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June 17, 2009

Rinse and repeat

New Albany wants an urban renaissance. Have you heard this story before?

Jala Miller moved about her new apartment while her mother, Janie, emptied boxes and her father, Dave, on his hands and knees, screwed a bracket onto the back of her flat-panel television. They were all sure it had fried in a recent storm. Turns out it only needed a fuse.

It was the Friday before Memorial Day, and Miller and her parents had just finished loading everything from her previous residence in northern Clark County. Now, it was almost official. To Jala’s amazement, by the following Tuesday, by which time new countertops and cabinets would be installed in her kitchen, which looks out toward a storefront on Market Street a block away, which sits across from the twice-weekly New Albany Farmers Market, she would be a resident of downtown New Albany.

The second-floor apartment, four rooms lined up front-to-rear atop a restaurant, isn’t an actual loft like she wanted. But that kitchen is nice, and she likes the idea of staying in Indiana, near family. She also likes being involved in a movement, this one following generally the idea that inhabiting old buildings in an urban setting is an important part of a larger effort. Louisville heard the mantra a decade ago when its current urban renaissance was largely prospective: For it to work, people must choose to live, work and play downtown.

As it continues here amid mixed results, the story is playing out anew in 40-square-block downtown New Albany.

 

The New Albany narrative is not unique. From the moment someone coined the term “suburbs,” these stories have moved inexorably in predictable directions. Suburban malls raided key merchants from downtowns everywhere, setting off a vicious cycle of degeneration, of both infrastructure and public perception. Some cities adapted and thrived, and some died. And a great many — New Albany arguably fits on this list — seem to float on some continuum where things never hit bottom but never go quite right, either.

Those cities become interesting when there’s an ebb large enough to suggest, objectively speaking, that chronic impediments can actually be overcome. Amazingly, some people are starting to believe New Albany can knock back 40 years of defeatism. It is an intriguing proposition.

The city was founded in 1813 and by mid-century was Indiana’s largest. The mansions along Main Street attest to early prosperity. The state’s two richest men — William S. Culbertson and Washington C. DePauw — lived within a block of one another. The city built steamboats. It had foundries and silversmiths and made stoves and furniture and cabinets. It produced, in 1870, the very first piece of American plate glass, which became a signature industry. There were textiles, wholesale, rail manufacturing. In the 1900s, New Albany was the plywood capital of the world. Downtown had an opera house and jewelry and furniture stores and national names like S.S. Kresge and F.W. Woolworth, whose familiar cafeteria concept began there. The city had its own lustrous department store, the White House, a multi-floored affair selling the same brands as the best stores in Louisville. It also had another fine department store, The Fair.

Then, with the promise of more parking and less riff-raff, the Greentree Mall opened in Clarksville in 1968, siphoning two important merchants from downtown New Albany (Sears and Roebuck and Walgreens — plus the J.C. Penney from downtown Jeffersonville for good measure). The White House went dark in 1977, after 97 years in business. The Fair forestalled its farewell until 1989. Plenty of old-line businesses never left, but the sprawling downtown became, to be charitable, hit-and-miss.

Meanwhile, this decade New Albany, which had eschewed the sort of suburban push that had gone on all around it, saw explosive retail development in its northeastern ’burbs, in the furthest reaches from downtown, which seemed ever more forlorn and forgotten.

 

Jessica Terry Bergman tells a funny story about her first Harvest Homecoming, the New Albany festival that closes several downtown streets each October. Festival-goers probably aren’t accustomed to people actually living in the buildings, she notes, and so the guy urinating in the alley near her front door was likely as surprised to see her as she was him.

She stands in the kitchen of the East Market Street home that she and husband Matt Bergman redid (an understatement), slicing sweet potatoes into fries, stopping occasionally to drop them into a baking dish and to make a point about how the couple got through the ordeal (still a drastic understatement). The Bergmans, both 32, were ready to move from the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina to Louisville, Jessica’s hometown, after Matt, a native Cincinnatian, landed a job with the adult degree program in the University of Louisville’s College of Education (Jessica now works in U of L’s development office). They looked for a place in Louisville but didn’t like anything they could afford. Her mother suggested looking in Indiana, where they found a mid-19th century Italianate-style building at 135-137 E. Market St., and bought it for $130,000 in August 2006, despite a sagging rear wall on the third floor, which let in the light, which shone on the dead pigeons, which made her mother cry. They had a “before” open house, with yellow caution tape blocking the sagging wall, then hired a restoration company to take it apart brick by brick. And they most surely had an “after” party when they moved in, complete with freight elevator rides.

People like the Bergmans are key players in this sort of narrative, outsiders with determination and no loyalty to the defeatist past. They bought a 10,000-square-foot building that was nearly too far gone and dug in, most evenings after work, 50 out of 52 weekends (usually joined by family), with Matt’s recently retired father, Moe, serving as their construction manager, innovating, haggling, screwing up, sweating, scrounging for material, repurposing everything they could, buying 16 doors at Joe Ley’s (no particular size, because they were building their own walls), forging relationships with craftsmen, stretching their dollars because they only had their own money to spend. First, they built out the ground floor for a commercial tenant to offset expenses. Treet’s Bakery opened in 2,500 square feet at street level in February 2006 but lasted less than a year. Before they could worry too much about the lost income, though, they struck a deal with Dave Himmel, who opened the Market Street Fish House last year.

Himmel was a partner in Bistro New Albany, the fine dining restaurant in the old New Albany Inn that was an early marker in the current redevelopment push. It, too, was short-lived, but Himmel is back on the scene with his pub Connor’s Place, on East Market directly across from the fish house, so close that his staff makes regular trips back and forth across two lanes of traffic. Himmel is a big fan of the Bergmans. He’s not the only one.

“I call them my pioneers,” says David Barksdale, the state-appointed Floyd County historian who’s seen good times and bad downtown. (He was on duty to turn out the lights after the last movie reel, “The Swiss Family Robinson,” ran at the Grand in 1975.) Barksdale thinks the current movement has traction, judging by his most recent historic tour, when 90 people showed up. He had been accustomed to leading four or five.

 

New Albany is known for difficult politics. Mayors are routinely turned out after four years. These days, the New Albany-centric blogosphere rails against a city council that seems to summarily resist the most basic progressive ideas. The mayor, Doug England, recently and unsuccessfully pushed a long-term plan to borrow money for an obvious infrastructure problem: Poor roads are a nearly universal complaint.

The city struggles with ongoing sewer problems that brought in the Environmental Protection Agency more than a decade ago. It has too few police and the highest per capita concentration of public housing projects in the state. Based on incidents over the last few years, it would shock no one if a meth lab were discovered next door to a young professional couple rehabbing a bungalow within walking distance of downtown (try finding that in Norton Commons).

Speaking of vice, the Horseshoe casino is so close and yet so far away, just across the Harrison County line, meaning New Albany gets the traffic but not the spoils, although the city has done rather well with the Horseshoe Foundation, which has paid for a lot of things, including a significant portion of the new YMCA that opened downtown last fall to resounding cheers. (The psychological importance, in terms of civic self-image, of the Y, which anchors the to-be-completed Scribner Place mixed-use project, named for the brothers who founded the city, cannot be overstated, although it’s hard to overlook the irony of the city encountering so much resistance from within to building a blockbuster project largely with other people’s money.)

England, who served two terms before being ousted in 1999, won his third term in 2007. His right-hand man, Deputy Mayor Carl Malysz, who also oversees redevelopment, says the urban core is a bit of unfinished business for his boss, who professes enthusiastic support for downtown redevelopment while also saying he can’t afford to take his focus off the big picture, i.e. bringing jobs to town and protecting New Albany’s industrial base, which has taken big hits lately.

One of England’s campaign issues was changing the city’s arcane one-way street patterns to two-way, particularly Market (currently one way east leading away from Interstate 64) and Spring (one-way west from Vincennes Street to I-64). The idea seems to be on the middle burner so far, though the newer progressive voices aren’t likely to let it go to seed.

Those voices tend to be exercised in cyberspace. Roger Baylor, of New Albanian Brewing Co., started NA Confidential (cityofnewalbany.blogspot.com) in 2004, and he and his more frequent commenters, like Randy Smith (co-owner of Destinations Booksellers on Spring Street) and Jeff Gillenwater, a savvy and concerned citizen, take no prisoners when it comes to addressing the city’s current political landscape. It’s a prickly balance to maintain for anyone running a business in town, but neither Smith nor Baylor is the sort to shy away from difficult things.

Baylor, a native, is, like the Bergmans, a pivotal player, although of a different stripe. He has plenty of opinions but plenty of skin in the game, too, which seems to convey some standing on the matters at hand. He has stepped into a breech of sorts by joining the boards of two organizations that had a falling out.

The Urban Enterprise Association is a state program, conceived to live for 20 years, providing grant money to rebuild urban cores. The New Albany UEA is about 10 years old, and it is a key player in the redevelopment. It gave a record number of facade grants last year, suggesting both the funding and interest to make a mark.

So is Develop New Albany, a booster group that predates the UEA. Develop New Albany has a Main Street affiliation, but currently no paid staff. The groups initially shared a director, but after he retired, disputes between the two boards severed that relationship, drying up DNA’s main access to funding. Current UEA executive director Mike Ladd and DNA board president Mike Kopp, who is also the busiest commercial real estate agent working downtown, say they’re trying to get past that, and the mayor says he’s intent on forging a rapprochement.

England also wants to reconnect downtown with the river. New Albany’s orientation differs from that of Jeffersonville and Clarksville, which have a direct view of the Louisville skyline. Across the river from New Albany lie only trees, obstructing the Shawnee Golf Course. (A couple miles east of downtown sits the K&I railroad bridge, which used to carry automobile traffic, one rickety lane on either side of the train trestle, to Portland. That bridge is highly coveted by those who envision a walking/riding circuit that connects on both sides of the Ohio.)

But the river is obscure to New Albany’s downtown because of an earthen levee built after the 1937 flood. It’s too large to remove, making it exceedingly difficult to get from Main Street to the river unless you know exactly where to go, though a plan to create more access near Scribner Place is under discussion. The riverside is getting a new $700,000 band shell to replace the tattered 20-year-old ragtop that simply disintegrated during last September’s windstorm, and walking trails have been completed as part of the Ohio River Greenway, a slow-rolling public-private project to provide continuous river access along the seven miles from Jeff through Clarksville to New Albany.

 

The Bergmans weren’t done. After moving in, Matt and two partners created an LLC and bought the old Fair Store, next door across an alley, with the goal of finding people to come and do interesting things there. Jessica, prompted by a realtor friend who led her to believe she wasn’t making a cold call (she pretty much was), contacted Amy Wepf, who operates the popular Toast on Market in Louisville. Jessica told her downtown New Albany would be a fabulous place for another Toast. Wepf had heard many similar pitches since she opened three years ago, but she bought this one, literally: After initially checking out the space vacated by Treet’s, she ended up buying 7,000 of the Fair’s 20,000 square feet (her commitment convinced Matt to buy the building), where she and her partners, her sister Lisa Wepf, and George Morris, will open their second Toast on Market (same name, menu and hours). Amy plans to eventually live upstairs.

And Toast will be joined soon by another business relocating from Louisville. Thomas and Jenna Evers, 32 and 31, respectively, also bought space in the Fair and will move their Thorpe Furniture Co. from the Mellwood Arts and Entertainment Center. The Evers make custom Shaker-inspired furniture and classic cutting boards, and will start work soon on a plan that calls for retail space on the first floor, designed to encourage visitors to congregate, and a basement workshop where the public can watch the artisans at work. They’ll live in a small temporary apartment upstairs until that’s all done, then finish their living quarters.

The Evers, who are raising two young children and both have day jobs, are also key players, two more young outsiders who see opportunity. If they pull it off, and Toast opens, the block of East Market between Pearl and Bank will arguably become the epicenter of the current redevelopment. Besides Connor’s and the Fish House, there’s the Windsor, a fine dining restaurant that just finished its first year in the former Bistro New Albany space; the Grand, the rehabbed art deco movie house that stays busy as a reception hall; and the ubiquitous Little Chef diner, which is inexplicably closed until further notice. And it seems reasonable to include two more businesses in this axis — Bank Street Brewhouse, the Belgian-style bistro operated by the New Albanian Brewing Co. that opened in March; and River City Winery on Pearl, which opened last month.

Altogether it’s the sort of critical mass that says “destination.” And maybe a fine new retort for Hoosiers whose Louisville friends think all roads out of Indiana are one-way south.

If Market Street is the epicenter of the new renaissance, then the one-block area of Pearl between Spring and Market streets, with its concentration of well-maintained Italianate and neoclassical period architecture, is a dreamy microcosm of what was.

One block south, between Market and Main, Pearl Street is a different animal:

More upstairs windows are covered, making the space seem underutilized. But that may be deceiving, based on the varied activities of Todd Coleman.

Coleman, 36, began buying property in downtown New Albany 13 years ago, including the old Smith’s Furniture at Pearl and Main, which he operates today as Todd Coleman’s Classic Home Furnishings. As well, Coleman runs another furniture store at Market and State next to Schmitt Furniture, eponymous denizen of, to quote the familiar TV ad, “the furniture corner of State and Main.” Coleman is an auctioneer and travels often to buy and sell furniture, as well as collector cars, which he and his father dabble in together (he’s dealt with Reggie Jackson and Jay Leno, and been featured on the Discovery Channel show “American Hot Rod”).

Coleman has an ownership stake in nine buildings. Some sat vacant for more than two years, some were rehabbed, and some remain on the drawing board, with the intent to lease rather than sell. He wants to create a car museum downtown.

Coleman predates the current urban revival and seems to function largely apart from it.

“A lot of people come with different ideas,” he says. “We have been here 13 years. Some people who move in think it’s special to be open on Saturday. We are open Saturday and Sunday for 13 years. We’re here working. We have a motto: We don’t want to hear the labor pains, we want to see the baby.”

Coleman also says he’s strongly considering a run for mayor.

“The politicians we have now are there for a paycheck,” he says. “I have more than $1.5 million of my own money invested in New Albany. I think someone with something invested in downtown should run.”

 

Questions remain. In a city of 40,000, it’s hard to say whether sufficient capital exists for this particular flavor of development, though a $45 million condo-boutique hotel-retail-parking garage project is planned for Main Street. The building enforcement codes are woefully contradictory and largely useless. Some fear unrealistic expectations, or putting too many eggs in the food-alcohol basket. And what city doesn’t complain about parking?

The central challenge, though, which seems perpetual and possibly impenetrable, is finding enough bodies who want to live, work and play. As one observer succinctly noted, there is no moral imperative for people to do anything of the sort.

The Bergmans are happy New Albany evangelists who maintain an open-door policy toward curious visitors. They’d like to stay downtown, start a family, create a sustainable community — and come up with a catchy marketing slogan to let Louisville know downtown New Albany is essentially another cool Metro neighborhood. (Their favorite, so far, suggested by one of Matt’s co-workers: THE BRIDGE: GET OVER IT.)

But there have been, and will be, fits and starts. That’s inexorable too. The Speakeasy jazz supper club came and went, to much disappointment. That State Street space rebounded quickly enough, though, and will soon house a Wick’s Pizza, popularized in Louisville’s Highlands neighborhood. The first Connor’s Place closed, replaced by Studio’s restaurant and pub, and then reopened on Market. The Windsor picked up the baton from Bistro New Albany, and the fish house took over for Treet’s. And so on.

Jala Miller, the twentysomething who eagerly moved into the upstairs apartment last month, never thinking to ask if it has central air (it does), soon wondered if she’d made a good decision. “My initial thoughts were that I might be in over my head,” she acknowledged via e-mail a couple weeks later. “I went grocery shopping to stock my entire kitchen — and I bet I walked up and down the stairs as many times as I did on moving day. I started to question if the atmosphere of downtown and aesthetics of the loft were really worth giving up certain amenities that other ‘cookie-cutter’ apartments have.”

She cited a critical example.

“I don’t have a vanity light or any electric plugs in my bathroom — not very conducive to a girl trying to get ready in the mornings. BUT ...”

What she wrote next may calm some nerves:

“ ... I’m working around it. I found a cute vanity at an antique store in [Scottsburg]. It’s in my bedroom near plugs and a light, and so problem solved!”

And then she typed a smiley face.

Stemle's return

By all4word
It's really great to see Cary Stemle's byline again in LEO. No offense to the current editorial management, but Stemle is too big a star for LEO to have lost.

New Albany history and potential

By Ray
Cary, your presentation of New Albany's history, along with your assessment of the current and future New Albany is spot on. What a thorough review of the city's past 40 years! What an optimistic view of the potential shown by the current movers and shakers. Kudos to you - so good to see your talent again in print.

Nice post...

By johntim03
Hey this was the nice article man to read....really a great post...keep on posting such stuff...great work.... Amish Furniture

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By aaliyah
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