? Water, trampoline, donuts and more

May 8, 2015

CentrePointeIllustrationIllustration by Chris Ware, photo by Faron Collins

 

If developer Dudley Webb can’t finish his long-stalled CentrePointe project, how would you fill the massive hole in the heart of Lexington?

That was my challenge in Wednesday’s column, and did you ever respond, on Twitter, Facebook and email. I quit counting suggestions after a couple hundred. But I read them all, and here are some of the best, most creative and most bizarre.

This game was prompted by city officials’ demand that Webb fill the hole with rock and dirt, since he had made little visible progress for nearly a year in filling it with the underground garage and mixed-use development that he has promised for seven years. City pressure seemed to prompt news Friday that Webb is talking with another, unidentified developer about partnering on the project. City officials have met with that developer and say they are optimistic.

But if things don’t work out, Lexingtonians have plenty of other ideas for this limestone pit, 35 feet deep and a full city block square.

The most popular suggestion by far is to finish the underground garage and put a park on top of it. So many people liked CentrePointe as a grassy meadow, which it was from 2009 to 2013 while Webb searched for financing.

Readers thought retired racehorses could graze there, and it would make a great place for pony rides. Or it could be Lexington’s version of New York’s Central Park, Chicago’s Millennium Park or San Francisco’s Union Square.

Commercial real estate folks say this block is too valuable for a park, and that what Lexington needs is a tax-generating complex of offices, apartments, restaurants and shops.

Several readers wanted to see a development with outstanding architecture, such as the CentrePointe design that Jeanne Gang, the Chicago architect and MacArthur Foundation “genius” award winner, created in 2011 but that was later discarded.

Others who wanted the parking garage completed had other ideas for the top: a huge grocery store, a public market, a new city hall, a symphony hall, a glass-domed aviary or butterfly house, a museum complex, an Imax theater or hanging gardens.

“And Christmas lights,” wrote Christian Thalacker. “Lots of Christmas lights.”

A retired University of Kentucky professor suggested turning the site over to UK administrators, who could quickly fill it with dormitories, since Webb had already torn down all of the block’s historic buildings for them.

Others wanted to make better use of the hole than as a place to park cars. It could become an amphitheater, sunken gardens or a sports arena.

Others suggested a below-ground horse-racing track, basketball and racquetball courts, a zoo, a giant sandbox, a skateboard park, a roller derby rink, a go-kart track, a giant Ferris wheel, the world’s largest burgoo pot or a fire pit for community marshmallow roasts.

More adventurous readers wanted to create the world’s largest plastic ball pit. Others wanted the hole filled with foam or blue Jell-O or Vaseline and glitter. Several suggested installing the world’s largest trampoline.

“Are the food trucks still looking for permanent spots?” Lara Bissett asked via Twitter. “#FillCentrePit with food smells and watch people fall in like lemmings.”

Noting that Webb had once proposed creating a “Lake Lexington” water feature, many readers wanted to see the pit filled with water.

CentrePointe could become a wave pool, fishing pond or swimming pool, complete with a resort-like water bar on the end near McCarthy’s Irish Bar. The idle construction cranes could stay on as diving platforms.

Melody Hughes Ryan suggested other local-themed water park features, including The Great Compromiser No Wave Pool, honoring Henry Clay, and the Belle Brezing Hot and Steamy Tub.

Some suggested a water slide coming off the roof of the Lexington Public Library or a zip line down from the top of Lexington Financial Center or a bungee slingshot from High Street.

“Fill it with North Lime donuts and West Sixth beer and let us swim in the deliciousness,” Matt Gordon tweeted.

Others wanted paddle boats, a Noah’s Ark replica or a riverboat casino on the lake.

Some suggested the pit as a place to put Webb, Congress, various other politicians, liberals, Republicans, Duke basketball fans and impudent newspaper columnists. Among readers with this line of thinking, Webb was the overwhelming choice.

“Fill it with all of Dudley’s broken promises,” tweeted Rob Morris, a blogger and car-repair shop owner who has been a longtime critic of CentrePointe. “Wait. We’ll need a much bigger hole.”


Tell me how you would #FillCentrePit if Dudley Webb can’t build

May 5, 2015

CentrePointeThe CentrePointe pit in downtown Lexington. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Ronald Reagan: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Jim Gray: “Mr. Webb, fill in this hole!”

That historical reference, from a former colleague, is one of many quips and wisecracks I have heard since city officials notified CentrePointe developer Dudley Webb last week that they consider him in default.

Before the city gave Webb permission to excavate his long-stalled development’s underground garage, he had to pledge $4.4 million in December 2013 to restore the property to a grassy meadow if he stopped work for 60 days.

If Webb did not fill the hole, the agreement gave city officials the right to take out a mortgage on the property to pay for the work.

Although there has been no obvious progress since last summer, Webb disputes the city’s claim that work has stopped. He has demanded that city officials retract their default notice, and his attorney has threatened to sue if they don’t.

“We’ve made great progress,” Webb told the Urban County Council last Thursday. “We’re so close to getting this deal done.”

Council members listened politely but said nothing. After seven years of empty promises, Webb’s credibility is lower than the bottom of CentrePit.

If Webb and city officials can’t reach agreement, the issue will end up in court, which could make for an interesting discovery process. Who was the mysterious dead investor? Did he ever exist?

Nobody really expects the hole to be filled. That would make no sense. Lexington needs the underground garage — and a successful, tax-generating development on top of it.

The “restoration” agreement was an attempt to give the city some leverage to keep Webb on task — or force him to turn the property over to another developer if he can’t get the job done.

Until then, the fenced-off crater, where two tower cranes have stood idle since they were installed in early December, will continue hurting surrounding businesses and sucking life out of an otherwise rebounding downtown.

CentrePointe has become a Lexington joke, so we might as well have a few laughs. Here is my challenge to you: How would you fill this hole?

Post your suggestions on Twitter or Facebook, with the hashtag #FillCentrePit so I can find them. If you don’t use social media, send me an email at teblen@herald-leader.com. No phone calls, please.

I will write a follow-up column Saturday based on the best of your suggestions. I’m looking for humor and creativity more than practicality.

To kick off the conversation, here are some ideas I have seen and heard:

■ Many have suggested drilling a few feet sideways into the Town Branch Creek culvert and allowing CentrePit to fill with water. Then, Webb would have a version of the Lake Lexington water feature he proposed years ago. (Drill carefully; a major sewer line runs between the pit and Town Branch.)

■ A manipulated photograph making the rounds on social media shows CentrePointe restored to its fenced-meadow state with the People’s Bank building, which must be moved from South Broadway or it will be demolished, placed there.

■ Several people have suggested putting the Noah’s Ark replica proposed for a Northern Kentucky religious theme park, which has been controversial because of tax breaks it has received and requested, in CentrePit, either to float or be buried.

■ One friend suggested a public contest to guess how many dump truck loads of soil and rock it would take to fill the hole.

■ Another friend suggested filling CentrePit with water and renting paddle boats. A pay lake for fishing might be more appropriate. Every time I think about how Lexington got into this mess, the phrase “hook, line and sinker” comes to mind.

The best solution, of course, would be for Webb to get financing and get to work — or turn the block over to someone who can. Until then, we might as well laugh about CentrePointe. Otherwise, we’ll just want to cry.


It won’t be cheap, but Lexington must renovate old courthouse

March 24, 2015

141231Downtown0070The old Fayette County Courthouse. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Remember the old TV commercials for Fram oil filters? An actor dressed as an auto mechanic would explain how a costly repair could have been prevented with regular oil changes.

His punch line: “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”

Those ads came to mind as I read the report about all that is wrong with the old Fayette County Courthouse and what must be done to fix it. The building is well into “pay me later” status, and any further procrastination will make things worse.

Lexington’s EOP Architects and Preservation Design Partnership of Philadelphia spent six months cataloging decades of serious abuse and neglect of an iconic building that has defined the center of Lexington for more than a century.

This Richardsonian Romanesque temple of limestone, completed in 1900, symbolized the idea that public buildings should be beautiful as well as functional. It had a 105-foot-tall rotunda with a bronze-plated staircase paved in white marble. The dome was illuminated by then-new electric lights, and the cupola was crowned with a large racehorse weathervane.

But by 1930, growing Fayette County government needed more office space. Rather than branch out to annexes, more and more was crammed into the courthouse. The ultimate architectural insult came in 1960-61, when the rotunda was filled in and most of the elegant interior gutted to add elevators and more office space.

Building updates were ill-conceived. Little was spent on maintenance. The weathervane, damaged by a storm, was taken down in 1981.

The courts moved out in 2000 to new buildings two blocks away. The old courthouse was handed off to the Lexington History Museum and left to leak and crumble. Concerns about lead paint contamination prompted its closure in 2012.

The old courthouse is just one example of how Lexington squandered a rich architectural inheritance. For decades, “out with the old, in with the new” was city leaders’ motto. Much of the new was poorly designed and cheaply built.

There were many short-sighted demolitions, such as Union Station and the Post Office on Main Street, plus “modernizations” that now look ridiculous. New schools and office buildings were often cheap imitations of contemporary architecture. The city allowed many handsome buildings to be razed for parking lots.

There also was a lot of “demolition by neglect”, a trend that sadly continues at such places as the 1870 Odd Fellow’s Temple that most recently housed Bellini’s restaurant. It’s no wonder, since the old courthouse such a visible example.

Mayor Jim Gray deserves credit for trying to change things. The Downtown Development Authority and its consultants have put together an excellent, no-nonsense plan for a public-private partnership to renovate the old courthouse as a visitors’ center, public events venue and commercial space.

The cost of fixing and upgrading the building for new uses won’t be cheap: about $38 million, although about $11 million could come from historic preservation tax credits.

But what other choice do we have? The old courthouse is a black hole in an increasingly vibrant downtown that will soon include a 21C Museum Hotel in the restored First National building.

The consultants’ report says the old courthouse is basically sound structurally, but the damage so severe that a purely commercial restoration isn’t feasible.

That means city leaders must finally face up to their responsibility, just as they had to do when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency forced the city to fix long-inadequate sewer systems that were polluting neighborhoods and streams.

Fortunately, many Urban County Council members have expressed support for restoring the old courthouse. They recognize it as an investment in Lexington’s future. But you can bet some will vote “no” to try to score political points, just as three members did on the necessary sewer rate increase recently.

After all, what’s the alternative? Tear down the old courthouse? Imagine the bad publicity that would bring Lexington, especially after city officials in 2008 allowed the Webb Companies to destroy an entire block nearby to create a storage pit for idle construction cranes.

Demolition of the old courthouse would tell tourists that the “city of horses and history” doesn’t really care about its history. And it would tell potential residents and economic development prospects that Lexington is too cheap and short-sighted to care for its assets or invest in its future.

I think most Lexington leaders are smart enough to bite the bullet and do the right thing here. And if they are really smart, they also will make other investments to avoid big taxpayer liabilities in the future. As the old courthouse and EPA consent degree have painfully demonstrated, “pay me later” is rarely a wise choice.


Amid infill construction, how do we help ‘little guys’ already there?

February 15, 2015

150212Downtown0005The Lexington Parking Authority last week created four temporary street parking spaces and a loading zone to help F‡ilte Irish Imports and other nearby businesses that have been hurt by disruption caused by construction of CentrePointe construction, right, and renovation of 21C Museum Hotel in the background. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

The Great Depression left one-fourth of American workers without jobs in 1933, prompting the new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to launch a series of relief efforts known as the New Deal.

When conservatives in Congress balked, arguing that market forces would sort out things in the long run, New Deal architect Harry Hopkins famously replied: “People don’t eat in the long run. They eat every day.”

I have been thinking about that quote since November, when a mutual friend told me that Liza Hendley Betz’s little shop was in trouble.

I have known Betz since soon after she opened Fáilte Irish Imports on South Limestone Street in 2001. She did a good business in Celtic gifts and comfort food for her fellow Irish immigrants until the street in front of her shop was suddenly closed in 2009 for an 11-month reconstruction project.

Betz moved Fáilte (pronounced FALL-cha) a couple of blocks away, next to McCarthy’s Irish Bar. It was a great location until the CentrePointe project turned the block across from them into a massive hole and took away their street parking.

Then, renovation of the 21C Museum Hotel closed Upper Street above their block and constricted Main Street traffic. People started avoiding the mess, and Fáilte’s business suffered.

After I wrote about it, Lexington rallied to save the little shop. Thousands shared my column on social media. Other small businesses such as Bourbon ‘n Toulouse restaurant and the Cup of Common Wealth coffee shop sent their customers to Fáilte. Even the mayor’s staff stopped in for holiday shopping.

“People came out of the woodwork,” Betz said. “It was the best Christmas ever.”

With St. Patrick’s Day approaching, Betz and the owner of McCarthy’s recently asked city and LexPark officials if one of their street’s two lanes could be closed for parking until Upper Street above them reopened. The officials thought it was a great idea. Last week, four metered parking spaces and a loading zone were created.

While I am happy things are working out for Fáilte, there is a bigger issue here worth serious thought and action.

With Lexington’s new focus on infill and redevelopment, the central business district could be a rolling construction zone for years to come. If we are lucky.

That will be great for Lexington in the long run. In the short run, though, specific strategies should be developed to help small shops, restaurants and bars remain open amid the mess and disruption.

Most of these entrepreneurs don’t have deep pockets. But their businesses give downtown its unique character, and it is in Lexington’s best interests to keep them going.

How could Lexington minimize the collateral damage of infill and redevelopment? Several business people and city officials I talked with had good ideas. Among them:

■ When tax-increment financing districts are approved for new development, could some TIF funds be earmarked to help existing businesses during the transition? This help could range from cash compensation to special signage and other promotional help.

■ In addition to temporary parking solutions, might LexTran adjust routes to make it easier for customers to get to affected businesses?

■ Could local media companies offer discounted advertising to affected businesses, perhaps in return for long-term contracts?

■ Could city government appoint a liaison to work with affected business owners, to keep them informed of street closings and other disruptions, trouble-shoot problems and brainstorm ways to make things easier?

■ Could Commerce Lexington, Local First Lexington and other business organizations promote these businesses through social media and other venues?

■ Could the University of Kentucky business school’s faculty and students lend their expertise and advice?

■ Could developers of new projects be better neighbors, involving surrounding businesses in their construction planning process to minimize disruption?

Betz said she and other downtown entrepreneurs are excited about the changes happening around them. They know it will be good for their businesses in the long run — if they can keep eating until then.

“This whole thing has given me new hope,” Betz said. “We just don’t want people to forget about us little guys.”


With Lexington’s downtown on the rise, time to plan for more

January 27, 2015

jeffstHuge crowds came to the Jefferson Street Soiree last fall, underscoring the popularity of a downtown restaurant district that barely existed in 2007. Photo by Matt Goins

 

What a difference a decade makes, and it has barely been eight years.

The Downtown Development Authority has started seeking public comment for a 10-year update of Lexington’s 2007 Downtown Master Plan, which seeks to influence a wider urban area than just the central business district.

Jeff Fugate, who took over the DDA three years ago after Harold Tate retired, started the process Monday by bringing together more than a dozen members of the last report’s steering committee, or their successors.

Fugate’s presentation offered a striking reminder of how much has changed since 2007 — specifically, what a more vibrant, interesting and desirable place downtown Lexington has become. Not that it doesn’t have a long way to go.

Perhaps the biggest difference is public attitudes. Why? For one thing, Fugate said, nightly concerts and events during the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games made people start thinking of downtown as a place to gather and have fun.

That was reinforced by a city ordinance allowing sidewalk dining, which made downtown restaurants more popular and profitable. There are now 112 restaurants and bars downtown. That includes the Jefferson Street and Short Street restaurant districts, which barely existed in 2007.

Cheapside has blossomed as a gathering space since the plaza was rebuilt to include Fifth Third Pavilion. That also created a better home for the Lexington Farmers Market, which has grown significantly.

The University of Kentucky, Bluegrass Community and Technical College and Transylvania University have all launched major expansions in and around downtown.

And much of Lexington’s growing high-tech business sector is located downtown, one of many indications of demographic shifts that favor urban over suburban areas.

Several of the 2007 plan’s recommendations have started happening, such as denser land use (Euclid Avenue Kroger), more attractive entrance corridors (Isaac Murphy Art Garden, South Limestone streetscape), and having the Lexington Parking Authority take over and improve city-owned garages.

A total of 93 acres has been rezoned for mixed-use development, opening the way for projects such as the Bread Box, National Avenue and the Distillery District.

Another master plan recommendation called for more housing downtown. That has been slow because of the 2008 economic crisis, but the recovery has sparked several proposals, including Thistle Station on Newtown Pike and residential units in mixed-use buildings planned along Midland Avenue. Plus, UK and Transylvania are building a lot of new student housing.

Sidewalk and intersection improvements have made things better for pedestrians, and many bicycle lanes have been added. The Legacy Trail and the expansion of Town Branch Trail should be completed this year.

The Town Branch Commons proposal would create more green space and address recommendations for improving Vine Street and the Rupp Arena area, which has benefitted from the redesign of Triangle Park and renovations to the Hilton and The (Victorian) Square.

In December, the $41 million 21C Museum Hotel is to open in the old First National Building, a great adaptive reuse of an historic building.

“But there needs to be more about historic preservation,” steering committee member Bill Johnston said. “We didn’t have enough in the last (plan) and we lost some important buildings.”

He was referring to the CentrePointe project, which wiped out a block of buildings dating as far back as 1826. They have been replaced by a hole where a parking garage is supposed to be and two huge cranes, which were erected six weeks ago but have yet to do any work.

CentrePointe showed how little legal protection there was — or still is — for downtown’s iconic old buildings.

The 2007 plan recommended form-based building guidelines. A lengthy task force process has developed downtown design guidelines, but the Urban County Council has yet to debate and adopt them. Like the 2007 plan’s recommendation for returning one-way streets to two-way traffic, design guidelines are politically sensitive.

Steering committee members highlighted several things a master plan update should cover. In addition to historic preservation, they included affordable housing, better garbage solutions than rows of “herbies,” better parking policies, more bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure and more street trees.

If you have ideas, send them to the Downtown Development Authority at info@lexingtondda.com or 101 East Vine St., Suite 100, Lexington, KY 40507.


Photo fun with buildings, fading light, the moon and a flock of birds

January 5, 2015

While trying to come up with a good photograph to go with today’s column, I spent some time walking around Cheapside on a cold New Year’s Eve. I thought there might be a good shot with fading light, the old Fayette County Courthouse and the 21C Museum Hotel construction site, which is now lit up inside every night. While there, I discovered a few bonus elements: a flock of birds that kept circling the area, a rising moon just over the old Courthouse dome, the statue of John C. Breckinridge and the CentrePointe tower cranes. I only needed one photo for the paper (which, unfortunately, cropped out the moon) but I thought I would share some others, too. Happy New Year.

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After 7 years of excuses, get tough with CentrePointe developer

December 6, 2014

141124CentrePointe-TE0001The CentrePointe block on Nov. 24, 2014. Below, developer Dudley Webb at the site in May and, below, the block before demolition began in 2008. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Fourteen months ago, when city officials were scrutinizing developer Dudley Webb’s financing to decide whether to let him begin excavation and construction of his problem-plagued CentrePointe project, I wrote that there are far worse things to have in the center of your city than a grassy field.

Now we know one of those things: a huge crater, nearly 40 feet deep and an entire city block square. A hole in the heart of Lexington.

Webb’s contractors spent three months last spring blasting, digging and hauling away more than 60,000 cubic yards of rock and dirt to build an underground garage. The three-level, 700-space garage is supposed to be the base of his proposed CentrePointe development of offices, apartments, shops, restaurants and hotels.

Webb said in May that the garage would be finished by late summer. But all he has done is dig a big hole, pour a few footers and make a lot of excuses.

CentrePointe has fallen months behind schedule, causing its major office tenant, the engineering firm Stantec, to cancel its lease agreement.

Instead of building the garage, as promised, Webb has sought more public subsidies. It is the latest episode in a tragedy that has been playing out since early 2008, when city officials let Webb demolish an entire block of historic buildings and popular businesses on nothing more than promises.

140531CentrePit-TE0140Webb has said over and over that he has financing to build. But when it comes down to it, he never really does. And, of course, it is always somebody else’s fault.

In August, Webb asked the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority to issue $30 million in bonds for the garage’s construction to lower his borrowing costs. The state refused, so he asked the city.

Mayor Jim Gray and the Urban County Council also wisely declined, even though Webb’s attorneys assured them that taxpayers would not be on the hook for repayment in case of default.

Even if that is true, city officials are keenly aware that a default on city-issued bonds would tarnish Lexington’s reputation even more than the CentrePointe fiasco already has.

Webb next turned to the Kentucky League of Cities, which agreed to create a non-profit corporation to issue the bonds. That was supposed to happen last week, but Temple Juett, the league’s general counsel, said the issue has been delayed. He did not have a new date.

If and when the bonds are sold, the big question will be whether anyone will buy them. The bonds are to be repaid by a portion of future tax revenues generated by the project. “The only people left holding the bag if there is a default are the bondholders,” Juett said.

Maybe the bond issue will be successful. Maybe Webb has the rest of his financing in place, as he claims. Maybe there will be no further delays, and CentrePointe will be built as promised.

Maybe pigs will fly.

If the bonds don’t sell, I predict Webb will come back to the city with his hand out. He will seek a bond guarantee or some other assistance in addition to the tax-increment financing package he last negotiated with the city and state in 2013.

There is only one appropriate response to any request for more public subsidies for CentrePointe: No. Period.

When Webb assured city officials a year ago that his financing was solid, they forced him to put up $4.4 million as a “conditional restoration agreement” that could be triggered if work at the site stops for 60 days.

That $4.4 million is supposed to be enough to pay for refilling the hole, compacting the soil and restoring the block to its pre-excavation appearance — a grassy field.

If the developer can’t pay, the city can go to court and seek foreclosure on the property, which is owned by corporations set up by Webb and jeweler Joe Rosenberg, whose family has owned much of the land for decades.

Of course, it would make no sense to fill the hole. The city needs the parking garage, just as it needs a vibrant, tax-generating, job-creating commercial development to be built on top of it. The question is whether Webb is capable of ever building either.

Here is what should happen: If Webb can’t finish the garage in a timely manner, city officials should use their leverage to force him and Rosenberg to turn the project over to another developer who can.

For nearly seven years, city officials have bent over backward to try to make CentrePointe a well-designed, successful project. Webb has squandered opportunities and made a lot of promises he hasn’t kept. Enough is enough.

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Shop struggles with constant downtown construction projects

November 30, 2014

141124Failte0013At her first location, Liza Hendley Betz’s Fáilte Irish Imports faced the long Limestone reconstruction project. Now in the red building with McCarthy’s Irish Bar, it is surrounded by CentrePointe excavation and renovation of the 21C Museum Hotel. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

As she prepares to celebrate the 13th anniversary of opening Fáilte Irish Imports, Dublin native Liza Hendley Betz feels as if the luck of the Irish has been replaced by the curse of downtown redevelopment.

For the first eight years after she opened her shop in 2001, Hendley’s business prospered on South Limestone, just off the corner of High Street.

Betz’s bread and butter was selling Irish bread and butter — plus sausages, Bewley’s tea, Batchelor’s canned beans, Cadbury’s sweets and other comfort food from home to the Emerald Isle’s large expatriate community in Central Kentucky. She also did a good business in Irish tweeds, Celtic jewelry and souvenirs.

Then, with two weeks’ warning, South Limestone was shut down for 11 months for a major street reconstruction project.

141124Failte0043Her business struggled, but she was able to move in early 2010 to her dream location: beside McCarthy’s Irish Bar on South Upper Street. But the old red-and-green building also was across the street from the stalled CentrePointe project, which was then a grassy field.

“This is where I always wanted to be,” Betz said of the close proximity to McCarthy’s, a social center for the Irish community where she used to serve drinks.

As for CentrePointe, she figured, “I’ll deal with it when it happens. It can’t be any worse than what happened before.”

Or could it? Last December, all of the street parking across from her shop was closed after CentrePointe’s developer got city permission to begin blasting and excavation.

The street was a noisy, dusty mess for most of this year as the CentrePointe block was converted into a 40-foot limestone pit. Then everything stopped. Developer Dudley Webb is now trying to raise money to build an underground garage.

To make matters worse, the block of North Upper Street above Fáilte has been closed for months so the old First National Bank Building can be renovated into 21C Museum Hotel.

“This used to be a busy intersection,” she said. “You can go out here now and do a dance in the middle of the street. It’s hard these days to keep a business going with all this around you.”

Betz has rented a single parking space beside her shop, which has made it more convenient for customers to stop in for quick purchases.

Like many retailers, Fáilte’s prime season is between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, not just for gift items but because Irish Americans want food from home for their holiday celebrations.

On Dec. 12, the shop will celebrate its 13th anniversary with a 10 percent off sale, plus a party with Guinness beer, souvenir glasses and Irish music next door at McCarthy’s between 7 and 9 p.m.

Betz said she needs a big December, although her holiday season will extend to St. Patrick’s Day on March 17. She recently became a United States citizen, so she also is thinking about something special for next July 4 — if she can keep the doors open that long.

“It’s the worst time we’ve ever had,” said Betz, whose husband is a horse veterinarian. She minds the shop while caring for their two small children.

Like any good entrepreneur, Betz has been looking for ways to broaden her business beyond food and gifts. She has organized annual tours of Ireland, and she’s looking to use her Irish expertise to grow the travel business. She also is thinking about clearing some space in the tiny shop for a couple of tables to serve tea.

“I know I need to change things up a bit,” she said. “But I’m afraid to put money into anything right now.”

Betz also knows that, in the long run, she will have a great location when 21C opens and whatever ends up being built at CentrePointe is finished. But, as the famous saying goes, people don’t eat in the long run.

“I’m in the middle of downtown,” she said. “Who would think this is a bad location?”


‘Lost Lexington’ a reminder of great buildings and people

November 1, 2014

The cover of Lost Lexington explains why Peter Brackney’s new book is so timely: It shows a mothballed old courthouse in desperate need of renovation beside the gigantic crater that has replaced the city’s oldest business district.

141102LostLexington002Brackney, a lawyer and writer of the local history blog Kaintuckeean.com, said the plight of the old Fayette County Courthouse and the CentrePointe boondoggle were big motivations for writing his book.

So was the University of Kentucky’s controversial demolition this summer of several significant mid-century modern buildings on his alma mater’s campus to make way for new construction.

“Everywhere you see a parking lot, something once stood,” Brackney said in an interview. “I think the more you learn about some of these historic structures, the more you appreciate what we have left.”

Brackney focuses on what is gone, and it is an impressive collection of special buildings and places once central to community life. They include elegant mansions, a racetrack, an amusement park, a football stadium, railroad stations and a private garden that early settlers referred to as “paradise.”

Lost Lexington (The History Press, $19.95) includes a forward by Mayor Jim Gray and many photographs. But what makes it most interesting is Brackney’s thorough research into these places and the remarkable people associated with them. I know a lot about Lexington history, but I learned some things.

Brackney begins with Lexington’s best-known preservation story: the 1955 demolition of the 1798 Hart-Bradford House for a parking lot. That act, and fears that the 1814 Hunt-Morgan House across the street would be next, led to creation of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation and the city’s first preservation laws.

“If you looked at the Hart-Bradford House and didn’t know a thing about who lived there, you would think there was nothing special about it, just a nice two-story brick house,” Brackney said.

brackneyBut, as the book explains, that house was built by Henry Clay’s father-in-law, Thomas Hart, a Revolutionary War veteran and influential land speculator. The next resident was John Bradford, Kentucky’s first newspaper publisher and a major civic leader. Clay was married in that house, and Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan may have been, too.

Few people now remember another longtime resident of the house: Laura Clay, an early champion of women’s rights. She learned about the subject the hard way: watching her father, emancipationist Cassius Clay, cheat her mother out of property after their divorce.

Among the several fabulous, long-gone estates featured in the book is Chaumiere des Prairies, where three U.S. presidents were entertained and the traitor Aaron Burr was held under arrest.

Col. David Meade’s estate was famous for its beautifully landscaped gardens. When he died in 1832, a farmer who bought the property destroyed them with grazing livestock, prompting neighbors to post signs about “paradise lost.”

Brackney tells the stories of such 20th century landmarks as the Phoenix Hotel, Union Station, the Southern Railway depot and Joyland Park. Joyland Park was famous for its amusement rides and the huge dance pavilion where Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw and other big band leaders performed.

One interesting story was about how, for 23 years, the afternoon Lexington Leader gave every white kid in town free swimming lessons at Joyland’s public pool. In those segregation days, the newspaper provided free swimming lessons for black children at Douglass Park.

The book tells about two sporting venues that no longer exist: the Kentucky Association racetrack and Stoll Field/McLean Stadium, the home of UK football games and other community events before Commonwealth Stadium replaced it in 1972.

UK’s recent demolitions and the CentrePointe project, which destroyed more than a dozen downtown buildings and 51/2 years later is nothing more than a hole in the ground, were a wakeup call for historic preservation in Lexington.

But Brackney, who lives in Jessamine County, laments that many other communities still haven’t gotten the message. Nicholasville’s oldest Main Street commercial building, built in the early 1800s, was recently demolished.

“While we do have to balance preservation and progress, we have to make sure there’s an understanding that people lived and worked in each of these places; they’re not just bricks and mortar,” he said.

“Drive down Nicholasville Road, drive down Richmond Road, and there’s nothing that separates them from Glendale, Ariz., or any new city,” Brackney added. “There’s nothing that makes them unique. And it’s Lexington’s history and uniqueness that helps make it a great city.”

If you go

Peter Brackney will speak and sign copies of Lost Lexington:

5:30 p.m. Nov. 3: Thomas Hunt-Morgan House, 210 N. Broadway, hosted by the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation. The event includes a panel discussion about historic preservation in Lexington.

2 p.m. Nov. 9: The Morris Book Shop, 882 E High St.

6 p.m. Nov. 9: Barnes & Noble bookstore, Hamburg Pavilion.

7 p.m. Dec. 2: Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington Green.


A sedimental journey back 450 million years beneath CentrePointe

June 7, 2014

140531CentrePit-TE0024 Looking up to Main Street from the bottom of the CentrePointe pit. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

When most of us think about the CentrePointe block’s history, we focus on its role as a center of Lexington commerce for two centuries.

But over the past 12 weeks, as more than 60,000 cubic yards of dirt and rock have been blasted, dug and hauled off the block to make way for CentrePointe’s huge underground parking garage, some people have expressed a deeper curiosity.

So I called Frank Ettensohn, a University of Kentucky geology professor, and asked him to take developer Dudley Webb and me on a sedimental journey. We walked around the bottom of CentrePit as the geologist described a much older history.

“Each of these layers is like a page in a book,” said Ettensohn, a specialist in the sedimentary rock layers of the Inner Bluegrass region known as the Lexington Limestone. “If you know how to read the pages you can see all sorts of things going on here.”

140531CentrePit-TE0002After digging out about 10 feet of dirt and clay, Hunt Construction’s excavation crews hit solid rock, which they dislodged with nearly 50 blasts, said project manager Tim Linde. By mid-June, they will finish removing all of that material to a depth of nearly 40 feet. As many as 475 dump trucks a day took dirt to R.J. Corman’s railroad yard, while truckloads of rock went to C&R Asphalt for recycling.

With a rock hammer in hand, Ettensohn walked us around the bottom perimeter of the pit and explained how the layers of limestone above us were formed during what geologists call the Late Ordovician period. That was about 450 million years ago, give or take a few million years.

Central Kentucky was then part of a continent called Laurentia, which now forms the core of North America. The East and West Coasts weren’t there yet, and neither was much of the Southeast. Florida was still part of Africa.

“This area was a very shallow sea, maybe 60 feet deep, much like what we see in the Bahamas today,” Ettensohn said. It was a sub-tropical region, because Central Kentucky was about 20 degrees south of the Equator, instead of 38 degrees north of it, as it is today.

“These plates move all over, and they’re moving now as we stand here,” he said. “But it’s a very, very slow process.”

The Lexington Limestone is between 200 feet and 320 feet thick. It is made up of 11 different types, each named for a place where there is a notable example.

Ettensohn said CentrePointe has two types. Excavation exposed the top of a Grier layer, which may extend another 200 feet below the ground. It is named for the Grier’s Creek area of Woodford County. Above the Grier is a thin Brannon layer, named for the area around Brannon Road near the Jessamine-Fayette county line.

The layers are different, he said, because a mountain-building event on the east side of the continent sent sea water and sediment rushing this way, eventually forming the Brannon.

Along the pit’s wall below Limestone Street, Ettensohn pointed out a brown stripe of bentonite — a thin layer of volcanic ash from a prehistoric eruption. He also saw evidence of ancient earthquakes. “We know there were at least three major earthquake events that gave rise to the deformation in the Brannon,” he said.

Fine-grained limestone indicates eras of deep water, he said, while coarse-grained limestone was formed in shallow water. Ettensohn pointed to areas of coarse rock that would have been giant dunes migrating with water flows along the sea bottom.

Hurricane-like storms helped form many of the limestone layers, he said. Thin layers of muddy shale between them are evidence of calmer periods of geological history.

Limestone is made mostly of calcium carbonate, the remains of small creatures that lived at the bottom of these shallow seas. “They died and their shells were reworked by storms,” he said.

The most common creatures whose fossil fragments are still visible in the limestone were crinoids and bryozoans, which looked more like small, twiggy bushes than animals, and brachiopods, which resemble clams.

Ettensohn picked up a small rock and pointed to tiny sparkling specks, the pulverized remains of ancient star fish and sea urchins. Then he found a fossil fragment of a trilobite, a long-extinct animal that looked something like a crab.

“They’re not particularly good,” he said of the fossils, “because they’ve been shattered to heck and back.”

But these billions upon billions of crushed sea creatures left a sturdy foundation for Lexington, whose existence will be no more than a blip in geological history.

Click on each image to see larger picture and read caption:

 


CentrePointe evolution shows benefits of design conversation

May 19, 2014

CentrePointeNowDeveloper’s rendering of the current design for CentrePointe, as seen from corner of Vine and Limestone Streets. Below, the original design rendering unveiled in March 2008.

 

As CentrePointe developer Dudley Webb continues blasting and digging the biggest hole in Lexington history, he has unveiled yet another new design for what he plans to build on top of it.

The city’s Court House Area Design Review Board last week approved what was, by my count, the seventh major CentrePointe redesign in six years. The consensus of the board’s two architects and other design professionals I spoke with is that this design, while still lacking in some respects, is far better than the version it replaced.

centrepointe1Unlike the monolithic tower Webb initially proposed, CentrePointe has evolved into a complex of buildings that fits into downtown without overwhelming it. The new design accomplishes the developer’s goals while respecting the city’s existing fabric and enhancing pedestrian activity.

CentrePointe will be a great addition to downtown — if Webb can get it built.

There are a couple of reasons why CentrePointe’s design has continued evolving. One is that the mix of tenants and uses has changed several times as Webb struggled to put together an ambitious, $394 million project in a difficult economic climate.

As currently proposed, CentrePointe would contain a 10-12 story office building, a 205-room Marriott hotel, a 110-unit Marriott extended-stay hotel, 90 apartments, several luxury condos, a Jeff Ruby Steakhouse, a Starbuck’s coffee shop and several retail stores at street level.

Another reason for CentrePointe’s evolution is that Lexingtonians and their elected and appointed leaders have become more sophisticated about the role design plays in downtown revitalization and economic development. Copying ostentatious towers in Atlanta or Austin is no longer good enough.

Like beauty, good architecture is often in the eye of the beholder. But there are generally accepted principles for good and bad architecture and urban design. That is why the review board process has been valuable in improving CentrePointe, and why city officials should keep pushing for “design excellence” guidelines for future downtown construction.

 

 

 


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

eblenbraveblue

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.