Vice mayor demands action on CentrePointe

bfortune@herald-leader.comApril 29, 2009 

Disgusted by a lack of progress on the proposed CentrePointe hotel-condominium complex, Vice Mayor Jim Gray called on developers Tuesday to fill their sunken downtown block with dirt, cover it with grass and open sidewalks now barricaded with metal fences.

"Nine months ago, the developers promised us that the footers would be coming out of the ground on this project on a fast track in December," Gray told the Urban County Council.

Despite those assurances, construction hasn't started.

"This is not a construction site. This is a speculation site," said Gray, president of a construction company and one of the strongest critics of the CentrePointe project.

Gray requested that Mayor Jim Newberry meet with developers Dudley and Woodford Webb to determine the site's short-term future.

After the council meeting, Newberry said he would ask the Webbs to come before the council to answer questions about the project "as soon as possible."

The prominent downtown block was cleared of 14 historical buildings last summer to make way for a 35-story building that would house a J.M. Marriott hotel and 91 condominiums, each to cost about $1 million.

On Monday, two large signs were erected that said "coming soon" with large renderings of the proposed building. Dudley Webb declined to comment when asked by a reporter what "coming soon" means.

Three weeks ago, Webb announced that the international investor who had agreed to put $250 million to build CentrePointe had died last year. The financier's identity has never been revealed.

The investor died without a will, and his estate went to probate court, Webb said.

Los Angeles attorney Richard P. Crane Jr. said in a letter to Lexington city officials that the death "complicated the implementation of the funding plan." However, he said he remained optimistic about the future of Centre Pointe.

Gray said the surprise news contradicts the Webbs' assurances last summer to the council and the Courthouse Area Design Review Board, which approved razing the block, that money for CentrePointe's construction "was unconditionally committed."

The site is not only unsightly, Gray said, but sidewalks are blocked on three sides with construction fences. "If this were a construction site, it would have sidewalks protected with temporary covers which allow our citizens to use the sidewalks," he said.

He also questioned whether there would be demand for a luxury hotel and expensive condos after the current recession, "characterized as a giant reset button" on consumer behavior and buying patterns, Gray said.

He predicted that "something else is very likely to occur on this site.".

Gray was not the only one Tuesday to criticize the site's appearance and the blocked sidewalks.

David Lord, executive director of the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau, said his commission members voiced concerns at their last meeting about the sidewalks and the appearance of the CentrePointe block.

"At least they should move the fences back so you can walk around the block," Lord said. "It's a safety issue."

Lord suggested topping off the CentrePointe site with dirt and planting grass. "It wouldn't cost a fortune just to make a lawn there," he said.

Several dozens citizens also publicly expressed their disgust last week with the site's appearance and the proposed project in general. The group entered the vacant lot and began playing a game of kickball on Friday, only to be shooed away by police.

Meanwhile, a request from the developers to close a lane of traffic on Vine Street between South Upper and South Limestone and to narrow a lane on West Main Street between the same two streets has been approved by the state highway department.

Still, construction cannot begin on the site until the highway department receives a $10,000 encroachment bond from the developer.

On Tuesday, Natasha Lacy, public information officer for the District 7 highway office, said the bond "has not arrived yet."

A permit for an entrance to the construction site also must be approved by the highway department. Earlier this year, the bond for that permit was estimated to be $100,000. However, Lacy said, "we don't have a request for an entrance permit, so we don't know how much the bond for the entrance would be."

The money will be held by the highway department to pay for any damage that might be done to West Main and Vine streets, both of which are state highways.

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