Photo by Ron Jasin

May 20, 2009

Raise high the roof beam, Louisville

How ethical development makes a better city

Like many of Louisville’s best-kept secrets, Shine Properties got its start because of a horse race.

A few years ago, New York real estate developer Gregg Rochman traveled from his suburban Manhattan home to soak in the Oaks Day races. That night, as Rochman was tooling around the city, he found himself at the BBC Taproom on East Main Street in the mood for a drink. He chatted up the bartender for the local Derby lowdown. As it happened, the bartender, Matt Gilles, had just graduated from college with a degree in architecture — “swinging the hammer by day,” he said of his carpentry work, “and slinging beers by night” — and the two became fast friends.

“My wife [Maria] and I were tired of living in the burbs of Manhattan and wanted a place more suited to community, a worthwhile place to raise children, that’s culturally adept, etc.,” Rochman said. “And the day I met Matt I just fell in love with the place. I gave a call to my wife, my friends, my family and told them about this place. They told me I was crazy. I said, ‘You’re right, I am crazy, but we’re moving anyway.’”

Shortly after Rochman moved, he and Gilles became business partners. They formed Shine Properties, LLC, along with partners Mose Putney, an architect, and Jonathan Bevan, a business associate of Rochman’s. Since then, Shine has focused on the rehabilitation of “diamonds in the rough,” as Rochman put it; to give “tender love and care to neighborhoods that need it most … in an effort to increase [their] value and quality of life.”

Last week, Gilles — former bartender and (most recently) father to a 16-month-old baby — guided me on a tour of Shine Properties’ latest effort under this brand of urban TLC: a derelict two-story building on the corner of Seventh and West Saint Catherine streets, in the heart of the Limerick neighborhood. It is Shine’s fifth (and biggest) project to date. From a distance the building’s coat of slightly off-white paint lends it a kind of grimy pallor — symptomatic, perhaps, of the economic blight native to a forgotten nabe like Limerick.

“Not too long ago this used to be a bakery,” Gilles said, treading over cables and planks of lumber as he led me through the recently rebuilt front entrance. “Prior to that it was a tin shop,” he added, and briefly fondled with the rickety drawer of a baker’s hutch.

Before Shine acquired it last year, this property at 1100 S. Seventh Street was a veritable shithole. Extensive water damage had virtually destroyed the building’s interior walls and, subsequently, its foundation, most of which had to be replaced. Mounds of baking-related junk and other kipple were left to rot indefinitely inside. If there were any diamonds to be found in this rough, it would certainly take keener eyes than most.

This probably has something to do with Limerick’s curious geography; located just south of Broadway, nestled between the western tip of Old Louisville and that great psycho-economic barrier known as Roy Wilkins Boulevard, it exists beyond the city’s traditional zones of major capital investment. Originally named after the Irish immigrants who built the nabe’s characteristic handsome brick walk-ups, it is — like many of Louisville’s centrally located environs — currently home to folks who are poorer, less educated and blacker than most Louisvillians-at-large. It also boasts a plethora of old, cheap buildings, most of which can be had for under $150,000. Despite this seemingly low overhead, from a cynical dollars-and-cents perspective there’s little to infer as to why Gilles & Co. would even pick a building like this, in a neighborhood like Limerick, amid an economic crisis such as ours, for what is undoubtedly a labor of love. After all, this isn’t Fourth Street, and Shine Properties, LLC, is a far cry from the Cordish Cos.

The term for this is infill, the use of vacant land and/or property within a built-up area for further construction or development, especially as part of a neighborhood preservation or limited growth program. Infill is integral to stitching blighted communities back to more prosperous ones.

Is this a different breed of developer heretofore unbeknownst to Louisville’s checkered past? Or are they simply looking at the same things, albeit differently?

“We chose not to participate in the recession,” Gilles said as we ascended a wooden flight of stairs in the fifth building that he and his three partners have saved from ruin, in a neighborhood that has historically escaped the attention of gentrifying forces like Shine.

“You’ve got to be smart and not get in over your head,” he said, referring to the sluggish nature of the city’s larger capital development prospects. “As a developer, it’s important to never bite off more than you can chew.” He added that banks are still lending, that obtaining loans hasn’t been a problem for them because their costs never fly into the “mega project” stratosphere.

Reaching the top of the staircase, the building’s second-floor expanded around us, huge, inviting and warm — yet far from complete. As Gilles spoke of the green-building materials that Shine routinely uses, his litany was punctuated with a flurry of hammers and the occasional rip of a buzz saw emanating from the first floor.

“We did a lot with that last one,” he shouts above the roar of rending wood. He points through the north-side window at a yellow shotgun house just up the street. “We put in a tankless water heater over there, used soy-based biofoam for the insulation, as well as blue jeans …”

“Did you say blue jeans?” I asked.

“You’d be surprised; blue jeans work really well,” he said, laughing.  “They’re efficient, cost-effective and sustainable, which is what we try to weigh against our bottom line. It’s not easy finding that balance of cost-effectiveness while being a good steward at the same time, but it’s worth it in the end.”

Wait a minute: Here I thought I was speaking to someone in real estate — the profession of Trumps, cigar-chomping capitalists and people who will generally slit their mother’s throat to make a dime — and this Gilles fellow starts espousing liberal rhetoric about sustainability, stewardship of the land and green fiberglass? Oh where, I wonder, is this man’s shrewdness?

“It’s not a political thing,” Gilles said.

He pointed to an exposed portion of wall masonry, explaining to me that, although it’d be much cheaper in the short run to simply waste a bunch of drywall and fill the narrow recess with fiberglass insulation, they’ve chosen to reinforce the walls throughout with salvaged two-by-fours, using less material in the process and allowing more room for Gilles’s marginally-more expensive “Cocoon” green fiber insulation, purchased off the shelf at Lowe’s.

“The net effect is that it will save on long-term costs associated with this building’s future,” he added. “These things — sustainability and their economic benefits — shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. And shouldn’t that be a conservative value, wanting to help regular people save money on their bills?”

Looking out the northward window, Gilles’s words sunk in. Beyond the immediate grassy surface lot across the street I could see the tops of dozens upon dozens of buildings, many of them like this one, 1100 S. Seventh Street, just waiting for the right amount of TLC to bring them back from the threat of the wrecking ball.

It was at that moment that the city’s hazy skyline — specifically that of Fourth Street — seemed so very, very far away.

It would perhaps be a mischaracterization to imply that Shine Properties is alone in its application of ethics to the art of real estate.

If anything, Shine’s handful of intimate, small-scale ventures represents the rule, not the exception, in an overarching national trend involving developers, architects and other green-minded citizens who believe that, in a world of finite resources, less is infinitely more, and that private real estate enterprises can be a positive force for socio-economic change. Although they don’t come out and say it, to them the bottom line is not an angry deity but a tangible thing that can be bent in order to meet other, more pressing concerns (affordability, energy efficiency, etc.).

As the city’s Chamber of Commerce has struggled to find a viable, marketable identity with which to bottle this potential economic genie[1], others have gone the DIY approach, doing the branding — and the building — all by themselves.

Enter Gill Holland, auteur documentarian cum East Market real estate magnate, who is quite possibly the closest thing Louisville has to an experienced practitioner of what Rochman described as a process of marrying the green ideal to the urban reality.

“My wife and I moved back from New York three years ago,” Holland began, “and I was looking for an office. I came wandering around East Market Street and felt the same vitality there that I found in St. Mark’s Place in the East Village in Manhattan. And an entire building here is much cheaper than a studio apartment in New York City. So in that sense, real estate is a lot less risky than film.”

And Holland should know: The ever-burgeoning string of local retailers, business offices, restaurants and apartments that have sprung up along the East Market Corridor in the last 10 years has been christened “NuLu” by he and his fellow entrepreneurs to such effect that the phrase NuLu and Mr. Holland’s name rarely appear separately in the local press.

In actuality, Holland & Co. just control a sizeable chunk of the nascent district: The aptly-named Green Building, which stands as Louisville’s first LEED-certified structure; the 720 building, another mixed-used building and home to two local restaurants and offices; the former Wayside properties, numbering 10, which are currently engulfed in scaffolding and undergoing major renovations; and the old Disney Tire plant on East Jefferson Street, which is slated to become a year-round produce market that will provide fresh, organic goods to an area that has only recently become a living, breathing neighborhood.

 “I spoke to [filmmaker] John Waters about the work we’re able to do in Louisville, and he lamented about his hometown of Baltimore,” Holland said. Specifically, Waters expressed disdain toward Baltimore’s nouveau riche for spending their money on furniture during a time when urban renewal[2] had destroyed much of that city’s historic architecture. “He told me, ‘You don’t realize how lucky you are to have people who actually care about [Louisville].’”

As is usually the case with luck, it’s a relative thing; one man’s preservation-worthy shotgun house is another’s paved paradise. It is true that Louisville suffered the loss of many excellent, 21st-century-worthy structures as a result of shortsighted 20th century urban policies, but according to Holland, this, too, is a relative thing.

“Louisville didn’t have that massive ‘boom’ in the ’80s that a city like, say, Austin experienced,” he said. “In the latter case, the result of that tremendous growth and energy wiped out a lot of the buildings and the character that made Austin such a cool town to begin with. And there seems to be a strong preservationist movement afoot here, and part of being green is being preservationist. The cheapest building, after all, is the one that’s already there.”

And a building saved, therefore, is a building earned.

By now, you should be getting a sense that, at least according to these guys, the value of installing biodegradable insulation is a much bigger deal than your McDonaldized brain can comprehend. Under this ethos, even the most veritable of rundown shitholes can catalyze an entire neighborhood from dormancy to vibrancy if treated the right way, at the right time, with the right approach — while saving money (and the environment) at the same time.

Don’t call it liberal. Call it logic.

Take the recently finished apartments at 801 E. Broadway (at Shelby Street). Before construction? Just another “missing tooth” in downtown’s cavity-laden core. After construction? A three-story brick mixed-income apartment building that’s so in tune with its surrounding structures that it received a “New Landmark” designation from the Louisville Historical League. What’s more, the apartments are priced to attract a wide-ranging cache of tenant. Just down the street, the old Tonini Church Supply building is undergoing renovations. Taken together, both developments improve that narrow corridor of Shelby Street dramatically.

Following Shelby a few blocks north there is the former Marcus Lindsay Memorial Church on East Main Street, so named after a highly influential and physically deformed 18th-century Methodist pastor, which will be converted into a half-dozen condos that the developers themselves plan on calling home as soon as the work is finished. When a church itself is being converted to fit the secular needs of our time, something is shifting, indeed.

Then there’s the Butchertown Pointe, which aims to reclaim an aging industrial warehouse on East Washington Street by retooling it to meet the needs of today’s tech-savvy workforce. This project, in conjunction with U of L’s continued reclamation of adjacent railyard sites for student housing projects, offers the best example by which many of the city’s past manufacturing sites might turn their silent, hulking warehouses into the engines of an economy not yet created. At least not here, not yet, anyway.

There are so many projects like these, each in various stages of development, each offering a tiny glimpse into the future of the city, that you’d think it would take an entire army of wonkish, real-estate obsessed bloggers to keep track of it all.

And in a way, it does take an army of wonkish, real-estate obsessed bloggers to keep track of it all. Brandon Klayko is just the moderator.

His website, BrokenSidewalk.com, is the premier online destination for all things developmental in Kentuckiana. Since its inception almost exactly a year ago, BrokenSidewalk has compiled every major real estate story — big and small — for a monthly readership hovering around 8,000. No small feat for a blog dedicated solely to the real-estate-related rumblings of a mid-sized metropolitan area like Louisville.

If there’s anyone at the nexus of these matters, it’s Klayko, whose site features all of the aforementioned projects, plus hundreds more. It amounts to an inexhaustible trove of Louisville lore, zoning ordinance changes, play-by-play tuck-pointing, and other minutiae usually too small for most news organs to care about. Who, then, was better prepared to answer the questions: What does all this nifty green development mean, and where is it taking the city?

“When I came back home from college after getting my architecture degree, I remember just walking around a lot and taking pictures, usually in areas of Louisville most people don’t even know exist,” said Klayko, who was kind enough to wax philosophic on the topic over a cup of coffee at Quills Coffeeshop. “It soon occurred to me that there was so much happening in terms of real estate, a lot of activity, and nobody was really covering it. So I started BrokenSidewalk.”

At first, Klayko echoed much of what Gilles, Rochman, Holland, et al. had told me, that the scale of these projects is what’s important (“Not everybody can afford to invest in a sophisticated and massive project like the Fleur-de-Lis Condominiums[3] on Main. The smaller the scale, the easier it is to carry out a sustainable ethos”); that each development should be unique to its neighborhood (Referring to Shine’s 1100 S. Seventh Street rehab: “There’s hasn’t been any new development in Limerick for years and years and years. Once they anchor a retail tenant in the bottom floor then the ‘feeling’ of the street will move further away from its boarded-up past”); or that the areas in Louisville that are most economically depressed at present will, inevitably, become the Frankfort Avenues and Bardstown Roads of the future (“Louisville’s running out of cheap real estate, and fast”).

All of which may be obvious to the casual observer, but which nonetheless skirted around my question. We talked more — about the inanity of the Ohio River Bridges Project, the potential of various parts of town, and a host of other topics, until Klayko asked me to look out onto Baxter Avenue, which was experiencing a moderate flow of Saturday afternoon traffic.

“Why aren’t there trolley cars running down this street?” he asked.

It was a simple question. I shrugged my shoulders.

“Granted, it’s easy to walk to downtown from here, but how many people actually do that? Gas won’t stay below four dollars a gallon forever. And you’d think that, given the primacy of the Original Highlands, there would be more density, but few of these buildings actually meet the sidewalk, so Louisville isn’t truly urban in many senses of the word.”

Consequently, Klayko argued, Louisville has never had to undergo true gentrification, and without any track record from which to crib notes, the city has often found itself looking toward other sources for urban inspiration. Yet time and again, when such inspiration materializes in the form of high-rises in the Highlands, such proposals are voted down by neighborhood associations that prefer single-family homes, evincing a not in my backyard mentality that Klayko says is the only real obstacle to the city’s smarter growth.

“That’s just really disappointing,” he said, “and it’s the city being … comfortable.”

He spit out the word as if it tasted bad, his face twisted into a grimace for a moment. In his estimation, Louisville has always had a hang-up about assimilating any of the ideas it gleans from other communities. We opt instead to toe the line because, frankly, we seem to like Louisville the way it is perhaps a little too much.

 “It boils down to this. There’s a simple two-story building on First Street that’s about to be condemned,” said Klayko. “It’s not a fancy building. It’s very plain. Nothing ever really happened there except people used to store whiskey inside of it, for a time. It was a simple warehouse. But the area just wouldn’t be the same without it.” His face looked wistful as he spoke.

If this patchwork quilt of seemingly disconnected, “bottom-up” rehabilitation projects takes on some sort of overarching shape or design — as most seem to think it will — then won’t that cumulative change in the city’s physical environment be enough to provoke a social change just as inevitable, no matter how comfortable we think ourselves to be?

Back at 1100 S. Seventh, a light drizzle began to fall on Gilles and I as he showed me the property’s chief selling point: A partially-enclosed privacy deck with a superior view toward downtown and the Ohio River beyond. I had to ask him: Why apply ethics to something like real estate? Shouldn’t it just be a dollars-and-sense affair?

Gilles looked at me and smiled.

“I’ve got a 16-month-old son,” he said, leading me back inside as the rain picked up. “One day, I’d like him to control the business, you know: Take it over from his old man. I know it sounds corny, and he doesn’t even have to want it by the time I give it to him. But it’s important — to me, at least — for my son to grow up and, looking at all of my investments and projects, never have to ask me, ‘Dad, why didn’t you do more? Why didn’t you use what you had to make life a little better for other people? Why did you just put up a bunch of surface lots?’”

It occurred to me then that I wasn’t merely dealing with a real estate developer, but a former bartender and father. In a small way, the feeling was hopeful — even if, despite expert advice and the slow march of time in a city this close to the Mason-Dixon, there’s no real way to armchair quarterback Louisville’s urban future.

But I liked Holland’s answer the best.

When I asked him what projects excited him most, he said, “A fun light-rail line to alleviate congestion, or a green pedestrian mall located downtown, free of cars. In short, my favorite ideas for Louisville are the imaginary ones.”

Simple enough, right? If you dream it, they will come? Given that many of these “pie in the sky” ideas have either been ridiculed to the point of near-oblivion in our public discourse (8664) or have died the death of thousand cuts in the halls of government (light rail, public transportation, plentiful subsidies for small businesses), the momentum of what appears to be a legitimate movement toward sustainable development practices in Louisville cannot fully blossom without some form of corresponding top-down assistance.

Be it clean, efficient light rail, the rezoning of the city’s industrial ghetto wastelands, or a simple, unassuming two-story building at the corner of Seventh and West Saint Catherine streets saved from the rubble bin to meet the needs of tomorrow — something big will have to give way, eventually, if Louisville is to follow along this path set forth by its far-seeing builders. Yet as Jefferson County continues to sprawl outward, slowly, at a pace that could be best described as comfortable, we continue to turn our backs from the changes occurring in every neighborhood touched by one of these projects.

In a short amount of time, that unassuming structure will be finished, the last nail hammered, the last coat of paint applied, the final cut of the buzz saw administered, and Shine Properties will move on to its next projects. Prospective tenants will tour the finished product and someone, hopefully, will move in. It remains to be seen whether the future tenant will know of or appreciate the ethics, care and humble ideology that those developers with conscience have poured into this city’s crumbling edifices, stronger (almost) than concrete. As they attempt to make Louisville just a little bit better, a little more livable one building at a time, just imagine for a second what it will all look like when Louisville’s lo-fi makeover is complete.

What do you see?

[1]  “Possibility City!” being the latest incarnation.

[2]  Which, ironically, was practically at its nadir when Waters’s trash cult-classic “Pink Flamingos” was released.

[3]  Which was built upon the ruins of older buildings and thus constructed from scratch.