City design conference gives mayors a new outlook

October 22, 2012

Few mayors come into office knowing much about architecture, design or urban planning, even though those issues are at the heart of some of the biggest, most expensive and longest-lasting decisions they will make.

And that is why many of those decisions are not very good. Multimillion-dollar projects with a huge impact on city life and image are often victims of political compromises, well-connected developers, traffic engineers and low bidders.

That is why Joe Riley, longtime mayor of Charleston, S.C., and the National Endowment for the Arts created the Mayors’ Institute on City Design in partnership with the United States Conference of Mayors and the American Architectural Foundation.

Since 1986, the institute has brought together more than 900 mayors and 650 professionals to discuss creative, contemporary approaches to city planning and design.

Earlier this month, the University of Kentucky’s College of Design hosted an institute conference that brought seven mayors to Lexington. They came from a diverse group of cities: Cambridge, Mass.; Joplin, Mo.; Clarksville, Tenn.; Atlantic City, N.J.; Waterbury, Conn.; and Pennsylvania’s Reading and Lower Merion.

The mayors spent two days with a group of world-class design professionals. At an opening reception, Mayor Jim Gray and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, both graduates of the institute, urged them to seize the opportunity.

“Like any great business, you’ve got to be planning,” Fischer said.

Each mayor was to give a 15-minute presentation about a local project. It would then be discussed by the other mayors and the professionals. The “experts” weren’t there to design for the mayors; they were mostly advising them on how to get the help they need to achieve their cities’ goals.

The professionals included two names familiar in Lexington: Gary Bates of Norway-based Space Group, who did the Rupp Arena, Arts & Entertainment District plan and is now doing a master plan for Louisville; and Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, the MacArthur “genius” award winner who did the site plan for Lexington’s proposed CentrePointe development.

Others offering advice included Neil Denari and Roger Sherman, two Los Angeles architects who design projects all over the world; Roberto de Leon of de Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop in Louisville; and landscape architects Shane Coen, whose Minneapolis firm has an international reputation, and Paul Morris, who as deputy secretary of the North Carolina Department of Transportation tries to marry good design with highway engineering.

The institute has some strict rules: The professionals cannot be hired to do work for the mayors’ cities for a year. Also, sessions are limited to mayors and design professionals; no observers. The goal is open, honest discussions, because achieving good urban planning and design often involves a lot of strategy and politics.

The design by De Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop for a restroom at Louisville’s Riverview Park mimics a traditional Kentucky tobacco barn in an artful, and low-maintenance, way. Photo by De Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop

Michael Speaks, the UK college’s dean, and his faculty also were there to advise, something they do for Kentucky cities when asked. Speaks said he hopes to create a program similar to the institute as an ongoing resource for Kentucky mayors.

Several mayors said afterward that the conference was an eye-opener.

“It was a terrific, creative, collaborative learning process,” said Liz Rogan, president of Lower Merion’s Board of Commissioners. “I learned that there are creative solutions and processes and different ways of seeing things.”

Melodee Colbert-Kean, mayor of Joplin, came with the most complicated project: rebuilding a city devastated by a tornado in May 2011.

“It was incredible,” Colbert-Kean said of the session. “The information they have given us will go a long way toward redeveloping our city the way we want it to be.”

There was one public session at the end of the conference. Gang, de Leon and Denari showed some recent work, which offered lessons about the value of good design.

For example, de Leon showed designs for a restroom building at a riverfront park in suburban Louisville. In most cities, this would be a concrete-block box, painted beige. But de Leon designed a beautiful, low-maintenance, reasonably priced piece of highly functional metal-and-concrete art that echoes the look of a traditional Kentucky tobacco barn. It isn’t simply a park services building; it is an icon.

Denari said it is important that any city or company planning a major project hire the right design professionals and give them time to think through all of the client’s needs and problems — some of which the client may not even realize they have.

“It’s about thinking, ‘How can we maximize this project?’ ” de Leon added. “How can we maximize what we’re willing to spend to get the most value?”


Looks great: See latest CentrePointe designs

March 1, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Good news for CentrePointe — and Lexington

April 30, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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