In classrooms all over the world, students learn by comparing and contrasting. Every year we look for local examples to teach key concepts in urban geography, city planning and economic development.
The past several years in Lexington have produced particularly stark contrasts which represent two decidedly different visions for our city's future.
Consider the differences between two sites, CentrePointe, the whole-block hole in our city's heart and the so-called Pepper Campus on Manchester Street.
At CentrePointe, which can be more appropriately called "CenterPit," we have seven years of grandiose visions of what may be: a sterile skyscraper, a huge hotel, high-end but generic chain restaurants, and condos aplenty. It exists as a space apart, ignorant of the historical fabric of the buildings and lives surrounding it: a speculative project with mysterious financing and even more enigmatic purpose.
Meanwhile, emerging down on Manchester Street is the reality of a funky but thriving indoor-outdoor mix of bars, cafes, and restaurants alongside the once-forgotten Town Branch creek. Remarkably, some of the least attractive real estate in Lexington's little industrial sector has transformed into a patchwork of cool places.
U.S. cities are full of cookie-cutter, out-of-scale giant concrete edifices, designed to be grand, but falling apart as tenants prefer more human-scale locales. Many of the unattractive slabs of concrete in Lexington, screaming unimaginative design with little or no street-level appeal, have the logos of CentrePointe's developer on them.
This model of development relies on massive financial deals, often involving public money, with blame games when things go wrong.
On the other hand, in the remnants of our historic city center that have somehow escaped the developers' preemptive bulldozer strikes, in places such as the Pepper campus, we have pockets of positive energy. Here, a different model of urban redevelopment is underway that functions at a human scale.
Savvy local entrepreneurs are piecing together an entirely different kind of urban space. More attuned to changing market conditions, resolutely human-scale, with atmosphere aplenty. It is built less according to the logic of speculative development (though that surely plays a role), and is more aligned with establishing flourishing spaces where local start-ups can grow and be profitable, producing a Lexington that reflects the interests, desires and creativity of its citizenry rather than the distant and fickle logics of speculative finance.
At the seven-year anniversary of the hollowing out of the heart of downtown, comparing and contrasting these two cases is fundamental to understanding what is happening in Lexington.
Our city is offering us useful classroom lessons, but we fervently hope that these examples also are regularly considered in planning offices and city council chambers, as well as in the workspaces of those weaving the urban fabric of Lexington, one parcel, one building and one business at a time.