Tom Eblen

Don’t inject politics into new city hall process. Starting over now would be foolish.

Take a tour of Lexington’s proposed new city hall

The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council is considering a developer's proposal to move city hall to the offices of the Lexington Herald-Leader. CRM Companies would gut and expand the building.
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The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council is considering a developer's proposal to move city hall to the offices of the Lexington Herald-Leader. CRM Companies would gut and expand the building.

Lexington’s government has been headquartered in the old Lafayette Hotel building for 35 years. For 20 of those years, mayors and council members have been talking about the need to move somewhere else.

The 99-year-old building is not well-suited for a government center. It is costly to maintain and needs major renovations. It is too small, which is why some city offices are scattered in other buildings. The council chamber isn’t big enough for adequate citizen participation when controversial issues come up for debate.

Several people noted that last fact Tuesday night, when more than a dozen of those who had come to participate in a public hearing on plans to relocate city hall were forced to leave the room and watch the proceedings on television in the mezzanine.

So why hasn’t Lexington found a better city hall, despite more than a decade of talk and costly studies? For the same reason some people now want to reject a good process and a good plan and put off a decision yet again: Politics.

Ten months ago, Mayor Jim Gray’s administration launched a process that attracted proposals from four developers. A committee of city employees — free from political interference from either the mayor or council members — studied and scored the proposals based on the city’s needs and unanimously recommended the one from CRM Companies, headed by Craig Turner.

CRM proposed expanding and renovating the 39-year-old Herald-Leader building at Main Street and Midland Avenue as a new city hall. The building has been for sale for a year because the newspaper’s transition from print to digital delivery of news and advertising requires a much different kind of facility.

One of the unsuccessful bidders, Cowgill Partners, is now challenging the process. Having lost the game, it wants to change the rules. Council member Richard Moloney is turning this into a political issue, opposing the CRM proposal and saying council members should be more involved in the selection.

Why is this process being challenged now instead of months ago? That’s a good question. The complex answer involves personal grudges, business relationships and petty politics that underscore why it was a good idea to keep elected officials out of the selection process.

Many of those behind-the-scenes issues were on display at the public hearing, which attracted more than 30 speakers. That said, many speakers who did not have a vested interest expressed good and valid points of view, both for and against the CRM proposal. It showed that no proposal is perfect — and none ever will be.

Council members could vote as early as next week on whether to accept the committee’s recommendation and move forward on negotiations with CRM — or scrap the process that has just been completed and start all over.

Having heard all of the pros and cons, I agree with the selection committee that the CRM proposal is by far the best one offered. It gives taxpayers the most bang for their buck in terms of office space, parking facilities, public access and good design.

It also is a good adaptive reuse of a huge building at the eastern gateway of Lexington’s small central business district. That area also will soon become the start of the Town Branch Commons linear park and trail through downtown.

Under current zoning, if the Herald-Leader property doesn’t become city hall it could end up as an industrial, warehouse or trucking facility, which would be bad for downtown and worse for the adjacent Bell Court neighborhood. Sure, critics of this plan say another developer might eventually do something else special there, but Lexington’s downtown developers do a lot more talking than building.

Some opponents expressed concerns about city government “abandoning” downtown. Seriously, folks, Lexington’s downtown is tiny. This move is all of three blocks — a short, easy walk from the very center of the city.

Besides, completion of the long-delayed City Center project (formerly known as CentrePointe) and Town Branch Commons is about to make downtown more attractive for commercial tenants and new development than it has been in decades.

And if the city sells the Lafayette Hotel building to a developer who would convert it back into a hotel or condos, that would do more to revitalize downtown than government offices ever have or ever will.

Replacing city hall will never be cheaper than it is today. Interest rates are rising, and many people are concerned about the nation’s economic outlook. The cost of doing nothing will keep going up.

Here’s another thing to think about: If council members scrap this selection process after it has run its course so things can be made more political, what developer in his right mind will ever want to work with city government again?

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