Anyone present in the overheated courtroom at the top of the old courthouse could feel the sense of relief when Jeanne Gang presented her preliminary ideas for the CentrePointe block in June.
It was as if our long community nightmare had ended.
Gang, hired by the Webb Cos. at the urging of Mayor Jim Gray, brought unity where division had seemed the only possibility. Her presentation was thoughtful and imaginative; it reflected attention to detail and a broad understanding of our community and its culture. It was bold and it respected our history.
Since that time, Gang, a Chicago architect with national and international clients, presented a plan for the block, equally well received, was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the $500,000 award generally referred to as a genius grant, and lost the CentrePointe job.
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Last week Lexington learned that the Webbs have told Gang they no longer want to use her firm on the project. Beyond that, things get a little fuzzy. Dudley Webb, who speaks always for this project (although businessman Joe Rosenberg owns the majority of the property), laid the change on J.W. Marriott.
Gang's design contemplated a boutique hotel, but when a single effort to recruit one fell through, Webb reverted to earlier plans for a convention hotel and said that's how Marriott got involved. Marriott's sptial requirements, Webb said, won't work with Gang's ideas.
Webb's version, as is often the case, raises more questions than it answers:
■ Why didn't he try to find another boutique hotel?
■ Does he really have a contract with Marriott?
■ Why couldn't Gang work with Marriott, as she planned to?
■ Why would anyone launch a convention hotel just as the city is contemplating the future of the convention center down the street?
■ Most important, where is the money?
This last question has plagued CentrePointe from its earliest days and only reinforces the profound mistake the city made in allowing Webb and Rosenberg to destroy the historic buildings on the block without proof of financial backing to go forward with their project.
People argue that an owner should have the right to do what he wants with his property. Not completely true. A portion of the block is in the courthouse area design zone and what goes there must be approved by a design review board.
Also, CentrePointe backers earlier pushed hard for tax-increment financing for aspects of the project, a process that gives the city a significant say-so in the deal.
However, those aren't the only reasons the public claims a legitimate right to be involved. This block is at the heart of our city, the heart of our downtown. That's what makes it valuable to developers and important to the city.
Some of the city's oldest, most historic commercial structures stood there; what's built there will affect our future for decades, if not centuries. Lexington has legitimate skin in this game.
That's why Gang's inspiring, energizing presentation was so welcome. She provided optimism about Lexington's future.
Webb and Rosenberg have the absolute right to choose any architect they want for their project. But they need to understand that Gang set the bar high and Lexington — which has already suffered too much over CentrePointe — does not deserve to be disappointed again.