City hall at CentrePointe could energize, enrich all

Richard S. Levine is co-director, principal 
architect of Center for Sustainable Cities in Lexington.
Richard S. Levine is co-director, principal architect of Center for Sustainable Cities in Lexington.

The new developer of the former CentrePointe site has requested the city participate in the project by putting its sorely needed new government center on the site.

What an extraordinary opportunity for Lexington.

The construction of our government center on that downtown block would make it the iconic image of the site and perhaps of the whole downtown. Every great city has a great city hall. The defunct CentrePointe project never included such a landmark. It was always just a hodgepodge of unrelated building functions with no dominant identity. A government center would contribute dignity and importance to all other facilities on the site.

Apart from the proposed design by world-class architect Jeanne Gang, who had a falling out with the former developers, all subsequent proposals sucked energy from downtown Lexington without giving much back.

With the presence of the government center and in the hands of an outstanding architect, the project would infuse the downtown with new energies and immensely add increased value to other occupants as well as to downtown as a whole.

Town Branch Commons, a proposed linear park, also has a similar potential, but it has the disadvantage of facing the backs of almost all the buildings on Main Street. A new governance center should put a strong and inviting face to both Main Street and the Commons.

The Commons also faces the difficulty of knitting together the downtown with the university area. A new government center could throw a pedestrian bridge (local design competition?) across the Commons at the High Street level. This would be an excellent level to create a new public space at one of the entry levels for the center.

This public space, two floors above Main Street, would have stairs and/or escalators down to the Limestone and Upper corners with Main Street and even the possibility of bridges to any of the three existing adjacent public spaces — the old courthouse, new courthouses and public library.

There is no other available site that has the potential of creating a public center in the symbolic heart of Lexington. Without a public function and no public space, the site will again become a strictly commercial venture where return on investment will again become the only real driver of the design.

A convincing case can be made that the inclusion of a governance center and public space is the best way to increase the value of the site and indeed the return on investment for the developers, the investors, the tenants, the government and indeed for the citizens of Lexington.

No doubt the new developers are savvy enough to realize this, and this is a major reason they made an offer we mustn't refuse.

In the original CentrePointe project, the city had little "skin in the game" and thus had little say over whatever the developer would decide to do on the site.

Architect Gang made the design process transparent to the city and its citizens and even invited our suggestions. In doing so she instilled in us an emotional ownership of the project, which generated a huge amount of public support.

Had she continued on the project, I have no doubt the design and its process would have made the project far more marketable to both potential investors and clients. The project has the potential of being the best sort of public-private partnership with benefits and synergies for all stakeholders that none could have in isolation. Let's do it.