Visions of a celebrity city
“To be famous, you really have to know who you are, because you’re getting this barrage of mislabeling and stuff coming at you,” singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell recently told interviewer Jian Ghomeshi. “People tend to project their trip onto you, especially if they don’t have self-knowledge — and most of them don’t.”
I pity the famous city that doesn’t know who it is. I have a clear sense of Louisville’s identity because I’m a native who’s resided here most of my life. After living out of state, abroad, downstate and traveling most of the nation, I know I belong in my hometown. On guided tours, numerous visitors have heard me affirm, “This is my sanctuary — and these are my people!”
Thirteen months ago, Mayor Greg Fischer echoed my soul when he said, “We’re a city that’s always been celebrated for our hospitality and compassion.” Recently, he’s been promoting his $1 million, taxpayer-funded Vision Louisville initiative. In a July 14 letter to The Courier-Journal, he cited four transformative ideas — the Olmsted Parks, the Riverport business park, Waterfront Park and the Parklands of Floyds Fork — while asking citizens for big ideas “on how the city should look, feel and flow over the next 25 years.”
But Vision Louisville’s premises drew a blistering editorial co-authored by John Gilderbloom, a professor of urban studies and director of the Center for Sustainable Neighborhoods at U of L, and Porter Stevens, who markets healthy foods in the West End. “The Phase One consultants mix fact and fiction, reinforce racial stereotypes, ignore cutting-edge research on Louisville’s neighborhoods … encourage sprawl and make unwarranted assumptions on growth,” they wrote. Scholars, by contrast, “show that economically dynamic cities (are) investing in their downtowns, installing bicycle infrastructure, modern mass-transit systems, tree planting, community gardens, doing all the sexy green things that are like a magnet for the millennial generation.”
The rebuttal (headlined “A blurred vision”) continued, “Growing cities are reducing car usage and increasing alternative transportation modes. In fact, car usage in Louisville is also steadily dropping as people adjust to high gas prices by moving closer to work or school, live in denser neighborhoods, and express a desire to reduce their carbon footprint. Yet Vision Louisville gives the ominous projection that the number of cars will double in 25 years and we need to expand roads.”
However, Fischer’s published presentation of the consultants’ explosive projections seemed to embrace environmentalism. “There will be a 180 percent increase in car traffic,” he wrote, “but there is currently no planned increase in public transit. Is that sustainable?”
Gilderbloom and Porter concluded by admonishing the mayor to fire his non-local consultants “and hire the home team that is sensitive to the nuances of Louisville. For about $100,000, a great dynamic vision could be produced by (experts) who love and care about Louisville much more than a consultant flying in from Europe who has no ownership of the outcome.” The critique resonates in a town whose mantra is “Buy local first.” Moreover, I’ve grown weary of carpetbaggers like Cordish, the developer of Fourth Street Live, who damage our brand while purporting to save us from ourselves. We have religious differences; they think they’re gods — and I disagree.
I, too, have reservations about the consultant’s staggering forecasts. It seems highly speculative that “Louisville will need tens of thousands of new housing units” and “3 million square feet of new office space.” And when the mayor (or consultants) ask us, “Where will it be located?,” one has to wonder whether we’re supposed to feel entitled to decide. Visionaries agree that compactness or high density is the key to smart growth. But developers make their own choices. Maybe they should pay for the infrastructure that supports sprawl.
It’s no secret that I support the construction of the East End bridge. But I’m concerned about the related risk, the forecast in the Ohio River Bridges Project’s Environmental Impact Statement, that as many as 11,000 permanent jobs would migrate from Kentucky to Indiana. So I’m concerned for Mayor Fischer’s legacy. He could preside over an unprecedented exodus of employment and housing.
But I applaud him for spearheading a robust discussion and debate that should have predated the project. It should help us recognize, preserve and protect our vital assets — and grow smarter.