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?”


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.

 

 

 


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.


CentrePointe steps back from excellence; other projects shouldn’t

August 17, 2013

130816CentrePointe-Old

The previous design for CentrePointe, above, as seen along Main Street at the corner of Upper Street, had a variety of facades designed by local architects, echoing the architectural diversity on the other side of Main Street.  The new version, below, does not. Also note changes in CentrePointe’s office building, left, and hotel tower, right rear. Renderings by EOP Architects.

130816CentrePointe-New

 

For the sixth time in five years, developer Dudley Webb has unveiled new designs for his long-delayed CentrePointe project. The news last week generated a lot of sighs, eye rolls and I-told-you-so’s.

Lexington has CentrePointe fatigue, and no wonder. Webb’s plans for the $393 million hotel-office-apartment-retail complex have gone from awful to great over the years, and now they seem to have taken a turn toward mediocrity.

Besides, a lot of people doubt Webb will ever get enough financing to develop the most prime real estate in Lexington. The biggest question about CentrePointe is the same as it always has been: Where is the money?

Webb said last week that he wants to begin construction in October to accommodate a major tenant for the proposed office building at Main and Limestone streets. So far, though, he has produced no evidence of financing, which he must have to get construction permits.

The new design was released last week in preparation for Webb’s appearance Aug. 21 before the Courthouse Area Design Review Board, which must approve his plans. Its primary role is to decide if the project’s size and scale are appropriate to the neighborhood.

If you haven’t been following this five-year soap opera, here’s a quick recap: Webb’s initial plan called for a monolithic tower and pedestal, designed by the Atlanta firm CMMI, that overpowered the surrounding streetscape. Public and political opposition led to two redesigns, neither of which were much better.

Then, under pressure from Mayor Jim Gray and with help from Michael Speaks, dean of the University of Kentucky’s College of Design, Webb hired Jeanne Gang of Chicago, one of America’s most acclaimed architects. Studio Gang’s redesign got rave reviews.

But as CentrePointe’s proposed tenant mix changed, Webb replaced Gang with EOP Architects of Lexington. EOP produced an excellent design that included many of Gang’s ideas, from the site plan to the use of other local architects to give the Main Street façade some creative variety.

Now, CentrePointe’s tenant mix has changed again, this time to include more office space and apartments. For the latest designs, CMMI is back working with EOP.

Several architects and design professionals I talked with said the new design isn’t bad, it’s just ordinary and uninspired. But they noted that architects can only be as good as their client allows them to be.

The new design makes the block denser, the tower shorter and the office building more massive. That building’s elegant corner cut at Main and Limestone streets is gone, as are the local architects’ elegant Main Street façades. The apartment/retail building along Main has gone from four stories to seven with a unified façade that looks like modern urban apartment buildings all over the country.

“If you compare it to the first attempt they made, it’s come a long way,” said Speaks, who recently left UK to become dean at Syracuse University in New York. But he added that the new design is inferior to the last two versions.

“The things that made it interesting are gone,” Speaks said. “It’s not bad. It’s just not really good. It’s a missed opportunity. It’s a step back. What they have now is a typical corporate development that could be built anywhere. It’s nothing special.”

Since the beginning, Webb has touted CentrePointe as a signature project that would be a game-changer for downtown. But several factors have always played against that ambition. Webb projects have never been known for great architecture. And this kind of speculative, mixed-used development in a weak economy creates pressure to cut costs, rush schedules and settle for less than ideal.

Another reason for CentrePointe fatigue is that there have been a lot of exciting developments downtown since Webb announced his project in March 2008.

Lexington is being reshaped by many small, creative projects and renovations, especially along Short and Jefferson streets. Plus, two big public projects are in the works: Town Branch Commons and the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District. Both of them really could be “game-changers” — but only if they are done right.

It is one thing for a private project such as CentrePointe to settle for safe, uninspiring design. But if the visionary ambitions for Town Branch Commons and the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District end up being compromised to the point of mediocrity, they will have been a waste of money and effort. They are opportunities Lexington cannot afford to miss.

 


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

 

 


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:


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.

 


21c announcement shows downtown momentum

April 15, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


CentrePointe approved: See final design drawings

March 28, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those improvements included:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


See the latest CentrePointe Main Street designs

March 7, 2012

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

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

From Brent Bruner of EOP Architects:

From David Biagi:

From Richard Levine of CSC:

 

From Graham Pohl of Pohl Rosa Pohl:

 

 


Review board likely to nix CentrePointe pedway

March 6, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Looks great: See latest CentrePointe designs

March 1, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


CentrePointe process has been good for Lexington

February 19, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:


CentrePointe soap opera needs good ending

October 30, 2011

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

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

CentrePointe, version 1

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

So what did Webb do? He dumped her.

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

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

CentrePointe, version 2

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

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

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

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

CentrePointe, version 3 compared with version 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeanne Gang's CentrePointe concept


Louisville’s Museum Plaza project bites the dust

August 1, 2011

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

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

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


New CentrePointe process a ‘beacon’ for Rupp area

July 16, 2011
Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects, left, with staff members Michan Walker and Beth Zacherle, discusses a model of her proposed design for CentrePointe after a public meeting Thursday at the State Theatre with Richard Levine, right, principal in one of six Kentucky architecture firms she chose to work with her on the project. Photo by Tom Eblen

Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects, left, with staff members Michan Walker and Beth Zacherle, discusses a model of her proposed design for CentrePointe after a public meeting Thursday at the State Theatre with Richard Levine, right, principal in one of six Kentucky architecture firms she chose to work with her on the project. Photo by Tom Eblen

It would be hard to imagine a bigger contrast between the CentrePointe public meeting that filled the State Theatre last Thursday and the one that filled the same room a little more than three years ago.

At the meeting in March 2008, citizens pleaded with CentrePointe developers Dudley and Woodford Webb not to tear down a block of historic buildings to construct a massive tower that could have just as easily been designed for downtown Austin or suburban Atlanta.

Public anxiousness later turned to anger as the block was demolished. But before CentrePointe construction could begin, financing evaporated and the two-acre block became a vacant lot.

Fast forward three years. The crowd that filled the theater this time came to hear Jeanne Gang of Chicago-based Studio Gang Architects discuss her plan for redesigning CentrePointe. She also introduced the team of Lexington architects who will help her give the complex variety and local flavor.

Most people in the audience liked Gang’s designs for CentrePointe’s cluster of buildings and were impressed by the thought that went into them. It was easy to see why.

Five low-rise buildings facing Main Street, which will have retail space on the ground floor and residences above, will be similar in scale and variety to the century-old buildings across the street — and the ones that were torn down. An eight-story asymmetrical office building is imaginative, and street-level spaces look as if they will be pedestrian-friendly and inviting.

The proposed 30-story tower that would house a hotel, condos and apartments is simply stunning: light and airy with lots of visual variety, including roof gardens on various levels. The more you look at the tower, the more interesting details you notice. It looks like a place you would want to spend time in.

CentrePointe has been transformed from a project many people hated to one those same people are eager to see built. (Not everyone likes the new design; but not everyone likes anything.)

Mayor Jim Gray has gone from being the Webbs’ biggest critic to a valuable ally. He introduced them to Gang, and the mayor said Thursday he will do what he can to help CentrePointe succeed. “As somebody said, a little creativity goes a long way — in this case, a lot of creativity,” said Gray, who called the redesign “awesome.”

The big question, though, is whether any of it will be built. Can the Webbs find tenants and more than $200 million in financing?

It won’t be easy in this economy, but I have to think their odds are much better now that they are selling a beautifully unique complex designed by one of the world’s hottest architects rather than a generic monolith.

“Where else in the world is a city’s center available for an inspiring piece of architecture?” asked Gray, who has spent his career in the construction business.

Whether or not this CentrePointe is built — and I hope it is —Lexington will have learned some valuable lessons about successful city-building. Dudley Webb, who more than any other developer has shaped the face of downtown Lexington over the past three decades, said he has certainly learned some things.

“In the old days, it was about free enterprise and you just went out and did it,” he said. “Now, there’s a lot more public interest in what you want to do. Everybody perceives it as their downtown, which is good.”

Why are these lessons important? Think of CentrePointe — as big and important as it is — as the dress rehearsal for something much bigger and potentially more important. That would be the redevelopment of Lexington Center, Rupp Arena and 40 acres of surface parking that surrounds them.

CentrePointe began as a typical Lexington “like it or lump it” real estate deal, the product of one entrepreneur’s vision and effort. It has become a model for creativity, collaboration and public engagement that could be better for the city and more successful for the developer.

All of this newfound creativity, collaboration and public engagement will be needed to make the Lexington Center property live up to its enormous potential. If done well, it could redefine much of downtown Lexington for decades.

“CentrePointe has become a beacon in terms of process,” Gray said. “It’s a wonderful testimony for how we can learn from difficult experiences, move on and accomplish more than was ever hoped.”


See Studio Gang’s newest CentrePointe designs

July 13, 2011

This rendering, looking west on Vine Street, shows a bundled tower concept for the tallest portion of the CentrePointe development. The tower would contain a hotel, condos and apartments. The tallest portion of the tower would be 388 feet, slightly shorter than Fifth Third’s neighboring “blue” building, architect Jeanne Gang said Wednesday. Over the existing Phoenix Building at right is a rendering of what the top of CentrePointe’s eight-story office building portion might look like. (Click on the image to make it larger.) Image: Studio Gang

This view from Vine Street shows what the lower portion of CentrePointe’s tower and the eight-story office building at the corner of Main and Limestone streets could look like. The rendering doesn’t show five buildings that five Lexington architects would design along Main Street. (Click on the image to make it larger.) Image: Studio Gang

Ron Klemencic, a structural engineer from Magnusson Klemencic Associates, architect Jeanne Gang and Lexington developer Dudley Webb discuss design concepts during a meeting at Studio Gang Architects in Chicago. Gang will show and discuss a current model of her firm’s concepts for CentrePointe at a public meeting Thursday at 4 p.m. at the Kentucky Theatre on Main Street.  Image: Studio Gang.

* * * * * *

Jeanne Gang of Chicago-based Studio Gang Architects will be back in Lexington for a public meeting Thursday at 4 p.m. at the Kentucky Theatre to show her refined concepts for redesign of the proposed CentrePointe block — and they are impressive.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Gang said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Gang, one of the nation’s most celebrated young architects, unveiled initial concepts for re-imagining CentrePointe at a public meeting June 2 that packed an old courtroom in the Lexington History Museum.

At this meeting, Gang will show a model, discuss refined concepts and announce the five Kentucky architects who will work with her firm to design five buildings in the project that will run along the block’s Main Street side.

Gang said the five were selected from 25 architects who applied to work on the project. Selection criteria included their design ideas for the block, experience, connections to Kentucky, history of collaboration and previous work with environmentally sustainable development.

Gang said her firm has worked closely with The Webb Companies during the design process “to get their feedback. I’ve found them to be very positive … relationship at this point, and fun to work with. I think they’ve really tried hard to engage the new process.”

Gang and her firm have done several major projects around the world, including Chicago’s acclaimed new Aqua tower.


New architect impresses CentrePointe skeptics

June 2, 2011

For anyone who has followed the three years of controversy surrounding the Webb Companies’ CentrePointe project, the scene this evening inside the sweltering Lexington History Museum was almost surreal.

A standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 people — many of them CentrePointe’s biggest critics — listened intently for an hour as Webb’s new architect described her vision for the project and the conceptual processes her firm used to create that vision.

Almost to a person, the audience liked what Jeanne Gang of Chicago-based Studio Gang Architects had to say.

Afterward, people crowded around to talk to her, ask questions and offer suggestions. The models of potential site plans that Gang showed were rough, because she said she wanted public input. But her ideas were clearly well thought-out.

This gathering was nothing like the “done deal” press conference three years ago that unveiled the first of many iterations of the stalled hotel-condo-retail-office development proposed for the block of old buildings that Webb demolished in the center of Lexington.

Gang talked about her ideas for the two-acre site, which I summarized in this column after I spoke with her Wednesday. (Read more details and reaction here and here from reporter Beverly Fortune.)

Gang also talked about how Kentucky architects would be hired to design pieces of the project to give it variety and local flavor. A couple of Lexington architects I saw there said afterward that they were planning to apply.

The gathering was hopeful, encouraging and, I must say, exciting. Still, the best way to describe Gang’s work so far is that it is a good start, with much more work to be done. Gang has clearly done a thoughtful analysis of Lexington and the site’s surroundings. She seemed genuinely  interested in ideas and suggestions from people at the meeting, who ranged from concerned citizens to some of Kentucky’s best architects.

Gang said the local architects she will hire as consultants would be chosen and notified by June 30. A second public meeting will then be scheduled to introduce those architects, who will focus mostly on the look of several buildings facing Main Street.

Gang said she also would then show more refined ideas for the two towers that would house offices, condos and a hotel, although much of that will eventually depend on what tenants Webb can secure.

CentrePointe is a risky chicken-and-egg proposition, especially in this economic environment. The Webb Companies can’t built CentrePointe — or whatever it ends up being called — until it has financing and tenants. But Webb can’t attract tenants or financing without something impressive to offer.  I have to think the odds for success are substantially greater if Webb follows through with Gang and is able to show prospects an imaginative plan by one of the world’s best up-and-coming architects.

“Today is a new day,” Woodford Webb, president of the Webb Companies, told the crowd. “We are looking at the project in different ways and are open to new ideas.”

Those new ideas are off to a terrific start. But, as I wrote Wednesday, keep your fingers crossed.