Tom Eblen: Lexington should learn lesson from CentrePointe

Herald-Leader columnistMay 7, 2009 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gray complained that the city had been "hoodwinked."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I think you'll find the results to be interesting," Newberry told council members Tuesday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reach Tom Eblen at (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415, or at teblen@herald-leader.com. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.

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