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March 27, 2007

Parsing the Great Cherokee Triangle Condo Debate: The haves haggle with the haves over the Triangle’s mojo

Aquarius Apartments: The Aquarius Apartments’ bland aesthetic makes it stand out amid the historic homes in the 1000 block of Cherokee Road. The complex could be torn down soon and replaced with a high-end condo project, the design of which has been the subject of much debateThe attorney stood before the Louisville Landmarks Commission, Jan. 15, 1975, making his case in a rather absurd way for why three blocks of Cherokee Road should be excluded from a new designation about to be conferred upon the Cherokee Triangle neighborhood. This man, Irwin Waterman, represented the owner of a tank-of-a-complex called Aquarius Apartments, lodged almost smack in the center of the three-block stretch that he thought should be exempt from what that night became the city’s third historic preservation district. Waterman told the commissioners that many of the houses along the wide, airy stretch of road had fallen into such disrepair as to allow a drift of tenants unworthy of the professionals occupying the Aquarius.He finished. Dead silence. The very presence of the Aquarius, two squat stories of brown brick with a mansard roof (giving the impression of a one-story complex) and similarly majestic concrete front yard, was in part the catalyst for the 13-year lobbying campaign by neighbors concerned with preserving the architectural history that justified the Triangle’s designation. Irony existed even back then.*I don’t know anyone who lives in the Aquarius, and no one’s complained to me lately about the “quality” of its tenants. That would be rude and, well, a stupid thing to say to a newspaper reporter.It’s just that the people of the Cherokee Triangle Association, and most neighbors in general, want it gone. So does the Jefferson Development Group, owned by high-end developer Kevin Cogan, which will close on the Aquarius at the end of the month and continue a process to decide what will replace it.And there’s the rub. The JDG has pitched two designs for a large, classy condo complex — both with six stories (though one’s setback penthouse has led to it being called five-and-a-half). Both have drawn criticism from a group of neighbors pushing for a development that meets the guidelines held by the city’s Landmarks Commission and the Metro Land Development Code, which do not permit such a tall structure in a neighborhood populated overwhelmingly by two- and three-story abodes.Late last month, David Marchal, the Landmarks Commission’s urban design supervisor, recommended denying the developer’s application for a six-story building at 1049-1051 Cherokee Road, mainly because its projected height and mass were out of scale with the neighborhood (the proposal violated 18 of the 44 guidelines for new construction). That was the second rendering JDG has produced, taking into account neighborhood concerns about height and overall size by including a setback after three stories and another for the sixth — picture a sandcastle stacked with progressively smaller buckets.Back at the drawing board, JDG has hired a new architect, Joe Argabrite, and is preparing to unveil a four-and-a-half-story model — first to neighbors for negotiations, Argabrite told me. Several months ago, neighbors opposed to a six-story complex said they’d settle for three-and-a-half stories, still slightly taller than everything else on that block. JDG reps have said that’s financially unworkable.the Bordeaux: The Jefferson Development Group, which wants to build a condo complex to replace Aquarius Apartments, also owns the Bordeaux. It’s unclear what JDG may do with it; some neighbors suspect the developer wants to build a high-rise similar to 1400 Willow.Most neighbors’ introduction to the Cherokee Grande came one of two ways: a glossy flier distributed in early September at a showing of Park Grande, JDG’s six-story luxury condo development just down the street on Park Boundary Road; or in a Sept. 27 article in The Courier-Journal that revealed the broad six-story structure that is still on the project’s Web site, www.cherokeegrande.com. “In this case the developer never came to us,” said Stephen Reily, who lives at the corner of Cherokee Road and Grinstead Avenue, in the first house built in the Triangle. Reily is a member of a special subcommittee established by the Cherokee Triangle Association to work on this project. He wants a building that conforms more to the character of the neighborhood. “We just responded to what was in effect a PR campaign.” JDG President Rob Webber said they’ve worked with the neighborhood group since October.“When something hits the paper, people tend to think it’s in stone,” he said of the renderings that have run in The C-J and Business First. He said he’s been surprised at the reaction, and that JDG expected its reputation to carry this project through its opening design phase — neighbors are soundly pleased with the developer’s work at the Vertrees, in the same block as Aquarius. The developer met with the subcommittee on Jan. 3, the first official meeting of the two, where JDG offered the six-story design. The discussion stalled when the groups reached an impasse over the height and mass of the building, said Sandy Phillips, also on the neighborhood subcommittee. The next meeting was Feb. 28 — it was supposed to be a hearing of a Landmarks Commission subcommittee, but when JDG learned the commission had recommended denying its application, the developer asked instead for a discussion forum.Frustration crystallized when JDG reps couldn’t offer a specific height for the structure, saying they’re unsure what building materials — wood or concrete — they plan to use, and what kind of underground parking the complex will feature, both of which would change the height slightly. JDG has yet to offer a specific height.“It was clear there needed to be more conversation,” said Argabrite, a veteran of the Landmarks Commission who returned to private practice last summer. There are guidelines for demolition and new construction in a historic district. The city’s Land Development Code, formalized in 1997, restricts new structures in the Cherokee Triangle to 45 feet in height, or somewhere around four stories, though in older houses with higher ceilings it may be more like three. There is a caveat: For every 10 feet a building exceeds that, it must be set back another five feet from the road.“the Bordeaux: The Jefferson Development Group, which wants to build a condo complex to replace Aquarius Apartments, also owns the Bordeaux. It’s unclear what JDG may do with it; some neighbors suspect the developer wants to build a high-rise similar to 1400 Willow. are very important,” said Marchal, of Landmarks. “We interpret the guidelines to include all styles, contemporary design; the intent is not to replicate history or make something look falsely historical, but a new construction should be respectful, it shouldn’t overpower, that’s how it could diminish existing historical structures.”Argabrite said the guidelines aren’t regulations and can bend depending on context — another reason JDG is confident it can get some kind of special consideration. “You do your best at making a set of guidelines and they don’t always fit every situation,” he said. “That’s why you have hearings.”The precedent that a variance on such guidelines would set, Marchal and some Triangle residents said, might mean giving similar consideration for the 28 other properties in the neighborhood not currently protected by the historic designation, one of which JDG already owns. Most, like the Aquarius, were products of a bland, utilitarian architectural trend and were built much later than the historic, protected homes.“We welcome development in our neighborhood within the standards set by Planning and Design and Landmarks,” said Tony Lindauer, the neighborhood association president.Triangle residents who are ready to see the Aquarius replaced by condos in the $650,000-and-up range say bring it on at six stories, that urban infill projects — meant to redensify city areas, like what’s happening downtown — necessarily mix buildings large and small.“When you live in an urban environment, you’re surrounded by buildings,” said Wayne Jenkins, a Cherokee Triangle Association board member who lives in the house next to 1400 Willow, the massive upscale high-rise built before the neighborhood’s historic designation.All the neighbors I talked to, whether they’re comfortable with a six-story condo or not, said they respect JDG’s work and would like the company to develop the site. Some worry, though, that such a development would adversely affect property values on the block by robbing some of the aesthetic of a neighborhood of mostly single-family homes with comfortable front yards and a relatively uniform skyline.The developer filed a pre-application for a required zoning change in December. In its report, staff at Planning and Zoning responded with an alternative U-shaped design, three stories tall with a setback penthouse. It would not recommend approval of a structure taller than that. JDG demurred, saying it’s a matter of financial prudence: While Webber wouldn’t confirm how much the group paid for the Aquarius, he said it’s comparable to what JDG recently paid for the Bordeaux Apartments (at Barringer and Willow), which was $2 million. The developer estimates the project cost at $20 million; at its planned 70,000 square feet, with 30 units, $650,000 per unit would break even. JDG plans to offer the higher-end condos for more than $1 million.Meanwhile, people still live at the Aquarius. *This account references Samuel W. Thomas’ book “Cherokee Triangle: A History of the Heart of the Highlands.” Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com