April 30, 2013

A Grande Affair

Residents largely oppose luxury Willow Avenue high-rise, though most concur existing apartments are an eyesore not befitting Cherokee Triangle

Lawns in the affluent Cherokee Triangle neighborhood are peppered with yard signs emblazoned with “size matters,” the provocative mantra of local residents who oppose the Willow Grande, a proposed 17-story luxury condo building that would replace The Bordeaux, a 40-year-old, three-story apartment complex.

Last Thursday, those residents packed the Douglass Community Center in the Highlands for a Metro Planning Commission hearing — wearing red in opposition and making up roughly 90 percent of the overflowing crowd of over 200 — to speak out against developers’ application to rezone the property and allow demolition and construction to begin.

The opponents — organized by the Cherokee Triangle Association — view the 24-unit Willow Grande high-rise as grossly out of character for their neighborhood and fear that approving the application would set a dangerous precedent. They point to their 1989 neighborhood development plan that prohibits any new building of such size, arguing that if the condos are approved, such disregard for the plan could pave the way for more unwelcome structures.

A staff report presented by Metro Planning and Design Services agreed, saying the Willow Grande rezoning application not only violated the neighborhood plan, but the land development code and Cornerstone 2020 comprehensive plan for Louisville approved in 1998.

But the Jefferson Development Group — led by Kevin Cogan, who has spent five years fighting for approval of this project — argued at the meeting that such fears of setting a precedent are unwarranted, saying those opposed to its size are relying more on emotion than common sense.

Their representatives pointed to the Willow Grande’s previous approval last year by the Cherokee Triangle Architectural Review Committee and Metro Landmarks Commission, countering that the high-rise complies with the neighborhood plan and is not out of character for the streetscape, which already features three tall buildings nearby, including one across the street.

Several neighborhood residents also spoke in favor of rezoning, saying the Willow Grande’s attractive design is a major improvement on the run-down Bordeaux and would increase property values.

After nearly six hours of comments from both sides — a large majority opposed — the Planning Commission decided to delay a ruling until their May 16 meeting.

While the final verdict awaits, the two opposing sides — both largely comprised of affluent individuals — do agree on one point: The Bordeaux’s relatively affordable rental units — which are scarce in the neighborhood — are an undesirable eyesore that should be razed and replaced with something more befitting of the Cherokee Triangle’s character.

Willow Grande attorney Timothy Martin dismissed the critical staff report at the hearing as “misguided,” saying it ignores the other high-rise condos along Willow Avenue: the 20-story 1400 Willow built in 1980, and the 11-story and eight-story Dartmouth and Willow Terrace, both built in the 1920s. “These buildings are all part of the character and fabric” of the neighborhood, Martin said, and “the Willow Grande will again showcase the Cherokee Triangle of the 21st century.”

Martin also cited the neighborhood chairman’s statement in the 1989 plan that it “should be implemented and reformed as necessary to the will of the neighborhood,” adding that the commission would make that determination.

The comment elicited uncontained laughter from many of the red-clad opponents filling the hall, though Willow Grande supporters would also present a petition with 345 signatures from residents.

Chris Cogan, brother of the Willow Grande developer, spoke about the great importance of his family and Kevin Cogan’s many successful developments in the area that house prominent business and civic leaders, decrying the opposition’s familiar fight against development. “I would encourage you to look beyond the red tide of emotion here tonight and look at this based on the merit of what is being proposed,” Cogan told the commission.

Kevin Cogan has indeed butted heads with Highlands residents over several projects in the past decade, including the seven-story Park Grande in adjacent Bonnycastle, a battle he won despite a rowdy picket of his office by opponents. Last year, however, Cogan lost a five-year battle over his proposed six-story Cherokee Grande high-rise, agreeing to renovate the existing Aquarius Apartments on Cherokee Road instead of bulldozing them.

Peggie Elgin, Cherokee Triangle Association president, argues their opposition goes beyond the shadow of one towering building or “progress.” She says that if the 1989 plan is ignored for the first time, it would open up the rezoning floodgates, jeopardizing the progress of the neighborhood since the “dark days” of razing structures and increased crime in the 1980s.

“There are over two dozen other apartment complexes similar to The Bordeaux throughout the neighborhood,” Elgin says. “It would give them an opportunity, a precedent, that would allow many more of these to pop up on a lot of other streets.”

Real estate agent Deborah Stewart also spoke at the hearing of another fear — that developers could receive approval but fail to pull together the money to complete construction, noting that the market for multi-million dollar condos remains abysmal.

While Elgin says current renters at The Bordeaux have expressed concern about their future housing, she favors a new development there, just not a rezoning for such a massive building. “I’m one of those people that think it’s an unattractive building and I would love to see it replaced … with something attractive,” Elgin says.

Others — like Meredith Maple, a public history graduate student at the University of Louisville — see fault with both sides’ willingness to abandon The Bordeaux, noting concern over demolishing an old structure in a preservation district and essentially forcing out lower-income residents.

“(The Bordeaux) is affordable housing in an extremely expensive neighborhood,” Maple says. “There are plenty of million-dollar condos already for sale, and we don’t need more of them.” 

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