At Mayor Jim Gray's suggestion, developer Dudley Webb has hired an internationally known Chicago architect to propose a new design for the empty CentrePointe block in downtown Lexington.
Jeanne Gang, founder of Studio Gang, was hired in March. She was asked to develop two or three concepts for the block in four to six weeks.
"Our specialty is doing a lot of work with cities and places that are trying to make an architectural design that really emphasizes that special place," Gang said. Her firm has done projects in the United States and abroad. Gang designed the 82-story Aqua Tower in Chicago, selected in 2009 as the best skyscraper designed by a woman.
She has done projects in large cities such as Mumbai, India, and in smaller communities such as Greenville, S.C., where her firm is designing a visitors center.
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"We're mostly brought in to think about something differently," Gang said.
In Gray's state of the merged government address in January, he said members of his staff had met with the Webbs about a possible reconfiguration of CentrePointe, a proposed high-rise hotel and condominium complex that turned a once-bustling block into a vacant field.
"I am pleased to say a dialogue has been opened on CentrePointe between my administration and the developers," Gray said.
The mayor had opposed the design and size of the proposed 25-story building. But he said his administration would work with developers "to help create a project on this unique and historic site" that affirms the city's history while demonstrating creativity and imagination.
Gang has an undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois and earned a master's degree in architecture from Harvard University.
Gray knew Gang through her connection to Harvard, where Gray had a yearlong Loeb Fellowship. Webb said Gang was one of several architects Gray recommended.
"We want her to give us her fresh thoughts and ideas to make whatever goes on that block the best it can be," Webb said. He also asked Gang to critique the current CentrePointe design.
"We thought the CentrePointe design was the best it could be. But we've had 24 months to reflect on it, and to the extent there are better ways to do it, we certainly want to do it right," Webb said.
Webb said he was "not wedded to the current design of CentrePointe. We are flexible."
Webb does not have funding for the project, but he said two lenders have indicated interest in putting up money once a design has been settled upon.
Gang visited Lexington several times before being hired by the Webbs. She has sat on design review panels at the University of Kentucky College of Design. Her firm was retained to do a master plan for the architecture school for the expansion of its facility.
Gang submitted a design for a new Lexington city hall several years ago when the city was considering building one.
After being hired for the CentrePointe project, Gang came to Lexington with members of her firm and walked through the site and downtown.
Gang said she knew about the controversy surrounding CentrePointe, the demolition of historic buildings, and criticism of the scale and design of what was proposed.
"It is a very big block," Gang said. As a result, she is thinking of it as "an urban piece of the city ... so it doesn't feel like one big building. It would be more broken down somehow."
Gang has suggested to the Webbs that she might search for a way to engage local architects to participate in designing "pieces" for the block.
"The reason why a building feels comfortable and interesting is because there are different buildings lining the street, and not just one big massive thing that is all the same," Gang said.
The Webbs still want a mixed-use development that would bring in commercial, retail, a hotel, restaurants and condominiums, Gang said. "That's the developer's job to find the tenants. Our job is to do an urban design and a plan to accommodate those things," she said.