Tom Eblen: 'Coming attractions' could turn tragic if IMAX is allowed in historic neighborhood

Herald-Leader columnistMarch 1, 2014 

The good news is that a proposed 10-theater IMAX movie and restaurant complex would be a great addition to downtown Lexington. The bad news is that the developer wants to build it in the wrong place.

Dallas-based Look Cinemas is proposing this huge complex for the southeast corner of West High Street and South Broadway. The site is within one of Lexington's most significant historic districts, which homeowners have painstakingly restored after decades of demolition, abuse and neglect.

If city officials approve Look's plan without substantial changes, it could undo a half-century of preservation efforts and undermine legal protections for all 15 Lexington historic districts.

Look has yet to make a formal application to the city, but it has been working on the project for a year. It has met with the South Hill neighborhood and others to try to address concerns and minimize the impact on adjacent homes.

The complex is well-designed, but it is too massive for that location. It fills virtually the entire one-acre site and rises as high as 70 feet above street level. Plans would require moving a 206-year-old house that is one of the last remaining on the High Street bluff.

At an informal design review last Wednesday, the three architects and one engineer who serve on the city's Board of Architectural Review made it clear that this project, as now envisioned, meets none of the legal guidelines for construction in a Lexington historic district.

Board members all but rejected the developer's plan to move the 1808 John Lowman House a half-mile away to the Western Suburb historic district. They also expressed skepticism about moving it within South Hill to one of two parking lots across from Dudley Square at Mill and Maxwell streets.

Board members noted that much of the house's historic significance has to do with its location on High Street. They also expressed concern about the movie complex's proximity to the 1895 George Lancaster House on South Broadway. Both houses are some of the last examples of the 19th century mansions that once lined both streets in that neighborhood.

Board member Graham Pohl, an architect, said moving the Lowman House off High Street is a "non-starter," and he warned that this entire plan has serious implications beyond South Hill. "It sets a terrible precedent for every historic district in town," he said.

Indeed, this would be the first case of moving a house in a historic district since the early 1980s, when legal protections were more lax. A few houses were moved before city historic districts were created, to keep them from being demolished. They include the circa 1784 Adam Rankin House, Lexington's oldest house, which was moved off High Street to South Mill Street, directly behind where Look Cinemas now wants to build.

"This area has been gnawed on since the '60s," said board member Sarah Tate, an architect. "I think there's a time when you just have to say, 'Stop. This neighborhood can't be infringed on anymore.'"

Here's what Tate was referring to: When Rupp Arena and Lexington Center were built 40 years ago, most of the historic South Hill neighborhood was demolished to create a massive parking that lot city officials now want to redevelop. The fraction of the neighborhood that remained was given city historic district protection.

Most of those old buildings have since been restored into valuable, owner-occupied homes and condos. Many South Hill structures date from the early 1800s and are architecturally significant. If this incursion is allowed, what will be next?

The Board of Architectural Review is unlikely to approve Look's plan unless the 1808 house stays and the cinema complex gets smaller. But the board could be overruled by the Planning Commission, which is more susceptible to economic and political pressures. That would be a tragedy.

The good news is that there is a much better site for this complex: across South Broadway on the huge city-owned parking lot where the rest of the South Hill neighborhood once stood.

Look Cinemas' complex is just the kind of private development Mayor Jim Gray wants and needs on that lot to help pay for the proposed $328 million renovation of Rupp Arena and Lexington Center.

Look officials told the board they prefer their site, in part because the Rupp redevelopment process is still in its early stages. They said they can't wait. Developers always say they can't wait.

Here is what needs to happen: City officials must figure out how to speed up their process and relocate Look Cinemas to the Rupp lot or some other downtown site. What they cannot do is further damage South Hill and risk setting a precedent that could jeopardize the investments made in all Lexington historic districts.

Yes, downtown needs new development like Look Cinemas. But Lexington will never "save" downtown by continuing to destroy the irreplaceable historic fabric that makes it unique.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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