Op-Ed

City deserves first-class building on old Woolworth block

A cynical colleague used to say that ”a city gets the architecture it deserves.“

I have had the good fortune of visiting and studying many of the world's great cities. Without exception, I have observed that in every outstanding city, there are to be found many great buildings. And conversely, wherever one finds a critical mass of beautiful buildings, you will find a great city.

Cause and effect? I can't really say, but I can say that historically speaking, whenever a vibrant city or a civilization rises from provincial obscurity to historic greatness, there is a parallel rise of great buildings that at the same time return energy and support to the aspirations and development of the emerging culture.

In fact, such moments frequently inspire the emergence of confident new architectures that are uniquely suited to support the new energies of time and place (think Paris, Florence, Rome, London and Chicago).

The fate of cities rises and falls in response to many divergent forces. When those forces are in alignment, great things can happen. Before the fact, it is difficult to tell whether a current surge puts us on the path to greatness or is just a momentary fad that will quickly subside into business as usual.

In the past two years, we have witnessed a number of new forces and opportunities on the Lexington scene that could well converge to take the spirit and the form of the city toward greatness.

We will probably get a good sense of which direction we are heading — up or down — when we see how the CentrePointe project and controversy has been resolved.

Lexington is a third-class city in the heart of a first-class landscape. Lexington has not been an innovative place. Architecturally and urbanisticly, we have been content to build weak, secondhand copies of trends and projects found elsewhere.

In recent years, noted architects have been invited to do projects in Lexington, but they have been neither inspired nor encouraged to do their best work.

Mark Twain was probably right when he wrote that ”when the apocalypse comes, I want to be in Kentucky because everything happens there 10 years after everywhere else.“

But even in our copying, we tend to be too timid, too conservative to ride the energies of the real successes, and in our appropriation of things happening elsewhere, we invariably do it in a half-hearted manner.

Without a larger vision, we seem resigned to permit opportunistic market forces to control our lives.

After several generations of tearing down some of Lexington's best historic buildings, we are finally waking up to the realization that it's not a very good idea.

A few years back, there was a major effort to conserve and reuse the Woolworth building that stood on the CentrePointe site, and a competition was held to come up with the best alternative design for renovating the building.

Unfortunately, the building had already suffered significant ”demolition through neglect, and it was deemed to be too far gone to save.

A rejuvenated Woolworth's would likely have spurred the revitalization of the entire block, but when it was torn down and replaced by a parking lot, the fate of the entire block was sealed. It seemed that no developer would sink the necessary cash into a new project on such a fragmented site.

This meant that the condition and the prospects for the other properties on the site had nowhere to go but downhill.

Perhaps some facades may be preserved. Perhaps some activities may be preserved. But the real question, now that the ownership of the entire block has been consolidated, is not if something new should be built on the site, but what should be built there.

The good news is that for once, the public interest may be represented in the decision. With $70 million in taxpayer money possibly involved in the project, it is not simply a question of what the developer can get away with.

Fortunately, the developer has also realized this and has been offering changes to the design of the project in response the demands of his critics.

Before any final compromises are struck, I should like to point out one problem: The building built on the site will change Lexington forever.

The present design is a third-class building, both in its functions as well as its design. Admittedly, Lexington has been getting a lot of third-class designs, and in that sense, the current design does a decent job of fitting in. Perhaps that was the idea. But our hopes for the future, as well as our world-class landscape, deserve better.

We are confronted with a weak project whose eventual design is being further compromised by groups that are protesting its appropriateness.

Vice Mayor Jim Gray has proposed an international competition to choose an architect and a design for the CentrePointe development and has even offered to provide half the funding that the competition would cost.

This is a wonderful and generous idea. I would propose that in addition to the developer's requirements, the program requirements for such a competition include the reasonable critiques that have been leveled at the present proposal. A good architect will be able to satisfy both.

CentrePointe is too important for the future of our city to be carried out as a speculative venture. There is the potential in the realization of this project for all of us to be well and proudly satisfied.

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