Good things can come from bad times. Consider two recent examples in Lexington.
The first was the announcement Tuesday by the mayor, most Urban County Council members, land preservationist groups and the Home Builders Association that there is no need any time soon to expand the 53-year-old Urban ServiceBoundary.
That is good news — and a big deal. Lexington's periodic review of its comprehensive land-use plan is usually dominated by a bitter fight over whether to open more irreplaceable farmland for development.
Because the demand for new homes is so weak, the fight won't happen this time. That will allow Lexington's leaders to focus on making the highest and best use of the 6,700 acres available for development or redevelopment inside the boundary.
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"A sour economy has brought Lexington a sweet planning opportunity," said Councilman Bill Farmer, chairman of the council's planning committee.
It is a perfect opportunity to come up with better ways for Lexington to grow and prosper without destroying more of the precious natural resource — the unique rural landscape — that makes the Bluegrass special.
We should use this opportunity to create better planning and zoning mechanisms to encourage neighborhood revitalization and the restoration and reuse of old buildings and high-quality new construction, especially downtown. Councilman Tom Blues is leading a "design excellence" task force looking at many of these issues.
"It's very complicated," said Knox van Nagell, executive director of the Fayette Alliance, a land preservation group. "But we've got to make it easier for developers to do the right thing in the city."
A second good thing to come out of this bad economy is the latest news about Dudley Webb's CentrePointe project. It is not only good, it could be great, both for the developer and for Lexington.
In March 2008, Webb and property owner Joe Rosenberg unveiled plans to tear down some of Lexington's oldest commercial buildings to construct a generic skyscraper that would house a luxury hotel, high-priced condominiums, stores, restaurants and offices. The historic buildings were demolished, but Webb was unable to finance CentrePointe. The two-acre block is now a vacant lot.
Webb recently hired one of the world's best up-and-coming architects to help him re-imagine CentrePointe. Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang in Chicago has designed acclaimed projects all over the world, including Chicago's new Aqua building.
Studio Gang is one of the best three or four firms Webb could have hired for this project, said Michael Speaks, dean of the University of Kentucky College of Design. "They are good and smart and have built a lot of big things already," he said. "They have a light touch, but their designs are very beautiful."
When I contacted Gang recently, she said the work is under way but she isn't ready to talk about it. I can't wait to see what she and her associates come up with. I suspect it will be very different from three earlier CentrePointe designs, which featured boxy towers.
"We're mostly brought in to think about something differently," Gang told Herald-Leader reporter Beverly Fortune, who first reported her hiring April 8. Gang said she likes to design buildings that emphasize a city's sense of place.
During the go-go years that led to the real estate bubble and financial crisis, developers could make money building almost anything. No more. To attract financing and tenants, CentrePointe must be something special — an exciting place where businesses and people want to be. What if, for example, the design could find ways to reference Lexington's rich 19th century architectural heritage with a unique, contemporary twist?
CentrePointe also must address a different market than Webb envisioned three years ago. A 200-plus-room J.W. Marriott hotel? Doubtful. This market is more likely to support a boutique hotel half that size — ideally one that offers a unique experience like, say, Louisville's 21C Museum Hotel.
Just imagine what world-class architecture that meets the needs of a changed market could do for Lexington. Based on her work, Gang is capable of creating something very special — something that could transform CentrePointe from a liability into an asset.