- The Yum! Center is completed; and then a whole wall of Whiskey Row collapses.
- The Convention Bureau builds the city into a Top 10 convention destination; and then the Convention Center announces plans to close for two years while it remodels.
- The UPS-led focus on Louisville as a transportation hub of unmatched efficiency gains traction; and then the bridges project creates a nightmare of concrete and pylons, road closings and lane shifts, that makes nobody want to drive through Louisville ever again.
- Vast numbers of old buildings and neighborhoods are designated as landmarks, to preserve the matchless historic architecture of the city; and then the 105-year-old Louisville Water Co. building on Third Street is denied such designation and demolition begins to make way for the new Omni Hotel.
- The largest Louisville-based companies express a commitment to filling vacant downtown office space; and then Humana, Louisville’s largest commercial occupant, enters a deal to be sold to Aetna, and its future here is suddenly in question.
- The waterfront begins to take shape as a center of new apartments, restaurants and green space; and then Whiskey Row is devastated again, this time by a fire.
It’s difficult to support progress with a one step forward/one step back Latin dance routine. But it’s also hard to deny that there’s a strong commitment to downtown Louisville within the city.
And when it’s all sorted out, Rebecca Matheny, executive director of the Louisville Downtown Partnership, expects 2018 to be “an amazing year.”
“The new convention center will be completed,” she notes, “all the new hotels will be in place, and we’ll be seeing benefits from the various new residential projects that have recently been announced.”
Downtown growth in any city depends on a number of pillars supporting one another and building upon one another. In the case of Louisville, the new-and-improved convention center will bring many large groups back to the city, and they’ll be impressed by the bigger and better hotel facilities available.
Word of mouth, combined with a strong marketing program, will then lure other, newer, bigger national conventions vying to gain a spot on the center’s schedule.
The completed bridges project will reinforce Louisville’s position as an unequaled hub of logistics to every corner of the country and beyond.
Additional residential units will bring the all-important population density to downtown, which will lead to investment in support services, like retail, transportation and an influx of new employers seeking to call the Central Business District their home.
And, as commercial vacancies get gobbled up in downtown towers, there may even be construction of new, modern office buildings — the kind of new construction we haven’t seen since 400 West Market (originally the Aegon Tower) was completed in 1993.
At least that’s the plan.
Matheny’s Louisville Downtown Partnership is often in the news, helping to put on such events as the Downtown Living Tour, the ReSurfaced series, the State of Downtown breakfast and the First Friday Hop (which was called the Trolley Hop until the trolleys disappeared, replaced by the all-electric ZeroBus).
But its mission is much deeper than that. It was created in 2013 as the offspring of the Downtown Development Corp. and the Downtown Management District, “to reduce confusion between two downtown organizations that had different roles but were symbiotic with one another,” Matheny explains.
The Downtown Management District was primarily operational, aimed at keeping the downtown clean and safe. You might have seen their “ambassadors” sweeping and power washing sidewalks, removing graffiti, vacuuming gutters and offering directions to pedestrians who were lost. (They also kept their eyes and ears out for aggressive panhandling and more serious threats.)
Downtown Development, on the other hand, was set up to be more strategic, focusing on economic and physical planning. It might help developers with financing opportunities or tax benefits, or managing regulations and zoning restrictions, or providing them with research, generally helping them understand the processes they need to go through to make their projects successful.
The “events” part of the group’s activities – also including things like GonzoFest, the NuLu Festival and the Veterans Day Parade – are not trivial. “All the tours, charity events, runs and races combine to expose downtown to those who don’t regularly use it and haven’t seen how much it has changed,” Matheny says. “It also has the potential to change the social set of our community. The more that people spend time with people who are different, the better their understanding and the greater their tolerance. It creates a more compassionate, more connected community.”
Matheny is a Louisville native who returned to her hometown after spending several years in the Boston area, some of that as special assistant at the Cambridge Housing Authority, developing programs to increase housing choices for low-income families.
After coming back to Louisville, she was hired as a project manager for the DDC, working on the arena and with the developers of Whisky Row Lofts – everything, she says, from finding various incentives and tax credits, to advocating with prospective lenders, to minimizing inconveniences for the neighboring Presbyterian Church USA during the construction period.
Louisville Downtown Development currently is working with the Metro Government, TARC, the Office of Advanced Planning and KIPDA (the Kentuckiana Regional Planning & Development Agency) on a Downtown Mobility Study to determine the best, most efficient and productive ways to move people into, through, around and out of the downtown core.
That will include automobile traffic and parking; public transportation; bus routes; pedestrian safety and efficiency; bicycle traffic and bike lanes; and intracity “circulators” that move people through an area – such as within the medical center – rather than to take them to locations outside downtown.
As Matheny points out, “70,000 people work downtown every day. That makes it the state’s largest office park. To put it another way, if downtown were its own separate county, it would be the third most economically impactful county in Kentucky.”
And those 70,000 tend to be Louisville’s bigger earners. “At least 10 percent of the people in every Metro Council district in Louisville are employed downtown,” she says. “Coincidentally, people who work downtown make higher wages than those who don’t.”
But downtown is also a place people go to for entertainment, dining, recreation, events and, increasingly, to live. Right now, expanding the opportunity for downtown residency is a big part of the mandate for LDP.
And it’s not just because it would be neat to return downtown Louisville to the prominence it once had as the center of urban activity. It’s because a thriving downtown is key to any city’s growth.
“Employers, whether from the suburbs or from other metropolitan areas, want to hire the best available talent,” says Matheny, “and today’s younger, more creative talent, at the top of their professional games, tend to be vibrant people who need vibrant places.”
Whether it’s the ability to walk to work, or to be able to step out of the office and into a thriving center of sports, food, music and entertainment, younger people like to be in a downtown where there’s activity and vibrancy. So if a company is thinking about where it wants to open its offices, it will expand or relocate to a market where it feels it’s able to attract talent.
“It’s a vital part of the puzzle,” says Matheny. “It brings density to downtown, which attracts retailers, restaurants and more developers.”
Matheny’s vision is “a whole lot more bodies on the street,” reshaping the place and
generating the market expansion that leads to the next wave of expansion.
“I’ve seen it happen in other communities,” she says. “I think we’re ready to have it happen here.”