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January 14, 2009

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Intellectual isolation at the C-J

Do more bricks and mortar, regardless of site and design, always add up to progress? This would seem to be the prevailing attitude of our local daily newspaper over the past couple of years. From their view, the more space you fill in with concrete and steel, the better it is for the community. Never mind the long-term consequences.

The past record of The Courier-Journal in its support of major urban issues in this city is revealing. When the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau wanted to expand the present downtown convention center into the neighboring block and close Third Street, the paper was steadfastly behind the idea. Whether a personal friendship between the then publisher of the paper and a key figure in state government was the deciding factor in the policy supporting the street closing is beside the point. Even with compelling evidence presented to the paper by the advocacy group “Keep Third Open” — an elevated convention center over Third Street was a viable solution — the C-J didn’t veer off its course.

When one of its editors even ventured to draft an editorial supporting the “Keep Third Open” proposal — an elevated convention center passing over Third Street is a viable solution — the text was watered down to the extent that one could only surmise that the paper was, at most, taking a neutral posture on this issue.

Throughout this discussion, it was clear that the closing of a major downtown traffic artery like Third Street would not only disrupt the traffic flow, but also have a significant effect on property values. Fortunately for the city, evidence supplied by a new Environmental Impact Statement financed by David Jones, indicating that an elevated convention center could accommodate almost any convention Louisville was bidding on, sealed the fate of those advocates who wanted to close Third Street.

In this case, citizen advocacy carried the day — to the benefit of the community.

In more the recent case of the downtown arena, citizen advocates  — and the community — were not so lucky. Metro government, the University of Louisville and The Courier-Journal followed Arena Authority Chairman Jim Host, lockstep, in settling on a downtown site on the riverfront. The old Water Company site, originally under consideration, was discarded in favor of the more expensive riverfront location on Main Street. Expense was not the only issue, however, as parking promises to be a real problem at the present location.

But compelling arguments by Jones and other citizens who supported the Water Company site encountered a stonewall. One can only hope that this project does not turn out to be a white elephant, rather than the boon for the downtown economy its advocates assume it will be.

Currently, the C-J has insisting on the need to build two bridges instead of just one East End bridge as part of the Kentucky-Indiana bridges project. How did the downtown bridge get into the mix in the first place? Suffice to say that without River Fields, an East End bridge would probably be well on its way to completion by now, and our traffic problems would, for the most part, be solved.

The argument from the two-bridge group — again the C-J and Metro are in lockstep — is that only an additional span across the Ohio River, next to the Kennedy Bridge, can accommodate traffic volume well into mid-century and save this city from becoming another Los Angeles. This has been challenged by 8664, a group advocating an East End bridge only, while tearing down a section of I-64 to create a parkway from Spaghetti Junction to 26th Street. The C-J contends that a recent study, undertaken by Wilbur Smith Associates at the behest of the state Department of Transportation, says 8664 is not workable because a second downtown bridge is necessary.

Upon examining the Wilbur Smith study, I found that it did not take into consideration the fact that the heavy truck traffic diverted from I-65 to the East End bridge would keep capacity on the Kennedy below present levels to 2035 and beyond. My rebuttal letter to the C-J was only published on their website, and then poorly formatted so that it was difficult to grasp what the numbers meant.

In these cases, The Courier-Journal’s influential editorial board has been on the wrong side of three urban issues so important to our downtown. Is it simply that they are so attached to power structures that they cannot arrive at an independent conclusion based on a proper interpretation of empirical evidence? Or is it a case of intellectual isolation — an unwillingness to view a problem impartially? I’m afraid it’s a little of both.

 

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