Tom Eblen: Plans for 21c hotel show downtown's economic potential

Efforts to create vibrant urban core paying off

Herald-Leader columnistApril 15, 2012 

Lexington leaders were almost giddy last week after 21c Museum Hotels announced plans to turn the old First National Bank building into one of its award-winning hotels and contemporary art museums.

They had every right to be giddy. It is a big deal, for many reasons, and comes at a pivotal time for downtown Lexington.

The Louisville-based company's decision to make Lexington its third expansion city after Cincinnati and Bentonville, Ark., validates five decades of public and private struggle to keep downtown from dying. It was a problem shared by most cities during an era of suburban sprawl and often-misguided "urban renewal."

This $38 million project confirms the wisdom of infrastructure investments by city government and civic-minded foundations and companies, as well as the judgment of developers, entrepreneurs and artists whose creativity and risk have made downtown hop again.

It validates the work of preservationists, who understood the value of Lexington's built heritage. And it raises the bar for downtown architecture. The 15-story First National Bank building, Lexington's first skyscraper, was designed by McKim, Mead and White, one of America's best architectural firms a century ago. The renovation will be directed by Deborah Berke, one of today's star architects.

More than anything, though, 21c Museum Hotels' plan affirms those who see great economic development potential in making Lexington a city where the 21st century's best and brightest people will want to live, work and play — an urban landscape that is as special as the countryside surrounding it.

Steve Wilson, the CEO of 21c Museum Hotels, described Lexington as "a city that is looking forward, and we are thrilled to be part of that." Craig Greenberg, his business partner, said: "We're very optimistic about downtown Lexington's continued revitalization."

Greenberg said one thing that attracted them to Lexington was the new, visionary plan for redeveloping 46 city-owned acres around Rupp Arena and Lexington Center. The plan calls for renovating Rupp, moving and expanding the convention center, adding mixed-use private development and uncovering Town Branch Creek to create a downtown water feature.

Greenberg said the plan's success "will be absolutely critical to downtown." So will more urban housing, he added. The downtown condo market is still recovering from over-building before the recession. But the restoration of historic in-town neighborhoods has continued unabated, and real estate people see increasing demand for moderately priced downtown rental units.

Construction of the mixed use CentrePointe project also is important, Greenberg said. The 21c partners discussed locating there, but things didn't work out.

Developers Dudley and Woodford Webb now say Marriott will build a much larger hotel at CentrePointe, joining tenants Urban Active gym and Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse. With an architectural plan that since 2008 has gone from bad to excellent, the Webbs are trying to line up construction financing and more tenants.

Having a 21c Museum Hotel across the street should be a big plus for CentrePointe.

Still, while many business people agree there is a market for a boutique hotel like 21c, they doubt there will be enough demand for a big Marriott until the city's convention facilities are expanded, which could be several years away.

CentrePointe's ups and downs have attracted a lot of attention, but a bigger story over the past four years has been the tremendous amount of small-scale development downtown, despite the recession.

Much of that was fueled by infrastructure improvements. Fifth Third Bank's donation of the market house to a renovated Cheapside Park created a magnet for both people and investment, including great new restaurants such as Dudley's on Short and Table 310, whose owners renovated historic buildings. Several more old buildings are being restored as bars and restaurants, including the soon-to-open Shakespeare & Co. on Short Street.

Meanwhile, Jefferson Street has blossomed as another entertainment district. The new West Sixth Street Brewing Co. at the end of Jefferson is the first piece of what could become a development boom north of downtown near the new campus of Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

Triangle Park reopened last week after the Triangle Foundation completed a beautiful, $1 million renovation that could make it another downtown people magnet.

Where does Lexington go from here? That depends on how well local political and business leaders can execute their ambitious plans and keep the momentum going.

That means continued infrastructure investment: street and sidewalk improvements, bike lanes and paths and more parking facilities, especially on the east and west sides of downtown.

The city's Design Excellence Task Force must translate "design excellence" into a practical framework of guidelines, policies and procedures that the Urban County Council can turn into law. Those laws must include a ban on speculative demolition of old buildings with high reuse potential, such as occurred on the CentrePointe meadow. And all of that needs to happen soon, before the economy improves and development pressure increases.

While some people in Lexington have always believed in downtown's potential, it is significant that outsiders see it, too. Executives of 21c Museum Hotels see it. So did the urban design director of the Boston Redevelopment Corp., who made his first visit to Lexington earlier this month and said he was impressed.

"You have all of the ingredients for success waiting to be put together," Prataap Patrose told me.

After speaking at the University of Kentucky and spending a couple of evenings walking around downtown, Patrose had these recommendations: Plant more trees along city streets. Convert most one-way streets to two-way traffic. Add more bicycle lanes. Widen more sidewalks to allow for more outdoor dining. Encourage more urban apartment development and more revitalization of residential neighborhoods near the city center and UK's campus.

"When you try to attract businesses, they look at the downtown first," he said. "Urban design is proving to be a critical factor in making choices. People want to go where there is a good quality of life. You seem to have that here. You need to make the most of it."

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

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