Hayward Wilkirson: Wrong location for modern cinema; Consider site in Rupp entertainment district

February 24, 2014 

  • At issue: Dec. 9, 2013 Herald-Leader article, "Another big idea for downtown; company wants to build IMax and multiplex theater across from Rupp Arena"

Who doesn't love the movies? There's nothing like settling into a comfortable chair with a bag of popcorn, waiting for the lights to go down and the screen to light up. So when I heard we might get another cinema downtown, I was excited.

But sometimes the movie isn't as good as its trailer.

I live in South Hill, the historic neighborhood overlooking downtown. Only 35 years ago, half of South Hill was razed to create parking for Rupp Arena. What remained was, for years, neglected and unappreciated, save by a few.

Today, while its 19th-century houses are restored, South Hill continues its precarious existence, stuck between a rock and a hard place. To the south, north, and east, an explosion of student-oriented bars is beginning to make South Hill "party central." To the north and west, commercial interests are poised to introduce a level of intense development inappropriate for this small, historic neighborhood.

On Feb. 26, Texas developers will appear before the Board of Architectural Review to discuss LOOK, their proposed cinema and entertainment complex.

The developers want to do two things in South Hill.

First, they want to move the historic Lowman House, located near the corner of High and Broadway, to another neighborhood.

Next, in its place, they want to construct a building large enough to house 11 movie screens, a bar, a restaurant, 120 employees, and 1,100 patrons.

At a neighborhood meeting, the developers said they want to do what's right for South Hill. If that's true, they should take another look at their plans.

Lowman House, built in 1808, is one of the oldest buildings in Lexington. It's a rare example of early Lexington architecture. It was owned by prominent early Lexingtonians like David Dodge and Henry Clay. It defines the historic border of South Hill.

If the developers are able to move this house — a big if for a 206-year-old brick building — South Hill will lose another page of the story that makes it and Lexington unique.

Like most multiplex cinemas, LOOK is very large and very modern. Which is great in the right place.

But it isn't great in a 200-year-old neighborhood of small and historic brick, frame and log homes.

At peak hours, LOOK will host 1,100 people per showing. That means 300 to 400 cars clogging South Hill's narrow streets several times a day in search of parking and theater access.

The developers say these cars will park at Rupp. But they can't guarantee the permanence of this arrangement. Nor have they explained what will happen when Rupp parking overflows with basketball fans and arena event goers.

Because LOOK damages the historic fabric and ignores the scale and architectural context of South Hill, it violates zoning guidelines that protect all our historic neighborhoods. If the BOAR bends or breaks the rules for LOOK, it will have to bend or break the rules for other developers. And if LOOK succeeds, there will be other developers eyeing the remaining historic properties all along High Street and Broadway in South Hill.

But it's not all doom and gloom. We can have our popcorn and eat it, too.

There's a better location — for LOOK, the neighborhood and the city — right across Broadway, as a flagship development in the Rupp Arts and Entertainment District.

As part of that district, LOOK will profit from a revitalized Rupp without diminishing our history or endangering the residential nature of South Hill.

Mayor Jim Gray's vision of a Rupp district is exciting, and it makes sense that he's a proponent of LOOK. At the same time, the mayor understands that stable historic neighborhoods are key components of a revitalized city.

The district encompasses 47 acres of city-owned land around Rupp. Planning is at an early stage. The mayor, a leader of foresight and energy, can ease the way for LOOK to become a first and logical component of this district.

The choice is simple. Help LOOK find a home on empty land within the district and protect one of Lexington's oldest neighborhoods or back the current proposal and create conditions that threaten the long-term stability of South Hill.

As for the corner of High and Broadway, it should be developed, but in a way that enhances, not endangers, South Hill. If the mayor, the Blue Grass Trust, the University of Kentucky College of Design, and the property owner join with South Hill to consider neighborhood goals, preservation principles, and the aims of the entertainment district, we can agree on some basic ground rules.

And with these ground rules in place, we can more effectively recruit and expedite a development that's good for South Hill and for the city.

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