Optimism about CentrePointe; Rifts closing around new approach

Developer Dudley Webb, left, and Mayor Jim Gray shared a laugh during a public hearing on plans for CentrePointe block.
Developer Dudley Webb, left, and Mayor Jim Gray shared a laugh during a public hearing on plans for CentrePointe block.

CentrePointe has served as a symbol of many things since the downtown development was first proposed three years ago.

It's been hailed as an economic boon and a welcome investment in the community. It has been panned as an urban disaster and an economic farce.

More than anything, though, as the fight over CentrePointe raged in the summer of 2008, it represented a complete disconnect between two warring visions of Lexington.

So it's gratifying that CentrePointe is now an example of good leadership bringing people together to transform a public discussion.

When architect Jeanne Gang presented her firm's concepts for the empty block at the heart of downtown earlier this month, Mayor Jim Gray sat in the front row with developers Dudley and Woodford Webb.

Three years ago, as vice mayor, Gray was a leading opponent of the development the Webbs proposed for the site. It was a key issue in Gray's successful race to unseat former Mayor Jim Newberry. Woodford Webb, president of the family firm, contributed to Newberry's campaign.

So, in this era of polarization, it was hard to be optimistic there would be any good news about the vacant block anytime soon.

Gray apparently didn't see it that way. He reached out to the Webbs and helped arrange a meeting between them and Gang. The Webbs, to their credit, took it from there. They hired Studio Gang Architects to propose a new plan for the block.

When Gang presented her firm's thinking about how to proceed, it was a scene that would have seemed like a fantasy three years ago. Over 300 people squeezed into a sweltering courtroom at the top of the Lexington History Museum.

The Webbs and their supporters were shoulder to shoulder with some of the loudest members of the opposition. At the end of the presentation, it seemed like everyone was glowing, and not just from the heat.

Gang explained how she and her team visited Lexington, researched its history and land-use patterns, studied downtown and considered how new buildings on the block would relate to existing structures in the area.

At the two-hour meeting, one hour was devoted to Gang speaking; the second was for citizens to look at mock-ups for the block, ask questions and offer suggestions. Gang will return next month with a more detailed plan and to get more community feedback.

"It was like waking up from a bad dream," one downtown resident said.

Dudley Webb praised Gang's approach. "It's important that this be a team project," said the developer who three years ago seemed uninterested in anyone else's opinion.

There is no storybook ending, yet. Dudley Webb figures it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to develop the block and there is still no firm financing in place.

But it is progress — huge progress — and it's due to Gray's and Webb's willingness to set old acrimony aside and lead.

"With the right design and community support, we think we can get this done," Dudley Webb said.