Tom Eblen: Latest version of CentrePointe shows progress in Lexington's design process

Herald-Leader columnist,Tom EblenFebruary 18, 2012 

I will admit to suffering a bit of CentrePointe fatigue when I went to see a preview of the fifth iteration of Dudley Webb's still-unfunded downtown hotel, retail, office and condo development. But it was worth the trip.

I liked the designs that were shown informally Wednesday to the Courthouse Area Design Review Board, which must approve them.

Most of all, I realized how valuable this long and difficult process has been. Not only has it improved CentrePointe's design — assuming the project is ever built — but it has taught Lexington some valuable lessons about the value of good design and public engagement.

CentrePointe was unveiled in March 2008 as a hulking tower that required the leveling of a block of downtown buildings dating to 1826. With no proof that Webb had financing, the review board, some of whose members have been replaced, allowed the block to be cleared.

Public outcry caused Webb to redesign CentrePointe twice — first as another generic tower, then as a squat slab. All three versions would have stuck out like a sore thumb along that human-scale stretch of Main Street.

Without financing, CentrePointe has spent more than two years as a grassy field, which has afforded a nice view of the restored old buildings across Main Street, most notably the Trust Lounge and Bellini's restaurant.

At the urging of Mayor Jim Gray, Webb hired Jeanne Gang of Chicago — one of only three architects to ever win a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant — to reimagine CentrePointe. After she did some fine work, Webb inexplicably replaced her with EOP Architects of Lexington.

At the same time, Webb added a lot more square footage. After the Louisville-based boutique hotel company 21C decided to look at other Lexington locations, Webb again focused on building a big Marriott hotel with a 10,000-square-foot ballroom.

That meant two elements of Gang's plan — elegant "tube" towers and public space inside the block — were no longer feasible.

EOP inherited a tough job but has done well. The firm retained Gang's two biggest contributions to CentrePointe: a less-dense site plan that reduced the size of the tower and pushed it back to Vine Street; and the idea of using several local architects to design varied, human-scale buildings along Main Street.

EOP's Rick Ekhoff retained much of the look of Gang's proposed glass office building at Main and Limestone streets. And he designed a stunning building for the corner of Vine and Limestone to house an Urban Active gym. One review board member likened it to the "bird's nest" stadium built for the Beijing Olympics, but it reminded me more of a forest. Some people won't like it, but it struck me as the kind of innovative architecture Lexington could use more of.

EOP and three other local architects showed review board members their preliminary designs for Main Street, and they all were thoughtful and original.

The process was pretty remarkable, too. Here were four firms being asked to design side-by-side pieces of urban infill that complemented each other and surrounding buildings without sacrificing originality.

The exercise reminded me of how Lexington has, for so many years, ignored the potential for architecture as public art. That is especially ironic, considering that Lexington has so many examples of it from earlier generations, including the 1849 McAdams & Morford Building and the 112-year-old former Fayette County Courthouse, both right across the street from CentrePointe.

EOP tried hard to make the big tower look less massive, but it is still a big tower.

What bothered review board members most was a proposed pedway across Upper Street and a lack of accessibility to public space inside the block, which has been moved from the first floor to a fourth-floor roof.

Webb loves pedways, those space-age relics that were designed to get people off the street and out of bad weather. He wants a pedway to connect CentrePointe to the garage of his nearby Lexington Financial Center.

Upper Street already will serve as the entrance to CentrePointe's loading docks, and a pedway would make it even more of a canyon. It also would clutter the view of the McAdams & Morford building and the red 19th century building that houses McCarthy's Bar and Failte Irish Imports. If the review board does nothing else, it should nix the pedway.

Expect to see further tweaking of CentrePointe's designs before a public meeting is scheduled next month and certainly before the review board signs off on them.

Lexington might have a bit of CentrePointe fatigue, but the project has become better at each step of the process, both for the developer and for Lexington.

More important, though, it has sent a refreshing signal that design excellence now matters in this city.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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