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CentrePit, CentrePasture — what's next?

Efforts to build the 35-story CentrePointe tower seem to be as dead as developer Dudley Webb's mysterious financier.

Since the project stalled more than a year ago, CentrePointe has become the ultimate Lexington irony: a block developed for more than two centuries that has been cleared, planted in grass and fenced like a horse farm.

As CentrePointe became CentrePit and then CentrePasture, I received many calls and e-mail messages from readers with ideas for what that block in the center of Lexington should become.

Some wanted to see it remain a grassy park — sans fence — or planted in trees or even vegetable gardens. Others would like to see the next herd of Horse Mania statues graze there during the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. My younger daughter thinks it would be a great place to give pony rides.

Conspiracy theorists have whispered that the block was always intended to become the new federal courthouse or local government center. The strangest rumor I've heard? A casino will go there if the General Assembly allows them.

CentrePointe never made much economic sense, even before the real estate bubble burst. Hotel people doubt Lexington can support a J.W. Marriott. Real estate people question the market for 91 million-dollar condos.

But I think a big reason CentrePointe has drawn public ire is that its design just isn't good enough to be Lexington's centerpiece. Renderings make the tower look massive, generic and out-of-place — a monument to a developer's edifice complex.

Earlier this month, I attended a presentation by some University of Kentucky landscape architecture students who re-imaged the 1.7-acre block for a class project. Their concepts were thoughtful and engaging.

The designs called for clusters of buildings, with no tower taller than 15 stories. The students factored in the block's surroundings and patterns of sunlight and shade. They included creative use of open space, water features and roof gardens.

In a grander academic exercise, the UK College of Design brought in prominent architects for a 48-hour workshop in July 2008 that produced three fascinating redesign concepts for CentrePointe. Traditionalists giggled and gasped.

But if Webb wanted to make a bold statement about himself as a developer and Lexington as a city, iconic architecture would get the world's attention.

I saw a great example of that when I went to Spain recently. People from all over the world have come to Bilbao, an out-of-the-way industrial city, to see Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao since it opened in 1997. It is a magnet that the Basque government estimates has pulled more than $2 billion into the local economy.

There are many more modest examples, including several close to home. Michael Graves' 1982 Humana Building brought a lot of attention to Louisville. Daniel Libeskind's 2008 condo tower, Ascent at Roebling's Bridge, is doing the same for Covington.

Webb and landowner Joe Rosenberg have millions tied up in the CentrePointe block. Once the economy improves, something important is sure to be built there. Something important needs to be; it's Lexington's best development site.

I just hope that whatever is built is a long-term success. We sure don't need what Don Blevins Jr., the Fayette County clerk and former Urban County Council member, warned could become "a vertical Lexington Mall right in the heart of downtown."

I also hope that Webb — or whoever ends up developing the property for whatever purpose — hires a great architect to create something of lasting esthetic value.

Lexington hasn't paid much attention to architecture in a very long time. Good design just hasn't been part of our civic conversation. Whatever was profitable for developers was good enough for us. The more conventional — and boring — the better.

CentrePointe seems to have changed the civic conversation. I now hear people talk about how great design could help make Lexington more economically successful and a more interesting place to live. I hope the talk continues — and leads to an urban landscape that is as special as the rural landscape that surrounds it.

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