Tom Eblen: Belief in a good outcome at CentrePointe requires hope

Centrepointe takes a hit with gang gone

teblen@herald-leader.comOctober 30, 2011 

Tom Eblen

I knew that a successful partnership between Lexington developer Dudley Webb and world-class architect Jeanne Gang would require a triumph of hope over experience.

At the urging of Mayor Jim Gray, Webb hired Gang in March to re-imagine CentrePointe, his stalled hotel, retail, office and residential development that for two years has been a conspicuously empty field in the center of the city.

Webb's initial CentrePointe designs were towering monstrosities. But Chicago-based Studio Gang developed a plan that was elegant, inspirational and appropriate to the human scale of downtown Lexington. Gang's creative approach — and the thoughtful process by which she explained it — charmed a skeptical public.

So what did Webb do? He dumped her.

Gang is becoming one of America's most sought-after architects. She has designed innovative, successful buildings around the world, including Chicago's new Aqua tower. Last month, she became only the third architect to receive one of the MacArthur Foundation's $500,000 "genius" grants.

Webb, on the other hand, has a record of building towers in downtown Lexington that look as if they belong in a suburban Atlanta office park. Works of genius? Not even close.

Rather than cap his career by building a Jeanne Gang creation — and score a big marketing coup for himself and Lexington — Webb said last week that he had chosen to go in a "different direction." He replaced Gang with EOP Architects, one of five Lexington firms that she had brought in to help her.

EOP does not have Studio Gang's world-class stature, but it has done some excellent work. The firm is capable of producing a good design for CentrePointe, especially if it sticks with Gang's vision.

That vision includes a varied, human-scale facade along Main Street that compliments the interesting old buildings across the street; breathing space inside the block rather than one dense mass; and towers along Vine Street that look special and don't overwhelm their neighbors.

But an architect can only be as good as his client allows. EOP's biggest challenge on this job might be keeping its own good reputation intact.

Gang's departure from CentrePointe is disappointing, but she leaves an important legacy. She set a high bar for new architecture in Lexington. She also showed how builders can honestly engage a community that finally seems to understand that good design will contribute to Lexington's beauty, functionality and economic success.

The CentrePointe fiasco has made Lexington more demanding of high-profile developments, both their quality and their process. People are less willing to accept the way developers used to do business here: make plans in secret, unveil them with a "like it or lump it" attitude and bulldoze through opposition.

The University of Kentucky's new Davis Marksbury building has set a high standard for good, environmentally sensitive architecture by which future UK projects will be judged.

Barry McNees has worked hard to incorporate good design and public participation into his plans for the Lexington Distillery District along Manchester Street.

Bluegrass Community and Technical College President Augusta Julian hired talented professionals and encouraged public input for plans for a new campus on the former site of Eastern State Hospital.

The Arena, Arts and Entertainment Task Force has hired world-class architect Gary Bates to oversee a public process for planning the long-term redevelopment of 46 acres of underused city land that include Rupp Arena and the Lexington Center convention complex.

Meanwhile, the Urban County Council's Design Excellence Task Force is looking at ways to change laws and standards to encourage higher-quality downtown development than what Lexington has seen in recent decades.

All of this work is more significant than CentrePointe. Still, Lexington has a lot at stake in what happens on the block in the center of the city. People will be paying close attention to how Webb and landowner Joe Rosenberg handle that responsibility — assuming, of course, that anyone lends them the more than $200 million needed to build it.

Will CentrePointe help usher in a new era of good architecture in Lexington? Or will it become just another Webb development? I'm still pulling for a triumph of hope over experience.

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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