It has taken me three weeks to get around to writing about the proposed new design for the stalled CentrePointe project downtown.
What's the pointe? The chances of the old or new designs being built any time soon are right up there with pigs flying.
The only reason a new design was made public June 9 is that developer Dudley Webb's city permission to build expires July 8. He must go before the Courthouse Area Design Review Board at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the council chambers to seek new permission.
Webb first appeared before the board two years ago. He asked to demolish an entire city block to build a 35-story tower with a 250-room four-star hotel, 91 million-dollar condos, 54,000 square feet of retail and office space, several restaurants and a "world-class spa."
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He said CentrePointe would create 1,000 construction jobs for two years and 1,000 permanent jobs thereafter. And he claimed that it wasn't practical to incorporate in the design any of the block's 14 existing buildings, several of which were historically or architecturally significant.
Webb would never reveal where he was getting the money for this $250 million project, which seemed improbable even before the commercial real estate and lending markets collapsed. But the city board charged with protecting the center of Lexington's historic character said, sure, go ahead.
The result of that demolition was not CentrePointe but CentrePasture. It has employed the people who built a plank fence around it and keep the grass mowed.
Truth is, Webb didn't have the money then and doesn't have it now, according to his new application. Unlike the go-go days before the real estate bubble burst, few investors are interested now in luxury hotel-condo projects.
Even in its new, scaled-back form, CentrePointe makes no economic sense. But that's not really the concern of the Courthouse Area Design Review Board. Its job is to apply the overlay area's design guidelines — something the rest of downtown needs, too — to ensure that new construction fits into Lexington's urban landscape.
CentrePointe's new design is less ugly than the old one but hardly an inspiring piece of architecture. It is 10 stories shorter and has a flat roof with a giant flagpole instead of a "pointe" tower. The façade looks more appropriate to the surrounding area, although it is remains massive.
Webb's architects made significant improvements to the way the lower "podium" portion of the tower fits in with the street and surrounding buildings. There is much more window glass and street-level retail, making it more pedestrian-friendly.
The board members, whose authority is limited to design issues, should like the changes. But given the damage they allowed to be done on little more than a developer's broken promises, I hope they will ask some tough questions about the likelihood of this design ever being built.
Rob Morris, a thoughtful blogger on local issues (www.lowells.typepad.com), wrote a long article recently that raised excellent questions about CentrePointe's financial assumptions.
Morris also questioned the wisdom of Kentucky investing nearly $50 million of future tax money on related "public" improvements — almost half of which would primarily benefit this private development. CentrePointe would have to be a long-term success to generate the tax revenue needed to pay off any debt taken on to fund those improvements. That is an issue that I have raised before and that the Urban County Council should address again.
Whatever action city officials take, CentrePointe must overcome a tougher hurdle: a more sober real estate lending market. That's why I suspect it will be a long time before CentrePasture is anything more than Dudley Webb's field of dreams.