March 21, 2006

Putting the ‘butcher’ in Butchertown?

We’ve heard about the Ohio River Bridges Project for years. Butchertown will hear it for eonsIt was in 1966 that Jim Segrest first met Butchertown. Then a burg packed with quainter and more numerous slaughterhouses than the behemoths of recent memory, the neighborhood was also a burgeoning political seedbed, galvanized by a posse of housewives who’d been spending afternoons together at the Wesley House. The nabe was zoned industrial, and with the help of a rerouted Beargrass Creek — literally a floating dumpster — the city’s industrial tenants, pushed from downtown by pesky regulations about quality of life, moved in and began bringing the Stink. United in distress over city government offering their neighborhood to the highest industrial bidder, the Wesley House women eventually brought their clamor to City Hall. Having heard enough of the uproar, Mayor Kenny Schmied sent the twenty-something planning commissioner Segrest to see how to shut them up. Rather than seek calm, however, Segrest found a home and a cause, one for which he still advocates. He bought his first house in Butchertown in 1967, the same year the first Butchertown Neighborhood Plan — which he authored — was adopted. Segrest, 65, is a man with a sense of humor. The president of both the neighborhood association and Neighborhood Planning & Preservation, Inc., he lives on Linden Hill, in a mansion built by Col. Frederick Geiger, among the first high-profile inhabitants of the area. He seems healthy; his speech is prompt and word choice economic. Despite being almost constantly frustrated — he contends, simply put, that city leaders don’t value Butchertown — he doesn’t wear the years hard. You’d think by now he’d be a babbling, incoherent loon, crazy with fear and paranoia, unable to cope with the grim realities that churn outside his front door and waft through his windows on the wings of that goddamn-awful stink of Swift animal processing that permeates the neighborhood when the wind is just right. His critics dismiss him as self-righteous and idealistic to a fault. For the last seven years, though, Segrest and a bloc of concerned citizens have been trying to save Butchertown from the Ohio River Bridges Project. To be fair, there’s been some compromise: the Project has spared historic sites in the neighborhood, and whittled to one building what will need to be destroyed to make way for the new Kennedy Interchange, or Spaghetti Junction. The new Spaghetti Junction — now where I-64, I-65 and I-71 sloppily converge — will cover more green space near the waterfront, overshadow almost the entire Extreme Park, widen to 24 (at its broadest point) the number of lanes, run aside the backyards of some Butchertown residences, and bank the future of Downtown Louisville on the idea that Americans will never forswear their love affair with the automobile. Meanwhile, gas prices show no signs of coming down — ever.Bart Bryant, the state transportation department’s acting project manager for the Project, said the expansion of Spaghetti Junction is necessary to keep up with projected traffic increases. “Yes, in the future, if transportation needs change, then there’s opportunity to go with that change,” he said in an interview yesterday. “It doesn’t look, at this point in time, that decrease as much as increase. If that’s true, it’s better to have that facility in place.” That facility won’t be in place for nearly two decades. It’s grandpa’s way of life thrust right in your future’s face. The idea for how to construct the new Spaghetti Junction is quite logical: build it to the south, roughly between the current interchange and Butchertown, divert the traffic incrementally, and then tear the old one down. Along the northern edge of the neighborhood it would eliminate several businesses, including two concrete mixing plants. The Project is estimated at $2.46 billion, of which Kentucky — through state and federal funds — will pay $1.67 billion, according to the Project’s Web site. Roughly $1.1 billion will go to rebuilding Spaghetti Junction, an estimated 17-year venture, according to Richard Sutherland, deputy project manager for the new Spaghetti Junction.The Project will offer a new interchange at Mellwood Avenue (which may be widened and, along with Story Avenue, become two-way) and I-64, and a full I-71 interchange at Frankfort Avenue that will dump onto Ohio Street.Other key points relating to Butchertown, according to the Project’s 2003 Record of Decision:• the new Spaghetti Junction will take 1.29 acres from the Butchertown Historic District; • it will require the razing of the Grocers Ice & Cold Storage Company, the East Main Street locale where Creation Gardens currently operates;  • noise levels near the roads will increase up to 6 decibels; • Witherspoon Street will be extended to connect with a new ramp for I-71, basically running parallel to both the new highway and the north edge of the historic district; • and a new flyover will cover 1.8 of the 2 acres where the Extreme Park sits, and six bridge support piers will be installed on the property. Sutherland said there are at least eight mitigation points for Butchertown — the neighborhood most affected — in the current plan, including streetscaping, an aesthetic requirement that the Project meet the neighborhood’s architecture within reason, a historic preservation plan, and special treatment including some kinds of renovation for several historic structures in the area, including St. Joseph’s Church. He hasn’t heard many complaints about the Project from Butchertown residents about the mitigation, he said.“We’ve had really no conversation with anybody during our project that really expressed any concern with that.” Segrest, who met with Sutherland and other engineers several times during the planning stages, isn’t so sure. He said he’s hopeful the neighborhood will have some leverage when the time comes. “We have only the promise that they’re going to make it as painless as possible,” he said. “Any of the mitigation issues that we had or brought up or thought would be done are expendable.” Segrest has no faith that the city will look after Butchertown. However, he hopes it will use the space vacated by the old Spaghetti Junction — roughly 40 acres to be developed by the quasi-public agency Downtown Development Corp. — to encourage development that could serve as a buffer between the parts of the new interchange not adjacent to the neighborhood. “What we’re going to present is kind of an infrastructure plan for the lands — roadways, flood protection,” said Patti Clare, director of project development for DDC, of the 40 acres. “Of course it’s 20 years out, so presuming a land use plan is pretty — presumptuous.” One probable use is to develop connector streets and pathways between the historic district and Waterfront Park. Clare said the DDC created a steering committee for the project last August, which includes Segrest and two other Butchertown Neighborhood Association representatives. Anyone paying attention to this debate knows Tyler Allen’s name. His revolutionary idea, to “86” I-64 from the riverfront and reopen the city to its river, hasn’t remained on the fringe like the purveyors of the Project had no doubt hoped after he began slinging his maps around town almost a year ago. Public opinion seems to have shifted in Allen’s favor: David Jones, Sr., Metro Council members Tom Owen and Tina Ward-Pugh, and the Louisville Historic League have expressed support. An online poll by The Courier-Journal shows that 86.5 percent of respondents favor Allen’s plan (as of Tuesday, there were 1,546 total votes). This despite ominous warnings from Metro Government, Anne Northup, The C-J’s editorial board and others entrenched that it’s too late to turn back, that the plan cannot work. Those affiliated with the Project either don’t comment on 8664 or quickly discount Allen’s plan. 8664 is more obvious than original: I-64 would be torn down from Spaghetti Junction to West 16th Street, with traffic diverted over a new East End bridge onto the Gene Snyder and I-265 in Indiana. The remaining parts of I-64 would become I-364, a parkway that accesses downtown surface roads. San Francisco and Portland have both removed major interstates from their waterfronts, to dramatic effect. (To be fair, the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 is partly responsible for removing San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway.)As much as it introduces alternative road use, 8664 is an idea with progressive tenets, one not based on the vision of the Eisenhower administration. “I think we understand that it’s probably not all or nothing here, you know,” Segrest said of 8664. He hopes some compromise can be made to include a few of Allen’s ideas. Interestingly, 8664 has drawn so much attention that the Federal Highway Administration sent a letter to state transportation officials in February reminding them that the federal money was approved for the complete Project, no exceptions.The sad paradox in the way city government and business leaders see development is that the net effect could ultimately be to drive away the young, creative sorts of people it covets, who tend to consider things like green space when looking to take root, and who don’t take kindly to highway noise and exhaust seeping in their bedroom windows, however gentrified they may be. The simple fact is that transportation — and by extension life, it could be said — is changing, and Louisville can either ride the rail into the future or sink in the concrete boots of yesteryear. There is an official light-rail study for Louisville being managed by TARC, Clare said; however, in light of the Project, it’s been put on hold. Now, people are asking serious questions about the concrete mammoth about to lay claim to the riverfront. For instance: • Do we honestly think ESPN will consider the Extreme Park — which will have a ramp 30-40 feet overhead — for its X-Games if 90 percent of the complex is underneath a highway? “The planners of the Extreme Park knew there was a plan for the bridges,” Clare said. “It wasn’t settled how it would be designed .”Clare said because the park is a concrete, hard-surface structure, it would blend naturally with the highway. “If there was a park that could co-habitate with a ramp, it’s the Extreme Park.” And: • How, exactly, will encouraging the 100,000 or so cars traveling I-64 every day to bypass our city center foster downtown growth? Who wants to move downtown when you have almost 20 years of construction to cope with? Will the city make it up to Butchertown?Sutherland said that although an attitude change may be afoot for American transportation, it’s important to respond to the highway system’s needs now. Segrest thinks the system is flawed. “ are meant to isolate people from the existing conditions of the social fabric of the place,” Segrest said. “We don’t have integration of any kind. We have gentrification, which gets rid of any diversity or variety we have in neighborhoods.”