It would be hard to imagine a bigger contrast between the CentrePointe public meeting that filled the smaller theater at The Kentucky on Thursday and the one that filled the same room a little more than three years ago.
At the meeting in March 2008, citizens pleaded with CentrePointe developers Dudley and Woodford Webb not to tear down a block of historic buildings to construct a massive tower that could have just as easily been designed for downtown Austin, Texas, or suburban Atlanta.
Public anxiousness later turned to anger as the block was demolished. But before CentrePointe construction could begin, financing evaporated and the two-acre block became a vacant lot.
Fast forward three years. The crowd that filled the theater came to hear Jeanne Gang of Chicago-based Studio Gang Architects discuss her redesign for CentrePointe. She also introduced the team of Lexington architects who will help her give the complex variety and local flavor.
Most people in the audience liked Gang's designs for CentrePointe's cluster of buildings and were impressed by the thought that went into them. It was easy to see why.
Five low-rise buildings facing Main Street, which will have retail space on the ground floor and residences above, will be similar in scale and variety to the century-old buildings across the street — and the ones that were torn down. An eight-story asymmetrical office building is imaginative, and street-level spaces look as if they will be pedestrian-friendly and inviting.
The proposed 30-story tower that would house a hotel, condos and apartments is simply stunning: light and airy with lots of visual variety, including roof gardens on various levels. The more you look at the tower, the more interesting details you notice. It looks like a place where you would want to spend time.
CentrePointe has been transformed from a project many people hated to one those same people are eager to see built. (Not everyone likes the new design; but not everyone likes anything.)
Mayor Jim Gray has gone from being the Webbs' biggest critic to a valuable ally. He introduced them to Gang, and the mayor said Thursday he will do what he can to help CentrePointe succeed. "As somebody said, a little creativity goes a long way — in this case, a lot of creativity," said Gray, who called the redesign "awesome."
The big question, though, is whether any of it will be built. Can the Webbs find tenants and more than $200 million in financing?
It won't be easy in this economy, but I have to think their odds are much better now that they are selling not a generic monolith but a beautifully unique complex designed by one of the world's hottest architects.
"Where else in the world is a city's center available for an inspiring piece of architecture?" asked Gray, who has spent his career in the construction business.
Whether or not this CentrePointe is built — and I hope it is —Lexington will have learned some valuable lessons about successful city-building. Dudley Webb, who more than any other developer has shaped the face of downtown during the past three decades, said he has certainly learned some things.
"In the old days, it was about free enterprise, and you just went out and did it," he said. "Now, there's a lot more public interest in what you want to do. Everybody perceives it as their downtown, which is good."
Why are these lessons important? Think of CentrePointe — as big and important as it is — as the dress rehearsal for something much bigger and potentially more important. That would be the redevelopment of Lexington Center, Rupp Arena and 40 acres of surface parking that surround them.
CentrePointe began as a typical Lexington "like it or lump it" real estate deal, the product of one entrepreneur's vision and effort. It has become a model for creativity, collaboration and public engagement that could be better for the city and more successful for the developer.
All of this newfound creativity, collaboration and public engagement will be needed to make the Lexington Center property live up to its enormous potential. If done well, it could redefine much of downtown Lexington for decades.
"CentrePointe has become a beacon in terms of process," Gray said. "It's a wonderful testimony for how we can learn from difficult experiences, move on and accomplish more than was ever hoped."
Reach Tom Eblen at email@example.com or (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.