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What can we do next time?

What can Lexington learn from the CentrePointe fiasco?

It's probably too late for anyone but Dudley Webb to make his hotel, condo, retail and office complex in the middle of downtown a better development. But this is the perfect time for the rest of us to make sure it isn't repeated.

Don't get me wrong: we need high-quality development, and lots of it, to make Lexington a vibrant place to live, work and visit.

Mayor Jim Newberry and Vice Mayor Jim Gray took steps last week to seize this opportunity to improve the way planning, development and public process are handled. Now the rest of us need to step up to the plate.

I'm no expert, but I've talked to a lot of people who are. Here's some thinking about where we can go from here.

A vision for downtown

Many people object to CentrePointe's design because it is too massive and ignores many aspects of the Downtown Master Plan, which was developed in an extensive public process at a cost of about $400,000. Lexington's Planning Commission hasn't adopted all of the plan's recommendations, so more work is needed.

The plan is important, but it should not become a straitjacket. It needs to be a suit of clothes that allows city officials, developers and the public to handle specific projects with both flexibility and shared understanding about Lexington's vision and expectations. There needs to be an ongoing conversation, and the plan needs to be flexible enough to change with conditions, new opportunities and new ideas.

City officials should use the tool of tax increment financing, known as TIF, in an intentional way, rather than in just a reactive way, as is being done with CentrePointe. TIF allows some future incremental tax revenues from a private development to be used to pay for surrounding public infrastructure.

What if city officials sought out developers for projects that could help accomplish the community's infrastructure and development goals? That way, the city could drive the process, rather than risk being run over by it.

Lexington could get a lot of low-cost imagination and expertise by becoming more engaged with the University of Kentucky's College of Design, which has fine architecture and preservation programs.

There has never been a better time to do that: The former dean, David Mohney, is the new chairman of the Downtown Development Authority; the new dean, Michael Speaks, has enormous skill and enthusiasm; and UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. is passionate about having the university reach beyond its stone walls to improve life in Kentucky. It could be a powerful partnership.

”I hope we can get involved with the city in some early stages of thinking and help people see outside their comfort zone,“ Speaks said. ”Design is all about "what ifs.' It gives you possibilities to think about.“

The college also could be helpful in one of Mohney's goals for the DDA, which is to increase public awareness of the role good architecture and design can play in improving a city's economy and quality of life.

Good architecture isn't just about what buildings look like; it's more about how people use them and how buildings can inspire people. It's also about the image a city projects to the world.

You don't have to look only to cities such as Chicago and London to see the value of good architecture and redevelopment. You can look at places like Paducah and Greenville, S.C. And while you're watching the Olympics, think about how some of China's stunning new architecture is likely to shape its international image.

Better public process

In most cases, developers aren't required to engage the public in private projects, even ones as prominently located as CentrePointe. That's the law and process now – and it's wrong. Lexington needs to open up its process, and maybe change some laws, to give the public more voice. The task force created recently to study TIF opportunities is a good start.

The Downtown Development Authority has been criticized for being more of a facilitator for CentrePointe's developers than an advocate for the public interest. ”That dynamic needs to change,“ said Mohney, who is working with the authority's board to update its mission statement.

That's a good thing, because the DDA should be a key place where ideas and players come together. It's an independent agency, designed to be insulated from political pressure.

A proactive DDA could look at what's working in other cities, foster public education and discussion and prompt action. There are many good tools other cities are using.

One is a design review board, such as Cincinnati and other cities have had for years. Such professional boards interpret and enforce standards defined by a community to make sure new developments are appropriate.

While CentrePointe's design has received a lot of criticism, it's hardly the worst example of mistakes that could have been prevented by a good design review process. The post office on High Street looks like it belongs in a suburban shopping center. And the ugly new U.S. Justice Department building on Vine Street manages to look both fortress-like and cheap.

Another tool is form-based zoning, which regulates building height, setback and other specifications based on surrounding structures. Another is a so-called Community Benefits Agreement, which at the least can require developers to engage the public.

It's a careful balancing act, though. The last thing Lexington wants to do is create laws so strict and bureaucratic processes so cumbersome that developers won't want to build here. But there's a lot of middle ground between that and the process that produced CentrePointe.

You can't make a rule for everything, and you don't want to. You need both good rules and city leaders willing to use them intelligently. Other cities do it. Lexington can, too.

Rethinking preservation

Newberry last week directed the DDA and the city's Division of Historic Preservation to update the list of downtown buildings more than 50 years old, work with property owners and conduct public hearings on which are worth preserving. The council is supposed to receive that list by March.

That's a good start toward ending Lexington's tendency to act on historic preservation only when the wrecking ball arrives. But it's only a start. People and groups interested in preservation and reuse of old buildings need to take more initiative.

The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation has done a lot of great work over the years, but it has been reluctant to take the lead in development battles. Perhaps that's because it's hard to fight the establishment when you are the establishment. The charge against CentrePointe was led not by the Trust, but by a new citizens group, Preserve Lexington.

While many downtown buildings were surveyed and their historic significance documented in the late 1970s, pressure from property owners kept most of them from being protected. That left the door open for CentrePointe and the developments that preceded it.

Several buildings on the CentrePointe block, such as the circa 1826 Morton's Row, were deemed worthy of preservation. But it's hard to protect a building against the owner's wishes.

There's more to preservation than saving old buildings from destruction. Preservationists must help building owners get the expertise, financing and tax credits to rehabilitate historic properties for new uses that will boost both their businesses and the local economy. There have been many recent old-building success stories downtown, and there could be many more.

”Historic Preservation needs to be on the forefront and be proactively making recommendations,“ said Phil Holoubek, developer of the Nunn Building and Main & Rose condo projects.

There also needs to be a broader discussion about preservation. Sometimes preservation is about saving truly historic structures such as Morton's Row, one of Lexington's oldest commercial buildings, which since 1929 has housed Rosenberg jewelry and pawn shop.

Other times, it's about incorporating old buildings that are interesting but not necessarily historic into contemporary structures that can add value to the city's streetscape. Those developments can be both more charming and more economical than all-new construction.

City officials and community activists also need to take a deep look at building inspection and code enforcement. The CentrePointe block's old buildings were dilapidated because their owners and the city let them get that way.

Newberry's administration has done a lot to improve code enforcement, such as cleaning up long-ignored trailer parks. Gray said he wants his task force to look at these issues, both downtown and throughout the city. Other council members want to go after apartment complexes, rental houses and stores that have become dangerous eyesores.

”What's going on in the neighborhoods is the same thing that's been going on downtown,“ said Diane Lawless, a 3rd District Council candidate who has been researching the issue.

It is often said that Lexington deserves an urban landscape as beautiful as the rural landscape that surrounds it. What do you think we should do to achieve that? Go to my blog on kentucky.com to comment and offer your suggestions.

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