Designs for the stalled CentrePointe development have gone from bad to good for one reason: they must pass muster with the Courthouse Area Design Review Board.
When the hotel-retail- condo project was proposed in 2008, the board appointed by Mayor Jim Newberry to oversee the historic district let developer Dudley Webb do almost anything he wanted. But the board's expectations have gotten much higher since Jim Gray became mayor 14 months ago.
The board meets March 28 to vote on what is supposed to be Webb's final design. Based on board members' comments at a preview Feb. 15 — and further improvements Webb's architects made in response to that feedback — I expect the designs will be approved, except for one thing: the pedway.
When Webb and his brother, Donald, were remaking Lexington's skyline with tall towers in the 1980s, they connected them with pedways, enclosed walkways through the sky that keep pedestrians out of the weather and off the street. The pedways provide access to Lexington Center, which includes Rupp Arena and convention facilities, from the Lexington Financial Center, Victorian Square, the Radisson, Triangle Center and the Central Bank building.
About two dozen North American cities built pedway and tunnel systems from the 1950s to the 1980s for people who didn't want to venture outside on their trips from attached suburban garages to downtown offices and stores. Pedways were seen as safe havens against urban crime and decay, as well as amenities to help downtown retailers compete with suburban malls.
Like most urban planning ideas from the auto-centric second half of the 20th century, about the best thing you can say now about pedways is that they seemed like a good idea at the time.
Pedways might make some sense in harsh-weather cities such as Calgary, Alberta; Minneapolis, and Chicago. But cities below the frost belt have stopped building pedways — and even started tearing them down.
Since 2002, Cincinnati has been in the process of demolishing much of its pedway system. Officials didn't like the way it limited healthy street life and cluttered the skyline, especially in such places as Fountain Square. They also could see big maintenance costs on the horizon as the pedways aged.
CentrePointe's first three designs included two pedways, one spanning Upper Street to connect the development to the Lexington Financial Center parking garage. The other would have spanned South Limestone, going to a parking deck beneath Phoenix Park that no longer is planned.
CentrePointe was approved in late 2008 for tax-increment financing, or TIF, which means tax revenue generated by the development could be used to pay for "public" improvements needed to build the project. That included $3 million for the two pedways.
Webb is now proposing only the South Upper Street pedway, which would pass between two historic buildings across the street, the 1846 McAdams & Morford building and the circa 1860 building that houses McCarthy's Bar and Failte Irish Imports.
When questioned by Courthouse Area Design Review Board member Kevin Atkins, a senior adviser to the mayor, Webb said the pedway was needed for easier access to parking and to provide a sheltered walkway between CentrePointe's hotel and the convention center.
But Atkins wasn't buying it, and neither were two others on the five-member board, chairman Mike Meuser and Michael Speaks, the dean of the University of Kentucky's College of Design.
Speaks seemed especially annoyed by Webb's suggestion that pedestrians might feel safer in a pedway than on the street. "I live downtown and it's perfectly safe," Speaks said. "Probably safer than the suburbs."
CentrePointe's redesign process has focused a lot on creating street-level pedestrian activity. The board is loathe to let Webb do anything that would detract from it.
It also seems reluctant to clutter the skyline between two historic buildings on Upper Street. EOP Architects has worked hard to keep that narrow block from becoming a service alley, and a pedway wouldn't help.
Does the board think a pedway is worth more than $1 million in TIF "public improvements" money? I doubt it. Plus, there is the issue of future maintenance costs. Lexington has recently been hit with big bills for repairing and replacing aging parking garages. The pedways we already have aren't getting any younger.
For all of those reasons, expect the review board to put its collective foot down and reject the CentrePointe pedway.