Jeff Ruby's expresses interest; developer talks strategy at CentrePointe design unveiling

Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects showed Mayor Jim Gray a model of her concept for the CentrePointe block during a public meeting Thursday. Gray introduced Gang to the property's developers, Dudley and Woodford Webb.
Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects showed Mayor Jim Gray a model of her concept for the CentrePointe block during a public meeting Thursday. Gray introduced Gang to the property's developers, Dudley and Woodford Webb.

As several hundred people warmly received a new design for Lexington's CentrePointe at a meeting Thursday, the downtown block's developer revealed some strategy about financing, and a steakhouse owner expressed interest in building a restaurant there.

In addition, Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, whose firm came up with the design, announced the Kentucky firms that will participate in the project.

Gang unveiled a plan including a 30-story tower to include a hotel, apartments and condominiums; an eight-story office building; a pedestrian passway through the block; and several small buildings, including five that would face Main Street. The taller building is made up of a bundle of tubes of different heights, arranged to allow sunshine and air to flow between them. Roof gardens would top several of the tubes.

Local photographer Guy Mendes said he was surprised at his own positive reaction, calling the design "the most exciting thing that has happened in Lexington in a long time."

Lexington architect Richard Levine said Gang and her team from Studio Gang Architects had delved into Lexington's history and gained a real understanding of the city. In June, Gang held a public meeting to solicit ideas from the community. "Now we have an enormous amount of public enthusiasm" for the project, Levine said. "They have done a fantastic job of bringing the community into the process to have an emotional ownership" in whatever is built.

Whether the project ever gets off the ground depends on whether developers Dudley and Woodford Webb find financial backing.

The original CentrePointe design — one large building that filled the entire downtown block — was not built because of a lack of financing. The block has been vacant since 14 buildings were razed in 2008.

Dudley Webb said Thursday he was not trying for traditional bank financing but was looking to other sources. He declined to elaborate.

Webb said he was optimistic because of strong community support for the new design and because the latest design has about 15 separate pieces that could be developed in phases. "It's a little easier with this concept to get financing because you can find investors to do smaller buildings, unlike finding one investor for one large building," he said.

Mayor Jim Gray has offered his help to find financing. Gray, one of the fiercest critics of the Webbs' original CentrePointe project, arranged for the Webbs to meet Gang. The Webbs ended up hiring Gang to do a new design for the block.

"I will do all I can, whenever I can, to help this project," Gray said Thursday. "If I can make a phone call, go see somebody, I'll do it."

Jeff Ruby, owner of Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse restaurants in Cincinnati and Louisville, attended Thursday's meeting — sitting with Dudley Webb — and said he wanted to put a restaurant on the CentrePointe block. But he said he doesn't want to wait for the rest of the project to get started.

"I told Dudley we want to go ahead and do the restaurant now. Dudley agreed," Ruby said. Ruby took the Webbs to eat at his Louisville restaurant earlier in the week.

Webb said he and Ruby are in the midst of negotiations. The two will meet again next week. Ruby had run full-page ads in the Herald-Leader saying he was opening a steakhouse in Lexington, but he had declined to give a location.

Gang announced Thursday the architectural firms that will collaborate with her design team on several small buildings on the block. Their designs would be shown at a public meeting before the overall design goes to the Courthouse Area Design Review Board for approval in the fall.

The firms are:

■ J. Quintin Biagi PSC, the firm of David Biagi, who is director of the school of architecture at the University of Kentucky.

■ CSC Design Studio, with Levine.

■ EOP Architects, with Rick Ekhoff, Richard Polk and Brent Bruner.

■ Omni Architects, with Michael Jacobs and Eric Zabilka.

■ Ross Tarrant Architects, with Martha Tarrant, in collaboration with Pohl Rosa Pohl, with Graham Pohl.

The firms were selected from among 25 applicants.

Ekhoff said his firm was "overwhelmed" at being selected. "This is one of the most significant things to happen in downtown in a long time, and we're happy to be a part of it," he said.

Jacobs said the excitement he saw at Thursday's meeting and a public meeting Gang held in June "is unlike anything I've seen in Lexington in 25 years."

Of the proposed project, Jacobs said, "We need this right now because the economy is so flat. The jobs it would create would have a big impact on our economic recovery in Lexington."

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