October 15, 2008

A portrait of the downtown as a young man

Downtown in its nascent phase

Won’t it, like, be noisy up here?”

I stand before the large, modestly dilapidated window, pointing to the street three stories below — pointing, specifically, to the roaring orgy of bulldozers feasting upon the carcass of the old LG&E substation, a chaotic mess of crushed brick and twisted metal that will be, in just two years, the home of Louisville’s Downtown Arena. Standing, pointing, my question floats up into a crack high up in the wall, disappearing between a pair of dry-rotted beams, and my realty escort, Val Jones, stares at me. 

“I mean, with the basketball games. Won’t all of that, uh, activity, won’t it …”

“Not really,” she says. “The arena will be pushed back so that, directly below where we’re standing, there will be a plaza,” gesticulating with her arms as if to move the imaginary superstructure. “And the windows will obviously be insulated so you can’t hear anything outside, but you can still open them if you want to.” 

“Oh, I see.”

Jones regales the history of this latest addition to the inexhaustible list of properties comprising Louisville’s downtown renaissance — the rechristened Whiskey Row Lofts. Her knowledge is imbued with the kind of depth that accompanies a love of place (the property has been in her family for ages).  The handsome wood and brick building was originally the headquarters for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company, changed hands a few times, briefly morphed into an alternative/hippie art film house, and, for most of the time the property has been in her family, used as a shelter for various transients and squatters, whose empty beer cans and fragmented liquor bottles commingle with other scattered kipple that cracks and crunches under our feet (including, bizarrely, a New Kids on The Block poster). 

In a building this old and this big, with vaulted ceilings tall enough as to be almost too tall for even a racquetball court, our every movement echoes in the kind of hollow, dull echo that only happens in places like this. And, in just two years’ time, a place like this will be insulated, fixed-up and sold.

“This seems like a great location,” I say.

“Yes,” Jones replies.  “It seems like downtown is finally ready.”

I. … IS IT?
(A BRIEF HISTORY OF REVITALIZATIONS PAST)

Like many things in life, downtown Louisville’s developmental trajectory can be traced back to Bill Murray. 

To wit: In the seminal 1981 comedy film “Stripes” — whose opening scenes were filmed on-location in the heart of our city — Murray’s iconic protagonist, John Winger, lives in a decrepit warehouse loft, quits his dead-end job as quite possibly the worst cabbie Kentuckiana has ever seen, has his car impounded by the repo-man, and is summarily dumped by his girlfriend. The net effect sends Winger seeking opportunity in the United States Army [1]. 

While most of us are content with the mere, seemingly innocuous trivia that a major motion picture was shot in our city, and are equally warmed by the sense of pride such trivia arouses, the fact that the fictional Winger found the city so utterly devoid of inspiration, so soul-crushingly stifling, was, in an instance of art imitating life, emblematic of Louisville’s own non-fictional, post-industrial state of affairs: economic stagnation, pollution, population decline, “brain drain,” a dwindling manufacturing base, and (perhaps most importantly) the neglect and subsequent decay of the city-proper — factors which, by the time “Stripes” wrapped shooting, had metastasized into the grimy, urban cesspool that would serve as a backdrop for scores of real-life John and Jane Wingers, each seeking their respective opportunities far from the confines of Jefferson County, fleeing en masse during the latter half of the past century for decidedly greener pastures. 

Speaking of innocuous (though decidedly less heartwarming) local trivia, it should be noted that, part and parcel of Louisville’s late 20th century “Epoch of Flailing,” the city undertook a handful of quixotic, piecemeal projects in an effort to catalyze the Byzantine process of a newfangled procedure known as “downtown revitalization.” 

Perhaps you’ve heard of them: the ill-fated Galleria, the terminal Derby Clock, the what-the-fuck-were-they-thinking Falls Fountain … each envisioned with noble purpose, each doomed to such abject failure that further notions of saving downtown from itself became, like any road paved with the best of intentions, a road straight into the cheap security gate of municipal hell. In spite of these and other efforts (The Kentucky Center for the Arts, the Louisville Science Center, the post-modern Humana building, et al.), nothing, it then seemed, could dissipate the pall of doom accompanying proclamations containing the words “downtown” and “Louisville.” 

Then, in 1990, the city realized it had been sloughing along a faulty path. Piecemeal, as the city’s first-in-a-quarter-century Downtown Development Plan (DDP) declared, would no longer cut the civic mustard; a new approach, one involving a cohesive vision wherein bastard oddities like the Galleria would have no part, was forged. Things would no longer be carried out in broad, reckless strokes, but rather in subtle, nudging phases, like a master teaching his Beagle not to shit in the flowerbed. It would take time — 13 years, to be exact — for the plan’s ambitions to come to fruition.  

With the advent of Waterfront Park Phase I, considered the crown jewel of the 1990 DDP, our fair River City was not only reunited with the Ohio River, but also with the prospect of actually being downtown. Though the plan was largely successful in achieving its goals, Bill Murray remained nowhere to be found outside of Valhalla. Downtown, stirred from its half-century slumber, still wouldn’t even get out of bed. In recognition that more was needed besides a waterfront park and a museum sporting a gigantic baseball bat to resuscitate Louisville’s atrophied core, a new DDP was created by the shadow-organization of the Downtown Development Corporation, finalized under then-Mayor David Armstrong in 2002, and put into play less than half a year later by Mayor Jerry Abramson. Clocking in at 105 pages, the city’s current plan seeks to reinforce our fledgling urban core’s primacy within the region by expanding its waterfront parks system, airbrushing any rough edges to attract would-be investors and potential residents, forging public-private partnerships to coordinate high-priority initiatives, and espousing other similarly minded though linguistically challenged priorities [2]. 

Without spending too much time detailing the nuts-and-bolts of a document drier than a Victorian comedy of manners, there are, however, certain elements of the plan that, if one were to extrapolate the future of downtown Louisville upon them (like I’m about to), not only seem rooted in the cold, inhuman world of corporate focus-group jargon, but speak volumes as to the plan’s — and consequently Louisville’s — blind submission to the zeitgeist of demographics courtship.  

In the DDP’s own words:

If you stay abreast of popular culture today, you will have by now noticed that by far the major change is the public’s attitude toward cities and downtowns … Pick up recent copies of Newsweek, USA Today, The New York Times, and even The Wall Street Journal, and you will see story after story about people who are seeking a more interesting and exciting experience … 

Who exactly are these people? Depending upon the age breakdown of these publications’ readers, they’re called yuppies or empty nesters or dinks (i.e. dual income no kids) … and finally, there are others, particularly young professionals on the cutting edge of education and technology — the so-called Generation X — who want a more stimulating and creative environment in which to live, work, and play.

And, painfully:

Research by Carnegie Mellon University economic development expert Richard Florida, for example, indicates that knowledge workers gravitate toward center-city districts that blend seamlessly with work; that are diverse, inclusive and sociable; and that facilitate outdoor recreation in proximity to “hip” meeting places, (and) small-scale amenities like coffee shops and gyms…

While it should be neither shocking, surprising, nor even exceptional that Louisville’s downtown gamble is defined by such quasi-intellectual terms as “dink,” “knowledge worker” and “hip” (nor should it be a veritable cause for alarm that Richard Florida has reared his head, a la Vladimir Putin’s cranium above the Bering Strait, over our city’s modest proposal for immodest greatness), I belabor this point only because it, above all others, has moved mountains of political will and city bonds in the pursuit of transforming downtown into the technocratic, 21st Century live-work-playground that, it is hoped, will attract that highly elusive, oft-coveted “creative class,” thereby keeping the River City in lock-step with the post-millennial Jonses.  Restated in Murray-esque terms, Louisville has eschewed any real desire to attain the blue-collar John Winger of “Stripes,” and opted instead to lure the Dr. Peter Venkman of “Ghostbusters” — a hip knowledge worker and proprietor of a cutting-edge, high-technology business.  

With $2 billion of urban-centric construction announced or currently under way, and most of it scheduled for completion in a scant three years — from small-scale refurbishments like the Bycks Lofts on South Fourth Street and the above-mentioned Whiskey Row development at Second and Main, to more grandiose mega-projects such as the Downtown Arena, the Cordish-infused Center City and the ethereal Museum Plaza (although recent events have cast doubt on the fate of the latter two) — the hour of downtown’s money shot is nigh-approaching. 

The city’s future, currently balanced upon a fulcrum, will then likely tip one of two ways:

1. Everything falls into its right place and Louisville’s nascent metropolitan renaissance surges onward and upward, exponentially so, in the smooth and optimistic parabolic curve so favored by downtown’s key proponents; or 

2. The nation’s ongoing financial meltdown, coupled with the less-than-perfect timing of our TIF-fueled, fiscally challenged shot for the moon, puts us back at square one in a new, economically depressed dark age as we watch our regional peers pass us by for yet another half-century and slough forward at snail-like speeds.

With so much seemingly at stake, Mayor Abramson’s question, nevertheless rhetorical just five years ago, will become in another five years’ time decidedly all too literal.  

II. A Plethora of Angles

The Downtown Living Tour, as its glossy tri-fold brochure declared, was to be “a showcase of downtown living experiences;” a platform by which the current multiplicity of condos, town homes and apartments available along the West Main District, the East Main/Market District and the Fourth Street/Broadway corridor could be walked-through as if you actually might live there, and by which smartly dressed representatives of the ever-chipper, ever-knowledgeable realty brigade might plug and tout their respective developments with the zeal and pride of Little League coaches. Held late last month on an overcast Saturday morning, I arrived half-an-hour early in the lobby of the Brown & Williamson Tower, the Living Tour’s ground-zero, in my efforts to discern just who, exactly, these prospective members of the downtown dwelling vanguard are, and what, if anything, they might experience while being ferried about to places of prospective urban habitation via specially commissioned, climate-controlled short buses. Throughout the lobby, folding tables displayed fliers, informational pamphlets and other assorted leaflets (of which I took all), with one table offering a small basket of fun-sized sweets (of which I took two).

As the tenants-in-waiting trickled in, the reality of who comprised this market became instantly clear: Of the roughly 30 or so people who filed in and piddled about the showroom, the vast majority were empty-nesters (a.k.a. “dinks”); gray-haired, of retirement age, Baby Boomers in the truest, khaki-colored sense of the term. There were a few younger dinks, though some had young, stroller-confined children. Fewer still were those hip, coffee-swilling, gym-loving members of Generation X, no doubt unable to rise and shine for the tour’s 10 o’clock start; because now was the time to get on the short bus.

Upon entering the Mercantile Gallery Lofts (my first stop on the tour) on East Market Street, the aesthetic effect was akin to walking onto an unfilmed set of “A Clockwork Orange” — scores of retro-modern furniture; angular, non-Euclidian wall-partitioning; neon wall-tracers; giant, muscled security guards — the only exception being that you’re walking onto this set with people your parents’ age. A man in our group wearing an orange-ish polo shirt and slowly turning his head from one wall to the next remarked, “Boy, it sure is, uh, angular in here.” 

Our Mercantile hostess, blonde and youthful and clad entirely in black, replied: “Yes, we’ve got lots of angles here.”

After exploring a handful of equally modern, equally sharp-enough-to-bleed-you-to-death lofts throughout the building, each replete with wonderful views of the burgeoning “East Village” cityscape, the most obvious conclusion one can draw, based upon the dissonance occurring somewhere between the intended ideal target demographic of this and other “hip-conscious” condominiums and the unexpected reality of who is actually able to afford these condominiums, is that, for the exorbitant average market rate of $325 per square foot, the only people in Louisville who can afford such cutting-edge urbanity are the very people who appear taken aback by the stultifying coolness of it all. 

Although creative-class type jobs are on the rise in the region, Louisville-Jefferson County ranks 131st out of the 200 largest American metropolises in terms of hi-tech job creation, according to a study by the Milken Institute, an oddly named, California-based economic think-tank that tabulates this sort of thing. What it means, in relation to the cutting-edge urban domiciles that are sprouting up like kudzu, is that the only people who can currently afford a $350,000 condo make up a fraction of the DDP’s desirable demographics. Or, in other words, with downtown living at East End rates, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, much less the Milken Institute, to illustrate this apparent catch-22.

Nowhere was this point more evident than standing before the wide glass walls of the 15th floor, $1.29 million penthouse condo perched atop the Waterfront Park Place tower, lording over its namesake park such that the feeling one gets while looking down at all the little ant-people below is, in Darren Taylor’s words, “like living in a second season ‘Miami Vice’ bad guy’s apartment.” [3]  

Taylor, 28, along with his friend and architectural colleague, Mike Neureither, 27, were hands-down the youngest people on the tour [4], and therefore the only ones whom could be safely said to represent the missing half of the DDP’s desired knowledge-worker quota. Hailing from Lexington (which is having its own share of downtown growing pains), Taylor and Neureither expressed a desire to move to Louisville because they were “seeking an urban aesthetic,” and, though impressed by the rehabilitative aspects of the Mercantile and the grandeur of Waterfront Park Place, the properties, in extension to downtown, just didn’t click. 

“What the city is doing is positive,” Neureither said. “It’s on the right track.  But it’s just not there yet.”

Short-busing our way northeast, a different design ethos is in play in the heart of perpetually gentrifying Butchertown, a neighborhood that, like Germantown, has largely remain untouched by the heavy hand of Metro’s top-down revitalization efforts writ large; with the possible exception of the Extreme Park, the fabric of Butchertown remains dominated by elegant old town homes and manufacturing plants, the result of age-old industrial zoning laws that provide the northernmost parts of the community with a fragrant bouquet of pig processing, river slime and multi-syllabic chemicals to this day. Here, nestled between a pair of turn-of-the-(last)century two-story brick houses, sits Franklin Street Condos, a three-story cube of brick, glass and alternative building materials that seems to have fallen, Oz-like, onto whatever structure occupied the lot previously. 

Walking through the condo’s bright, naturally illumined hallway, Taylor pulled me aside to speak in architectural terms a layman like myself has trouble comprehending, but the gist of it was, emphatically: “This is how you do infill,” pointing to a row of design-related placards adorning the walls. “It’s smart, and it’s done right.” 

“Done right,” as I understand it, refers to the big difference between gentrifying projects like the Franklin Street Condos and nearby Edison Park condominiums, which reside in a pre-existing, historically blue-collar neighborhood, and the revitalization-on-crack efforts of Mercantile Lofts, Waterfront Park Place, et al., most of which reside in non-neighborhoods, i.e. areas that until very recently represented downtown’s rusted, inhospitable, industrial past and were home to more junkies, bums and nine-to-fivers than to moms, dads and their 2.5 children. So whereas the former represents organically sewn infill seeking to walk that careful line between old and new, the latter, multi-angular ventures are more of an attempt to jackhammer through the city’s extant detritus in the hopes of creating a new community at the expense of the old and unused — though the price for riding the tip of this hammer to the ground floor isn’t cheap. 

And, according to the Franklin Street Condo’s co-developer, Graham Clark, it might not work, either. “(The city) reminds me of 1960s record executives trying to figure out this new ‘rock ’n’ roll’ thing,” he said. “I know, we’ll get Pat Boone to redo some Motown so everybody will like it. You can’t just install a scene. Period.” Clark, along with partner John Bajandas, reflect this sentiment in their asking price — roughly $120,000 — well below the asking price of their competitors.

“Louisville needs an adequately funded younger class,” he added. “I don’t know how to get it, but I do know it’s not by erecting some groovy hotel district. It doesn’t matter how much you dress it up because it will always reek of bullshit, just like Pat Boone.” 

“Most young people in this city simply can’t pay the prices that they’re asking for downtown,” said Samantha Sims, Franklin Street Condo’s realtor. “That’s why they’re moving to Butchertown, to Germantown. It’s affordable for them.”

Elsewhere in the city, the monetary limitations of Louisville’s citizens are taken more to heart via the Liberty Green mixed-income development. Helmed by William Weyland, managing director for City Properties Group, Liberty Green envisions a community of two- and three-story homes, apartments and condominiums of varying architectural styles, spanning six blocks from Hancock Street to Campbell Street, and is already offering a stark contrast to the Spartan, barracks-style housing of the former Clarksdale projects, upon which the new development, nearing completion of its first phase, currently stands. As was hoped, it’s already sparking additional redevelopment along adjacent areas, most notably the Gallery Square Lofts at Jefferson and Clay, which anchor the corner to East Market just up the street, and along Hancock, the under-construction eight-story University of Louisville Clinical and Translational Research Building, both of which provide shining examples of how these seemingly disparate endeavors have begun to overflow and entangle with one another.

“My dream is that the Edge will mix the medical community, the arts and restaurants of East Market, and the mixed-income/mixed-use connector to create a truly unique urban living experience for Louisville,” Weyland said, referring to Liberty Green’s capstone, the Edge, a block of multi-storied town homes and offices with a bisected park at its core, due for completion in 2018. Without question, Weyland has multiple irons in as many different fires; as the man responsible for not only the 29-acre Liberty Green, he’s also the guy who spearheaded the restoration of the Henry Clay Building, as well as a mastermind behind the enduring resurrection of the Glassworks District, of which the mixed-use ZidMed Gateway Towers at Ninth & Market — recently sporting their signature panes of shiny, highly compressed sand — are but the latest slice of a much larger, as-yet-unseen pie.

“Glassworks has been conceived of as a mixed-use, multi-phase urban environment,” he said.  “The ZirMed building is the third piece of a 10-piece puzzle that will involve tourism, housing, office, retail, parking and open space. Negotiations for the next phase are ongoing and the master plan will be tweaked in order to respond to real opportunity that adds an urban dynamic to what we have already achieved.” Despite Weyland’s lapse into planner-speak, one can, with a little imagination, visualize the forthcoming glass-and-steel district and its towers of immense reflectivity, and hope that the city will issue subsidized sunglasses to passers-through to mitigate the ensuing blindness such a shimmering district may induce.

Though not all that glitters, as the saying goes, is financially lucrative in downtown Louisville, especially if you’re in retail. The next time you’re ambling about downtown on a drunken, Fourth Street Live-induced bender, you might want to notice the endemic plague of “For Lease” signs that appear in nearly every other storefront. Whether the structure is new, refurbished or just plain old, chances are great that even if there are white-collar slogs hacking away at memorandums in the Class-A offices above, the bellies beneath are devoid of the blue-collar service workers whom the city is banking on to fuel its “dynamic” and “24/7 downtown” of tomorrow, symptomatic of the nationwide credit-crunch, an unprecedented decline in retail demand and basement-level consumer confidence indices.  

That downtown is already this top-heavy on the cusp of his coming-out party doesn’t bode well given the extent and the character of his largest investments, which are primarily retail in nature and funded exclusively with what little money the city already has or, as in the case of tax increment financing (TIF), money that it doesn’t [5] have. Critics of the Abramson administration are justified when they observe that, in a year in which the city has experienced one of its tightest budgets ever, whereby EMS services were reduced to bare-bone operating levels and public outreach programs and homeless shelters were gutted like hogs, there was somehow enough capital floating around to pay for not only a new Waterfront Arena but to spend an additional $36 million to gobble up the remainder of the Water Company block to build Center City, the city’s latest dance with the Baltimore-based Cordish development company and an expansion of that company’s aforementioned Fourth Street Live. (This was rendered on-hold last week by the Metro Council, who rejected what many view as a sweetheart deal from the city to Cordish in favor of further deliberation.) 

To be fair, Fourth Street Live, for all of its sanitized corporate feel and allegations of racism, is one of downtown’s biggest “Activity Generators,” a term occurring frequently in the DDP and that serves as the heading on a Louisville Downtown Management District website placing the Cordish monstrosity atop the Activity Generating food chain, drawing just under 4.5 million people downtown last year alone — nearly 3 million more than the second-place Waterfront Park. Although much of that money isn’t funneled into local businesses, downtown Louisville’s current resurgence and near-future apogee wouldn’t be possible without Abramson’s realpolitik desperation as it relates to giving Cordish the keys to our city. At a time when no private entity was willing to invest a nickel into a commercial environment that bore such rotten fruit as the Galleria, and whose economic viability seemed forever limited to wig shops and the occasional titty-bar, Abramson, for better or worse, knew a deal when he saw it. 

Yet there comes a time when a point of diminishing returns must inevitably be reached; when “the love you take” is no longer directly proportional to “the love you make.” As evidenced by the failure of some local businesses to thrive within the urban utopia that the mayor has obsessively fought (or, depending on your attitude, sold out) for, that time may be fast approaching. Cobalt Marketplace, which housed the upscale Market on Market grocery and Primo, a high-end Italian restaurant, lately shut its doors to both businesses in the East Market district.

“It’s been good for us,” said Nicholas Arno, co-owner of nearby Blue Mountain Coffee & Wine Bar, about the recent Cobalt closing, “but it’s bad, I guess, for the community. People are talking about the lack of a supermarket now. For the community to grow, that is key.”

Blue Mountain, situated on the corner of Preston and Main streets, across from the recently closed restaurants at Slugger Field,  is uniquely poised to benefit from a flurry of surrounding developmental activity. Across the street to the west, the sluggish Fleur-de-Lis Condominiums have finally reached their five-story apex, as construction crews now work to affix steel plates to the façade’s triangular buttresses. Next door, the D.W. Silks warehouse is poised for demolition following a recent rezoning measure, paving the way for a set of shiny, twin 12-story office/condo towers whose current artist’s rendering resembles less a building as it does a malfunctioning Transformer robot. It’s also worth nothing that, of the structures in the immediate area — Louisville Slugger Field, the Louisville Ballet offices, Preston Pointe, a Residential Inn and even the building that Blue Mountain calls home — none are older than the average second-grader.

“The area will reach critical mass soon,” Arno said, making a cappuccino. “But the Fleur-de-Lis is taking forever. They were supposed to open a couple of months ago.” When I asked him whether the downturn in the economy would affect downtown’s growth, he said he thought private developments would be stifled by it, though he believed critical mass “will only be delayed by a couple of years,” and that the Downtown Arena would be the catalyst needed to get things up to speed.

Matthew Landan, owner, operator and sole employee of Derby City Espresso, was more piercing: “You’re going to see more businesses fail.”

Landan, whose coffee-and-beer bar/art gallery is situated a few blocks from the defunct Marketplace, lamented what he saw as a lack of a cohesive vision by the city and the private sector to produce lasting, significant results. “Everybody would love for downtown to be booming, but it’s not. Putting down some condos at $200,000 and expecting that that will create a neighborhood will not work.”

Like Arno, Landan predicts that “nothing will happen until the arena is built,” though his optimism about the city’s forward motion is tinged with a realistic, if not outright cautionary, caveat: “I’ve been here for one year and I’ve seen more projects set back than I can count,” he said, citing Center City and Museum Plaza as evidence of a reach that may be indeed beyond Louisville’s grasp. (In fact, construction at the Museum Plaza site is now indefinetely on hold because developers are having trouble securing financing in such a tumultuous market.)   

I couldn’t discern whether he liked any of these projects, but Landan’s point nonetheless reflects a widespread public sentiment that views our city’s mega-projects with a wary eye. Out of all the elements in flux within downtown’s real estate maelstrom, none are as costly ($490 million) or as potentially game-changing as Museum Plaza. Whether you love it, hate it or quite simply don’t understand it, the deconstructed, “Bladerunner”-esque tri-tower would, if actually built, radically alter not only the skyline but fundamentally alter the texture of Louisville’s urban experience in ways even I, as avid a “SimCity” enthusiast as there was, cannot possibly foresee … but which will not prevent me from trying.  

For all its purported shock-and-awe, the element of Museum Plaza that exhibits its most transformative power is not its design, nor is it a high-falutin’ emphasis on the relationship between art and commerce, nor how it would “put Louisville on the map,” but rather its 140,000-square-foot park, to be constructed along the tower’s multi-pronged base and connected by pedestrian walkways to Seventh Street, the Muhammad Ali Center’s Star Plaza and, by extension, the Belvedere. In effect, this new, wholly contiguous pedestrian corridor would enable the ambitious jogger to run from Zorn Avenue to Ft. Nelson Park without interruption (save the occasional pile of dog shit). When coupled with the planned Waterfront Park Phase IV (i.e. Waterfront Park West, to be located between 10th and 15th streets), Museum Plaza would become a spearhead for downtown’s eventual reclamation of that strange and fabled land: Portland.

Albeit a purely fantastical notion, I kept it in mind as I entered the Museum Plaza sales offices, my last stop on the Living Tour.

“It’s really a matter of ‘when,’ not ‘if,’ at this point,” explained Museum Plaza sales manager Nikole Droppelman. Although I tried hard to share in her optimism, the model I had come to see, lovingly adorned with silver Hot-Wheels-sized automobiles and miniature silver people, seemed at that moment like the best of science-fiction: real enough to be possible, though maybe too fantastic to ever really be. But now, with work halted for the forseeable future, it’s unclear whether this 62-story tower might ever bejewel Louisville’s skyline after all.

III. ONE RING TO BIND THEM ALL

Are we any closer, then, to realizing a strong, vibrant and creative downtown? And have we figured out why it’s so important? 

That the number of downtown housing units has tripled in the past 15 years and is projected to grow by roughly 500 new units per year after 2009 is, in and of itself, an affirmative yes, but unless those housing units are filled with young, creative Louisvillians, it will be a figure signifying nothing, and the answer would be no. This also assumes that the national economy doesn’t implode, and that the Arena, Museum Plaza and Center City do what we’ve been told they’re supposed to do. To be sure, we’ve come a long way from our “Stripes”-era nastiness. 

And, though there exist literally dozens upon dozens of other developments that, if one were to be more exhaustive in their efforts, could fill an entire book — the retooling of the ramshackle Disney Tire Plant on Jefferson into a year-round farmers market; the Whitestone Condominiums on West Main that will offer complimentary electric cars to tenants; the conversion of the Big Four Bridge into the nation’s longest water-spanning footpath and the shrine memorializing Louisville’s own Hill sisters, composers of the song “Happy Birthday” that will be erected underneath its abutment — listing them ad infinitum doesn’t make a picture of downtown’s speculative worth any clearer, and instead obfuscates a better path by which we might find an answer to Mayor Abramson’s question.

Downtown Louisville is, first and foremost, the nexus at which our neighborhoods find their common ground, and by bolstering its heft we also bolster our ability to mingle with one another, watch a Cards game, and piss in a clean, brightly lit alley. Soon he will be able to stand on his own two feet, and maybe then might the underlying problems of our city be addressed with the same attention that we pay to Baltimore-based real estate companies. Federally funded HOPE VI projects like Park DuValle and Liberty Green have alleviated some of these concerns, yet Louisville Metro still remains the fifth-largest metropolitan area to the degree in which African Americans reside in the most economically distressed neighborhoods. Only 23.2 percent of Louisvillians possess a bachelor’s degree, ranking us 88th in the nation for college-level educational attainment, implying that 76.8 percent of you are unable to enjoy loft-buying, “knowledge-sector” careers. Currently, 30,000 Louisvillians live below the poverty line, including 8,400 children, a sad fact for a city with so much ambition. Approximately 52 percent of Metro’s population growth is due to immigration, yet most appear to be priced out of many neighborhoods. Even though the DDP provides some guidance detailing responses to some of these issues, they are by no means on the front burner.

Waxing philosophically: Metro government can afford to neglect the neighborhoods from which she derives so much of her strength, relative to the obsessive attention that is paid to the forging of her new, non-existent urban neighborhood, and it speaks volumes as to the success and self-reliance of communities like Butchertown, Germantown, Russell, California, Smoketown, Shively and other neighborhoods that, despite the socio-economic realities native to their respective demographic makeup, lack the resources to achieve the kind of transformation currently under way in the central business district but have nonetheless survived and, in some cases, thrived. Because Louisville’s strong, vibrant and creative neighborhoods can continue to prosper by their own blood, sweat and tears, does not, however, excuse their outright abandonment. 

Sooner or later, downtown’s many well-planted seeds must be allowed to germinate on their own, and attention repaid to the wellsprings that, if not replenished often enough, will one day run dry, even as the bright, garish lights of Center City flicker to life.

1) And hilarity, thusly, ensues.

2) Regarding the adaptability of the plan to certain unforeseen pitfalls — like, say, a widespread financial crisis, or an impending economic depression — the following passage is reprinted verbatim: “The impact of September 11, 2001, still yet to be fully understood by the hospitality industry, one of downtown Louisville’s economic engines, will also have to be more fully assessed.” (Emphasis added to illustrate the least of my worries.) 

3) The views, though spectacular, and the accoutrement, though stunning (the bathroom sink looked like a piece of avant-garde sculpture, befitting the museum-like quality permeating Park Place’s expensive atmosphere. I was afraid to touch anything), were put into perspective when a sales representative patted me on the back and said with a laugh, “Just whip that million-and-a-half dollars out of your pocket whenever you’re ready.”).

4) Truth be told there were even teenagers present, most of whom thought that the Mercantile was “really cool” even though downtown was “kind of gross,” though they were accompanied by the guidance and credit-rating of someone’s parents.

5) For the uninitiated, TIFs work like this: Say you want to turn a blighted area into a bustling epicenter of regional commerce but lack the local and federal funds to make it happen. By designating said blighted area a TIF district, the creation of which involves a mess of red tape and state-level legalistic haranguing, a developer agrees to foot the bill for any necessary infrastructural improvements that said district will require in relation to its projected future property value in exchange for repayment via future taxes paid in relation to the district. If it sounds convoluted, that’s because it is. 

 And hilarity, thusly, ensues.

 Regarding the adaptability of the plan to certain unforeseen pitfalls — like, say, a widespread financial crisis, or an impending economic depression — the following passage is reprinted verbatim: “The impact of September 11, 2001, still yet to be fully understood by the hospitality industry, one of downtown Louisville’s economic engines, will also have to be more fully assessed.” (Emphasis added to illustrate the least of my worries.) 

 The views, though spectacular, and the accoutrement, though stunning (the bathroom sink looked like a piece of avant-garde sculpture, befitting the museum-like quality permeating Park Place’s expensive atmosphere. I was afraid to touch anything), were put into perspective when a sales representative patted me on the back and said with a laugh, “Just whip that million-and-a-half dollars out of your pocket whenever you’re ready.”).

 Truth be told there were even teenagers present, most of whom thought that the Mercantile was “really cool” even though downtown was “kind of gross,” though they were accompanied by the guidance and credit-rating of someone’s parents.

 For the uninitiated, TIFs work like this: Say you want to turn a blighted area into a bustling epicenter of regional commerce but lack the local and federal funds to make it happen. By designating said blighted area a TIF district, the creation of which involves a mess of red tape and state-level legalistic haranguing, a developer agrees to foot the bill for any necessary infrastructural improvements that said district will require in relation to its projected future property value in exchange for repayment via future taxes paid in relation to the district. If it sounds convoluted, that’s because it is. 

curious

By verdejulie

a very well written article. Wondering if the author is a Louisville native?

Yes, the author is a native.

By sgeorge (not verified)
Yes, the author is a native.