An overflow crowd of 300 people crammed into the Lexington History Museum on Thursday afternoon to hear Chicago architect Jeanne Gang describe a new design for Lexington's CentrePointe block.
The block, on West Main Street in the middle of Lexington, has sat empty since 2008, when developers Dudley and Woodford Webb tore down 14 buildings to make way for a hotel, condominium and retail complex. The initial design called for a single building with a tower; critics said it did not fit with the scale of downtown.
The project stalled because of a lack of financing, and Mayor Jim Gray this year introduced the Webbs to Gang in an effort to get fresh ideas for the block. Thursday's meeting, designed to get input from the public, was part of that process.
Gang first explained how her firm researched Lexington, delving into its architectural past, its agrarian roots and the urban service boundary that kept it compact — all elements that laid the foundation for the city as it is today.
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Gang then led the audience through the steps her firm, Studio Gang Architects, went through to come up with ideas for the CentrePointe block. Displayed next to her were more than a half-dozen models of building designs that might fill the block.
The models were preliminary ideas, Gang said, meant only to show the size and scale of buildings and how several might fit onto the block.
She envisions smaller buildings along Main Street with two towers placed elsewhere on the block, their size dependent on the tenants. The taller tower would have a hotel and condominiums. The shorter would have office and retail space.
Kentucky architects will be invited to help create the smaller buildings as a way to incorporate individuality into their design. Similarly, the 19th-century buildings across Main Street from CentrePointe each were designed by different architects and built at different times.
"We want to get a dialogue going between the two sides of the street, instead of having all the buildings done by our hand," Gang said.
Concluding her remarks, Gang invited the audience to come up, look at the models and give her and architects from her firm ideas for the CentrePointe block.
People flocked to the front of the room.
It was not a pushover crowd. Many had decried the original CentrePointe design and deplored the lack of community input on its design. But the mood Thursday was optimistic, with people saying that they appreciated the openness and that a better design was in the offing.
Linda Carroll, president of the board of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, gave thumbs up to the size and height of the proposed smaller buildings along Main Street. "It puts back the scale of the buildings that were there," she said.
Downtown resident Ken Clevidence said he liked the idea that Kentucky architects would be involved.
"I hated CentrePointe as originally suggested," Clevidence said. "I like the direction they are going with low-rise buildings facing Main Street."
Downtown resident Mick Jeffries, radio personality on WRFL's morning show Trivial Thursday, said after hearing Gang speak, "It was like waking up from a bad dream, seeing iterations of design, rather than 'Here's the building.' It was intoxicating."
Peering at the models, structural engineer Peyman Jahed said, "This is so good. It's unbelievable to have something like this in Lexington."
Even leading CentrePointe opponent Hayward Wilkirson said, "If we continue down this road, with this firm, with this openness, I think we can end up with an iconic piece of architecture."
Michael Speaks, dean of the University of Kentucky College of Design, who has worked with Gang and is familiar with her firm, said having an open dialogue about the controversial block and encouraging local architects to participate "is a smart thing to do, but it's the right thing to do."
By allowing public dialogue and feedback, Speaks said, the Webbs were showing "how smart they have become to an open process. Their intelligence quotient has gone up considerably."
Dudley Webb, looking pleased, said he found it exciting to hear Gang talk about the creative way in which her firm works.
Whether CentrePointe ever gets built depends on financing, the Achilles heel of the project.
Some lenders have expressed interest, Webb said; he expects it to cost several hundred million dollars. "With the right design and community support, we think we can get this done," he said.
The reauthorization of approval from the Courthouse Area Design Review Board to build the original CentrePointe design expires June 30. Webb said he and his partners, including businessman Joe Rosenberg, were going to let the permit expire. Webb said that seeking to renew the permit "would send a mixed message."
"We're looking at a new project, and it's important that this be a team project," Webb said. He also said he was not wedded to the name CentrePointe. "There may be a better name. Let's wait and see."
Gang is scheduled to return to Lexington in mid-July with a detailed design for a tower in the CentrePointe block, and she will announce the Kentucky architects who will be involved in the project.