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.
At 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13th anniversary of opening Fáilte Irish Imports, Dublin native Liza Hendley Betz feels as if the luck of the Irish has been replaced by the curse of downtown redevelopment.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.
Her 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?”
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.”
Readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine recently voted the 21C Museum Hotel in Louisville as the nation’s best hotel.
It was in the news last week and discussed on NBC’s Today Show this week.
“It sounds like the idea behind this is brilliant,” said Today Show host Matt Lauer, who seemed barely able to hide his surprise that Kentucky could be on the cutting edge of anything.
The 90-room luxury hotel that houses a public, all-hours contemporary art museum really is brilliant, and the Today Show and Conde Nast Traveler are just the most recent examples of the positive buzz it has created for Louisville.
The 21C was the brainchild of Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, who worked with Lexington-based Gray Construction to create the museum/hotel by renovating and connecting four century-old buildings.
The complex is not far from developer Bill Weyland’s Glassworks art and office complex and Louisville Slugger factory and museum. They are all on Louisville’s West Main Street, in renovated old buildings that less imaginative developers would have demolished.
These attractions have sparked a vibrant entertainment district popular with locals and visitors alike. Last year, the American Planning Association named West Main Street as one of the nation’s 10 best streets.
Gray Construction’s chairman, Lexington Vice Mayor Jim Gray, worked closely with Brown and Wilson to create 21C – and it wasn’t easy. Some of the buildings needed new foundations and steel reinforcement. “There was one day when we almost lost one of them,” he said.
But Brown and Wilson never considered tearing down the old buildings, Gray said. And it wasn’t just because the $180-a-square-foot cost of renovation was cheaper than new construction.
“They knew that the character of the old buildings was what would inspire and create the energy for the project,” Gray said. “Within the frame of the old buildings they were going to create something new and contemporary and inspiring.”
Last year, during Lexington’s debate over the now-stalled CentrePointe project, Gray often mentioned 21C as an alternative approach to the generic skyscraper developer Dudley Webb planned. Webb could create something special by saving some of the 14 old buildings he wanted to tear down and weaving them into a quality piece of contemporary architecture.
Webb wasn’t interested. The old buildings weren’t worth saving, he said, even though renovation would have been cheaper than new construction.
So, here we are more than a year later. The block has been cleared of 180 years of Lexington history. CentrePointe is stalled and probably dead. Louisville has 21C and a lot of national buzz. Lexington has a pasture in the middle of town and a missed opportunity.
But it’s not Lexington’s only opportunity.
A few blocks away, developer Barry McNees is scraping together money to create the Lexington Distillery District. His vision is to renovate two abandoned bourbon distilleries and other industrial buildings in one of the city’s long-neglected neighborhoods. They would become the nucleus for a mixed-use neighborhood reflecting Lexington’s heritage and authentic culture.
The Distillery District is struggling amid the credit crunch. Still, the 150-year-old Old Tarr Distillery warehouse has become Buster’s, a popular nightclub. Galleries and artists’ studios are sprouting nearby.
“You clean that place up and it’s a destination,” Gray said of the Distillery District. “There’s nothing like it in Lexington, and that’s what appeals to people.”
So here’s the question for Mayor Jim Newberry’s administration and Lexington’s business leadership: Where should this city place its bet? Will a prosperous future look more like what’s happening on Louisville’s West Main Street, or what’s been happening for 30 years on Lexington’s West Main Street?