Emerge Contracting sees opportunity in urban infill, redevelopment

October 12, 2015
Smith Town Homes, a townhouse development on Smith Street being developed by Emerge Contracting. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Smith Town Homes, a townhouse development on Smith Street. Photos by Tom Eblen


When Bob Eidson and Matt Hovekamp were roommates 15 years ago at the University of Kentucky, they talked about starting a real estate development company together. Then they went their separate ways.

Eidson joined the Army and served in Iraq, earned an MBA from UCLA and worked in banking and finance. He also helped start The Bourbon Review magazine.

Hovekamp spent a dozen years as Ball Homes’ purchasing manager.

The college roommates got back together in 2008 as Lexington’s infill and redevelopment market was beginning to emerge. They raised capital to buy property, started doing construction work for others and began making development plans for when the economy recovered.

Bob Eidson

Bob Eidson

Emerge Contracting’s focus is on infill development and renovation ventures in Lexington’s walkable, urban neighborhoods — roughly between Midland Avenue and Newtown Pike, Loudon Avenue and Maxwell Street.

The company’s first big project is Smith Town Homes, a row of five market-rate townhomes near the West Sixth Brewery.

With that project almost finished, the partners broke ground Oct. 2 for a very different venture: Wilgus Flats, a 12-unit apartment cluster aimed at low-income workers and retirees in the East End. They plan to own and operate the complex.

“We want to do mixed-use, mixed-income projects and affordable housing,” Eidson said. “We feel like now the industry trends and growth are pretty sustainable.”

Emerge Contracting was one of the first developers to file applications with the city’s new affordable housing trust fund. But their initial project was designed to appeal to professionals and empty-nest baby boomers seeking an urban lifestyle.

Emerge Contracting co-owner Matt Hovekamp. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Matt Hovekamp

Smith Town Homes are on five narrow lots on Smith Street, between West Fifth and West Sixth streets, one block east of Jefferson. It is a low-income neighborhood with many old shotgun houses. Eidson and Hovekamp said that when they bought the property in 2008, it included two vacant houses without indoor plumbing, which they demolished.

The Lexington architecture firm Alt32 designed the contemporary townhomes, which have brick and galvanized metal exteriors. Each unit has 10-foot ceilings and polished concrete floors on the first level. The units are designed to save energy costs, with heavy insulation, high-efficiency systems and LED lighting.

Four units have three bedrooms, and one unit has two. They range in price from $199,000 to $245,000. The two cheapest units are now listed as under contract.

“Our value proposition is modern, multi-generational, energy-efficient housing downtown below $120 a square foot,” Eidson said.

The partners said they aren’t trying to “gentrify” Smith Street, but create new development that will add income diversity and make the neighborhood more stable. Next door, they bought a vacant old building they plan to remodel and rent as four low-income apartments.

When I stopped to see Smith Town Homes under construction in June, Lexington Police Officer Charles Burkett happened by. He said he had spent 13 years patrolling the area, which in the past has suffered from disinvestment and high crime, even though it is only a block from the mansions of Fayette Park.

“I’m impressed,” Burkett said. “That’s what this neighborhood has needed for a lot of years.”

Across town, Wilgus Flats, on two vacant lots on East Third Street, will have 12 apartments with monthly rents in the $600 range. First-floor units will be designed to accommodate disabled and elderly people.

“They came to us and said, ‘What would be good for the neighborhood?'” East End activist Billie Mallory said. “A lot of people are just sitting on land around here. I’m glad somebody is going ahead and doing something.”

Wilgus Flats is across East Third from Wilgus Street, whose oldest property is the circa 1814 home of Asa Wilgus, a prominent builder in early Lexington. His work included the 1811 Pope Villa on Grosvenor Avenue, which was designed for a Kentucky senator by Benjamin Latrobe, America’s first professional architect and designer of the U.S. Capitol.

Eidson and Hovekamp see a lot of potential in revitalizing urban neighborhoods in Lexington that suffered from decades of neglect during the decades when suburban development was the rage. Both live with their wives near downtown; the Hovekamps on South Upper Street, the Eidsons on West Sixth.

“We like the diversity of downtown,” Hovekamp said. “It’s something you don’t get in the suburbs.”

Emerge Contracting recently broke ground for Wilgus Flats, a 12-unit affordable housing apartment development in the East End.

Emerge Contracting recently broke ground for Wilgus Flats, a 12-unit affordable housing apartment development in the East End.

CentrePointe deal looks promising, but city must scrutinize details

August 11, 2015

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.

Chattanooga offers good lessons for Lexington’s downtown

June 16, 2015
In one of Chattanooga's most ambitious recent adaptive reuse projects, a former movie theater was transformed into The Block. The theater's garage is now faced with a 5,000-square-foot climbing wall, one of the nation's largest. The $6.5 million project is one of many that has transformed downtown Chattanooga from decay into a popular destination for both residents and tourists. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

A former movie theater has been transformed into The Block. The theater’s garage is now faced with a 5,000-square-foot climbing wall. The $6.5 million project is one of many that has transformed downtown Chattanooga from decay into a popular destination. Photos by Tom Eblen


Downtown has made a lot of progress in recent years. But when I travel to other cities in the region, I realize how much further and faster Lexington needs to go.

Each June, I meet more than a dozen friends from Lexington and Atlanta somewhere in between for a week of bicycling. We look for a place with scenic, bicycle-friendly rural roads, not far from an urban center with great restaurants and interesting places to visit after each day’s ride.

I was impressed two years ago with Asheville, N.C. I was even more impressed last year by Knoxville, Tenn., whose downtown has improved dramatically since I lived there in the 1980s. This year’s destination was Chattanooga.

Lookout Mountain has been a tourist attraction since the Civil War, but Chattanooga’s downtown was long known for industrial grime and urban decay. In the 1960s, it was one of America’s most-polluted cities.

Boy, has that changed. Outside magazine readers recently voted Chattanooga as America’s Best Town.

Since 2002, a $120 million effort called the 21st Century Waterfront Plan has transformed the city’s once-derelict riverfront into a local amenity and tourist destination. That, in turn, has attracted private construction, new business and jobs.

Chattanooga is a great example of the concept that smart public infrastructure investment attracts private capital. It’s the same idea behind Town Branch Commons, the proposed linear park through downtown Lexington.

The waterfront plan helped prompt Chattanooga’s Hunter Museum of American Art to invest in a $22 million expansion. The Hunter is an excellent museum, and its prominent spot on a downtown bluff makes it easy to visit, unlike Lexington’s good but well-hidden University of Kentucky and Headley-Whitney art museums.

The Hunter is one of Chattanooga’s many examples of historic buildings being restored and adapted for new uses. The original portion of the museum is housed in a 1905 Classic Revival mansion, which since 2005 has adjoined a beautiful piece of contemporary architecture.

Another example is the Walnut Street Bridge, a 2,376-foot steel truss span built in 1890 and closed to vehicular traffic in 1978. After 15 years of neglect, it was converted into a pedestrian bridge that has become a popular gathering place.

Like the Old Courthouse in Lexington, it might have been easier and cheaper to just tear down the bridge rather than restore it and find a creative new use for it. But it is obvious now that Chattanooga made the right choice.

Chattanooga’s most famous example of historic preservation and adaptive reuse is Terminal Station, the 1908 Beaux Arts train depot that in the 1970s was converted into the Chattanooga Choo Choo, a hotel and convention center.

The Choo Choo struggled over the years, but as surrounding old buildings have been converted into trendy restaurants and shops, the area is coming back to life. An $8 million project is underway to restore the rest of the old depot and create more commercial space.

One of Chattanooga’s newest adaptive-reuse projects is The Block, near the Tennessee Aquarium. The $6.5 million project transformed the old Bijou Theater into a fitness and climbing complex. The cinema’s renovated parking garage is now faced with a 5,000-square-foot climbing wall that is both an eye-catching piece of architecture and a popular tourist destination.

Some of Chattanooga’s most important new public infrastructure isn’t visible. In 2008, the city-owned electric utility defied the cable-company monopoly and installed a gigabit broadband system that has attracted high-tech jobs.

Chattanooga’s population is a little more than half that of Lexington (168,000 vs. 310,000), although its metro area is a bit larger (528,000 vs. 473,000). But Tennessee’s fourth-largest city offers Lexington some great examples of how public-private partnerships can invest wisely in infrastructure that can attract economic development.

Chattanooga set a clear vision: Clean up the environment; showcase natural amenities, such as the Tennessee River; preserve history and local culture; encourage outstanding contemporary architecture; make it easy for people to live and work downtown; promote outdoor activity; and invest in beauty and public art.

Meanwhile, back in Lexington, last week marked six months since the Webb Companies had two giant tower cranes installed at CentrePointe, where they have done nothing toward turning the block-square pit into an underground garage.

The Hunter Museum of American Art is a prominent downtown destination in Chattanooga, perched on a bluff above the Tennessee River. Originally located in Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The Hunter Museum of American Art is a prominent downtown destination.

Moccasin Bend of the Tennessee River, as seen from Lookout Mountain, with Chattanooga to the right. While Lookout Mountain has been a tourist attraction since after the Civil War, Chattanooga has made substantial improvements to its downtown in recent decades, making it popular with both residents and tourists.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Moccasin Bend of the Tennessee River, as seen from Lookout Mountain, with Chattanooga to the right. While Lookout Mountain has been a tourist attraction since after the Civil War, Chattanooga has made substantial improvements to its downtown in recent decades.

National Avenue business district has new name: Warehouse Block

May 28, 2015
Greg Walker of Walker Properties announces the renaming of his family's redevelopment district along National Avenue as Warehouse Block. Behind him is his father, Randy Walker, left, and Mayor Jim Gray. Photo by Tom Eblen

Greg Walker announces the renaming of the district along National Avenue as Warehouse Block. Behind him are his father, Randy Walker, left, and Mayor Jim Gray. Photo by Tom Eblen


The mixed-use business district Walker Properties has been developing in a former industrial area along National Avenue has a new name: Warehouse Block.

The family-owned company announced the name, which was voted on by tenants, at a news conference Thursday. The name and a new logo will be used in signage and other branding for the district.

Warehouse Block has a diverse mix of tenants in its renovated buildings. The New York Times featured the development in a story earlier this year as an outstanding example of adaptive reuse and urban redevelopment.

“It’s not every day that Lexington gets in the New York Times,” Mayor Jim Gray said. “What the Walkers have done is a perfect example of creative place-making.”

Randy Walker, an electrical contractor, said he started buying and renovating buildings along National Avenue three decades ago, “at a time when the neighborhood was barely nice enough to be sketchy. Coming from the construction industry, I couldn’t stand letting these buildings go un-maintained and unused.”

Walker Properties worked with city planners to revise zoning codes to allow a return to the way cities used to before the mid-20th century trend of strict segregation of land uses. The company is now run by his sons, Greg and Chad.

Greg Walker said the Warehouse Block has been about much more than renovating old buildings. “We and our clients and tenants are building a community,” he said.

Walker said the company will sponsor the first Warehouse Block party Aug. 21. National Avenue will be closed off for live music and food vendors.

Rand Avenue renovations add to North Limestone renaissance

April 19, 2015

150416RandAve0008Real estate entrepreneur Rock Daniels has been buying, renovating and reselling former rental houses in the first block of Rand Avenue. His contractors are basically rebuilding many of the century-old bungalows, which were structurally sound and have nice architectural detals, but had badly deteriorated after years as rental units.   Photo by Tom Eblen


First it was downtown mansions. Then East Lexington bungalows. Now, North Lexington cottages. The popularity of in-town living has brought another wave to Lexington’s home renovation market.

With most of the antebellum houses and Victorian mansions redone and selling for more than $500,000, a good business has developed in complete renovations of homes built a century ago for working-class families.

The wave that started in neighborhoods such as Hollywood, Kenwick and Mentelle has washed up North Limestone.

150408RandAve0022Rock Daniels, a real estate agent who twice ran unsuccessfully for the Urban County Council, is buying and virtually rebuilding early 1900s houses in the first block of Rand Avenue, just north of Duncan Park, as well as some houses on nearby streets.

Laurella Lederer was doing the same thing before him. Having redone much of Johnson Avenue, she is now working on the second block of Rand.

Broken Fork Design has redone several houses and multi-family units, including the Fifth and Lime Flats. It was a much-needed renovation of an apartment complex built after the 1963 demolition of Thorn Hill, a circa 1812 mansion where Vice President John C. Breckinridge was born.

Chad Needham, who redid the old Spalding’s Bakery at East Sixth and North Limestone and the building that now houses North Lime Coffee & Donuts across from it, has done several other houses and commercial buildings in the area.

Needham’s most recent project is especially impressive: an early 1800s house at the corner of North Limestone and West Fifth Street that became commercial space long ago and had fallen into terrible shape. Beautifully renovated, it now houses Fleet Street Hair Shoppe.

Rand Avenue, created in 1892, still has most of its original houses. A notable exception is No. 264, a vacant lot since about 2001. It was the childhood home of Elizabeth Hardwick (1916-2007), whose father was a plumbing contractor.

Hardwick left Lexington for New York in 1939 and became a famous fiction writer, essayist and critic, a founder of the New York Review of Books and wife of poet Robert Lowell. She was recently inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.

Since the 1980s, though, Rand Avenue has largely been rental property. Broken Fork did one of the first renovations there — the house where the Spalding family started frying their famous donuts in 1929.

Daniels, who lives in the Hollywood neighborhood, saw Rand Avenue as a promising area for young professionals who wanted to live near downtown, wanted a house and yard rather than a condo, but couldn’t afford larger renovated houses.

The first house he renovated sold in November for $182,500. He is now doing nine more on Rand, three of which are already under contract, two to medical school residents and one to a physical therapist, he said.

Daniels showed me through one of them, a circa 1910 frame cottage with about 1,200 square feet. It had been a rental house for years. He bought it for $36,000, is investing about $80,000 in renovation and hopes to sell it for about $165,000. His nearby renovated houses are priced around $145,000.

With each house, his contractors install a new roof, take the house down to the studs and make any needed structural improvements. They preserve what historic fabric they can. But except for restored heart-pine floors, most things will be new: windows, wiring, plumbing, heating and air, insulation, kitchens and siding on the non-brick houses.

Many houses have small interior coal chimneys that can’t be reused. They are removed for a more open floor plan, but the bricks are reused for walks.

“We try to save and repurpose as much as possible,” said Daniels, who grew up in a National Register historic house in Bristol, Tenn.

Daniels wants to buy all of the rental houses he can on the street, he said, but none that are owner-occupied. In fact, he said, he has offered to make improvements on those houses at cost.

He will soon be building a new porch for homeowner Janice Hamilton and her husband. She has lived there since 1981 and likes what is happening on her street.

“When I first moved here it was a lot of older people, most of them homeowners,” Hamilton said. “And then a lot of them died out and it became rental property. So it became a little this and that.

“Now I’m glad to see it coming back to the way it used to be,” she said. “A lot of people give Rand Avenue a bad rap. We had some bad tenants years ago. But it’s quiet, it’s close to town. Everybody looks out for each other. I’m looking forward to new homeowners.”

Daniels sees a lot more potential for restoring North Lexington neighborhoods.

“Of course, we’re looking for what the next Rand Avenue is going to be,” he said. “There are so many people who want to move downtown.”

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

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.

New Shorty’s owner sees opportunity in downtown Lexington

November 25, 2013


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.”

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

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:



The thinking behind the Rupp district rethink

December 4, 2011

Lexingtonians are a practical lot. If we talk about building something, we immediately want to know what it will look like, what it will cost and when it will be finished. And then we want to come up with reasons why it won’t work.

The Arena, Arts & Entertainment District Task Force is a different kind of process. It is about bringing stakeholders and the public together with some world-class planning and design professionals to brainstorm ideas and consider possibilities, both for now and the distant future.

Gary Bates

Last week, the public heard again from the design team leader, Gary Bates of the Norway-based architecture firm Space Group. Bates, who taught at the University of Kentucky for a year, said part of his role is to be a “provocateur” and spark creative thinking in others.

You may have seen news reports about Bates’ latest thinking: Renovate Rupp Arena, don’t replace it. Don’t expand the convention center, build a new one nearby to “free Rupp” for expansion. Connect the city better with bicycle and pedestrian space including a path to UK’s campus he calls The Catwalk.

Also, Bates suggests, better connect the district with the rest of downtown by bringing Town Branch Creek back to the surface in some form and build public space around it. “It’s such an enormous opportunity,” he said.

Bates’ team has offered some interesting ideas. Just as interesting are the basic philosophies behind them. Among those:

Build on what works; abandon what doesn’t. This concept is at the heart of Space Group’s evolving ideas about Rupp and the Lexington Center shops and convention facilities.

UK officials and fans have been wanting a new arena because Rupp lacks lucrative entertainment space and high-tech gadgetry. Rupp lacks the glamour of Louisville’s new KFC Yum Center and its exterior is as sexy as a shipping crate.

But if you put aside arena envy and 35 years of age, Rupp has always served its purpose incredibly well. It is one of the nation’s great arenas. Bates approached the issue like this: how could a renovation build on Rupp’s intense fan experience and use it to energize the surrounding area?

While Rupp has always worked, the retail space around it never has. The shopping center can be crowded when there’s an arena event or convention, but is a ghost town much of the rest of the time. Tenants have always come and gone. Bates suggested moving those shops to face Main Street — still accessible to arena and convention visitors, but more visible to everyone else.

After several expansions and renovations, the convention facilities wrapped around Rupp are scattered on three levels. Expanding the convention center won’t solve its inherent design problem and space constraints.

So Bates has suggested building a new convention center — perhaps a cluster of buildings connected by covered walkways — nearby. A task force study shows that renovating the arena and building new convention facilities would cost half as much as the opposite approach. (That is, assuming UK or the city can find the money to do either.)

Adaptive reuse. “There’s an incredible collection of old buildings in the downtown area,” Bates said. Economics and common sense suggest finding new uses for them.

For example, he said, restore the old First Baptist Church as a performance hall and “rethink” Victorian Square, which has a beautiful facade but interior space that has never worked.

Bates also emphasized adaptive reuse of open space, especially Rupp’s vast asphalt parking lots. He envisions a school building, athletic fields and underground and deck parking on the High Street lot; Keeneland-style lawn parking on the west Cox Street lot, which he said would look less like a gully if the Jefferson Street bridge were removed.

Slow cooking. Bates uses this term to describe a philosophy of not trying to make longer-term plans too specific. Especially in places such as the High Street lot, uses should evolve over time as needs change and construction money is available.

Better connect the city, focusing on pedestrians and bicycles. That explains the Town Branch and Catwalk ideas and better connecting bike lanes and trails and “safe” pedestrian streets. Also, he said, increase density downtown, which is only half as dense as it was a century ago.

Perhaps Bates’ biggest long-term idea is a public transit hub on the railroad yard northwest of Rupp. But he isn’t alone. Keeneland President Nick Nicholson asked the task force to consider a future light rail link to Keeneland and Blue Grass Airport.

Now that is an out-of-the-box idea. In our traditional way of planning, would any Lexingtonian have even had the courage to suggest it?


Land-use changes put Woodford County at risk

November 6, 2011

VERSAILLES — There is an old saying about military leaders who fail because they plan for the last war instead of the next one. The Woodford County Planning and Zoning Commission may be about to make a similar mistake.

Commissioners want to remove a decade-old ban on development in the county’s Agriculture/Equine Preserve District, which has some of the world’s best horse farms and richest soil. They also want to consider costly extensions to the Blue Grass Parkway and Falling Springs Boulevard through prime farmland.

These short-sighted moves would encourage the kind of unsustainable development we saw in the last century, rather than the economic strategies that are likely to be successful in the next one.

The proposed changes to Woodford County’s five-year comprehensive plan would chip away at wise land-use policies that have fueled growing agriculture and tourism industries. The changes seem unjustified, contrary to the plan’s goals and objectives and were proposed without public input.

More than 100 citizens filled a courtroom last Thursday for their first — and perhaps only — opportunity to comment on the plan, which was drafted by a four-member commission committee headed by Brian Traugott.

A few people spoke in favor of the changes, including Versailles Mayor Fred Siegelman, Woodford Judge-Executive John Coyle and Brad McLean, chairman of the county’s Economic Development Authority.

Many more people spoke against the changes: average citizens, a prominent businessman, a former governor and a variety of farmers from all over Woodford County.

“What’s being proposed in this plan will hurt our business and economic development, because it is going in the wrong direction,” said Joe Graviss, who owns McDonald’s restaurants and employs about 60 people.

“Why would the county allow the destruction of its most valuable asset?” asked horse farmer Richard Masson.

The World Monuments Fund in 2007 declared Kentucky’s Inner Bluegrass region one of the planet’s most endangered landscapes. Woodford County has some of the best examples of it.

Good land stewardship has helped give Woodford County an enviable quality of life and some of Kentucky’s highest employment and per-capita income rates. There is plenty of residential, commercial and industrial land already set aside to handle anticipated growth for many years.

Rather than open the agriculture preserve to possible development, future rural subdivisions should be banned countywide, several citizens said. Existing rural subdivisions have hurt surrounding farms, marred the landscape and burdened taxpayers with costly infrastructure and support services.

Economic development trends show that the successful communities of the future will be those that guard their beauty and quality of life, not those that encourage sprawl and generic development. Farmland values are skyrocketing nationwide because investors realize that rising transportation costs will make locally grown food more important in the future.

In an interview earlier last week, Traugott insisted that the proposed changes would result in little additional development. But Lexington attorney Bruce Simpson, speaking at the hearing on Masson’s behalf, told commissioners that if they crack the door, developers will hire good lawyers like him to blow it wide open.

As bad as the proposed changes are, the heavy-handed political process seems even worse. Unlike previous plan updates, the public was not allowed input on the draft. The commission’s Web site posted copies of the current plan and new draft, but nothing more to identify or explain the differences.

“Who requested these changes, and why?” Graviss asked. Commissioners declined to answer any questions at the hearing. Citizens were allowed to submit written comments or speak for no more than three minutes. When former Gov. Brereton Jones, a Midway horse farmer who opposes the changes, exceeded his time limit, he became the first of several speakers to be silenced by a honking horn.

“There are some significant questions that need to be answered,” Jones told commissioners, adding that “180 seconds” of comment is a poor substitute for honest analysis, discussion and debate.

Commissioners could approve the changes as soon as Thursday. But if they are smart, they will take this draft back for a rewrite. They should remove the controversial changes, or offer evidence for why they are justified. And they should let the public participate in these important public decisions.

If commissioners and the elected officials who appointed them allow these changes to be rammed through, they risk both Woodford County’s future and their own political skins.

Will Lexington leaders act on Greenville’s lessons?

June 19, 2011
Knox White, left, the mayor of Greenville, S.C., leads a group of people from the Commerce Lexington across the Falls Bridge, a suspension pedestrian bridge that replaced an ugly highway bridge over a waterfall that has become a city park. Photo by Tom Eblen

Greenville Mayor Knox White, left, leads a group from Commerce Lexington across Falls Bridge, a suspension pedestrian bridge that replaced a highway bridge over a waterfall that has become a city park. Photo by Tom Eblen

One of the most valuable things about Commerce Lexington’s annual “leadership visit” is that it brings together nearly 200 people who spend three days looking at Lexington’s strengths and weaknesses through the lens of another city.

Last week’s trip to Greenville, S.C., was my fourth, and I found it the most useful. Perhaps that was because Greenville’s relative size, assets and challenges are more similar to Lexington’s than are those in Pittsburgh, Madison or Austin.

In many respects, Lexington is better than all of those cities. It was easy to sense some of Greenville’s shortcomings, despite city leaders’ positive spin. But the point of the trip was to learn from what they do better than we do.

The primary lesson was that beautiful, high-quality urban development can improve both quality of life and economic vitality. Since the 1970s, Greenville has transformed an ugly, car-choked downtown into a garden spot where people want to live, work and play. Economic prosperity has followed.

Greenville is more politically and socially conservative than Lexington, and much of what city leaders did was controversial. But they did it, and it worked.

The city transformed a Main Street the size of Lexington’s from a sun-baked, four-lane highway into a pleasant two-lane, two-way gathering place. It is shaded by big trees and filled with shops, restaurants, sidewalk dining and plenty of parking in diagonal street spaces and artfully disguised garages. A neglected riverfront and waterfall became a gorgeous public park surrounded by new development.

Downtown is now beautiful, inviting, unique to Greenville — and twice as big as it was. Old buildings have been restored and adapted to new uses. Contemporary mixed-use developments have been built and are successful. There are a variety of performance halls, sports venues and museums. The renaissance is growing in all directions, and nearby towns are emulating it.

What can Lexington learn from Greenville? Here were my takeaways:

Articulate a simple vision that almost everyone can embrace. That is different from launching a task force or commissioning a detailed study that will gather dust on a shelf. Simply agree on a vision such as this: Lexington’s urban and suburban spaces should be worthy of the beautifully unique countryside that surrounds them.

Leaders must lead. As the Lexingtonians saw in Greenville, that means taking risks, working together and figuring out creative ways to accomplish goals. It means entrepreneurial partnerships among government, business and nonprofits. It also means inclusive, transparent planning and long-term strategies.

Demand excellence. Greenville raised the bar for downtown development with design guidelines and an architectural review process. Developers know they must meet high standards — and that city officials will work with them to overcome obstacles to mutual success.

Remember when the developer who wanted to build a one-story, suburban-style CVS drugstore on Lexington’s Main Street said the retailer wouldn’t do better? Well, a two-story, urban-style CVS is under construction on Greenville’s Main Street. When finished, it will look like it has always been there.

I asked Mayor Knox White to explain Greenville’s redevelopment vision in a nutshell. “Downtown is all about the walking experience,” he said. “The architectural guidelines, the landscaping, everything. It’s a religion with us.”

Build on success. Greenville’s revitalization was an intentional, long-term process. Partnerships were formed to create world-class anchor projects and beautiful public spaces that would attract private investment around them. Civic leaders were not afraid to dream big and take risks.

Greenville leaders said they always have a “next big thing” on the horizon. Lexington achieved much during the three years before last fall’s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. We need a “next big thing” on which to focus.

This is a time of great opportunity for Lexington. Over the next couple of decades, Lexington will redevelop three huge tracts of urban land: the 46 acres around the Civic Center and Rupp Arena; the adjacent Distillery District; and the area surrounding the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus at the old Eastern State Hospital site.

Greenville shows what can be done, and the visitors from Lexington left talking like converts at a tent revival. But as we all know, even the most sincere believers can backslide when distracted.

Will Lexington stop being satisfied with good enough and try for great? Can those who went to Greenville help articulate a clear vision for Lexington and mobilize the community behind it? Will our leaders lead?

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

Public-private efforts fueled Greenville renaissance

June 16, 2011
Restoration of the Reedy River and land surrounding it in Greenville, S.C., has been an anchor for downtown revitalization. River Place, left, is a $63 million mixed-use development built on city-owned land as part of a successful public-private partnership. Photo by Tom Eblen

Restoration of land around the Reedy River has provided a key anchor for downtown revitalization in Greenville. River Place is a private mixed-use development built on city-owned land. Photo by Tom Eblen

GREENVILLE, S.C. — In the early 1970s, downtown Greenville “was pretty much a dead zone,” Nancy Whitworth, the city’s economic development director, told 193 visitors from Commerce Lexington on Thursday, as she showed old pictures of a four-lane Main Street with sun-baked sidewalks.

After her morning talk, the visitors took a walk down a very different Main Street, the work of three decades of serious planning, investment, public-private partnerships and, more than anything, a consistent vision of pedestrian-friendly beauty that city leaders were trying to achieve.

The first champion of the effort was longtime Mayor Max Heller, who died Monday at age 92. A Jew who moved to Greenville from his native Austria to escape the Nazis in 1938, his European background made him realize the way to bring life back downtown was to make it a beautiful, inviting place where people wanted to spend time.

Main Street was reduced to two lanes and diagonal parking and trees were added. Those trees are large now, providing a beautiful, shaded canopy for sidewalk dining for nearly 100 restaurants in the city center.

The revitalization took place over many years as strong city leadership, coupled with support from the business community and private developers. Several public-private anchor projects over the years attracted private investment around them.

“Our public sector is willing to step up and take risks, and the private sector is willing to back them up,” Whitworth said. “It takes both.”

The first anchor project was a Hyatt Regency hotel, where the Commerce Lexington group is staying. Others have included a privately financed baseball stadium and a performing arts center.

But perhaps the two most spectacular projects were River Place and Falls Park, both built along a once-neglected stretch of the Reedy River in what officials said used to be one of the seediest parts of Greenville.

River Place is an air-rights project; the city owns the land and a $14 million parking garage, but developer Bob Hughes put together the mixed-use development of several buildings on top of it, which represents more than $63 million in private investment.

“It’s impressive,” Lexington developer Dudley Webb said after Hughes gave the group a tour.

Falls Park was once a gulch with a 1960s concrete highway bridge that hid a waterfall. Knox White, who has been Greenville’s mayor for 15 years, said the city spent $1 million to remove the ugly bridge, then spent millions more to turn the gulch into a garden-like park with an amazing pedestrian suspension bridge over the falls.

As he walked the Lexington visitors over the bridge on a beautiful Thursday afternoon, the park was filled with people. Dozens of children waded at the foot of the falls.

“Most people in Greenville hadn’t seen the waterfall before we built the park,” White said. “Now, you can come down here at 10 o’clock at night and there will still be people in the park.”

What lessons can Lexington learn from Greenville’s success? I’ll write about that in my Sunday column.

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.

Downtown lessons from Louisville, Los Angeles

March 7, 2009

Just a few years ago, two of America’s most downtrodden Main Streets were those in Los Angeles and Louisville. Their once-grand buildings had been abandoned or mangled. Vagrants wandered the streets.

Many people in those cities — like those in Lexington who cheered demolition of the old buildings on the block of our Main Street where CentrePointe is planned — thought the only hope was to bulldoze and start over.

Louisville and Los Angeles now have very different stories to tell about their Main Streets. At a symposium last week sponsored by the University of Kentucky College of Design, those stories were told by the architect/developers whose innovation and determination made them happen.

Tom Gilmore of Gilmore Associates is the force behind what is now known as the Old Bank District — three 100-year-old buildings in downtown Los Angeles that have been converted into 230 lofts surrounded by a neighborhood of restaurants, shops stores and cafés. He also saved a historic downtown cathedral the Catholic Church wanted to tear down. It has become a popular concert and event venue that is paying for the restoration.

Bill Weyland, managing director of CITY Properties Group, led the renaissance of Louisville’s West Main, where he built the Louisville Slugger museum and baseball bat factory and the Glassworks complex of art studios, offices and lofts. He also restored the abandoned Henry Clay Hotel building on South Third Street into a popular complex of lofts, shops, restaurants, theaters and event space. He has several other projects under way.

At the heart of both stories was the vision each man had for restoring beautiful old buildings for new uses, and the tenacity it took to convince bankers, city officials, Realtors and bureaucrats that it could be done profitably.

The developers had many great war stories, but my favorite came from Weyland.

He had bought an old building that he thought had potential for something, but he didn’t know what. Then he read that Hillerich & Bradsby was looking to modernize its Slugger factory in southern Indiana and build a tourist attraction. Weyland pitched his building, but Slugger executives wanted visibility from Interstate 64.

To get interstate visibility from a downtown site, Weyland’s company proposed creating a 120-foot tall baseball bat to lean against the building. Slugger executives loved the idea, but city bureaucrats were aghast.

A huge bat would violate Louisville’s restrictive sign ordinance, and the trademark Hillerich & Bradsby brand disqualified it from being considered public art. But Weyland wouldn’t give up. If city officials wanted to bring Louisville Slugger back to Louisville, they had to find a solution, he said.

Finally, a code enforcement officer asked Weyland if it would be possible to vent plumbing up through the bat. Weyland was puzzled. “The guy then pointed out that there is nothing in the Kentucky building code that restricts the shape of a plumbing vent,” he said. Problem solved, new Louisville landmark created.

The American Planning Association last year named West Main Street one of “America’s 10 Great Streets.”

What can Lexington learn from these examples, and many similar ones elsewhere? Weyland and Gilmore offered these thoughts:

Downtown historic preservation can’t be just about preserving the past or creating museums; it must be about adapting the best of the past to the economy of the present and future.

“It’s a touchy subject in the preservation community, because the first word in ‘adaptive reuse’ is ‘adaptive’,” Gilmore said. “You can’t just save old buildings; you have to find ways to get people into them.”

Old buildings are often worth reusing because they were built to last and are more structurally sound than they look. They have craftsmanship that can’t be replicated, and they convey a sense of a city’s history and culture. Still, some buildings must occasionally be sacrificed to save more significant structures around them.

Developers, bankers and city officials must be innovative, flexible and think long-term. Cities must abandon precise, restrictive rules in favor of more flexible processes that allow for dialogue and big-picture thinking.

“West Main Street’s transformation almost seems magical, but it was a 30-year war in which we had to overcome the status quo and the thinking of bankers who said, ‘There’s no way to redevelop something like that’,” Weyland said.

Downtowns must be designed for people and not automobiles. The key is creating a place where people want to walk and gather. Successful downtowns must work around the clock, allowing people to live, work and play in the same area.

“It’s about building communities,” Gilmore said. “And local mom and pop businesses are the lifeblood of cities. They make them unique.”

Downtown housing is most attractive to young people and empty-nesters; growing families usually prefer the affordable spaciousness of suburbs. “Cities are for people who are young and people who are young at heart. It’s not about age, it’s about attitude,” Weyland said.

“Ultimately,” he said, “the success of our cities are about the experiences people have in them and the memories they create.”