Tom Eblen: Will the saga of CentrePointe have a fairy-tale ending?

Herald-Leader columnistJune 2, 2011 

These are some of the site models that Studio Gang was bringing to Lexington for a public meeting on Thursday, June 2, 2011, to show design alternatives for the CentrePointe block. The CentrePointe block is in the middle of the rectangle; the block can be removed and replaced with one of the other blocks on the table.

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 Architects in Chicago will present her initial site plan Thursday at the first of at least two public meetings. 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 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 might well be the key to Webb securing the financing and tenants he needs to transform CentrePointe from a failure to 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.

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

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