Developer’s parking idea makes sense for downtown Lexington

June 29, 2014

140623ChurchSt0088This rendering shows an architect’s conception for a two-level parking garage that veteran developer Robert Wagoner proposes building along Church Street to replace a random group of nine surface parking lots. The garage would help encourage redevelopment of gaps between buildings on Short Street, shown as green boxes. Photo provided.


Veteran suburban developer Robert Wagoner has spent his past four years of retirement studying urban Lexington, as well as Greenville and Charleston, S.C., which have been much more successful at downtown revitalization.

Yes, he says, historic preservation and high-quality new architecture are important. But Wagoner thinks the real key to urban revitalization is the unglamorous infrastructure that businesses and customers take for granted in suburbia, such as hidden delivery and garbage facilities and easy-to-use parking. Especially parking.

That belief led Wagoner and 17 friends he recruited from the design and construction fields to volunteer their time and talents to develop an ambitious concept for the emerging four-block entertainment district along Short Street between Limestone and Broadway.

Robert Wagoner

Robert Wagoner

Their goal was to create more convenient, attractive, efficient and urban-appropriate parking and service facilities, and to encourage redevelopment of gap lots along Short Street where buildings were demolished decades ago and were replaced with haphazard surface parking.

The main element of this plan would be an attractive, two-level parking structure along Church Street. But Wagoner also proposes replacing most parallel parking along Short Street with easier-to-use angled parking.

In all, Wagoner says, the 370 parking spaces now in that four-square-block area could grow to 450 spaces that would be more accessible and user-friendly. At the same time, it would allow many surface parking lots to be redeveloped with new buildings to house stores, restaurants, offices and apartments.

“We need to have more thought put into our comprehensive land-use process for a parking strategy downtown,” Wagoner said. “All you have to do is look at these other cities and see what they’re doing.”

Wagoner also wants to create service areas to stop noisy delivery trucks from having to idle on the street, clogging traffic and making outdoor dining unpleasant. Centralized, hidden waste areas with trash compactors would be a big improvement over dumpsters, grease pits and Herbies scattered all over within public view.

He is now talking with property and business owners and contacting organizations such as the Downtown Development Authority, the Downtown Lexington Corp. and the Lexington-Fayette County Parking Authority (Lexpark).

“It’s probably the single most important project since the Cheapside Park renovation,” said Bob Estes, owner of Parlay Social and Shorty’s market, and president of the Cheapside Entertainment District Association. “It would really create the infrastructure for the continued development and growth we need.”

Making this plan happen will be a challenge, because the four-block area has 12 parcels with 10 owners. There are nine surface parking lots with 16 entrances. It will need support from property and business owners, the city and private investors, he said.

The plan would require clipping off the rear addition to one Short Street building. Wagoner also would like to demolish a law office building at the southwest corner of Church and Market streets and move the recently renovated Belle’s Bar building over to Short Street.

The key will be getting property owners to work together, trading some of their sites for space in new, infill buildings on Short Street, parking spaces in the garage or a share of parking garage revenues.

“Creative air rights is integral to all of this,” he said.

Executing the plan would be complex, but Wagoner says everyone could come out a winner. Downtown would be more vibrant, business activity would increase, property values would rise and the city would collect more tax revenues.

What I find exciting — even visionary — about this plan is that the same approach could be used for many other small areas of urban Lexington. It could be part of the parking solution needed to help the city redevelop huge, underused surface lots around Rupp Arena.

Wagoner has spent two years refining these ideas with help from other development professionals: Donna Pizzuto, Harvey Helm, Ken Sallade, Jon Cheatham, Steve Graves, Mike Huston, Aaron Bivens, Joe Rasnick, Joe Nolasco, Steve Albert , Rob Wagoner, Shane Lyle, James Piper, Jonathan Rollins, Tony Barrett, Joey Svec and Matt Fleece.

Their volunteer design work includes renderings and a video presentation with three-dimensional modeling. (See below.)

Wagoner said he is open to better ideas from others. His goal in this retirement venture is not to make money, he said, but to make downtown Lexington more successful. And, perhaps, to salve some guilt from having helped create suburban developments decades ago that contributed to downtown’s decline in the first place.

“Ours is a throwaway society that consistently produces urban decay as a byproduct of suburban success,” Wagoner said. “We have no other option (but redeveloping urban areas) if we are to protect what makes us special. No other city is like ours, ringed by such a unique signature” of horse farms and natural beauty.

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

Watch this video Robert Wagoner and friends put together about the proposal:



Click here to read Tom Martin’s Q&A with Robert Wagoner.


Time to press ‘pause’ on Rupp Arena and focus on rest of plan

May 31, 2014

 tbcTown Branch Commons would create a linear downtown park along the historic path of Town Branch Creek, which was buried underground a century ago.


Almost all of the talk and controversy about Lexington’s ambitious Rupp Arena, Arts & Entertainment District plan has focused on the arena. It reminds me of the old saying about the tail wagging the dog.

Renovating Rupp Arena is the most costly piece of the plan, especially because it would involve rebuilding the adjacent convention center. The total price is estimated at $351 million.

Rupp may seem like the dog, but it’s really just the tail when you look at the big picture. The dog is more than 30 acres of under-utilized parking lots south and west of the arena.

This sea of asphalt is ripe for redevelopment. It is well-located between the central business district and the University of Kentucky campus. These vast tracts of city-owned land, if properly planned and patiently developed, could become a huge economic and civic asset.

Ground leases to developers on the High Street lot could generate millions of dollars for public improvements, such as turning the Cox Street lot into much-needed green space as part of the outstanding Town Branch Commons plan.

That is why Mayor Jim Gray and the Lexington Center board should step back, take a deep breath, and refocus their energy on the dog instead of the tail. They thought they needed to renovate Rupp Arena first to generate excitement for the rest of the plan. That seemed logical, but it hasn’t worked, for many reasons.

First, Louisville’s costly KFC Yum Center hasn’t lived up to financial expectations, making taxpayers and legislators skeptical of another big arena project. The late rollout and changing details of Rupp’s financing plan didn’t help.

Then there are legitimate questions about public priorities. Would a fancier Rupp Area be nice to have? Sure. Is it essential? No.

Another issue is the economics of replacing the convention center. The space is oddly configured with no good way to expand. But the Lexington Center Corp. still owes $18 million from the last renovation a decade ago.

This is the big question: Would the convention center generate enough more business to make it worth tearing down the current facility to build a new and bigger one? Many people are skeptical.

But the biggest roadblock to a Rupp renovation has been UK’s lack of interest. President Eli Capilouto has made it abundantly clear that he thinks UK needs new academic buildings, laboratories and residence halls more than a basketball palace.

That’s a big switch from the past. UK officials have grumbled about Rupp’s perceived shortcomings since the late 1990s and have pushed renovation or replacement schemes ever since.

If Capilouto is serious about focusing on academics instead of athletics, I say good for him. That attitude is long overdue at UK. But it means the mayor must take a new approach.

Rather than continuing to push for a Rupp renovation now, Gray should focus the city’s energy on Town Branch Commons, which will make the concrete corridor along Vine Street more inviting to people and businesses. As the 2009 renovation of Cheapside showed, smart investment in public infrastructure attracts economic development.

The mayor should push to fund infrastructure to support the emerging redevelopment of Manchester Street, the future Rupp District’s western gateway. That includes finishing Town Branch Trail and linking it to the Legacy Trail.

Most of all, Gray and the Lexington Center Corp. should quickly flesh out a long-term redevelopment plan for the 22-acre High Street lot and start making deals. A good plan will encourage good development — and prevent bad development.

For example, the High Street lot would make a much better site for LOOK Cinemas’ proposed IMAX theater complex than the historic district across Broadway it wants to build in, which would set a terrible precedent.

Redevelopment also means replacing most of those surface parking spaces with more space-efficient garages, both near Rupp and in other key spots around downtown. Dispersed garages would get more frequent use than dedicated Rupp parking, plus they would give arena audiences more reason to patronize downtown businesses rather than hopping in their cars and driving home after an event.

Rupp and the convention center must be dealt with eventually. But, as all of the controversy has shown, those plans could benefit from more thought, economic analysis and salesmanship.

Waiting a year or two on a Rupp renovation also might make UK a more willing partner. UK’s Rupp lease expires in 2018, but the Wildcats will still need a place to play basketball. Having preached academics-first, Capilouto would lose credibility if he then tried to build a costly on-campus arena.

It’s time to refocus this discussion. The real economic potential of an arena district is the district, not the arena. Transformation will not come from making good facilities better, but from turning more than 30 acres of barren asphalt into a vibrant addition to the city. Lead the dog and the tail will follow.


State Street lessons could help city, UK save other neighborhoods

April 12, 2014

StateStreetCrowds celebrate March 28 in the State Street area. Photo by Jonathan Palmer


How much longer must national acclaim on the basketball court be accompanied by national embarrassment in neighborhoods around the University of Kentucky campus?

Thanks to good preparation and policing, the mayhem on State Street after UK’s NCAA tournament games this year wasn’t as bad as in 2012. But it was still unacceptably violent and destructive.

This year’s toll is an embarrassment to both UK and Lexington: more than 60 injuries requiring treatment; more than 50 arrests; more than 125 fires, including a couple dozen couches.

“It’s a miracle that more people and property didn’t get hurt,” said Diane Lawless, who has represented that area on the Urban County Council since 2009. “This isn’t a spontaneous celebration. Goodwill says they come in and buy every piece of upholstered furniture they have. This is a planned riot, period.”

UK sports celebrations started getting out of hand in 1996, when some of the 10,000 fans gathered at Woodland and Euclid avenues to celebrate the national basketball championship smashed car windows and overturned a TV news van, which caught fire. There were fewer problems after the 1998 championship.

Things got ugly in 2007, when crowds in the student rental neighborhood around State Street celebrated UK’s football victories over Louisville and LSU by adopting West Virginia University’s noxious tradition of couch burning.

Five years later, when Kentucky beat Kansas for the NCAA championship, State Street went wild. There were dozens of injuries from fires and flying beer bottles, damaged vehicles and nearly 100 arrests.

It is worth noting that the vast majority of students and others who celebrate after UK games don’t hurt people or damage property. The crowd that partied this year along South Limestone didn’t become destructive.

The problem is that State Street is a very different kind of neighborhood. Some students and outside trouble-makers see it as a place where they can become violent and destructive without consequences.

Both UK and the city helped create this problem. Demand for student housing in recent decades led investors to buy former single-family houses in older neighborhoods around campus. Those houses were demolished and replaced by cheaply built apartment complexes, or they were fitted with barn-like additions and crammed with students. Yards were graveled for parking lots.

Some neighborhoods fought back, using tools including historic overlays to limit the damage. But State, Crescent, Elizabeth and other streets north of Waller Avenue and west of Limestone were overwhelmed. Homeowners and families that were stabilizing influences in those neighborhood fled. City officials took more than a decade to limit further damage to the neighborhoods by student-rental landlords.

UK officials made the problems worse in 1997 by banning alcohol from fraternity and sorority houses. With students essentially prohibited from drinking on campus, they rented “party houses” in adjacent neighborhoods. Social media made it easier for students to find those parties and evade police efforts to shut them down.

Police have refined their tactics, both to try to prevent destructive behavior and violence and to document lawbreaking for prosecution. From all accounts, they handled this year’s State Street mayhem as well as could be expected.

City code enforcement officers have tried to crack down on violations in student-rental neighborhoods, but sanctions remain minimal. The city also is working on better data collection and sharing methods to make it easier to spot troubling trends in neighborhoods before they become problems.

Because existing student-rental properties were grandfathered in when city restrictions were tightened, it’s hard to reverse much of the damage, said Derek Paulsen, the city’s planning commissioner.

“I hate to say State Street is lost, but when it gets to that level, about the only thing you can do is call the police in,” Paulsen said. “From a planning perspective, the question may be, how do we transition that neighborhood out of what it is now to something more productive?”

UK officials have taken some positive steps, including construction of new on-campus residence halls. Last May, President Eli Capilouto appointed a work group of UK and city officials to look at student alcohol habits and policies and their effect on the campus and surrounding neighborhoods. The group completed its report in December, but UK has not yet released its findings and recommendations.

Because sports-related mayhem is largely fueled by alcohol, UK’s next steps will be crucial. But there is more the city could do as well. These safety and town-gown issues are hardly unique to Lexington; other places have dealt with them for years. Here are some things UK and the city should consider:

■ Accept the fact that college students drink. Make campus alcohol policies more lenient in ways that teach students who choose to drink and are of legal age to do it responsibly.

■ Extend the student code of conduct to off-campus behavior, as is done with UK athletes. That would require more information-sharing and coordination between UK and the city, but students might be less likely to engage in destructive behavior off-campus if they knew the consequences would be more serious. When expectations are high, most people will rise to meet them.

■ UK, city and neighborhood residents should put more emphasis on integrating students into the neighborhoods, from social events to beautification projects. If students feel as if they belong in a neighborhood, they will be less likely to destroy it.

■ City officials and police should more aggressively channel celebrations away from State Street to South Limestone or other commercial districts, which can be more effectively policed. Maybe State Street should be closed on big game nights to people who can’t prove they live there.

■ The city must get tough with problem landlords. That could include stricter rules on zoning, building permits and code requirements, with bigger penalties for violations. There also might be ways to hold landlords accountable for tenants’ destructive behavior.

“There are some good landlords out there,” Lawless said. “But there also are a lot of student landlords who couldn’t care less except for stuffing their pockets.”

■ UK and the city should buy some houses in campus neighborhoods that are near the tipping point of too many student rentals. Those houses could be rented or sold with restrictions to faculty, staff and city employees. That would help stabilize those neighborhoods, and it would provide affordable housing for lower-paid employees near their workplaces.

“We still have some very good, viable neighborhoods around the university,” Paulsen said. “We need to learn the lessons of State Street to keep them that way.”  

Creating a city where people want to move, natives want to stay

March 29, 2014

In a 21st-century economy where jobs often follow people instead of the other way around, what assets help a city prosper?

That question has led researchers, civic and business leaders to focus on things previously considered nice but not essential: arts, culture and a sense of place that make people feel engaged and invested in their community.

Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, a dance choreographer-turned-urban planning researcher, has studied one variation on this phenomenon called “creative placemaking.”

She was here Thursday to speak at the annual Lafayette Seminar in Public Issues put on by the University of Kentucky’s Gaines Center for the Humanities. It was co-sponsored by LexArts, the McBrayer law firm, the North Limestone Community Development Corp. and Commerce Lexington.

Nicodemus has researched the economic and social vibrancy created when various community sectors — government, business, non-profit organizations and citizens groups — come together to use arts and culture to strategically shape the physical and social character of a city.

That kind of development has been happening organically in many parts of Lexington in recent years. “Lexington has become a place that people are excited about,” said Steve Kay, an Urban County council member. “This conversation couldn’t have happened five years ago.”

Three recent examples were discussed at the seminar. The first is Walker Properties’ redevelopment of National Avenue, a former light industrial street east of downtown, into a mixed-use retail, restaurant and arts district.

The second was Jefferson Street, which has blossomed into a restaurant district thanks to early investments by Wine + Market, Stella’s Deli and West Sixth Brewery. The brewery’s four partners played a big role in that, because they chose to buy a 90,000-square-foot former bread factory, now called the Bread Box. One of their challenges was figuring out what to do with all of that space.

Rather than just try to rent to other commercial tenants, Ben Self said, they wanted to foster a community of people, businesses and organizations that shared their values and vision for creating a vibrant community. He added that city regulators helped the partners cut through red tape to make it all work.

In addition to the brewery and tap room, the Bread Box now houses a non-profit bike shop, a coffee roaster, artist studios, a restaurant and an urban agriculture non-profit that grows fish and greens for the restaurant. “It just felt like the right way to do it,” Self said. “It’s a development that has a heart to it.”

Later this year, the Bread Box also will house an expanded Plantory, which has co-working space for non-profit organizations. The Plantory has outgrown its space in the Community Ventures Corp. building at East Third Street and Midland Avenue.

A third example in Lexington is the North Limestone neighborhood, where young entrepreneurs have been restoring century-old homes and commercial buildings and starting new businesses.

The North Limestone Community Development Corp. recently won a $425,000 grant from Artplace, a consortium of private foundations, banks and federal agencies that is investing in creative placemaking efforts around the country.

The money will be used to begin renovation of a former factory and 40 old shotgun houses to create studios and homes for artists and craftsmen. The idea is to turn a neighborhood liability — old buildings needing rehabilitation and occupants— into a cultural and economic asset.

An important key to creative placemaking is that, in addition to economic activity, it creates a sense of place that people find attractive. It makes a city a place where natives want to stay or return, and others want to move to.

“What we’re seeing now is a tying together of the economic and the sentimental,” said Jeff Fugate, president of the Downtown Development Authority. “That’s what’s exciting.”

For creative placemaking to reach its full potential, civic and business leaders must make sure public policy supports it and strategic thinking helps small initiatives add up to something bigger.

“It’s about bringing disparate groups together to make something special happen,” LexArts President Jim Clark said. “There is no cookie-cutter way to make a creative place. But you recognize it when you see it.”

National Provisions gives Lexington food scene a new flair

December 9, 2013


Owner Andrea Sims works behind the counter at National Boulangerie, a bakery that opened last week at the corner of National and Walton Avenues. Sims, an artist, and her husband, restaurant veteran Krim Boughalem, are renovating the former industrial building into sophisticated space with an open feel.  Photos by Tom Eblen


When Andrea Sims moved back to Lexington from New York City with her French husband, Krim Boughalem, they made waves in the local food scene by opening Wine + Market in 2008 and Table Three Ten in 2010.

Their latest venture could be more like a tsunami.

National Boulangerie, a French-inspired bakery, opened last week at the corner of National and Walton avenues. Within six months, they plan to build out the rest of their 16,000-square-foot space with a brasserie restaurant, wine shop, beer garden, grocery and oyster bar under the umbrella name National Provisions.

“Wine + Market was a perfect start for what we want to do, but the space was too small,” Boughalem said. “This is the same thing on a much bigger scale.”

The couple’s goal is to replicate aspects of traditional French cuisine and food systems, but give them a distinctly Kentucky flavor. Through volume buying, doing all of their own cooking and managing the synergies of each business to reduce waste, they hope to keep food quality high and prices affordable.

“We would like to make everything from scratch here, with ingredients from local farmers,” Sims said. “We’re trying to get back to the old-fashioned idea of food.”

131203Boulangerie0078Plans include brewing small batches of their own beer for the beer garden. The wine shop will include a tap so customers can bring their own containers to fill. Boughalem also plans to sell seafood wholesale to other restaurants.

“A traditional French brasserie has a theme, the region where it is located,” he said. “Our theme will be the Bluegrass, so we will mix French bread and pastries with biscuits and gravy, chicken and dumplings.”

National Provisions is housed in a turn-of-the-century industrial building the couple has leased long-term from Walker Properties, which is redeveloping National Avenue as mixed-use commercial zone. This building’s previous uses included a bottling plant and tile shop.

“We had noticed the building driving by and just loved it,” Sims said. “When it came available, we had just opened Table Three Ten and weren’t even settled in there. But we went ahead and got it because the building and location were just perfect for us.”

Only minutes from downtown, National Provisions is nestled between the increasingly affluent Bell Court, Mentelle and Kenwick neighborhoods and the busy corridor where Midland Avenue becomes Winchester Road.

Boughalem, 47, who had nearly two decades of restaurant experience in New York and London before moving to Lexington, spent two years scouring eBay and auctions for used restaurant equipment and fixtures.

The couple has assembled a huge commercial kitchen that will be the engine of their enterprise. Brian Surbaugh, executive chef at Table Three Ten, heads a five-person staff that is getting the kitchen up and running.

Sims, 44, redesigned the cavernous building into elegantly casual space with an open floor plan and lots of natural light. Red steel frames of glass will divide the beer garden and wine shop — and give patrons a full view of the kitchen.

The bakery’s exposed ceiling beams have been painted bright red. Counters and tables were made from pink Norwegian marble bought at a bargain price. Sims spent countless hours painting a faux-marble finish on the walls — an old-world skill she learned while studying art in France.

A year after opening Table Three Ten on West Short Street at Cheapside, the couple sold Wine + Market, at the corner of West Second and Jefferson streets, to Renee and Seth Brewer, who also own the nearby Enoteca wine bar. Boughalem and Sims plan to keep Table Three Ten.

National Boulangerie is open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day. Once the restaurant, beer garden and wine shop open, operating hours will extend to midnight.

The market will be the most unusual aspect of the couple’s plan. They expect it to open by late spring, selling fresh local meat and produce, fresh seafood and European cheeses, meats and specialty foods.

Boughalem and Sims think they will find plenty of customers, thanks to the growing popularity of fresh, local food and TV cooking shows that are turning more people into “foodies.”

The market also will offer prepared, ready-to-eat meals, which Boughalem thinks will appeal to people who want gourmet food but lack the time or skill to prepare it. “People are getting used to buying more quality,” he said. “For many, good food is a luxury they can afford.”

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

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

March 10, 2013


 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.


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

January 7, 2013

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turfland Mall was purchased last month for redevelopment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among other prominent Lexington parcels ready for redevelopment:

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

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

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

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

Bluegrass PRIDE marks decade of a cleaner region

September 17, 2011

As a Boy Scout in the 1970s, I spent several weekends helping cleanup crews haul decades worth of junk out of streams and woods throughout Central Kentucky.

I couldn’t understand why people would trash such beautiful places. Did they not know any better? Were there not more environmentally friendly ways to get rid of stuff?

Things have improved since then, but not without a lot of hard work.

One organization behind much of that hard work is Bluegrass PRIDE, which celebrates its 10th anniversary Saturday with a bluegrass concert featuring JD Crowe and the New South and Balsam Range. (The show begins at 7:30 p.m. at the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall. For details and tickets, visit

Bluegrass PRIDE — the acronym stands for Personal Responsibility in a Desirable Environment — is an 18-county non-profit organization modeled after a similar PRIDE organization that works in 38 counties in eastern and southern Kentucky.

Bluegrass PRIDE has facilitated a lot of cleanup projects with more than $1 million in grants over the past decade, many secured with help from Central Kentucky’s congressmen over that period, Republican Ernie Fletcher and Democrat Ben Chandler.

“The grants were much-needed,” said Executive Director Amy Sohner, who directs Bluegrass PRIDE’s staff of 16 from a bare-bones office in suburban Lexington. “They allowed communities to do a lot of things that needed to get done.”

More recently, though, the organization has shifted its focus to environmental education. “We try to help average people learn about small changes they can make that could make a big difference in improving the environment,” Sohner said.

Among those activities: litter reduction and cleanup; recycling of hazardous household waste; road and stream cleanup projects; helping individuals, businesses and cities learn how to build rain gardens to reduce storm runoff; and selling rain barrels to recycle water.

“With rain barrels, we’ve almost put ourselves out of a job,” Sohner said. “We used to be one of the few places that had them. Now, even Sam’s Club sells them.”

Among other things, Bluegrass PRIDE figures it has helped Central Kentuckians recycle 1,200 pounds of batteries and 4,200 cellphones, and properly dispose of 77,500 gallons of old paint.

Much of Bluegrass PRIDE’s funding now comes from Lexington’s government, which has hired the organization to manage the Live Green Lexington Partner Program. That effort enlisted 350 businesses, 130 apartment complexes and 100 schools in a variety of environmental activities that range from proper disposal of used cooking oil to helping the Fayette County Public Schools save $4,600 a month in trash fees through increased recycling.

Bluegrass PRIDE has worked with more than 230 schools throughout the region on environmental education tied to core-content curriculum. It also has furnished home-energy audit kits that Lexington residents can check out from public libraries. The kits include equipment to identify energy loss in homes to save energy — and money.

As Bluegrass PRIDE begins its second decade, Sohner hopes to spread many of the projects pioneered in Lexington throughout the region. She also hopes to use unpaid coordinators in each county to identify local needs the organization can help fill.

“I feel like we do a very good job in Lexington,” Sohner said. “But I really want to be able to serve our other 17 counties more.”

Fayette Alliance’s fifth

While Central Kentuckians have become better at cleaning up after themselves, they also have learned that suburban sprawl is bad for the environment — not to mention taxpayers, who must pay for construction and maintenance of far-flung infrastructure.

Next month marks the fifth anniversary of the Fayette Alliance, a non-profit organization that has made a big difference in reducing sprawl and promoting better land-use management in Lexington.

The Fayette Alliance celebrates its anniversary Oct. 6 with a party from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at its office, 603 West Short Street in Lexington. The event is free and open to the public.

In addition to refreshments and birthday cake, artist Bill Fletcher will be painting a special work that will be auctioned at a future event to benefit the Fayette Alliance.

New BCTC campus could change north Lexington

August 16, 2011
Gov. Steve Beshear, P.G. Peeples, chairman of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System and Augusta Julian, president of Bluegrass Community and Technical College, talk at the groundbreaking Monday for BCTC's new campus on the old Eastern State Hospital site. Photo by Tom Eblen

Gov. Steve Beshear, left, P.G. Peeples, chairman of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, and Augusta Julian, president of Bluegrass Community and Technical College, at the groundbreaking for the first building on BCTC's new campus. Photo by Tom Eblen

As he spoke at the ground-breaking ceremony Monday for Bluegrass Community and Technical College‘s new campus, P.G. Peeples tried not to get emotional.

Peeples is the longtime chief executive of Lexington’s Urban League and the new Board of Regents chairman for the college’s parent organization, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.

But Peeples explained that in 1964 he was the teenaged son of a black coal miner in Harlan County, and he was determined to become one of the first in his family to earn a college degree. He began at the only college he could afford, the only one near his home: Southeast Community College.

Peeples finished his degree at the University of Kentucky. Then, in 1969, he began his Urban League career in the predominantly black neighborhood just west of BCTC’s new campus, which for nearly two centuries has been Eastern State Hospital.

“This is an exciting day,” Peeples said. The new campus will bring affordable higher education closer to that neighborhood, he said, “And it will be an economic driver for the north side of Lexington – a section of town that has been historically neglected.”

The ground-breaking crowd included Gov. Steve Beshear, more than a dozen legislators, four city council members and Lexington’s current and previous mayors. They were there to celebrate an ingenious state land swap engineered three years ago by state Rep. Jimmie Lee of Elizabethtown.

Lee came up with the idea while trying to figure out a way to build a new facility for Eastern State. Built in 1816 as only the nation’s second public mental hospital, the antiquated facility has needed replacing for decades. Lee worked with the governor, legislators, UK officials and former Mayor Jim Newberry to make it happen.

Eastern State is moving a few miles north on Newtown Pike to UK’s Coldstream Research Campus, which has struggled to find tenants. BCTC is moving from the southern edge of UK’s campus, giving the university expansion space. In its new location, BCTC will be a busy anchor that could revitalize a huge swath of north Lexington between Broadway and Georgetown Streets.

The new state mental hospital under construction at Coldstream is to be finished by December 2012. The first of what BCTC hopes will be at least 15 state-funded buildings is to open in the spring 2013.

“This campus will be a beacon for a brighter future for many Kentucky families,” Beshear said, noting the need to educate and retrain workers for a rapidly changing economy.

The neighborhoods and shabby industrial areas around the old, fenced-off Eastern State property are buzzing with speculators because of the expected demand for new commercial and residential development around the campus. The area is a logical path of growth for the restaurant district emerging along Jefferson Street.

“I think this campus will revitalize and add a great deal of energy to this part of town,” said Vice Mayor Linda Gorton. “Think of the thousands of people who will be coming and going from here every day. It’s another piece of the puzzle of this whole end of town sort of being renovated.”

BCTC President Augusta Julian recognized three years ago how important the new campus would be to Lexington. She hired top-notch talent, both locally and nationally, to design the campus and begin engaging local stakeholders in planning how it would affect the surrounding area.

As those plans are starting to materialize, much remains to be done. City and state transportation planners are working on several issues, such as returning Fourth Street to two-way traffic and planning a connection to the Legacy Trail for bicycle commuters.

The state Heritage Council is trying to secure funding or create public-private partnerships to restore two historic Eastern State buildings. The city needs to get moving on rezoning nearby industrial property so privately funded mixed use development can get under way.

“We are absolutely thrilled about the future implications this is going to have on the community,” said Seth Brewer, president of the Northside Neighborhood Association, which covers historic residential areas to the east and south of the new campus. “It really could be huge.”

Shoveling ceremonial dirt Monday at the groundbreaking for the first building of the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus at the old Eastern State Hospital site are, left to right, state Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, state Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, Gov. Steve Beshear, BCTC President Augusta Julian, KCTCS Chancellor Jay Box, KCTCS Chairman P.G. Peeples of the Urban League and Mayor Jim Gray. Photo by Tom Eblen

Shoveling ceremonial dirt are, left to right, state Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, state Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, Gov. Steve Beshear, BCTC President Augusta Julian, KCTCS Chancellor Jay Box, KCTCS Chairman P.G. Peeples of the Urban League and Mayor Jim Gray. Photo by Tom Eblen

Couple fight to keep road from destroying home

August 14, 2011

ELIZABETHTOWN — After an eight-year battle to save the family home where she was born, Pat McGehee and husband Richard are hurrying to pack their belongings, and have their house, garage and barn jacked up and moved to the other side of their farm.

The smokehouse and chicken coop have been moved, and the windmill is ready to go. The McGehees hope they can get it all done before the Hardin County sheriff arrives with an eviction notice and the state Transportation Cabinet comes with a bulldozer.

The McGehee home is in the path of a $20 million project to extend Elizabethtown’s Ring Road two miles, from U.S. 62 to the Western Kentucky Parkway. Hardin County officials call the road essential for Elizabethtown’s future. But a judge in Frankfort called it “patently unnecessary” and a “political add-on” to the state’s 2008 road plan.

The McGehees have argued that the road’s route could be shifted slightly to go through the open field in front of their home and outbuildings or the open field behind them. The state refused.

It also hasn’t mattered that the McGehees got the property listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a rare, little-changed example of a Depression-era Kentucky farm complex. It also was notable because the farm was run by a woman, Fannie Harrison, who was Pat McGehee’s great-aunt.

“It’s so unnecessary for the road to go through us,” said Richard McGehee, a retired state environmental inspector.

For Pat McGehee, a retired teacher, it is also heartbreaking. “This is everything to me,” she said. “It’s family. It’s home.”

Ring Road loops from U.S. 62 around Elizabethtown, but local officials want to extend it a little farther on each end — connecting on the east to Interstate 65 and on the west to the Western Kentucky Parkway. The extension would reduce truck traffic through Elizabethtown, they say. And it would open farmland for commercial and industrial development.

When the route for the west extension was announced in 2001, it went through the field in front of the McGehees’ farm. Later, though, the route was changed to go through the McGehees’ home. The couple objected, but officials wouldn’t budge. So they filed suit in Franklin Circuit Court in Frankfort, challenging the state’s right to condemn their property on grounds that the road was unnecessary.

After reviewing evidence, Judge Phillip Shepherd agreed with the McGehees but said he lacked jurisdiction. “The testimony and legislative history of the six-year road plan established that this project has never been supported by any traffic or engineering study by the Department of Highways,” Shepherd wrote in his opinion. “Rather, it was a political add-on.”

Hardin County judges saw things differently, and the state Court of Appeals agreed that the state had the right to condemn the property. The state Supreme Court declined to review the case.

The McGehees’ attorney, Hank Graddy of Midway, also argues that the Transportation Cabinet and Army Corps of Engineers haven’t done reviews of the road’s effect on streams it would cross. The state responded, he said, by adding several hundred thousand dollars to the project for bridges to avoid a review.

The state says the current route through the McGehees’ farm is necessary because the original route in front of their house is in a flood plain.

As the McGehees run out of options, they have begun investing about $50,000 to move their home and outbuildings to the other side of their farm, where they would be flanked by the new road and the parkway.

The couple would lose only eight of their farm’s 85 acres before the road turns off their property — but it is the eight acres where all of their buildings were. A court-appointed commissioner valued the property at $260,000.

A trial is scheduled for October to determine compensation. The McGehees want more money, Graddy said, and the state has indicated it wants to pay less.

The McGehees’ last hope is the property’s recent historical designation. They have asked the National Trust for Historic Preservation to petition the court to intervene. The group Preservation Kentucky is trying to drum up public support.

“It’s a sad situation,” said Rachel Kennedy, Preservation Kentucky’s executive director. “Every time I show somebody the map of how the road would go right through a National Trust property, they say, ‘Who hates these people?'”

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.”

Best time in a long time to guide Lexington’s growth

May 11, 2011

Lexington leaders have taken a significant first step in the latest round of planning for growth and prosperity. Now, it is time for them and everyone else to get involved in taking the next steps.

The mayor, most Urban County Council and Planning Commission members and representatives of the Home Builders Association and Commerce Lexington announced April 26 that they all agreed there is no need to expand the Urban Services Boundary in the foreseeable future.

That was a big step because it eliminated a divisive issue that has dominated previous updates of Lexington’s comprehensive land-use plan. Who can forget the bumper-sticker war of the 1990s: “Growth is Good” vs. “Growth Destroys Bluegrass Forever.” With the process no longer framed by a false choice of extremes, Lexington can now deal with the more complex reality.

A lot else has changed since the last plan update in 2006. The economy, housing market and lending environment are in serious slumps. We also know more than we did five years ago about the larger issues shaping Lexington’s future. And there is more expertise on these issues in the mayor’s office and council chambers than Lexington has ever seen before.

Officials say there are 6,700 vacant acres available for development inside the Urban Services Boundary, and perhaps an additional 6,000 acres suitable for redevelopment. “We have to be very sophisticated about how we use this land,” said Knox van Nagell, executive director of the Fayette Alliance, a group started in 2006 to promote good land use and rural preservation.

Two city task forces focusing on “infill and re development” and downtown “design excellence” have been working on proposed changes to those rules, and their chairmen say priorities are being set and recommendations will be made later this year.

Planners and developers also have better information to work with, thanks to a housing market study the city commissioned in 2008. It showed how development needs for the next two decades, when Lexington is expected to add an additional 50,000 residents, will be much different than in the past few decades.

Demand for the kind of residential development that has dominated in Lexington for decades — single-family, suburban homes with yards — is diminishing, and not just because buyers looking for that kind of home can get more for their money in surrounding counties.

Many aging baby boomers and their children want high-quality density: in-town, mixed-use neighborhoods where they can go places by walking or biking and not just driving a car.

The study also noted a serious shortage of affordable housing, which will become a bigger issue as global demand pushes gasoline prices higher. BUILD, a coalition of Lexington churches, has proposed creating a trust fund to help developers build affordable housing, a strategy effective in other cities. But city officials have been cool to the tax increase BUILD suggested, and other ways to raise several million dollars to start the fund haven’t been found.

There are other good ideas out there, too. The Fayette Alliance wants the city to create a land bank and vacant land commission — such as Louisville has — to streamline the process of private redevelopment of vacant and blighted land.

Ken Silvestri, a real estate broker whose recent deals include Southland Christian Church’s acquisition of the blighted former Lexington Mall site, has a few ideas, too.

He would like the city to assemble a database of land available for redevelopment, along with information about ownership and zoning. More analysis should be done about the “highest and best use” of available sites. And a more streamlined process for permits and approvals would make Lexington more attractive to developers and companies looking to bring jobs here, he said.

But just as the old bumper-sticker war presented a false set of extreme choices, Silvestri thinks Lexington can both encourage development and maintain high standards.

“When you set out to do things right, to do things that are first-class and sustainable, it’s always a better model,” he said.

Good news for CentrePointe — and Lexington

April 30, 2011

Good things can come from bad times. Consider two recent examples in Lexington.

The first was the announcement Tuesday by the mayor, most Urban County Council members, land preservationist groups and the Home Builders Association that there is no need any time soon to expand the 53-year-old Urban Service Boundary.

That is good news — and a big deal. Lexington’s periodic review of its comprehensive land-use plan is usually dominated by a bitter fight over whether to open more irreplaceable farmland for development.

Because the demand for new homes is so weak, the fight won’t happen this time. That will allow Lexington’s leaders to focus on making the highest and best use of the 6,700 acres available for development or redevelopment inside the boundary.

“A sour economy has brought Lexington a sweet planning opportunity,” said Councilman Bill Farmer, chairman of the council’s planning committee.

It is a perfect opportunity to come up with better ways for Lexington to grow and prosper without destroying more of the precious natural resource — the unique rural landscape — that makes the Bluegrass special.

We should use this opportunity to create better planning and zoning mechanisms to encourage neighborhood revitalization and the restoration and reuse of old buildings and high-quality new construction, especially downtown. Councilman Tom Blues is leading a “design excellence” task force looking at many of these issues.

“It’s very complicated,” said Knox van Nagell, executive director of the Fayette Alliance, a land preservation group. “But we’ve got to make it easier for developers to do the right thing in the city.”

A second good thing to come out of this bad economy is the latest news about Dudley Webb’s CentrePointe project. It is not only good, it could be great, both for the developer and for Lexington.

In March 2008, Webb and property owner Joe Rosenberg unveiled plans to tear down some of Lexington’s oldest commercial buildings to construct a generic skyscraper that would house a luxury hotel, high-priced condominiums, stores, restaurants and offices. The historic buildings were demolished, but Webb was unable to finance CentrePointe. The two-acre block is now a vacant lot.

Webb recently hired one of the world’s best up-and-coming architects to help him re-imagine CentrePointe. Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang in Chicago has designed acclaimed projects all over the world, including Chicago’s new Aqua building.

Studio Gang is one of the best three or four firms Webb could have hired for this project, said Michael Speaks, dean of the University of Kentucky College of Design. “They are good and smart and have built a lot of big things already,” he said. “They have a light touch, but their designs are very beautiful.”

When I contacted Gang recently, she said the work is under way but she isn’t ready to talk about it. I can’t wait to see what she and her associates come up with. I suspect it will be very different from three earlier CentrePointe designs, which featured boxy towers.

“We’re mostly brought in to think about something differently,” Gang told Herald-Leader reporter Beverly Fortune, who first reported her hiring April 8. Gang said she likes to design buildings that emphasize a city’s sense of place.

During the go-go years that led to the real estate bubble and financial crisis, developers could make money building almost anything. No more. To attract financing and tenants, CentrePointe must be something special — an exciting place where businesses and people want to be. What if, for example, the design could find ways to reference Lexington’s rich 19th century architectural heritage with a unique, contemporary twist?

CentrePointe also must address a different market than Webb envisioned three years ago. A 200-plus-room J.W. Marriott hotel? Doubtful. This market is more likely to support a boutique hotel half that size — ideally one that offers a unique experience like, say, Louisville’s 21C Museum Hotel.

Just imagine what world-class architecture that meets the needs of a changed market could do for Lexington. Based on her work, Gang is capable of creating something very special — something that could transform CentrePointe from a liability into an asset.

Mayoral forums highlight development views

July 21, 2010

The two Jims from Barren County who are vying to be the next mayor of Lexington have so many similar goals that it has been hard for some voters to choose between them. They both want to create jobs, improve the quality of life and create a more vibrant economy.

But when it comes to urban planning, downtown development and historic preservation issues, the approaches of Mayor Jim Newberry and Vice Mayor Jim Gray are quite different. That was obvious in separate presentations to the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation. Newberry spoke to the group June 15; Gray took his turn Tuesday.

Jim Newberry

Jim Newberry

Newberry articulated a generally laissez faire approach to development, within current city law. He rejected the “bully pulpit” approach that mayors such as Joe Riley of Charleston, S.C., have used to protect historic buildings and ensure that high-profile developments are high in quality and compatible with their surroundings.

A lawyer, Newberry expressed skepticism about proposals for downtown design guidelines or a professional architecture-review process, such as Columbus, Ohio, and other cities have. He seemed wary of processes that could be subjective or infringe on property owners’ rights. “I am well aware that the devil is in the details of how those things work,” he said.

Newberry has had a cool relationship with preservationists because he has tended to see historic preservation as an impediment to economic development more than a tool for achieving it.

Gray, a builder who heads Lexington-based Gray Construction Co., outlined a much different philosophy. He said that if elected mayor, he would create a commissioner-level job to manage the city’s planning, preservation and economic innovation efforts and recruit “the best talent in America” to fill it.

“Preservation is essential because it preserves our brand, our uniqueness, our authentic sense of place,” Gray said.

Jim Gray

Jim Gray

In addition to preserving and creatively reusing old buildings, Gray said he would use his influence as mayor to encourage outstanding contemporary architecture. Lexington needs a combination of the two, he said, to create the quality of life and economic climate that will create jobs and prosperity.

“I have been outspoken in my support of design guidelines,” Gray said. “Unlike the mayor, I believe we must do better in planning and developing our downtown. I have seen better” in other cities, where he has managed major construction projects for more than three decades.

“We do a lot of work in other places, and I know there are better planning models, better development models, better building inspection and enforcement models,” he said. “Where bureaucratic red tape is less, decisions are better, preservation and growth coexist, and outcomes are outstanding.”

Gray’s decision to run for mayor grew largely out of Newberry’s support for the now-stalled CentrePointe project, in which a downtown block that included several historically and architecturally significant buildings was cleared. The developer’s mysterious financing never materialized. Two years later, the block is a grassy field and likely to remain that way for some time.

Gray was critical — and perceptively accurate — about flaws in CentrePointe’s economic model, and the development’s uninspired architecture and the destruction of old buildings that could have been restored and reused. “When we destroy what gives us our identity, we destroy future opportunities for economic vitality,” he said.

“The leadership on these issues starts at the top … so we don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over,” Gray said, adding that more urban design and architectural expertise was needed on the city’s planning staff.

Both Newberry and Gray strongly support rural land preservation and the Purchase of Development Rights program, and they both are wary of expanding the Urban Services Boundary.

Not long ago, rural preservation was controversial in Lexington because many people thought the only way to have economic growth was to keep developing the way the city had always developed. Now, of course, most people recognize the economic benefits of protecting Lexington’s unique horse farm landscape.

Lexington’s signature landscape has never just been about natural beauty, but a unique combination of the natural and built environments, both on horse farms and in town. Protecting the best we have, and making sure new development sets a high standard, will be key to future prosperity. It is too important to be left to chance.

What do you think of CentrePointe’s new design?

June 9, 2010

Developer Dudley Webb today unveiled a redesign of his stalled CentrePointe hotel-condo-restaurant-retail project, which would go in the downtown pasture bounded by Main, Limestone, Upper and Vine streets. Herald-Leader reporter Beverly Fortune has a full report on it here.

While the design still seems uninspired, it looks better to me than the previous one. It is 10 stories shorter, is more classic and isn’t so “Pointe.”  (Although the giant flag pole reminds me of industrial buildings from the late 1800s, and certain modern gas stations.)  Still, given global economic conditions and trends, I don’t expect to see it rising out of the pasture anytime soon.

What do you think of the new design?  Comment below.

Why CentrePasture must be redeveloped well

December 20, 2009

Efforts to build the 35-story CentrePointe tower seem to be as dead as developer Dudley Webb’s mysterious financier.

Since the project stalled more than a year ago, CentrePointe has become the ultimate Lexington irony: a block developed for more than two centuries that has been cleared, planted in grass and fenced like a horse farm.

As CentrePointe became CentrePit and then CentrePasture, I received many calls and e-mail messages from readers with ideas for what that block in the center of Lexington should become.

Some wanted to see it remain a grassy park — sans fence — or planted in trees or even vegetable gardens. Others would like to see the next herd of Horse Mania statues graze there during the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. My younger daughter thinks it would be a great place to give pony rides.

Conspiracy theorists have whispered that the block was always intended to become the new federal courthouse or local government center. The strangest rumor I’ve heard? A casino will go there if the General Assembly allows them.

CentrePointe never made much economic sense, even before the real estate bubble burst. Hotel people doubt Lexington can support a J.W. Marriott. Real estate people question the market for 91 million-dollar condos.

But I think a big reason CentrePointe has drawn public ire is that its design just isn’t good enough to be Lexington’s centerpiece. Renderings make the tower look massive, generic and out-of-place — a monument to a developer’s edifice complex.

Earlier this month, I attended a presentation by some University of Kentucky landscape architecture students who re-imaged the 1.7-acre block for a class project. Their concepts were thoughtful and engaging.

The designs called for clusters of buildings, with no tower taller than 15 stories. The students factored in the block’s surroundings and patterns of sunlight and shade. They included creative use of open space, water features and roof gardens.

In a grander academic exercise, the UK College of Design brought in prominent architects for a 48-hour workshop in July 2008 that produced three fascinating redesign concepts for CentrePointe. Traditionalists giggled and gasped.

But if Webb wanted to make a bold statement about himself as a developer and Lexington as a city, iconic architecture would get the world’s attention.

I saw a great example of that when I went to Spain recently. People from all over the world have come to Bilbao, an out-of-the-way industrial city, to see Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao since it opened in 1997. It is a magnet that the Basque government estimates has pulled more than $2 billion into the local economy.

There are many more modest examples, including several close to home. Michael Graves’ 1985 Humana Building brought a lot of attention to Louisville. Daniel Libeskind’s 2008 condo tower, Ascent at Roebling’s Bridge, is doing the same for Covington.

Webb and landowner Joe Rosenberg have millions tied up in the CentrePointe block. Once the economy improves, something important is sure to be built there. Something important needs to be; it’s Lexington’s best development site.

I just hope that whatever is built is a long-term success. We sure don’t need what Don Blevins Jr., the Fayette County clerk and former Urban County Council member, warned could become “a vertical Lexington Mall right in the heart of downtown.”

I also hope that Webb — or whoever ends up developing the property for whatever purpose — hires a great architect to create something of lasting esthetic value.

Lexington hasn’t paid much attention to architecture in a very long time. Good design just hasn’t been part of our civic conversation. Whatever was profitable for developers was good enough for us. The more conventional — and boring — the better.

CentrePointe seems to have changed the civic conversation. I now hear people talk about how great design could help make Lexington more economically successful and a more interesting place to live. I hope the talk continues — and leads to an urban landscape that is as special as the rural landscape that surrounds it.

Skyline (apologies to Joyce Kilmer, Ogden Nash)

November 23, 2009
Corner of Woodland and Euclid, Lexington. Photo by Tom Eblen

Corner of Woodland and Euclid, Lexington. Photo by Tom Eblen

I think that I shall never see

a utility pole lovely as a tree.

Ash trees not treated will die and fall down,

but we’ll still have these things

covering our town

Lexington could learn from Louisville’s 21C

October 20, 2009

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 May 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?