Public input may be too little too late for downtown hotel

When prominent Lexingtonians began talking about how to ensure that the 2010 World Equestrian Games leave a “legacy,” most wouldn’t have thought they meant destroying a vital part of local culture.

But that’s precisely what’s going to happen if the plans announced earlier this month to raze downtown’s Rosenberg Block — home to The Dame, Mia’s and Buster’s, all frequent stops for UK students — are approved to build a 40-story hotel, reported in a March 5 Kernel article.

The destruction of the block would put a damper on local culture, especially the music scene. The Dame is essentially the only stop in Lexington for larger touring bands; without it, the town’s thin slate of live entertainment options will become even slimmer.

And the trade off for this cultural damage that will last years: the city will be rewarded with a hotel that will be used for two weeks in 2010. (Maybe the city can ease pain and frustration by broadcasting concerts over the big screen planned for the skyscraper’s side facing Phoenix Park.)

Of course, the hotel isn’t intended for just two weeks’ use — the hope is that the equestrian games will generate enough enthusiasm about Lexington that interest in tourism, and hence the need for downtown hotel rooms, will rise.

But who will want to stay downtown when there are few entertainment options and the only nightlife district is no more? If Lexington lets large-scale development replace the locales that make the city distinctive, tourists will find their stays dull and the locals will lose out more than anyone.

The problems with the proposed development go beyond the plan itself, the process that led to it was flawed.

While rumors flew about the Rosenberg Block’s destruction for months before the plan was unveiled, developers and local officials kept mum. Instead of being shaped through public discussion and dialogue, the plan was essentially dumped on the public at a March 4 meeting.

There will be a public hearing in April before the city council takes a final vote on the development proposal, said Harold Tate, president and executive director of the Lexington Downtown Development Authority, in the March 5 Kernel story.

But there is a great deal of time pressure, with developers hoping to start construction in August and, of course, finish before the equestrian games start in September 2010.

If the plan had been meaningfully shaped by community input from the start, perhaps Lexington would not be facing the hollowing of its cultural core for short-term economic gain.

Future developments that would have such a large effect should not follow the pattern of secrecy, then rumors, then unveiling. They should be collaborative efforts from the start, so issues of interest to the community — not just the developers — can be aired out while there is still time to deliberate.

The public hearing next month may be the last chance for advocates of a healthy local culture to make their voices heard.

It is a shame that it will also be their first chance.