Architect Jeanne Gang no longer involved with CentrePointe, developer says

Webb says her design won't work for planned hotel

bfortune@herald-leader.comOctober 28, 2011 

Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, hired in March to come up with a new design for downtown Lexington's empty CentrePointe block, is no longer involved in the project, developer Dudley Webb said Thursday.

Webb said Gang and her firm Studio Gang Architects were hired to do a master plan for the block "and share her vision of what she thought this project might be."

"She completed her work. She sent her final invoice, and it has been paid," he said. Webb could not recall the exact date but said that occurred several weeks ago.

Graham Pohl, whose firm Pohl Rosa Pohl was one of five guest architectural firms selected by Gang to design several smaller buildings on the block, expressed "great disappointment."

"Jeanne brought the opportunity for something world-class and totally exceptional to Lexington that would have totally transformed the city. Without her involvement, that is not going to happen," Pohl said.

The design for the block by Gang called for a 30-story tower that would include a 10-story boutique hotel, 10 floors of apartments, seven floors of condominiums and three floors of penthouses. The structure appeared to be a bundle of tubes, of various heights, arranged to let air and sunlight flow among them.

Her plan included a public green space; a contemporary, eight-story office building; and a cluster of buildings fronting Main Street, with retail on the first floor and apartments on the second, third and fourth floors.

Gang selected five local architectural firms to design the smaller Main Street buildings. She wanted different architects to design the buildings to give the block variety and local flavor.

When Michael Speaks, dean of the University of Kentucky College of Design, learned that Studio Gang was not going to continue with the project, he said he was "very disappointed."

"I assumed, like I think a lot of people, Studio Gang had been hired to do the whole thing," he said. "My impression is that Jeanne thought they were going to do the whole project, too."

But, he said, "It's Dudley's property. He's a developer. He can develop the property, within limits, however he sees fit."

Reached by phone Thursday night, Gang said, "I'm very disappointed. Dudley wanted to proceed without our involvement."

Webb hired the internationally known architect at the suggestion of Mayor Jim Gray, who knew Gang through their connections to Harvard University. Gang earned a master's degree in architecture there; Gray spent a year at Harvard on a Loeb Fellowship.

"Jeanne Gang's inspiration resurrected the project in the hearts and minds of Lexington's citizens, changing fear to hope," Gray said in a statement.

"The city should ensure what's done is consistent with her vision. This is the center of our city. The center of our economic future. It must not be compromised."

Gang has done projects in cities large and small, including Mumbai, India, and Greenville, S.C., where her firm is designing a visitor center. She designed the 82-story Aqua Tower in Chicago; it was selected in 2009 as the best skyscraper designed by a woman.

In September, she won a MacArthur Fellowship, which comes with a $500,000 prize. "We knew she was a world-class architect. We didn't need confirmation, but there it is," Speaks said.

Gang's vision for the CentrePointe block included a boutique hotel. Webb said he and Gang both talked with the owners of 21C Museum Hotel in Louisville, trying to recruit them to open a hotel in Lexington.

"When that didn't work, ... we went back to our original design for a convention hotel, which is much larger," he said. Webb said the hotel would be a J.W. Marriott. "The design with the bundles wouldn't work."

Asked whether Gang was given an opportunity to design a larger hotel, Webb said that Marriott "only deals with architects who have done convention hotels in the past, so consequently, we were at a dead end on that one."

He said he met with Gang and "explained we were going in a different direction."

Studio Gang had "hoped to collaborate with architects from Marriott," Gang said. "We were prepared to do that." But, she added, "It is Dudley's land."

Gang added that she was "excited to do something else in Lexington."

"I love the city. With Mayor Gray in a leadership role, the city is paying attention to design excellence."

Webb hired Lexington firm EOP Architects to incorporate Gang's ideas into a design for the block. EOP already was involved with the project as one of Gang's guest firms.

"We are excited to be able to take a great vision in terms of the master plan and move forward with it," EOP's Rick Ekhoff said Thursday. He said he hoped to make the EOP plan public in two to three weeks.

"We think what we're developing is something that will have roots in the master plan Studio Gang presented," he said. EOP designed the Main and Rose condominiums on East Main Street and UK's new College of Pharmacy building, and it is designing the satellite facility for Southland Christian Church on the site of the old Lexington Mall.

The hotel design will have to change, Ekhoff said. "Tubes worked well for a boutique hotel, but because of the needs of a J.W. Marriott, tubes didn't work well," he said. "We have to comply with J.W.'s very strict requirements in terms of use needs."

Rooms will have to be larger, and there will be a 10,000-square-foot ballroom, he said.

Webb said Marriott architects "are going to come in and bless the room size, the lobby, the ballroom, the interior space of the hotel."

He praised Gang's "wonderful concepts and ideas for the project. Believe me, there was nothing negative in our relationship with Jeanne. She had vision. She came here and people received her well."

Gang held a public meeting in June to solicit input. At a second public forum in July, Gang unveiled her plan.

"This world-renowned architect came to Lexington and made all of us co-conspirators. She said, 'If you're interested in what happens to Lexington, we welcome you to talk to us,'" said Richard Levine, another of the guest architects.

"She charmed all of us with her seemingly inclusive process, which is so hard for an architect working one-on-one with a client. She did it for hundreds of people," he said. "Somehow that spirit has to be continued."

The CentrePointe block, bounded by Main, Vine, Upper and Limestone streets, has been vacant since old buildings, some of them historic, were razed in 2008.

Webb has been trying to arrange financing since then. He said Thursday that two banks have expressed interest in financing the project once the design is complete.

"They are still standing by," he said.

Reach Beverly Fortune at (859) 231-3251 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3251.

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