Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Anthony Eardley: A Position on Centrepointe (Downtown Lexington, KY)

(Courtesy of William Murphy)

Hello everyone,

The 2000 word article set out below was submitted to The Lexington Herald-Leader today and rejected until I reduce to a 700 word maximum, when they might take a look at it. I know I am prolix, and I could probably cut a few words to advantage, but two out of three is more than I can contemplate at this time. I find it disappointing that a paper that can spew out thousands of words a day in its Sports Section, can afford so little space elsewhere in its columns to a matter of such consequence to Lexington as the Centrepointe proposal.

To those among you who are Lexingtonians I would ask that you read it and, in the event that you agree with me, that you disseminate it as widely as possible.

To those friends and family members beyond the city, it will simply serve to reassure you that nothing really changes in our lovely "Athens of the West".




Perhaps we need reminding that the authors of the Centrepointe scheme have a truly dismal record of building on Main Street? It was the Webbs who erected the dreary, concrete-paneled bookends of the Radisson block (Vine Center), and who then indulged in a little whimsy across Main Street with the fatuous, Churchill Downsy Festival Market (now Triangle Center), the Webbs once again who gave us the Wildcat-hued glass of the thirty storey Big Blue tower (Lexington Fiancial Center), a building appropriate only to the urban wilderness of Dubai, whose plug-in, eight storey, concrete-paneled parking structure reduces to a displaced antiquity the delicate cast iron facade that flanks it at Main and Upper, and demeans the Old Court House Plaza across the street with its vacant-eyed want of civility. Given their penchant for centers and symmetrical planning, it would scarcely have been rocket science if, having determined to erect a symmetrical free-standing tower on the Financial Center site, they were to have aligned Big Blues north-south axis with that of the symmetrical Old Courthouse, and used the parking structure as a backdrop to a new plaza extending the space of the old. But their concerns evidently extend little farther than the building envelope, let alone the other side of the street. And their architects, facing no challenge from the public realm, have all too readily acquiesced to the clients prerogatives to get it done fast and keep the costs down, doing just enough to satisfy the building code and recovering what little profit remained from the cut-rate fee. For these developments, a plethora ofplaceless centers, the Webb Companies have earned little but our resentment and suspicion.

Now they want tabula rasa rights across an entire block and more, for what Mary McNeese, in her admirable March 11 letter to the Herald-Leader, has rightly summarized as an overpriced, out-of-scale, understudied and underwritten sequel. No doubt they have felt emboldened by the fact that the Museum Plaza project, Louisvilles sixty-two storey grotesquerie, is a recipient of TIF support, and that the Downtown Lexington Master Plan, the outcome of much community effort, sound, well-considered consultant advice, and over $400,000 in expenditure, (available on the web for all to see here), has yet to be adopted by the Urban County Council to inform the work of its Downtown Development Authority.

Though there is less detail in the Webb presentation than one would wish to see, indeed, far less than is required of a couple of senior students presenting a term-long comprehensive project, the mixed use behemoth that is now proposed, it seems to me, would serve the unrepentant greed and megalomania of its developers, and nothing more. Its 887,000 square foot program is so grossly overinflated that almost half the parking requirements it necessitatescould be accommodated only by resort to another plug-in, ten level parking annex, shoe-horned without a word of apology into Phoenix Park.

Its totally self-referential massing has three components. First, there is a four storey U shape that surrounds a 150-foot-square car court opening to Vine Street. This sets out 23,700 square feet of retail space, a coffee shop, and a couple of bars and restaurants on some notional ground plane that enables the architects to overlook the significant grade change between Main and Vine --- about seven feet, as I recall from student projects on this site. The three upper levels of the U contain hotel ballrooms, meeting facilities and a spa in the west wing, and office space in the east. This four storey component has the ostensible purpose of making the perimeter of the complex responsive to the scale of the surrounding streetscape, which it then so resolutely ignores in its myopic struggle to bring order to its interior spaces that its facades offer just the same dumb indifference and hostility to the city as we have all been obliged to endure in our daily encounters with existing Webb projects.

So, for instance, the canopied entries to the hotel and the condos on Main Street --- which Dudley Webb still regards as the principal points of access to the building despite his half acre of car court on Vine --- are furnished with a sweeping automobile lay-by that has been unflinchingly permitted to disrupt the continuity of the sidewalk and to create the most dangerous possible conditions for the hapless pedestrian. Further, this lay-by clearly presumes the future purpose of Main Street, not as an outdoor place for the use and enjoyment of people, but continuing in its present function as a mere conduit to funnel wheeled vehicles as quickly as possible from unidentified but more important locations somewhere in the suburban east to other anonymous but more important locations somewhere in the suburban west. This view is reinforced by the conspicuous absence of sidewalk entries to the retail spaces of the building, which would be entered instead from internal arcades accessed from just two points of entry, one at each corner of the block on Main Street, anti-urban devices calculated to siphon people off the sidewalk and drain the life out of the street. Those of us who actually live in the downtown have long contested this view of Main Street, and our view is clearly upheld in the Recommendations of the Downtown Master Plan, which shows a phased return to two-way of all the one-way streets in the downtown. But Dudley Webb and his suburbanite teams of architects adhere to their one-way inclinations, nevertheless.

Around the corner, on Upper Street --- another street that is presently one-way --- one would encounter a complete battery of conditions hostile to urban welfare. For a full 150 feet along the sidewalk there would be nothing but fire stairs, truck loading docks and a kitchen. Above this, the entire 240 foot length of the second and third storeys would be occupied solely by storage, service and mechanical spaces, shoved to the outer perimeter by the crude exigencies of the plan. A more effective set of disincentives to the recovery of a flourishing urban life on an Upper Street restored to two-way traffic can scarcely be imagined.

Indeed, everything that presently brings some semblance of vitality to the block is now under marching orders to go elsewhere, not just its arts and entertainment venues, which have managed to flourish in some of the slightly shabby, and now clearly inconvenient surviving buildings on the block, but even its slightly untidy and now inconvenient Saturday Farmers Market, which, to the great joy of the many who frequent it, has occupied this generous, sun-drenched section of Vine Street sidewalk for years --- all to be banished and left to fend for themselves, maybe somewhere in the downtown, maybe with Harold Tates assistance, maybe not, but certainly out of sight and hearing of Centrepointe. So why, one must ask, would these people want to build in the city when they find the stuff of urban life so distasteful?

Having thus leveled the block and sterilized its perimeter, the illusory U is then surmounted by a nine storey slab of hotel accommodation running along Main Street. These two components, the U and the slab, are cobbled together with layers of retardataire neo-classical trappings ---- not unlike the amateur displays that baffle the eye on the facades of the new courthouses --- but exhibit not the slightest grasp of Beaux Arts compositional discipline in either plan or elevation. One is obliged to ask, in consequence, whether this ungainly assembly owes its existence entirely to its bloated building program, or whether certain elements of the program, its 83,000 square feet of office space for example, have had to be drummed up and tacked on to the original punch list simply to fill out the volume demanded by the building's symmetry of footprint and profile?

Finally, the thirteen storey mass along Main Street is violently split in two by the huge phallic thrust of the condo tower, rising from the base to a height of forty storeys above the sidewalk in a disgusting assertion of the developers ego, and in flagrant disregard of the fifteen storey limit that is recommended by the Downtown Master Plan. And though we have long become inured to the overbearing presence of the skyscraper on the city sidewalk, and have even learned to enjoy its spikes and bar graphs on the distant skyline, the offensiveness of the proposed display is not readily ignored, from either close to or far away. Whether a deliberate part of its iconic agenda or just a calamitous by-product of the final massing, the building engenders the image --- made inescapable in the architects perspective --- of a cupped hand giving the finger to the city.

And they want TIF money for it! The colorful Yiddish term, chutzpah was once explained to me as embracing the kind of shameless audacity possessed by a thief who steals a hot dog from a curbside stand, but asks the proprietor to put mustard on it for him before he carries it off. This proposal completes my understanding of chutzpah.

Among the developers urgings that the project be approved without fuss or delay, so that it may start emerging from the ground by mid-August and be open for the World Equestrian Games in 2010, are pious assertions about the new jobs it will create and its LEED certification. We know very well that any new development will bring new jobs, some more attractive, some less, some more numerous, some less, which should not be a matter of central concern here unless, of course, your chief interest is TIF income. Not all of us may understand, however, that LEED certification does not signify some uniformly high standard of environmental efficiency in a building. There are several levels of LEED certification, and the lower ratings are actually much less distinguished than they sound. A Silver rating, for example, such as that earned by Robert Sterns Disneyland Federal Style proposal for the new UK Law quadrangle, might suggest an honorable second-place performance to most of us when, in fact, it represents only the fourth level of achievement on the LEED scale. Thus, LEED certification can amount to something substantial or something quite trivial. The elements of the program and the sheer surface area of this proposal make it hard to imagine that it could achieve a rating higher than Silver, but who needs even the highest LEED rated city block that is an unmitigated urban disaster?

The Urban County Council should not hesitate to reject the present proposal in toto. The Council needs, no matter how belatedly, to formally adopt the Downtown Master Plan, to inform the work of the Downtown Development Authority and to ensure the satisfaction of the standards outlined in the Plan by any new urban development enterprise, especially by a project seeking access to TIF resources. This should be reinforced by the establishment of an architectural review panel such as the one that has been in force in downtown Cincinnati for decades, to the satisfaction of both the citizen and the developer.

It might also enquire into the judgment and fealty of the Chairman and Director of the Downtown Development Authority, both of them architects who were heavily engaged in the preparation of the Plan, but who now, inexplicably, seem more like acolytes to the Webb proposal than representatives of the public interest. Having offered to give the proposal a mere tweak or two, either to assuage their own consciences or mollify public opinion, they appear happy to actually endorse this new and most monumental attack on our ravaged and still fragile downtown. If their volte-face is triggered by fears of being seen to let a major development opportunity escape their grasp, they should be assured that only the impenetrably stupid --- and there are always some of those --- will persist in regarding this monstrous proposal as beneficial to the downtown. The people of Lexington deserve better than this from a $250,000,000 TIF project in the core of their city. We have a Plan, a very good plan, for which they were the midwives. Let us embrace it and implement it.

Anthony Eardley.


Susannity said...

"I find it disappointing that a paper that can spew out thousands of words a day in its Sports Section, can afford so little space elsewhere in its columns to a matter of such consequence to Lexington as the Centrepointe proposal."

Isn't that always the way. I remember when I was filling out the form for an intra-district transfer for my youngest for academic reasons. (I planned to hold him back in kindergarten and wanted him to attend a diff elem school in the district so he wouldn't be stigmatized by the retention). Anyway, the school gave me a hard time about it and when I filled out the request form, 75% of it was for transfers for athletes who wanted to play for school X. So, academic transfers are PITA, sports are how can we make it easy for you.

daniel said...

You verbose meandering speaks so eloquently on the errors of the project but fail to mention even in its worst state its hundred times better then what exists now. But I am still left wondering do you dislike the project because of the architecture? Or because you think will hurt the city financially?

ericakoe said...

I appreciate Mr. Eardley's open confession that Lexington as a place matters and that its urban policies can have an impact on its people. It sounds like the Downtown Development Authority has more interest in politics than creating a purposeful and intimate city. What a shame.

Geoff Sebesta said...

Hey, I really liked your article. It's a little prolix but that's cool, Lex. is a long-winded sort of place. In a weird way, I think events are shaking down in favor of the development plan you mention here. After all, with the complete self-destruction of the project, the Farmer's Market has essentially been handed a giant park. They know how to make money on the site, Dudley Webb doesn't, so I hope they get it.

I know you must be upset but, speaking as someone very familiar with Lexington but completely new to the story (I've been out of town for two years, and the first I heard of the project was when I tried to go to Busters and it wasn't there), I have to give my opinion that the good guys are gonna win this one.