CentrePointe: Five years on, show us the money

The newest designs for CentrePointe, released Oct. 2.
The newest designs for CentrePointe, released Oct. 2. CMMI Architects

In March 2008, The Webb Companies announced plans to demolish the 14 remaining buildings on one of the most historic blocks in downtown Lexington to make way for a $250 million development called CentrePointe.

Under then-Mayor Jim Newberry, the city was a cheerleader for the project.

As vice mayor, Jim Gray questioned the project and the city's role. Now, as developers attempt to resurrect the long-moribund project, Mayor Gray has taken a more cautious stance than his predecessor.

Most notably, in the agreement on tax increment financing, the city stipulated that the developers must verify that private financing is in place before construction begins. Some documents have been submitted and are under review.

In coming weeks, it's likely that someone representing CentrePointe will complain of being hamstrung by government bureaucracies. The stage was set for this when Webb Cos. president Dudley Webb complained at an Oct. 9 meeting of the Courthouse Area Design Review Board, which must approve the project, that delays might jeopardize the project. "I just don't know how we win," he whined.

Developers sometimes have legitimate complaints about the time and effort it takes to satisfy public requirements, but not in this case.

The Webbs and Joe Rosenberg, whose family had owned many of the buildings on the block since the early or mid-20th century, destroyed irreplaceable historic resources and wasted an enormous amount of civic energy on the promise of a project that, more than five years later, remains a grassy lot.

At the Oct. 9 meeting, Webb said construction could begin as early as Nov. 1. But only a few days earlier, representatives of the project had written to state and federal agencies, asking them to sign off on it, allowing only a few weeks for those reviews.

The Gray administration has acted prudently and should not give in if charges arise that government is causing this development to falter. Money, not words, drives construction. If excavation begins without the money to complete this project, we run the risk of a hole 40 feet deep in the very heart of our city.

History informs this opinion, and it has other lessons.

In 2008, demolition permits were issued despite enormous public outcry, legal challenges and extremely vague assertions about the project's financing.

The destruction began just in time for the city's Fourth of July festival, and by the end of the summer, buildings that had stood for more than 150 years and helped make Lexington the "Athens of the West" were gone.

Later, an investor who was never named was said to have died, leaving no will. CentrePointe went very quiet for a very long time.

The Gray administration is acting diligently to protect public interests in this attempt to revive CentrePointe, but there are safeguards that the city should pursue to avoid similar debacles in the future:

■ Allow demolition permits for historic structures to be issued only after financing for the development proposed to replace them has been verified.

■ Provide that when a demolition permit is challenged in court, it will be suspended until the appeals process is exhausted.

These protections would assure that Lexington, at last, gains something enduring out of the ashes of a block where Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis once walked.