The CentrePointe project on Wednesday cleared a major governmental hurdle before its expected groundbreaking in October.
The Courthouse Area Design Review Board approved a new design for the $393.9 million project while reserving the right to have developers and architects tweak exterior details on its apartments. CentrePointe also includes office space, a J.W. Marriott hotel, retailers and restaurants, including a Jeff Ruby's steakhouse.
J.W. Marriott is the Mariott chain's "luxury" brand.
Wednesday's vote was 2-1, with board member Graham Pohl, an architect, abstaining. Pohl's firm Pohl Rosa Pohl was one of five guest architectural firms chosen by architect Jeanne Gang to design several buildings on the block during a CentrePointe design experiment that was later rejected.
CentrePointe, first announced in March 2008, has been controversial because of its design and because buildings on the proposed block were razed without subsequent construction. Grass has been planted at the site, which is in the middle of downtown.
At issue Wednesday was the Main Street part of the project, including 85 apartments that are across the street from the McAdams and Morford building. Various members of the board said they were unhappy with the red brick and white trim in the apartment building's design and the lack of a distinctive "cap."
While developer Dudley Webb and his attorney Darby Turner initially told the board that the project had to be completely approved for financing to be wrapped up, they said after a break that the office tenant for the project would allow some latitude on the exterior design of the apartments. The $393.9 million figure includes construction and financing costs.
Webb said he was pleased with the outcome. Construction of the garage should begin in October, he said, with the entire project completed by December 2015. All construction except the inside of the hotel would be complete by June 2015, Webb said, because the office space tenant — whom no one associated with the Webb Companies will identify — "does not want to be in a construction zone."
CentrePointe will be a LEED-certified project, Webb said, meaning that it will conserve energy and water and be a healthier environment for occupants.
Board members Billie Dollins, representing bankers, and Luther Andal, representing property and business owners, voted for the project. Kevin Atkins, the city's chief development officer, voted against it.
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray echoed some of Atkins' concerns in a statement Wednesday night: "Two years ago one of America's best architects, Jeanne Gang, created a plan for this block that caught the imagination of our citizens. Regrettably, there was almost nothing left of Jeanne's vision in the plan presented to the board Wednesday. The developers haven't confirmed financing so there's still much to be done. This block is the heart of our city, and it's important that it be done right."
Rick Ekhoff of Lexington-based EOP Architects said CentrePointe "brings aesthetic benefit to the city" and will be cost-effective and attractive.
Ekhoff told the board that none of that would be possible "if you don't approve us today."
Atkins said he was disappointed with the project's exterior, saying that it looked as if it could be anywhere, and that the apartment design looked as if it had simply been transported from elsewhere on Main Street.
"What is time-crucial about the apartments and about the hotel?" Atkins asked.
He suggested that the rest of the project could be approved, and the board could reserve the right to look at some exterior changes.
But the Webb contingent was unyielding in its contention that the financing of the project was at risk if approval were not granted Wednesday.
"The worst case is, we'll be building what you approve," Webb told the board. "The best case is, we'll be improving this over time."
Ekhoff said he was frustrated with some of the public discussion about the look of the CentrePointe project, and that some elements of the project were hurriedly designed and meant to be placeholders to be further refined.
"People are developing opinions on this project that aren't informed," he said. "They don't know what they're talking about."
Webb also said that it's difficult to please architecture critics.
"It's so subjective," he said. "Who decides what's good architecture? At some point you've got to decide and go for it."
On Aug. 8, Webb met with city officials from building inspection, engineering, planning, water quality, traffic engineering, historic preservation and the fire department to discuss construction details. In July, the city's Urban County Council approved a new CentrePointe master development agreement.
Although the courthouse design board approval was crucial, additional governmental hurdles await. The project will need to go through building inspection permitting and traffic engineering. The developer also will need to address water quality and sanitary sewer issues and provide a plan for dealing with the stream flowing beneath the site.