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

February 15, 2015

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

January 27, 2015

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

080618CentrePointeBlockTE018

 


Facade, light show dress up Lexington’s ugliest parking garage

August 19, 2014

140818Helix-TE0025The Helix Garage downtown got a facade of lights to help mask the fact that it is one of Lexington’s ugliest buildings. Photo by Tom Eblen

Lexington tore down one of its most elegant public buildings in 1960 and replaced it with two of the ugliest — a parking garage and the office building now occupied by the Fayette County clerk.

So the new façade and colorful light display on Helix Garage on East Main Street at Martin Luther King Boulevard is a big improvement.

That corner was previously the site of Union Station, which opened in 1907. The imposing brick railroad terminal had a big center lobby and an arched stained-glass window over the front doors.

The last passenger train pulled out of Union Station on May 9, 1957. Three years later, the station was demolished and replaced by the garage — a powerful statement about changes in the way Americans travel.

The garage, originally built for the nearby Stewart’s department store, was never a thing of beauty. But it was literally falling apart when the Lexington and Fayette County Parking Authority (LexPark) put $3.1 million into a structural renovation last year.

LexPark realized the 389-space garage, with its low ceilings and dark interior, also needed a marketing makeover to attract customers and support downtown revitalization.

The name was changed from Annex Garage to Helix Garage, after the shape of the exit ramp that has terrorized generations of teenagers who had to drive down it with a state trooper in their passenger’s seat to earn their driver’s license. (I’ve always wondered how many people flunk their driving test before they even reach the street.)

LexPark spent $40,000 to improve interior lighting. But Gary Means, the authority’s executive director, said more was needed “to cover up what’s a really ugly parking garage in a prominent spot on Main Street.”

Vincent Lighting Systems of Erlanger installed $100,000 worth of colorful, energy-efficient LED lighting on the helix ramp. To improve the façade along Main Street, LexPark chose a design by Pohl Rosa Pohl architects, which worked with Vincent Lighting, Green Giant Lighting of Lexington, Randy Walker Electric of Lexington and ProClad metal of Noblesville, Ind.

That façade, finished last month, is stunning, especially during the nightly light show. (It cost $180,000. Like the other garage improvements, it was paid for with parking revenues, not taxpayer money.)

“The existing building was a concrete frame and little more,” said architect Graham Pohl, who worked on the project with colleague Adam Wiseman. They designed a skin using a steel frame and corrugated plates of various shapes, which house the LED lights.

Means said lighting designers are about finished with computer programming that will allow the garage façade to do a lot more than we have seen so far. He envisions elaborate light displays to the beat of music during the annual Thriller parade and other special effects for downtown festivals.

“At the end of the day, it’s marketing,” said Means, noting that many garage spaces go unused at night by downtown bar and restaurant patrons. “When people start talking about ‘that cool garage with the lights,’ they’ll start using it more.”


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.

 


Building movie complex in historic district would set bad precedent

March 1, 2014

House1The theater developer’s plans call for moving the John Lowman House from the West High Street bluff, where it has been since 1808. Photos by Charles Bertram.

 

The good news is that a proposed 10-theater IMAX movie and restaurant complex would be a great addition to downtown Lexington. The bad news is that the developer wants to build it in the wrong place.

Dallas-based Look Cinemas is proposing this huge complex for the southeast corner of West High Street and South Broadway. The site is within one of Lexington’s most significant historic districts, which homeowners have painstakingly restored after decades of demolition, abuse and neglect.

If city officials approve Look’s plan without substantial changes, it could undo a half-century of preservation efforts and undermine legal protections for all 15 Lexington historic districts.

Look has yet to make a formal application to the city, but it has been working on the project for a year. It has met with the South Hill neighborhood and others to try to address concerns and minimize the impact on adjacent homes.

The complex is well-designed, but it is too massive for that location. It fills virtually the entire one-acre site and rises as high as 70 feet above street level. Plans would require moving a 206-year-old house that is one of the last remaining on the High Street bluff.

At an informal design review last Wednesday, the three architects and one engineer who serve on the city’s Board of Architectural Review made it clear that this project, as now envisioned, meets none of the legal guidelines for construction in a Lexington historic district.

Board members all but rejected the developer’s plan to move the 1808 John Lowman House a half-mile away to the Western Suburb historic district. They also expressed skepticism about moving it within South Hill to one of two parking lots across from Dudley Square at Mill and Maxwell streets.

Board members noted that much of the house’s historic significance has to do with its location on High Street. They also expressed concern about the movie complex’s proximity to the 1895 George Lancaster House on South Broadway. Both houses are some of the last examples of the 19th century mansions that once lined both streets in that neighborhood.

Board member Graham Pohl, an architect, said moving the Lowman House off High Street is a “non-starter,” and he warned that this entire plan has serious implications beyond South Hill. “It sets a terrible precedent for every historic district in town,” he said.

Indeed, this would be the first case of moving a house in a historic district since the early 1980s, when legal protections were more lax. A few houses were moved before city historic districts were created, to keep them from being demolished. They include the circa 1784 Adam Rankin House, Lexington’s oldest house, which was moved off High Street to South Mill Street, directly behind where Look Cinemas now wants to build.

“This area has been gnawed on since the ’60s,” said board member Sarah Tate, an architect. “I think there’s a time when you just have to say, ‘Stop. This neighborhood can’t be infringed on anymore.'”

Here’s what Tate was referring to: When Rupp Arena and Lexington Center were built 40 years ago, most of the historic South Hill neighborhood was demolished to create a massive parking that lot city officials now want to redevelop. The fraction of the neighborhood that remained was given city historic district protection.

Most of those old buildings have since been restored into valuable, owner-occupied homes and condos. Many South Hill structures date from the early 1800s and are architecturally significant. If this incursion is allowed, what will be next?

The Board of Architectural Review is unlikely to approve Look’s plan unless the 1808 house stays and the cinema complex gets smaller. But the board could be overruled by the Planning Commission, which is more susceptible to economic and political pressures. That would be a tragedy.

The good news is that there is a much better site for this complex: across South Broadway on the huge city-owned parking lot where the rest of the South Hill neighborhood once stood.

Look Cinemas’ complex is just the kind of private development Mayor Jim Gray wants and needs on that lot to help pay for the proposed $328 million renovation of Rupp Arena and Lexington Center.

Look officials told the board they prefer their site, in part because the Rupp redevelopment process is still in its early stages. They said they can’t wait. Developers always say they can’t wait.

Here is what needs to happen: City officials must quickly figure out how to speed up their process and relocate Look Cinemas to the Rupp lot or some other downtown site. What they cannot do is further damage South Hill and risk setting a precedent that could jeopardize the investments made in all Lexington historic districts.

Yes, downtown needs new development like Look Cinemas. But Lexington will never “save” downtown by continuing to destroy the irreplaceable historic fabric that makes it unique.  

lotDevelopers hope to build an IMAX theater in this block bounded by West High Street at the bottom, South Mill Street on the left, and South Broadway on the right. 


Lexington’s Fayette Cigar Store a downtown retail survivor

February 10, 2014

140206FayetteCigar0060

Fayette Cigar Store has been at 137 E. Main St. since Dale Ferguson bought the building in 1977. He resisted attempts by the city to buy the building when it purchased other property on the block, which now includes the Fayette County Court Houses, left, and the Downtown Arts Center, right. Below, Ferguson and a daughter, Dee Bright. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

With all of the talk about the need to attract retailers back to downtown Lexington, I thought it would be good to talk with one who never left.

Dale Ferguson, 75, and his family have been selling newspapers, magazines, tobacco products and sundries downtown since 1928.

That was the year his father, H.C. Ferguson, opened a newsstand on Mill Street. Soon after World War II started, he bought Fayette Cigar Store at 151 West Main Street “when the owner got drafted,” Ferguson said.

When that building was scheduled for a renovation that would have forced him to close for several months, Dale Ferguson bought a bigger building at 137 East Main in 1977 and moved the business. Fayette Cigar Store has been there ever since, despite the best efforts of developers and city officials to buy his property.

Surrounding buildings were bought in the 1980s for a proposed World Trade Center and cultural complex. Eventually, the new Fayette County Court House complex was built on his west side and the Downtown Arts Center on his east side.

At one point, Ferguson said, he agreed to city requests to swap his building for a similar one in the next block, but financial terms couldn’t be reached with its owner. So Ferguson stayed put, through thick and thin, trying to make a living on his 32-foot-long slice of Main Street.

140206FayetteCigar0023Ferguson’s three-story building dates from 1864, with central and rear sections added in the early 1900s. Before he bought the building, bookies operated in the upper floors, which was connected to an adjacent building by a hole in the wall. Now, the upper floors are accessed by an antique elevator.

Modern fire codes would keep Ferguson from using the upper floors for anything but storage and an office unless he could figure out a way to build a staircase.

“That stops a lot of downtown development,” he said, “A lot of these old buildings don’t have fire escapes.”

Ferguson said making Main Street one-way in 1971 hurt business, as did eliminating more and more street parking over the years.

“It was a mistake to do it,” he said of the one-way conversion, but added that he isn’t convinced making Main Street two-way again would do much good. “It’s too late.”

A bigger improvement, he said, would be adding more street parking, preferably angled or perpendicular spaces that would be easier for people to use and accommodate more cars.

During the last streetscape renovation in 2010, Ferguson lost a loading zone in front of his store, which hurt business.

“People would pull up, run in and buy a $200 box of cigars, and be gone in a few minutes,” he said. “They can’t do that anymore.”

But the biggest obstacle Ferguson sees to getting more retailers back in downtown Lexington is high per-square-foot rents.

“If I didn’t own my building, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I blame a lot of it on the Webbs, who overpaid for property and then had to get a return on their investment.” But the biggest problem, Ferguson said, is that too few people work downtown — he suspects less than a fifth as many as did two or three decades ago. The addition of downtown condos over the past decade hasn’t made much difference, he said. But he thinks more big apartment complexes like Park Plaza would help.

Ferguson now runs Fayette Cigar Store seven days a week with help from one of his four daughters, Dee Bright. Thanks to a resurgence in cigar smoking, customers come to the store for its extensive selection of high-end smokes, which are kept in a former bank vault in back. Pipe smoking also is on the rebound as cigarettes decline.

Cigars and fine pipe tobacco are the store’s biggest profit centers. But Ferguson says he doesn’t know what the future holds, noting that all of his main wares — tobacco, magazines, newspapers and greeting cards — have been in decline for years.

Ferguson has tried to fight back by adding niche products such as basic drugstore items and local honey. Still, business is tough.

“I have a pretty loyal customer base,” he said. “Thank God for that.”

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Author’s talks will focus on making cities more walkable

January 13, 2014

Urban planners, who in the decades after World War II helped redesign America’s cities and towns around the automobile, have been trying to warn people ever since then that they really screwed up.

Finally, most people are beginning to agree, says Jeff Speck, a veteran city planner and author of the 2012 book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time.

Health professionals cite car culture as a big reason an epidemic in obesity and related physical problems. Economists note that suburban sprawl has become costly to taxpayers because all of the new infrastructure rarely pays for itself. Plus, a lack of public transportation in many areas has put costly burdens of car ownership and maintenance on the working poor.

bookcoverThe environmental movement has had an anti-urban bent since the days of Thomas Jefferson and Henry David Thoreau. But that has changed dramatically.

“And all of a sudden environmentalists discovered that if you live in a city your footprint is much lighter than if you live in sprawl,” Speck said. “In fact, cities are a solution to our environmental crises, both locally and globally.”

Most of all, Speck says, average citizens, from young adults to their empty-nester parents, have embraced cities again. Across the country, home values in walkable, urban neighborhoods are rising much faster than those in the kinds of car-dependent suburbs that have dominated American development since the 1950s.

“Walkable cities actually save us money, make us money and are poised to thrive in the next couple of decades while unwalkable places aren’t,” Speck said in a telephone interview last week from his home in Washington, D.C.

Speck will be talking about these trends — and giving advice to community leaders about how to make their towns more walkable — at a lecture and workshop this week in Frankfort.

Speck will give a lecture at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Grand Theatre on St. Clair Mall, with a book signing to follow. Tickets are $10. On Friday, he will lead a two-hour workshop, beginning at 9 a.m., at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Auditorium, 200 Mero St. Admission is $25.

His visit is part of a conference sponsored by the Kentucky Heritage Council in conjunction with the annual winter meeting of the Kentucky Main Street Program, which works to improve life in the historic centers of the state’s towns and cities. Conference registration, including both of Speck’s sessions, is $100. More information: Heritage.ky.gov.

Most people don’t need convincing about the importance of walkability, he said, but they do need help with strategies for making it happen.

speckSpeck’s book notes that many communities made walking more difficult because they were being designed for other considerations. For example, many streets and intersections are oversized to accommodate the largest-possible emergency vehicles. Fewer but bigger schools and parks have been built because they are easier for officials to maintain and show off than the alternative, which often would be easier for citizens to get to and use.

“The twin gods of smooth traffic and ample parking” took the life out of many once-thriving downtowns, Speck writes, turning them into places that are “easy to get to but not worth arriving at.”

Speck writes that there are four criteria for successful pedestrian areas: walking must be safe, comfortable, interesting and useful. By useful, he means that necessities of daily life — shopping, restaurants and workplaces — must be close and arranged so they can be easily accessed by walking.

Speck’s book outlines 10 steps for city walkability. Those include mixed-use neighborhoods, good mass transit, well-designed and affordable parking facilities, ample trees and bicycle-friendly streets.

The biggest challenge many American cities and towns will face in coming years will be retrofitting mid- and late-20th century suburbs to make them more accessible for aging Baby Boomers and the working poor.

“We’ve laid the groundwork for a major social crisis,” he said.

The best hope is often restoring traditional downtowns and making new developments better for walking, biking and mass transit. That will require changing many ingrained rules and attitudes about traffic and street design.

“Most traffic engineers are really nice people,” Speck said. “But they will wreck your city.”  

Watch Jeff Speck’s TED Talk on walkable cities:


New Shorty’s owner sees opportunity in downtown Lexington

November 25, 2013

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Bob Estes, the owner of Parlay Social nightclub who plans to reopen Shorty’s Urban Market by Christmas, also is planning a fourth-story addition to his Southern Mutual Trust Building at cheapside for a restaurant. From the restaurant’s future patio dining area, he enjoys the view of downtown Lexington. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

When the bar leasing the first floor of Bob Estes’ downtown building closed three years ago, he took a chance that he could reopen the space as a Prohibition-theme nightclub.

Thanks to his diverse business background and the experience his fiancée, Joy Breeding, had in hospitality management, Parlay Social has done well, recently adding lunch service on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Now they hope to build on that success by making more contributions to the revitalization of the Cheapside district behind the old Fayette County Courthouse.

Estes and Breeding are working to reopen Shorty’s Urban Market, 163 West Short Street, which opened in May 2011 but closed two months ago. They are doing minor renovations to the market, which they plan to reopen by Christmas.

They also are remaking the former Shorty’s wine shop next door into a cocktail bar and taproom featuring locally brewed beers. If business is good enough, they can use second-floor office space for additional food and beverage service.

Next year, they have more ambitious plans: add a fourth floor onto the historic Southern Mutual Trust Building, where Parlay Social is located at 149 West Short Street, and open a rooftop restaurant with an expansive view of downtown.

“It has been interesting to learn the hospitality industry,” Estes said. “It’s not easy, but I say a lot of times that this is not rocket science; I know what rocket science is.”

131121BobEstes-TE0085Indeed, he does. The 52-year-old Lexington native and Eastern Kentucky University graduate spent most of his career in the aerospace industry, working in satellite launch operations for companies such as Boeing, Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas.

Estes was a mission controller for payloads carried on several NASA Space Shuttle and Space Station missions. During ebbs in the space program, Estes worked at a variety of other jobs. He built homes and spent time as Circuit Court Clerk in Jessamine County, appointed to fill his mother’s vacancy when his father became ill.

Estes was working as an aerospace consultant when he bought the Southern Mutual Trust Building in 2008, both as an investment and so he could convert the third floor into a low-maintenance condo where he could live when he wasn’t traveling.

He changed career paths after falling in love with Breeding and downtown living.

The city’s Courthouse Area Design Review Board last year approved Estes’ proposed design for adding a fourth floor to the Southern Mutual Trust Building. But it will be a big job — including cutting into his third-floor condo so the elevator shaft can be extended upward.

“Can you imagine eating up here on a nice evening with this view of downtown?” Estes said as we stood on his roof.

131121BobEstes-TE0078Estes, who is president of the Cheapside Entertainment District Association, thinks there is a lot of opportunity downtown for entrepreneurs with a disciplined business approach and good customer service.

“I’m big on processes and standard operating procedures,” he said. “I learned that in the space program.”

Estes said he has received a lot of support in reopening Shorty’s from city officials, the building’s landlord, Brian Hanna, and the market’s original investors, led by Lee Ann Ingram of Nashville. Estes said Ingram left him a beautifully renovated building to work with. So how does he plan to succeed where others failed?

“We’re going to focus on quality, but watch the price point,” he said. “I don’t want to make it such a boutique place that I eliminate customers.”

Estes plans to stock a lot of Kentucky Proud products, especially things such as Sunrise Bakery bread and Lexington Pasta. He is talking with Lexington Farmers Market about its growers supplying produce for the market and its deli. Estes also plans to offer take-home dinners.

“I’m really trying to find some great cooks,” he said. “I’m looking for a grandmother type who’s used to cooking for a big family and knows how to spice food.”

Cheapside’s bars and restaurants have done well for several years, and Estes said he thinks downtown is ready for retail.

“I’m getting the feeling out there that there’s a village of people who want Shorty’s to be successful,” Estes said. “In my lifetime, there’s never been a more exciting time to be downtown.”

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Suburban lessons for downtown: better parking, service areas

October 12, 2013

When he was studying architecture at the University of Kentucky in the early 1970s, Robert Wagoner became intrigued by the challenges of revitalizing urban Lexington. But that wasn’t where the development business was going then.

So Wagoner went on to a successful career helping develop some of Lexington’s best-known suburban shopping centers. After several years of retirement, though, he is once again thinking a lot about downtown. A man can play only so much golf.

Wagoner has spent many hours driving, walking and biking downtown streets, studying what works and what doesn’t. With help from friends in the design and construction fields, he has translated some of his ideas into elaborate presentations.

Suburban design has been tried in urban settings for decades, usually with poor results. But that isn’t what Wagoner has done.

He has used his experience to consider how tried-and-true suburban strategies focusing on the needs of customers and businesses that serve them can inform the more difficult task of designing dense urban spaces. Good design is all about problem-solving.

I spent a couple of mornings walking and biking around downtown with Wagoner to look at things from his point of view. By the time we stopped for a late breakfast each day, I had a lot of food for thought. I have space today to discuss only a few of his big themes, but they are a good place to start.

Creating more downtown housing is important, Wagoner said. So is attracting out-of-town visitors. But the biggest business opportunity is enticing more suburbanites downtown to eat, shop and have fun.

“The key is expanding and growing the customer base downtown as an option to suburbia,” he said. “Always start with the customer.”

That means making downtown a more beautiful, pleasant and exciting place to be. But it also means focusing on details and infrastructure, not just grand plans and great architecture. Two key issues: parking and service logistics.

“Instead of just dealing with the icing on the cake,” he said, “deal with the pan that bakes the cake — that’s infrastructure.”

Most visitors come downtown in automobiles, and they need parking that is convenient, easy to find, easy to use, makes them feel safe and costs as little as possible.

Some people need convenient street parking for quick stops. Whenever possible, he said, parallel parking should be replaced by angled parking, because it is easier to use and provides more spaces.

Make street parking free for the first two hours, he said. And encourage more reciprocal parking agreements among businesses. Both would improve customer convenience — and that would attract more customers.

Other people want to come downtown and walk around. They need parking garages that are easy to find and use. Garages are costly, but they are much more efficient than the surface lots that contribute to downtown’s gap-toothed ugliness.

Well-marked garages on side streets a block or two from popular pedestrian-friendly streets of shops and restaurants would make the downtown experience more pleasant and convenient. They also would reduce traffic congestion, much of which is caused by people circling around looking for parking, Wagoner said.

If Wagoner were redesigning downtown, he would make Main Street two-way and more pedestrian-friendly by limiting garage access from Main and giving through-traffic more alternatives. He would keep Vine Street one-way going east and reverse one-way Short street to go west.

Then he would put garages along Church Street, where there are now several surface lots. This location would be convenient for both daytime office workers and people who come to restaurants and bars in the evening.

And rather than building a lot of new parking garages near Rupp Arena, Wagoner would shuttle people to the arena from those Church Street garages, or let them walk through downtown and dine or shop on their way. That would make more efficient use of costly parking infrastructure and better incorporate the Rupp and central business districts.

Another of downtown’s biggest shortcomings, Wagoner thinks, is the lack of well-designed delivery and service space behind many businesses. That results in garbage cans on or near sidewalks, and it forces delivery vehicles to use “front” streets, causing noise, traffic congestion and a less-pleasant customer experience.

As he made this point, we were sitting at a sidewalk table outside Shakespeare & Co. on Short Street. A big food delivery truck pulled up in front of us. The rumble of its idling engine made conversation impossible, so we had to move inside.

Wagoner had a lot of insights that can spark good public conversation about improving downtown and making it more successful. Look for more of them in future columns.


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

October 8, 2013

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 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.


Execution will be key to success of downtown management district

September 9, 2013

NYC2

There are more than 1,200 downtown management districts in cities across the country. New York City has made extensive use of them to transform parts of the metropolis, such as this area of Midtown Manhattan, which was photographed in April. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

The revitalization of downtown Lexington has made a lot of progress in recent years, but there has been a missing link: a well-funded private partnership to take up where city services leave off.

The Downtown Lexington Corp. hopes to fix that. The organization last week started a petition drive among property owners to ask the Urban County Council to create a downtown management district.

Such districts, which have been effective in many other cities, work like a suburban homeowner’s association. Property owners pay an annual assessment that goes to provide amenities and services above and beyond what city government provides.

Lexington’s proposed downtown management district would include 373 properties with 223 owners and a total taxable value of almost $280 million. The proposed assessment would be $1 for each $1,000 of assessed tax value; so the owner of a $3 million office building would pay $3,000 a year, while the owner of a $300,000 home would pay $300.

How that money was spent would be determined by a board of downtown property owners and tenants. Proposed uses include streetscape improvements, better “wayfinding” signage, more marketing and the hiring of “ambassadors” to walk the streets to help visitors and improve safety and security.

State law requires the petition to get support from at least 33 percent of property owners whose holdings total at least 51 percent of property values. But DLC President Renee Jackson said she won’t take the petition to council unless it has support from at least half of the affected property owners.

Even if approved, the management district would have to be reauthorized after five years, and a majority of property owners could vote to disband it at any time.

Since New Orleans created the first management district in 1974, more than 1,200 have sprung up across the country. From a regional perspective, Lexington is late to the party. Louisville’s downtown management district was organized in 1991, Knoxville’s in 1993, Nashville’s in 1994 and Cincinnati’s in 1997.

Louisville’s district, the only one in Kentucky, has worked well.

“The focus on clean and safe in the downtown district has allowed the center city to be managed in a way that is similar to the suburban shopping center,” said Bill Weyland, a major downtown Louisville developer whose projects have included the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory and the Glassworks building.

“It is important for downtowns, which have numerous property owners, to have management districts so that there can be uniform center city services that rival the single-owner competitors in the suburbs,” Weyland added.

I saw the potential of a management district firsthand when I worked in downtown Atlanta between 1988 and 1998. The Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, created in 1995, made a big difference.

No American city has made more extensive use of management districts than New York, which now has 67 of what it calls business-improvement districts that pump $100 million a year into amenities and services. As a frequent visitor to New York over the years, the impact they have had is stunning.

When I was there in April, the pocket parks along Broadway in Midtown Manhattan were clean and beautiful. Tulips, jonquils and hyacinths were everywhere, as were the people enjoying those public spaces. Many of Gotham’s once-mean streets are now family-friendly.

One dramatic transformation is Bryant Park, on 42nd Street behind the New York Public Library. Once a hangout for drug dealers, the park is now a beautiful and popular oasis that has attracted a lot of new private commercial development. The park is managed by Bryant Park Corp., which is funded and overseen by area property owners.

A Lexington downtown management district is a low-risk proposal with the potential to do a lot of good. But it is no silver bullet.

For one thing, the proposed assessment would raise less than $300,000 a year, which really isn’t much money. The district’s board would have to pay close attention to priorities, management and follow-up, while taking care not to duplicate existing efforts by others.

Downtown property owners should get behind this plan, but with the knowledge that leadership and execution will make or break it. Sadly, that is where so many of Lexington’s civic improvement projects sputter and die.

dmdMap

 

IF YOU GO

Downtown Lexington Management District public meetings

What: Public information meetings to discuss a proposed taxing district downtown

When: 9 a.m. Sept. 9; 4 p.m. Sept. 12; noon Sept. 13; and 4 p.m. Sept. 16

Where: Central Bank seventh-floor training center, 300 W. Vine St.

Learn more: Dlmdonline.com

 

 

 


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.

 


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

March 10, 2013

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 The CentrePointe block awaits development. Photo by Charles Bertram

 

For a project yet to be built, CentrePointe has had a big impact on Lexington.

The most immediate impact was the election of Mayor Jim Gray in November 2010. Were it not for the controversy surrounding CentrePointe, I doubt then-Vice Mayor Gray would have run against, much less unseated, Mayor Jim Newberry.

What Gray understood — and Newberry didn’t — was that CentrePointe focused many people’s longtime frustrations about development in Lexington. People didn’t like the secrecy, the politics and the often-mediocre results.

Most of all, people wanted more say in how their city looks. They didn’t want Lexington’s architectural heritage bulldozed at a developer’s whim. Development occurs on private property, but everyone must look at it and live with it.

Five years later, CentrePointe is still a grassy field waiting for developer Dudley Webb to find financing and tenants. But the project has taught Lexington some valuable lessons.

One lesson is the value of historic preservation. Webb was quick to demolish an entire block, including some buildings that were more than a century old and could have been renovated into unique, valuable space within his larger development.

Lexington’s biggest development trend since then has been for entrepreneurs to renovate fine old buildings and adapt them for new uses — restaurants, bars, stores, offices and homes. These projects make economic sense and preserve Lexington’s history and unique charm.

Another lesson is that good design matters. With CentrePointe stalled and Gray in the mayor’s office, Webb felt pressure to hire top architectural talent and get public input to redesign his project. That work dramatically improved his development plan.

The CentrePointe redesign also helped pave the way for Louisville-based 21c to decide to build one of its acclaimed hotels and contemporary art museums across the street.

The 21c Museum Hotel will be in the century-old Fayette National building, which will get an extensive renovation.

That momentum helped Lexington attract world-class talent to design competitions for two public projects that could transform downtown: the Arena, Arts and Entertainment District and Town Branch Commons.

The arena area plan calls for renovating Rupp Arena, building a bigger convention center and gradually redeveloping more than 30 acres ofunderused, city-owned surface parking lots.

The winning plan for Town Branch Commons would turn marginalized downtown property into a linear park along the historic path of Town Branch Creek. Such projects in other cities have created popular amenities that have attracted many times their cost in new private investment.

Gary Bates, a highly regarded American architect now based in Norway, was chosen to develop the arena district plan.

The winning Town Branch Commons plan was designed by Kate Orff of New York, one of landscape architecture’s rising stars.

Why is such world-class talent suddenly being attracted to Lexington? Because the city has set the bar higher. Why is that important? Because if Lexington wants to attract the best employers, it must create an environment where the best and brightest people want to live and work.

One final lesson from CentrePointe is that Lexington needs better laws and processes to both encourage good development and prevent bad development, especially downtown.

A city task force has spent a lot of time studying “design excellence.” Now, with new leadership from Councilman Steve Kay and help from a consultant, task force members have begun trying to figure out how to turn talk into action.

That won’t be easy. It is not just a matter of creating laws and systems to keep developers from doing bad things. It is about creating laws, systems and incentives so developers can do great things. This will require rules that provide both clarity and flexibility. It will require high standards, but also processes that minimize hassle and unnecessary costs for developers.

I don’t know if the Webb Companies will ever succeed in building CentrePointe. And I worry that the longer the block sits empty, the harder it will be to attract outside investment for other major downtown projects.

But something will eventually be built on the CentrePointe block, and now is the time to make sure that it and other new construction downtown enhances the city rather than detracts from it.

 Watch a video about the CentrePointe block’s demolition:

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

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

A CentrePointe gallery:


Town Branch Commons designer focuses on green infrastructure

February 10, 2013

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click on each thumbnail and image to enlarge:


Winning Town Branch design is both best and most practical option

February 4, 2013

Conceptual sketch of a proposed park between the Kentucky Utilities and Phoenix buildings along Vine Street as part of the winning design for Town Branch Commons. Illustration: Scape/Landscape Architecture PLLC

 

All five finalists submitted imaginative plans for Town Branch Commons, but the entry from Scape/Landscape Architecture PLLC was the clear winner.

Scape’s plan is the most authentic to Lexington. It is the most practical and affordable. It disrupts current traffic patterns the least. And it highlights the role natural ecology can and should play in solving Lexington’s storm-water problems, not only downtown but throughout Fayette County.

Kate Orff, the New York firm’s lead partner and a rising star in the world of landscape architecture, is well-known for paying close attention to the natural ecology of places where she designs. She clearly did her homework on Lexington.

The inspiration for Scape’s plan goes deeper than Town Branch Creek. It showcases Central Kentucky’s karst geology, where water unexpectedly rises from and disappears beneath limestone formations just below the lush Bluegrass soil.

Rather than trying to rebuild a long-buried creek, Scape’s plan artfully creates water features that interpret the region’s natural springs, pools, sinks and boils at strategic points along the creek’s historic path. They would rise and fall with the seasons.

One thing that made her plan the most practical and affordable is that it can be done in phases, as money is available. Also, the city already owns almost all of the land it would need and should be able to acquire the rest of it.

Property for the two largest pieces of this linear park is now surface parking lots. So two of downtown’s ugliest and most under-utilized pieces of land would become beautiful magnets for people and surrounding private investment.

Unlike the other finalists, Scape’s plan calls for minimal change in current traffic patterns. The biggest proposed change would be replacing the Martin Luther King Boulevard viaduct between High and Main streets with a pedestrian walkway to a new park below. But, if necessary, the project could still go forward if the viaduct remained.

The plan also would eliminate the crook at the west end of Vine Street around Triangle Park, which city leaders have been trying to close for years. It also would rearrange some lanes and sidewalks on Vine Street to make space for a boulevard-style park in the center of the street between Limestone and Broadway, but without significantly reducing traffic capacity. Ideally, Vine Street would go from one-way to two-way traffic, but it wouldn’t have to.

The plan would create green space downtown that would act like rain gardens to manage and filter storm water using much of the existing underground infrastructure. That aspect of the plan is brilliant.

City officials should be looking throughout Fayette County for places where stream restoration, rain gardens and other natural techniques can be used to manage runoff and filter runoff from streets, parking lots and development. In many places, this approach could be more attractive and less costly than traditional engineering solutions.

In both result and process, this Town Branch Commons design competition has been remarkable. After getting proposals from 23 firms, Lexington chose five finalists and gave each a $15,000 honorarium to work on a detailed plan. That money was donated by the Nashville family of Lee Ann Ingram, an investor in Shorty’s Market on Short Street.

The result was that Lexington got the benefit of having five teams of the world’s best landscape architects and urban designers take a deep look at the city’s issues and propose detailed solutions — at no cost to taxpayers.

How could little Lexington attract such talent? One reason is the personal connections Michael Speaks, dean of the University of Kentucky’s College of Design, has in the global design community. Another is Mayor Jim Gray’s vision for a world-class downtown. And another is the successful Arena, Arts and Entertainment District Task Force process, which engaged a world-class master planner (Norway-based Space Group) and is now following through on its recommendations.

Lexington has a lot of work to do before these grand plans can become reality. But, for the first time in a very long time, it at least has some truly grand plans.

Click on photos to see larger images. For more images and information, go to Townbranchcommons.com.

 


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

February 3, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.”


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: