CentrePointe deal looks promising, but city must scrutinize details

August 11, 2015
CentrePointe

CentrePointe is bounded by Main, Limestone, Upper and Vine Streets. Photo by Charles Bertram.

 

At first blush, this deal would appear to have the potential to write a dream ending for Lexington’s biggest downtown development nightmare.

Two young men with finance and development experience and access to big money say they are taking over CentrePointe, the mixed use project that after seven years of false starts is nothing more than a giant hole in the center of the city.

But due diligence is needed, because dreams often don’t come true.

Investor Matt Collins and Atit Jariwala, who heads the New York development firm Bridgeton Holdings, seem to be saying all the right things to try to turn this disaster of a project into a civic asset.

Collins said he and his family aren’t just invested in CentrePointe; they have an agreement to take over the project. (I’m holding my breath until all of the papers are signed.)

Property owner Joe Rosenberg and Dudley Webb, the previous developer, will no longer have control or decision-making roles, Collins said. They will only be minority equity partners, reflecting the current value of their investments.

“We’re calling the shots,” Collins said.

Collins and Jariwala also are thinking about renaming the development, since CentrePointe and its pretentious spelling carries a lot of baggage. Good idea.

The partners said they want to make this project a landmark, an iconic piece of architecture, but one that looks like it belongs in Lexington. Another good idea.

This was one of Webb’s mistakes. He had a chance for great architecture with the design developed by Studio Gang of Chicago and later adapted by Lexington’s EOP Architects. But Webb’s sixth and latest version of CentrePointe’s design was barely better than his first three attempts, which were generic and forgettable.

I hope, though, that Collins and Jariwala won’t limit their vision to a look that mimics Lexington’s historic buildings. To be a landmark, a contemporary structure needs to be contemporary, not a riff on architectural history.

Collins and Jariwala said they plan to stay with plans for an underground garage, hotel, apartments, shops and restaurants. But rather than a commercial office tower, they want a new government center, which the city would lease.

Lexington needs a new government center to replace the old Lafayette Hotel building, which badly needs renovation and would be better suited for a hotel, condos or apartments.

City officials have been exploring the idea of selling the old hotel and constructing a new government center on city-owned land downtown. Would it make sense to lease from a private developer instead? Maybe, if the numbers work.

With Webb essentially out of the picture, there is no political reason not to consider incorporating city hall into this development. But Collins and Jariwala will have to negotiate a long-term lease that makes financial sense for taxpayers.

Mayor Jim Gray and the Urban County Council will have to look closely at those numbers, and at something else: Collins and Jariwala said they may want the city to guarantee $25 million in tax-increment financing bonds to build the garage.

City officials weren’t willing to guarantee those bonds for Webb, viewing the risk as too great. If these men want the city to do it for them, they will have to make a case that they are a better risk and structure a deal that protects taxpayers.

After several years of work in banking and international development, Collins said he moved to Lexington two years ago to attend law school at the University of Kentucky. When he finishes school, Collins said he wants to make his home in Lexington, where his Frankfort-born father, international financier Tim Collins, spent part of his childhood.

I think local ties are important. I agree with Collins’ belief that Lexington has a lot of untapped potential, and that it needs a more vibrant downtown to achieve it. I also agree that a landmark building on the CentrePointe block would be a catalyst.

CentrePointe doesn’t just need new financing — it needs new vision, talent and leadership. I am hopeful that Collins and Jariwala can offer that. But city officials must evaluate this deal and its many complexities with open eyes and a clear head.

The big mistake Lexington leaders made seven years ago when CentrePointe was announced was to take everything Webb said at face value. We can’t afford to make that mistake again.