Now that the huge excavation in the heart of downtown Lexington (formerly known as CentrePointe) is in new hands, it is instructive to review a few things we should have learned from its sordid history.
In the hands of new developers who will be proposing new uses for the site, such as a city hall, we are back to square one — a very good place to be if we choose to take advantage of it.
Unfortunately most of the current buzz seems to be about whether the new team has the resources to finance the project, rather than how we can assure that we realize a project of the quality Lexington needs and deserves.
The now-defunct project has had its ups and downs, but when we speak of quality, we speak of architect Jeannie Gang.
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Back in the day, Mayor Jim Gray offered the developers the city's support if the Webbs would hire a distinguished architect to design the project. Enter Studio Gang. Although it was a private project, Jeanne Gang the architect chose to make a public presentation, inviting citizens of Lexington to participate in her design process.
The large courtroom of the old courthouse was packed. Instead of presenting a fait accompli — "here is what I designed and what will be built" — she presented her analysis of the Bluegrass landscape and how its character could become the inspiration for an emerging design.
Instead of presenting a finished project, she revealed two different designs and discussed the characteristics of each of them and even showed several variations of each scheme. She showed detailed models and drawings and invited the audience to examine them, and after her presentation to discuss their reactions, ideas and criticism with the five architects of her team who were there to assist.
In a presentation lasting less than two hours, she engaged any and all interested Lexington citizens to become participants in the design process and gave the audience a good idea of just how an outstanding architect develops an excellent design.
What a breath of fresh air in a process that previously had been shrouded in mysterious, byzantine machinations. How could we not love her? She even made the gracious gesture of inviting individual local architects to design the new row of buildings along Main Street in order to reflect the richness and diversity of our historic downtown. (I was one of those architects.)
By engaging Lexington in a small part of the design process, Gang instilled in the audience a sense of ownership in the project. Although we think of Lexington as our town, CentrePointe was no longer "their" project. It had become "our" project.
For a brief moment, even developer Dudley Webb was thrilled that everyone seemed excited by the very project that had previously been universally vilified.
But it was all too good to last. At just about the time that Gang was receiving her MacArthur "genius" award, there was a falling out between architect and developer and the project again slowly sank into its earlier level of mediocrity.
The brilliance and excitement generated by Gang's process, which surely would have generated financial as well as the evident civic support for the project, vanished to be followed by a succession of ever lesser, anonymous projects that piled up on the site in a futile attempt to generate more financing by increasing rentable floor space.
In the hands of new young developers, we are now given a fresh start. We need to assume that the city in agreeing to work with them is well satisfied that the finances are sound.
So let's stop talking about finance and direct our attention again to the quality of the project and its contribution to our city and landscape.
Let us hope that the new developers become aware of Gang's generous gesture of sharing her observations and designs as well as her openness to ideas and criticism from all of us, to both contribute to her design process as well as elicit our support and enthusiasm.
Let's hope the new developers can benefit from what we should have learned from Gang: namely, that with just a few of the right moves in process and design quality from an outstanding architect, the center of Lexington can become a world-class attraction of interest, enthusiasm and even financing.