Dudley Webb now says he can build his CentrePointe tower without public money.
Maybe he should.
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Originally, Webb wanted as much as $70 million in tax increment financing — known as TIF — to pay for ”public“ improvements related to the $250 million project. Those could include additional underground parking, a giant outside video screen and some public art.
Last week, after a city panel gave Webb permission to tear down all of the old buildings on the block, he surprised everyone by saying he could do the project without TIF financing.
But if he did that, of course, the public amenities would be ”scaled back.“
You get the idea.
”The community and the Urban County Council need to tell us, do they want us to go ahead with the TIF application?“ Webb said.
The Urban County Council and a state board must approve any TIF financing for CentrePointe. The council could begin discussing it Tuesday.
Maybe council members should call Webb's bluff and say, ”Fine. Go ahead.“
CentrePointe has always seemed to be questionable as a TIF project.
The state TIF program allows a portion of future taxes generated by a new development to go toward paying for public improvements needed to make the development possible.
The idea is to help build ”signature“ projects that will spur economic activity around them.
Others have proposed TIF projects to replace Rupp Arena and create an entertainment district along Manchester Street. It's easy to see how those projects could accomplish the goal.
CentrePointe, on the other hand, would house a luxury hotel, luxury condos, stores and restaurants.
When Webb spoke to the Bluegrass Hospitality Association recently, hoteliers expressed skepticism about the market for a new luxury hotel. Meanwhile, downtown is awash in unsold condos and vacant retail space.
Would CentrePointe create new economic activity downtown, or just compete for what's already there?
Not to mention that Webb is trying to build CentrePointe during the worst construction and financing market in years. Aside from vague references to ”international“ money, Webb hasn't disclosed his financing.
All of those factors should give local and state officials pause about putting public money into CentrePointe.
Plus, there's this: Kentucky law requires officials to certify that a TIF project couldn't be built without public assistance. Webb's comments last week seem to undermine that idea.
So what if there is no TIF financing? The developer should still be required to provide adequate on-site parking and streetscape improvements.
Webb has resisted meaningful public participation into what would be one of the biggest, most high-profile developments in Lexington's history.
When preservationists heard rumors of his plans two years ago and expressed concerns about some of the historic structures on the block, Webb listened politely — and ignored them. With help from some city officials, he kept his plans secret from the public until March, when they were unveiled as a done deal. While Webb has made some design improvements to respond to critics, they have been minor.
Given Webb's lack of interest in public participation, it may not be a good idea to put public money at risk on CentrePointe.
If Webb does apply for TIF financing, the council should ask a lot of questions, and insist on some safeguards.
The first safeguard would be to prohibit demolition of the buildings now on the block, some of which date to 1826, until the TIF application is approved and other financing is secured and documented.
Remember the World Hole Center?
When the Phoenix Hotel block across Limestone Street from the CentrePointe block was cleared in 1981, future Gov. Wallace Wilkinson was promising to build a 50-story office tower he called the World Coal Center.
It never happened.
Instead, Lexington was left for several years with a big hole, dubbed the World Hole Center. Eventually, the public library, Park Plaza apartments and Phoenix Park were built to fill the void.
Here's the best thing that could have happened with CentrePointe: Webb could have incorporated a few of the existing structures, or their facades, into a contemporary development that would be uniquely Lexington.
But here's the worst that could happen: Webb could clear the block, his development plan could collapse and we could be left with another hole in the middle of town — and no historic fabric for a more creative developer to work with in the future.