Fayette County

Two developers' approach to projects radically different

Vice Mayor Jim Gray, whose day job is running a big construction company, says he learned a long time ago that development projects ”are a lot more about process than project.“

Two of Lexington's biggest development projects came up Tuesday during the Urban County Council's last work session and meeting before the summer break. What was striking was the radically different approaches the two projects' developers have taken to ”process.“

One project is CentrePointe, Dudley Webb's proposed 35-story luxury hotel, condo and retail tower that would occupy a block in the center of Lexington. The other is the proposed Lexington Distillery District on a blighted section of Manchester Street between Rupp Arena and the Newtown Pike Extension.

Conceived privately and announced March 4 after closed-door discussions with the Downtown Development Authority and the mayor's office, CentrePointe has faced broad community opposition and suspicion.

Young people are upset that popular music and entertainment venues such as the Dame were evicted from the block. Preservationists want some elements of the block's historic buildings incorporated into the new structure, as has been done in many other cities, rather than being bulldozed.

Citizens and urban planners complain that the design Webb unveiled is too massive for the site and doesn't follow the city's Downtown Master Plan. Architects think CentrePointe's design is uninspired, at best. The soon-to-be-displaced Farmers Market wants a new home.

Stung by the opposition, Webb responded by making a few changes to his plan. But he insists on clearing the block and starting fresh. And he says it's too late to consider alternative suggestions from architects, preservationists or citizens.

Webb's approach to ”process“ prompted the Fayette Alliance on Tuesday to withdraw support for CentrePointe. The Alliance had conditionally supported the project when it was announced, saying urban infill is important to preserving farmland, its main goal.

In a sharply worded rebuke, the Alliance criticized CentrePointe's developer for failing to involve the public or address community concerns. The Alliance urged city government and Webb to ”establish a transparent and structured public participation process to meaningfully address“ those concerns.

In stark contrast to Webb's style is the approach being taken by Barry McNees, Brooke Asbell and their partners in the proposed Lexington Distillery District. It would create a mixed-use neighborhood of restaurants, clubs, stores, loft homes, pedestrian areas and perhaps a farmer's market or even a small showcase distillery along Manchester Street.

A century ago, the neighborhood housed three of Kentucky's biggest bourbon distilleries, the last of which shut down a generation ago. Many of the old distillery buildings remain, and there is lots of vacant space for new development.

In a presentation to the council Tuesday, Asbell said his group wants to reuse the old buildings rather than bulldoze them, to create a unique area that will bring people downtown and pay homage to Lexington's history and culture. The developers are working to integrate their plans with other nearby projects such as the Town Branch Trail and the Newtown Pike Extension's signature bridge.

Like CenterPointe, planning for the Distillery District began more than two years ago.

During that time, the Distillery District's developers have held several workshops to gather design ideas from professional and student architects and have met frequently with local leaders, surrounding neighborhoods, arts groups and other interested parties. Open community forums will be scheduled soon, after studies help firm up more project details, Asbell said.

Tax-increment financing, known as TIF, will be needed to make the project economically feasible, Asbell told council members. That's because the developers can't cover the cost of such things as putting utilities underground and building pedestrian areas.

Kentucky's TIF law allows local governments to partner with developers to pay for such improvements with a share of future taxes that will be generated by the project.

When CentrePointe was announced, Webb said he wanted a TIF partnership to pay for underground parking and other public improvements. Then, faced with opposition, he said he could do the project without TIF financing. Since then, though, he's indicated he does want TIF.

Stung by their own exclusion from the CentrePointe ”process,“ council members voted Tuesday to have seven of their members meet with Webb and any other developers seeking TIF financing to negotiate terms of any deal openly and with respect to Lexington's ”history and heritage.“

After the council briefing, Asbell described the Distillery District developers' philosophy this way: ”It's not going to work without the support of everybody. Our approach is to say, "Here's what we're planning, and we want to work with you.'“

That's a lot better than the CentrePointe approach: We know best. We don't care what you think. Here's the deal; do you want in or not?

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