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

May 5, 2015

CentrePointeThe CentrePointe pit in downtown Lexington. Photo by Tom Eblen


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

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

That historical reference, from a former colleague, is one of many quips and wisecracks I have heard since city officials notified CentrePointe developer Dudley Webb last week that they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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 8, 2013

Full page photo

 CentrePointe version 6.1, which will be up for approval Wednesday before Lexington’s Court House Area Design Review Board. Rendering by CMMI/Atlanta.


If there is one thing Lexington officials should keep in mind over the next few weeks, it is this: there are far worse things you can have in the center of your city than a grassy field.

Developer Dudley Webb will be back before the Court House Area Design Review Board on Wednesday seeking final design approval for his long-stalled CentrePointe project. Webb must convince the board that his proposed development of offices, apartments, restaurants, shops and a hotel is compatible with the surrounding area.

In Webb’s last appearance, Aug. 21, a divided board reluctantly gave partial approval to his latest design — CentrePointe version 6.0 — but wanted more work on some elements. The board’s reluctance stemmed from the fact that CentrePointe 6.0 was a big step backward from the previous, well-designed version.

In response to the board’s concerns, Webb last week unveiled his design “tweaks” as he calls them. But CentrePointe version 6.1 is another step backward. It reminds me of the uninspired stuff that was being built around Atlanta when I lived there in the 1980s and 1990s.

What the board must decide is whether CentrePointe 6.1 is good enough to meet the city’s criteria. Board members should base their decision on a careful evaluation of the design, not pressure from a developer citing the urgency of his own deadlines.

Throughout this process, Webb has made claims about urgency that amounted to nothing. The board was too quick to allow demolition of the block five years ago. Despite all of Webb’s promises, CentrePointe remains an empty field.

At the Aug. 21 meeting, Webb said he needed the board’s quick approval because he risked losing a big office tenant if he didn’t begin construction in October. We are more than a week into October, but Webb has not shown the evidence of financing he needs to get building permits.

One recent development is unlikely to inspire confidence among board members.

EOP Architects, the Lexington firm that designed the excellent CentrePointe 5.0 and presented CentrePointe 6.0 on Webb’s behalf at the last meeting, has quit the project and filed a lien against the property, claiming its fees have not been paid.

You have to wonder at what point city officials — from review board appointees to the mayor and members of the Urban County Council — need to start asking themselves this question: is CentrePointe real or a mirage? That question is important for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, the city asked for state tax-increment financing for public improvements related to CentrePointe. The state is likely to allow Lexington only so much TIF financing authority. While CentrePointe has languished, other downtown projects have emerged that would seem to have much more economic development potential. Is CentrePointe still a horse the city wants to hitch its cart to?

And there is the larger issue of financial viability. Remember the unidentified financier who supposedly promised Webb money but died without leaving a will? If Webb has secured more solid financial support since then, he has yet to prove it.

The biggest risk of CentrePointe is not that it ends up being ugly, but that it ends up being ugly and unfinished. The next-biggest risk is that Webb is allowed to begin construction, runs short of money and then forces the city to make further concessions to keep the project from being abandoned.

Before city officials issue Webb permits to do anything on that grassy field, they should demand two things: show us good design, and show us the money.

CentrePointe steps back from excellence; other projects shouldn’t

August 17, 2013


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.



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


 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:

CentrePointe approved: See final design drawings

March 28, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those improvements included:

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

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

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

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

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

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


New architect impresses CentrePointe skeptics

June 2, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come see CentrePointe’s new, rough plan Thursday

June 1, 2011

Keep your fingers crossed. There seems to be a real possibility that the ugly duckling proposed for that vacant lot downtown could be replaced by a swan.

Developer Dudley Webb, unable to finance the 1980s-style tower he proposed to replace the block of old buildings he demolished, has taken a new approach. With help from Mayor Jim Gray, Webb has hired one of the world’s best up-and-coming architects to rethink the design of his hotel-condo-office-retail project, CentrePointe.

Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang in Chicago will present her initial site plan Thursday at the first of at least two public meetings in Lexington. Stop by the Lexington History Museum at 4 p.m. to hear from her, Webb and Gray — and contribute your thoughts.

Gang said in a telephone interview Wednesday that her design is rough and flexible at this point because she wants input from more people who live in Lexington. She also wants help from Kentucky architects to give the block variety and local flavor.

I found Gang’s concepts for the development encouraging. She wants it to be pedestrian-friendly, compatible with its surroundings, unique to Lexington and “a place that is interesting to be.”

Gang envisions a cluster of buildings along Main Street — like there used to be — rather than a single edifice. The buildings would include a variety of locally designed, contemporary architecture that complements in scale and design the 19th and 20th century buildings across the street. “It will give it that authenticity and feel without it being forced,” she said.

The new CentrePointe — it really needs a new name, by the way — would have two towers instead of one. The shorter tower would house offices and the taller one would have a hotel and condos. The size of the towers would depend on the tenants Webb secures, but Gang said she would use computer models to show where the shadows would fall to help place the towers so they don’t hulk over Main Street or neighboring buildings.

Gang has designed amazing buildings all over the world, so why is she bothering to work in Lexington? Gang said she was familiar with the controversy surrounding CentrePointe from her visits to the University of Kentucky’s College of Design, and she sensed a opportunity to create something special.

She was impressed by Lexington’s rural land preservation efforts and historic downtown architecture, she said, which together offered the possibility for creating vibrant urban space on the block. “It is truly a livable city,” she said. “And this is truly the heart of Lexington.”

Also, Gang said, she was impressed by the mayor’s commitment to design excellence. “He gets it,” she said. “That makes a huge difference in deciding where we want to work. So many places don’t get it.”

Gang’s creativity and reputation may well be the key to Webb securing the financing and tenants he needs to transform CentrePointe from a failure into a success. And for the city, it could mean the difference between another generic concrete box and a landmark Lexingtonians will be proud to have at their city’s heart.

Why CentrePasture must be redeveloped well

December 20, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CentrePointe update: Timing is everything.

July 8, 2009

Today’s meeting of the Courthouse Area Design Review Board offered a few updates on CentrePointe, the massive downtown development project that 16 months after its announcement remains a mirage.

Darby Turner, the attorney for developer Dudley Webb, said Webb is in Europe working to secure financing for the $250 million project from the estate of a mysterious, unidentified investor who is said to have died last fall, leaving the hotel-condo-office tower in limbo.

“We hope to have that (financing) in 30-to-60 days,” Turner said. But he quickly acknowledged, “We’ve been saying that, frankly, for some period of time, but all in good faith.”

The three review board members present seemed understandably skeptical. A year ago, they accepted Webb’s argument that he needed quick permission to demolish a dozen buildings on the block, including one dating to 1826, because his development was too important to delay.

Turner said today that once financing is secured, excavation work could begin within a month. Digging down three stories for an underground parking garage will take about three months. Then, foundations must be built before the proposed 35-story tower can begin rising from the ground.

The big issue, of course, is financing. The global economic meltdown has stopped similar projects worldwide dead in their tracks. The demand for big four-star convention hotels and luxury condos just isn’t what it used to be.

Because CentrePointe sits inside the historic overlay district of the old Fayette County Courthouse (now the Lexington History Museum), the review board had to give permission for the old buildings to be demolished and CentrePointe to be built.

The board gave that one-year permit last November. The permit won’t expire until November, but Turner was appearing to ask for a one-year extension. Now.

The board was confused. Why would Webb want an extension that would expire in July 2010 rather than asking in the fall and getting one that wouldn’t expire until November 2010?

Turner said having more lead time would “give assurance to our investor that this project is still doable in Lexington.”  He also said he wanted to avoid someone trying to challenge an extension in the fall.

What Turner didn’t say — but several people were thinking — was that it also would move the next renewal request, if there is one, to July 2010 instead of November 2010, when the mayor and Urban County Council members must stand for re-election. CentrePointe’s public credibility isn’t what it used to be.

Asked about that after the meeting, Turner said politics had nothing to do with his request.

Review board Chairman Mike Meuser, a lawyer, wanted to delay action on Turner’s request until the board’s next regular meeting in October. But a staff attorney told him that wasn’t allowed under city ordinance.

“It just doesn’t make any sense to me, either for the applicant or the community or the board to reauthorize these permits now,” Meuser said.

Still, the board ended up approving the extension request. Legally, it seemed to have no other choice.

In other news, Turner said J.W. Marriott, which Webb says plans to put a luxury hotel in CentrePointe, wanted interior design changes that will require some architectural revisions, such as moving elevators.

But Turner said the exterior design hasn’t been changed. I guess that means it still looks like some of those developments I saw going up around Atlanta in the 1980s.

While the review board was meeting at city hall, a bulldozer was rumbling around the CentrePointe site, three blocks west on Main Street. It was spreading fill dirt recently brought in so grass can be planted.

Despite the latest “30 or 60 days” estimate, I’m not holding my breath. CentrePointe may defy the global economic odds. Construction may really begin in a few months.

But I think a better bet might be on who will get next summer’s mowing contract for the empty block in the center of Lexington.

Lexington should learn lesson from CentrePointe

May 6, 2009

Fourteen months after the CentrePointe development was announced, all that exists is a crater full of mud.

As I listened to developer Dudley Webb and Vice Mayor Jim Gray verbally wallow in it at the Urban County Council meeting Tuesday, I kept thinking of philosopher George Santayana’s famous line: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Gray had asked Webb to appear before the council to explain why the construction he had said would start six months ago has yet to begin. Gray also wanted to point out that because Webb hasn’t applied for a building permit, it won’t begin anytime soon.

Webb read a six-page statement filled with righteous indignation and enough spin to dizzy anyone who has closely followed the CentrePointe saga.

Webb said he has been unfairly targeted by Gray, other council members, preservationists, the Herald-Leader, bloggers, naysayers and negativism. He hasn’t been deceptive — just optimistic.

It was a speech so Nixonian, all he needed was a dog named Checkers.

Amid the bluster, Webb revealed some essential truths: He has never had financing in place to build CentrePointe, and he won’t know for perhaps 90 days whether he will.

Over the past seven months, while Webb was making a variety of excuses for CentrePointe’s delay, he knew that his unidentified foreign financier was dead. But he didn’t bother to tell the city and state officials who were approving a tax-increment financing plan based on CentrePointe.

Gray complained that the city had been “hoodwinked.”

“We didn’t hoodwink anybody,” Webb replied. “Each step of the way throughout this project, we’ve believed everything we have told you.”

Two other council members also tried to press Webb for answers, but several more were quick to defend him, to thank him for bulldozing the center of town and to apologize for bothering him.

Amid the bluster, they also revealed some essential truths: Lexington doesn’t seem to learn from its past, whether it be the collapse of Kentucky Central Life Insurance Co. or Wallace Wilkinson’s “world coal hole” fiasco.

Also, city officials have never had the political will to make developers and large property owners — especially those downtown — look out for the city’s best interests as well as their own. Money talks. In this case, even the illusion of money talks.

CentrePointe is just the latest example of these essential truths. But it won’t be the last, unless city officials find some political will.

“Lexington is a sitting duck,” council member Diane Lawless said afterward. “Unless we fix the systematic problems, we’ll continue to fight one zone change at a time, one building at a time, one block at a time — not just downtown but in the neighborhoods.”

Improved downtown zoning regulations are working their way through council, as is an ordinance that would require a building permit to be issued before the structure it would replace can be demolished.

Those are good starts, as is Mayor Jim Newberry’s suggestion that historic preservation be addressed in a comprehensive way.

Last year, Newberry ordered the city’s historic preservation office to identify structures that should be preserved. The results of that work will be unveiled in a public meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Downtown Public Library basement.

“I think you’ll find the results to be interesting,” Newberry told council members Tuesday.

Whatever is unveiled should be the start of a thorough conversation. So far, the city’s work has been done without consulting preservation groups or the public.

The conversation also must focus on more than traditional notions of preservation. It must look at the potential for adaptive reuse of old buildings, a technique that is helping other cities revitalize their economies.

Some good preservation work has been done over the years. But city laws and processes leave ample room for failure, as the CentrePointe block has shown. Try to do the right thing and restore an old building and the city will regulate you to the last cornice and gutter. But ignore an old building and the city will stand by as it falls down.

Many buildings on the CentrePointe block suffered from demolition by neglect for decades before they were demolished last summer. City building inspectors dropped the ball. For example, the circa 1826 Morton’s Row was deemed worthy of preservation years ago. But it wasn’t legally protected because its owner, the Rosenberg family, didn’t want it to be.

Market forces will ultimately determine whether CentrePointe is built as planned and succeeds over the long term.

Perhaps its four-star hotel will be filled. Maybe the people Webb says have made “handshake” agreements to buy 64 of the 91 luxury condos won’t suddenly die before they’ve handed over the cash. Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll see.

What’s important now is for Lexington to avoid the next CentrePointe.

Council members and the mayor must get serious about good urban planning so they’re not constantly playing defense. They must improve building inspection and historic preservation processes, revisit the Downtown Master Plan and give it some teeth.

They must find the political will to strengthen Lexington’s laws so that development is as good for the city as it is for developers.

Download a pdf of Dudley Webb’s Statement and a letter of support from Marriott International Inc. that he gave council members Tuesday.

Waiting for CentrePointe work to begin

January 8, 2009

Where’s CentrePointe?

Developer Dudley Webb said late last fall that construction would begin in December on the $250 million tower in the middle of downtown Lexington. It’s now January, and the site is a big gravel pit waiting for something to happen.

To make way for CentrePointe, Webb bulldozed the block bounded by Main, Vine, Limestone and Upper streets. He took out 14 structures, including 182-year-old Morton’s Row, the second-oldest commercial building downtown. The National Trust for Historic Preservation called it one of America’s biggest losses of 2008.

City officials have asked the state for permission to use incremental tax revenues generated by CentrePointe over the next 30 years to pay for some of the project’s “public” infrastructure, as well as other downtown improvements.

So where’s CentrePointe?

“Everything’s still on track,” Darby Turner, Webb’s attorney, said Thursday. “It’s a little slower process than we had hoped. … We’re still moving right along.”

Turner said engineering and permitting work is under way and construction could begin later this month.

Harold Tate, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, said it has taken longer than expected for CentrePointe to get state permits to close lanes on some surrounding streets, but that should happen soon.

Webb’s plans call for the 35-story tower to house a four-star J.W. Marriott hotel, luxury condos, shops, offices, restaurants and an entertainment venue.

If CentrePointe is still on track, it would be unusual. Market conditions have changed dramatically since last fall, and similar developments in other cities have been halted or delayed. Financing is hard to come by. But Webb has always insisted that CentrePointe won’t be affected by the credit crunch, because foreign investors he won’t identify have put up cash for construction.

Count me among the skeptics. I wouldn’t be surprised if Webb were to announce that he’s putting CentrePointe on hold. In fact, it could be the best thing.

The worst outcome for Lexington would be a half-built CentrePointe — or one that’s built and then fails in an economy less hospitable to luxury hotels and condos. That’s what Councilman Don Blevins Jr. meant a few months ago when he worried aloud that CentrePointe could become “a vertical Lexington Mall.”

If CentrePointe were put on hold, it could eventually become a better project — one that’s smaller, better designed and more economically viable in the long term. (But still, unfortunately, one without some of Lexington’s irreplaceable historic fabric.)

Delaying CentrePointe would cause a short-term problem. With the countdown clock ticking on the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, nobody wants to be left with a big hole like the one that occupied the next block over in the early 1980s. But that problem could be solved with enough dirt and sod to create a temporary CentrePointe Park.

Maybe I’m wrong.

Maybe CentrePointe construction will begin soon. Maybe CentrePointe will be finished and won’t look as generic and out of place as I fear. Maybe its condos will sell and its hotel will be filled for many years. Maybe the project will generate enough new tax revenues to pay for some wonderful downtown improvements, such as restoration of the old Fayette County Courthouse.

But I’ll believe it when I see it.

My pick for Kentucky’s most intriguing newsmaker

December 8, 2008

I know the real reason those nice people behind the betting windows at Keeneland always smile when I walk up: I’m no good at handicapping anything.

But this time, I think I’ve picked a winner.

I was asked to handicap the Herald-Leader’s Most Intriguing Kentucky Newsmaker of 2008 contest. I began by ruling out horses, the frog, the tree, the music club and people who could be punch lines for Jay Leno.

I’ve admired the 300-year-old bur oak tree on Harrodsburg Road since childhood. And it’s hard not to appreciate the determination of the filly Eight Belles or the longevity of Jojo the frog. But intriguing? I don’t think so.

I’ve followed the CentrePointe controversy closely, so I thought about going with the tag team of Dudley “back to the ’80s” Webb and Jim “we can do better” Gray.

I’m intrigued by smart people such as Gray, State Auditor Crit Luallen and Alltech founder Pearse Lyons, the Irishman who is one of Kentucky’s true visionaries.

Nancy Jo Kemper gets points for always having the courage of her convictions.

Olympians Elaine Breeden and Tyson Gay made us proud in Beijing.

But the Kentuckian who intrigues me most is Adam Bender, the Lexington boy who hasn’t let a missing leg slow him down, much less stop him. He inspires everyone by just being himself. And I suspect we haven’t seen anything yet.

Sound thinking behind strange-looking designs

July 23, 2008

I wasn’t surprised by the public’s negative reaction to three out-of-the-box designs dreamed up over the weekend as alternatives to Dudley Webb’s proposed CentrePointe tower.

A story in Tuesday’s Herald-Leader included renderings of the concepts developed during a marathon 48-hour workshop. The designs were done by three teams of students from the University of Kentucky’s College of Design working under prominent architects from UK, Los Angeles and Chicago.

The designs were unconventional. A couple of them were almost bizarre. They were nothing like traditional Lexington architecture. And they were nothing like Webb’s 1980s-style glass tower that has been criticized as too massive and bland to put in the middle of Lexington for the next century or so.

Readers posted dozens of comments about the designs on — and most of them were scathing.

I understood the reaction. It was my first reaction, too.

Then I took a deep breath and thought again.

These weren’t finished plans, or even real ­proposals. They weren’t meant to be. They were creative ideas, developed quickly and offered up to spark other ideas that might lead to something special. That’s the way innovation works.

Like Webb, I was out of town Monday and couldn’t attend the students’ presentation. So I went over to UK on Tuesday to get a briefing from Michael Speaks, the college’s dean, who organized the workshop.

”It’s a lot of stuff to do in a couple of days,“ Speaks said before walking me through each concept. ”These are not final designs by any stretch of the imagination. But they show what can be done.“

Each team was told to confine itself to the block and try to stay true to the ­CentrePointe proposal — a hotel, luxury condos, a restaurant and retail space.

”These architects approached this in very different ways,“ Speaks said. But he noted that there were many things all of the designs had in common.

All three teams wanted to keep some of the historic buildings that have been a big part of the CentrePointe controversy and weave them into contemporary new construction. The most valued buildings were the Joe Rosenberg building, which dates to 1826, and the century-old building that housed The Dame music club.

All of the teams wanted to keep the Farmers Market on the block, and some added an amphitheater, a small park and other public space. Indeed, perhaps the most appealing part of all of the concepts was how they offered open, inviting pedestrian space at street level.

All three teams thought the project could be more effectively developed in phases, rather than all at once. And they all thought Webb was trying to cram too much square-footage onto the 1.7-acre block.

All chose to have several towers, rather than the one monolith Webb has proposed.

Speaks noted that in all of the designs, the towers were the wildest and least-finished part of the concepts — and the part that elicited the most negative public reaction.

”You look at these project concepts and think how crazy they are,“ Speaks said. ”Then watch the Olympics, look at what they’ve recently built in Beijing, and think again. They won’t look so crazy a month from now.“

By late afternoon Tuesday, more than 1,500 people had voted for their favorite design in the poll. Webb’s design was leading the closest alternative 2-to-1.

”We’d be surprised if CentrePointe wasn’t winning, in a way,“ Speaks said. ”A lot of people want to support what’s easy, what they’re used to seeing, what’s being done elsewhere.“

Of course, the workshop process was all backward. This type of brainstorming session should have been done at the beginning, as has been done by developers of the proposed Lexington Distillery District project on Manchester Street.

Architecture workshops like this are intended to look at the location, the surrounding areas, and the needs a building is trying to satisfy, and to explore ways to meet those needs.

The goal is to produce a design that solves all of the development’s ”problems“ and adds something more: Value for an entire area, or even a city.

CentrePointe, on the other hand, was developed in secret and unveiled as a done deal. Webb has wanted no creative or public input. So it looks like we’re stuck with a piece of recycled architecture two decades out of date.

CentrePointe seems to be a done deal, and Webb might continue to thumb his nose at critics.

But public discussion surrounding CentrePointe and the awareness of downtown development it has created might pay off in the future.

”I don’t care how many people laugh and make fun of these projects,“ Speaks said as he paged through the three workshop concepts on his desktop computer.

Then he clicked on ­ to check the latest online poll results.

”If we can get 1,500 people to look at these ideas and think about design, then we’ve accomplished something.“

Council arrived late to the CentrePointe ball

July 3, 2008

We’ll never be the belle of the ball if everyone knows we’re easy.

That’s how I ended my first column about CentrePointe, soon after Dudley Webb unveiled plans for his $250 million luxury hotel, condo and retail complex.

I was likening Lexington to a debutante who fancies herself as someone special, yet rushes into the arms of any real estate developer with a hot proposition.

So here we are, nearly four months later. Where does the belle find herself?

She’s considering a shotgun marriage to the CentrePointe developer. Why? Because it could be an easy way to get some downtown goodies. Or maybe not.

When Webb announced CentrePointe in early March after two years of behind-the-scenes work, he said the financial plan included as much as $70 million in tax increment financing to pay for related “public” improvements. Those were described as such things as a parking garage under Phoenix Park and public art.

Kentucky’s tax increment financing program — known as TIF — is a great tool that allows a city and the developer of a “signature” project to work together to rehabilitate a blighted urban area. With TIF, some of the future taxes generated by the private project are used to pay for “public” improvements near the development.

Now, Webb says he doesn’t want any more public meddling in CentrePointe and he has enough private financing to build without TIF. But no TIF, no public improvements.

Webb’s attorney, Darby Turner, said the developer would only apply for TIF financing if the Urban County Council asks him to. The council will vote Thursday on whether to do that.

Council members were told for the first time Tuesday that representatives of Webb and Mayor Jim Newberry have discussed trying to use TIF money for a long list of downtown projects, including a much-needed renovation of the old courthouse. Also, Turner said that instead of $70 million, only $35 million or $40 million might really be available for public improvements.

So how would this all work? How much money could really be available to the city and what could it buy? Nobody seems to know.

In fact, Tuesday’s meeting was the first time council members had really ever discussed CentrePointe TIF. Several council members had some very basic questions about TIF, and the only knowledgeable person there to advise them was Webb’s consultant, John Farris.

Council members are being asked to make a quick decision with little information. Some of them are angry about it, and who can blame them?

“What this motion asks us to do is … ask if we could tag along with the CentrePointe project and maybe get some public amenities out of a deal that’s already done,” Councilman Tom Blues said. “What we see here is a failure of communication, of cooperation, of public involvement, of openness, and I’m disturbed that it has come to this, because it really indicates a significant civic failure.”

Councilman Don Blevins said more study is needed to see how CentrePointe fits with potential city redevelopment projects a couple of blocks down Main Street. Blevins noted that decisions the council is about to make could shape Lexington for a century or more and shouldn’t be rushed.

And he added: “It feels a little strange hitching our TIF wagon to a project some of us don’t like. My fear is that a large four-star hotel with huge condominums on top of it is going to fail. I hope I’m wrong. I hope they’re wildly successful and the downtown is vibrant and we sell all those condos and the hotel is full from here to eternity. But what if I’m right? What we’d have is essentially a vertical Lexington Mall right in the heart of downtown.”

Vice Mayor Jim Gray also questioned CentrePointe’s economic viability. And he wondered whether a CentrePointe TIF would even be legal because developers say it’s not essential to build their project.

Gray has been among the most outspoken critics of CentrePointe because of Webb’s refusal to allow public input on the project’s design — and Webb’s insistence on demolishing the block’s historic buildings rather than trying to incorporate some elements of them into the new building.

“I’ve learned over time that this business of building and developing is a whole lot more about process than about project,” said Gray, who is president of a large construction company.

On Tuesday, Gray read to his fellow council members from a “best practices” guide to Kentucky TIF projects. It recommended thorough study, public participation and community buy-in — none of which has happened with CentrePointe.

It might be too late for anyone but Dudley Webb to influence what happens on the CentrePointe block.

But the future of downtown shouldn’t rise or fall on one project, no matter now big it is. Council members should slow down, think things through and look at all of the options.

Two other TIF projects have been proposed for Lexington — an arena to replace Rupp and a large downtown entertainment district along Manchester Street. Given the redevelopment opportunities downtown, there could be the potential for several more big projects.

The best course of action might be to tell Webb to go ahead and build CentrePointe on his own.

City officials could then do what they should have done long ago: Engage the public in a discussion about what downtown Lexington needs and what it might get from a TIF partnership. Then the city could seek out a developer who is interested in a true partnership.

Blevins said it all: The decisions we are about to make will shape Lexington for a century or more and shouldn’t be rushed.

An intentional courtship would make a lot more sense than a shotgun marriage.