By David M. F. Schankula
On Thursday, June 2nd, three hundred people packed an old courtroom at the Lexington History Museum to hear new details about the stalled CentrePointe project.
The following Monday, the Webb Companies destroyed the CentrePointe website, www.cptlex.com, erasing all content from its three years of “Coming Soon,” leaving only an error page.
Is CentrePointe officially dead? Have we – and the Webb Companies – turned a new page? Or is something else afoot?
ORDER IN THE COURT
The sweltering courtroom was a fitting location. The $250 Million development project has ensnarled the city since it was first announced in 2008. There was a mud-pit, some kickeballe, political intrigue and a fallen Mayor, the ghost of the Dead Mystery Investor, and front-porch whispers of a connection to the Governor's own stalled casino plans.
The developers, Woodford and Dudley Webb, sat in the front row literally rubbing shoulders with the new Mayor (elected, in part, on a tidal wave of CentrePointe frustration) on one side and CentrePointe critic Joe Sonka of barefootandprogressive.com on the other.
Throughout the room, a who's who of Lexingtonians fanned themselves, listening intently as architect Jeanne Gang, standing in front of the witness stand, concisely laid out her re-conception of this empty block.
A FRESH START
The only cause for alarm came early when one of the model towers displayed in front of the room toppled to the floor in the wind of a straining fan. But that was a blip. Gang's vision was measured, refreshing.
The project has 650,000 square feet, a quarter each for condos, underground parking and a hotel. The rest is office space and ground-level retail. Along Main Street, a series of individualized structures – seemingly free-standing retail business – to match the general look and feel of the north side of Main Street, designed by local architects. A solar study to gauge the shadow-effect of the now two towers (one 30 stories, the other maybe as short as 10) on the rest of downtown. Green roofs providing park space and cooling. With each new slide a new idea, all of it putting to shame the original monolithic CentrePointe designs, that out-of-place Atlanta skyscraper that faced the wrong way and plunged downtown into concrete darkness.
The courtroom's Jury Box was full of the Webbs' peers.
Jim Clark, head of LexArts, was impressed. “I could feel the tension and skepticism fall away as Jeanne Gang walked people through their creative process,” he said. “I like that she wants other architects to contribute to the project. That strategy alone will help stitch back the urban fabric that was destroyed.” He commended Mayor Gray working with the Webbs to open the process.
Don Pratt was also hopeful, appreciative of the Webbs' decision to bring in Jeanne Gang and hold a public meeting. He remained worried about several factors – that the design not discourage residents and employees from leaving the building, whether some money could be raised locally.
SHOW US THE MONEY
But wait... what about the money? Rob Morris of Lowell's Automotive noted this problem last week, writing at lowells.typepad.com:
“If the project is roughly the same size, it should be roughly the same cost - around $200 million. And if the developers have had difficulty lining up financing for the past three years, what will allow them to line it up now?”
The economy remains depressed. And if the project dips below $200 million, as Morris pointed out, the developers lose their state TIF funding that would pay for parking, sidewalks and other improvements.
RUMORS, WHISPERS, INTRIGUE
The day after, I ran into one attendee at Giacomo's who was left wondering: “What's in it for the Webbs? Why did they open this process up, after refusing to for three years? Is this a bait and switch?”
At an online forum devoted to local developments, one plugged-in commenter related a rumor:
“Action on the block could begin before the end of the summer (if my source is right) and Ms. Gang and her band of local architects may have to design on the really fast track method. Some Spanish money is or has been making its way overseas as funding for the project and there is more to come.”
He went on to suggest that for all the public input, a decision may already have been made.
Is there Spanish money? Is Gang's design just a feel-good ploy? Are the Webbs up to something?
I asked Woodford Webb.
FOUR QUESTIONS FOR THE DEVELOPERS
1. Is the project still named CentrePointe?
Woodford Webb: I think that the block will always be known to a certain extent as CentrePointe. With that said, we have heard that question raised and would consider other names. A few that we are considering include: “The Block” “Joe’s Paddock + Pawn” “Limestone Tower” “Main + Lime” “The Dud” “The Kentucky Spiral” “Whiskey Square” and “Town Branch Tower”. In other words, who knows?
2. Some worry that "fake historic" buildings would "Disneyfy" Main Street. Others complain ultra-modern ones would look out of place. How is a balance struck?
WW: We expressed that potential to Studio Gang but they assure us they are asking for “contemporary interpretations” of what was there and in the end what would be created is a look that would appear to be a series of buildings that look like they were constructed at different times and with different themes so that it doesn’t look like one long stretch of a new building. This concept sounds pretty promising.
3. There is a rumor that money may be in and that we could see work on the site before the end of Summer.
WW: As I said on Newsmakers, “we hope to be able to start tomorrow” and that continues as a “hope.” We are working on the financing side on a daily basis. The current economic recession and its realities still exist. Financing for this project is difficult but not necessarily impossible. With that being said, I doubt you will see any work done on the site before the end of the summer.
4. Given the size and cost of the project, could it be built in stages -- smaller buildings along Main first, the office tower before the hotel tower (or vice versa)?
WW: That is certainly a possibility but it continues to be our hope to construct everything at one time. We want to be able to hide the parking below grade so that we won’t have to have an ugly unsightly parking garage that is visible if at all possible.
NEXT STEPS? JULY 14th
Will CentrePointe revert back to some cement behemoth or transform into an iconic set of structures? Will the money come in? At the moment, all we can do is weigh Studio Gang's ideas and hope for good results – which, after three years of nothingness, is a nice change.
The CentrePointe website is dead and with it, perhaps, so is its old idea. Or maybe that Spanish money is already in a bank and the bulldozers are already on their way. Lexington should get a clearer picture July 14th, when Studio Gang returns to town for their second public meeting.