Waiting for CentrePointe work to begin

Where’s CentrePointe?

Developer Dudley Webb said late last fall that construction would begin in December on the $250 million tower in the middle of downtown Lexington. It’s now January, and the site is a big gravel pit waiting for something to happen.

To make way for CentrePointe, Webb bulldozed the block bounded by Main, Vine, Limestone and Upper streets. He took out 14 structures, including 182-year-old Morton’s Row, the second-oldest commercial building downtown. The National Trust for Historic Preservation called it one of America’s biggest losses of 2008.

City officials have asked the state for permission to use incremental tax revenues generated by CentrePointe over the next 30 years to pay for some of the project’s “public” infrastructure, as well as other downtown improvements.

So where’s CentrePointe?

“Everything’s still on track,” Darby Turner, Webb’s attorney, said Thursday. “It’s a little slower process than we had hoped. … We’re still moving right along.”

Turner said engineering and permitting work is under way and construction could begin later this month.

Harold Tate, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, said it has taken longer than expected for CentrePointe to get state permits to close lanes on some surrounding streets, but that should happen soon.

Webb’s plans call for the 35-story tower to house a four-star J.W. Marriott hotel, luxury condos, shops, offices, restaurants and an entertainment venue.

If CentrePointe is still on track, it would be unusual. Market conditions have changed dramatically since last fall, and similar developments in other cities have been halted or delayed. Financing is hard to come by. But Webb has always insisted that CentrePointe won’t be affected by the credit crunch, because foreign investors he won’t identify have put up cash for construction.

Count me among the skeptics. I wouldn’t be surprised if Webb were to announce that he’s putting CentrePointe on hold. In fact, it could be the best thing.

The worst outcome for Lexington would be a half-built CentrePointe — or one that’s built and then fails in an economy less hospitable to luxury hotels and condos. That’s what Councilman Don Blevins Jr. meant a few months ago when he worried aloud that CentrePointe could become “a vertical Lexington Mall.”

If CentrePointe were put on hold, it could eventually become a better project — one that’s smaller, better designed and more economically viable in the long term. (But still, unfortunately, one without some of Lexington’s irreplaceable historic fabric.)

Delaying CentrePointe would cause a short-term problem. With the countdown clock ticking on the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, nobody wants to be left with a big hole like the one that occupied the next block over in the early 1980s. But that problem could be solved with enough dirt and sod to create a temporary CentrePointe Park.

Maybe I’m wrong.

Maybe CentrePointe construction will begin soon. Maybe CentrePointe will be finished and won’t look as generic and out of place as I fear. Maybe its condos will sell and its hotel will be filled for many years. Maybe the project will generate enough new tax revenues to pay for some wonderful downtown improvements, such as restoration of the old Fayette County Courthouse.

But I’ll believe it when I see it.