The Louisville Central Community Center unveiled renderings for a proposed West Louisville arts and cultural corridor on Thursday afternoon before a panel discussion about community empowerment.
“The Greatest Mile: Community Dialogue on Economic Transformation and Gentrification” focused on both the fears and opportunities emanating from the revitalization efforts in the Russell neighborhood. The arts and cultural corridor is viewed as a way for current Russell stakeholders to benefit from the changes going on around them.
“There has been a lot of talk about displaced residents, but nobody is really talking about displaced businesses,” said Rev. David Snardon, president of Concerned Pastors of Russell. “Bringing jobs and affordable housing to the community is great, but we don’t want a situation where Russell residents live on the land but don’t own it because they are renters. We don’t want them only working a job and not owning any of the businesses. Black and poor people should get something from the developments going on in their communities.”
LCCC President Kevin Fields said the Muhammad Ali Arts, Culture and Innovation Corridor is designed to complement the transformation of the Beecher Terrace Housing Project into a mixed-income community and address community concerns about potential negative consequences like higher rents and property values. The plan incorporates the history of the Russell and the need to maintain affordable housing with economic development that will attract new residents.
“We want to create destination businesses to stimulate the economic transformation of Russell. Historically, the neighborhood has been an anchor for downtown Louisville. We think it can be again,” Fields explained.
LCCC is a nearly 70-year-old organization that helps families in Russell through early childhood education, employment services and other programs.
Fields, who is also the organization’s chief operating officer, said he and former LCCC President Sam Watkins realized years ago that the organization often helped individuals achieve economic mobility only to see them leave the Russell for other neighborhoods.
In 2013, they commissioned a study from the University of Kentucky to figure out how Russell could retain these residents. That study led to a 2015 “West of 9th Vision” prepared by the American Institute of Architects’ Sustainable Design and Architecture Team (SDAT). It was that group which first proposed an arts and cultural corridor and the concept was included in Metro Louisville’s application for the $30 million federal Choice Neighborhoods Initiative grant that is funding the Beecher Terrace redevelopment.
Russell was once the home of a thriving African-American business district. From 1920 to 1950, the old Walnut Street business district sat on Walnut Street (now Muhammad Ali Boulevard) between 6th and 15th streets. The area boasted about 150 mostly black-owned businesses including restaurants, theaters, bars, barber shops, and even a couple of newspapers.
The city of Louisville demolished most of the Walnut Street business district with funds from a federal urban renewal program in the late 1950s that was supposed to improve blighted areas of the city. Instead, urban renewal destroyed the economic base of Louisville’s black community, local leaders say. Many of the African-American owned businesses could not afford to relocate and the loss contributed to the economic deprivation that Russell still suffers.
Local leaders are hoping to use federal funds to reverse the damage done by the previous federal program. The Muhammad Ali Arts, Culture and Innovation Corridor grew out of a partnership formed last year between LCCC, Louisville Metro Housing Authority, Louisville Forward, the Downtown Louisville Partnership and the Concerned Pastors of Russell.
The 1.5-mile passage will stretch along West Muhammad Ali Boulevard between 6th and 21st streets, taking in the whole of the old Walnut Street business district. The corridor will be divided into three distinct areas: The Garden District between 5th and 9th streets; the Walnut District between 9th and 14th streets; and the Heritage District between 14th and 22nd streets.
The Garden District is expected to extend the economic resurgence of downtown Louisville westward. The district is named for the Louisville Gardens, which has been vacant since 2008. City officials are hoping to find a developer to take on the Gardens project and make it an economic engine for the area as something besides a venue space.
Fields said the National Baptist Convention, one of the country’s largest African-American church groups, has expressed interest in developing a new venue space next to the Gardens to host conventions or special events. Last year, the group moved its national headquarters from Dallas to the campus of Simmons College of Kentucky on South 7th Street not far from downtown.
The Walnut District will build upon the legacy of the old Walnut Street Business District. It boast a dense mix of affordable housing and commercial properties. Fields said the plan calls for four- or five-story buildings that might have commercial space at ground level and apartments on higher floors. A group of unnamed former Louisville residents is expected to invest in this segment of the corridor.
The Heritage District will be anchored by the Kentucky African American Heritage Center, which is already proving to be an economic highlight of the Russell neighborhood. In addition to hosting events, the heritage center is the home to the Samuel Plato Academy of Historic Preservation Trades. Named after notable African-American architect Samuel Plato, the academy teaches students to rehabilitate dilapidated properties. The $30 million HUD implementation grant already includes $300,000 for improvement at the center.
Following the Muhammad Ali Arts, Culture and Innovation Corridor presentation, Jack Newton of the Downtown Development Partnership moderated a panel discussion on the potential of gentrification. The panel included Fields, independent urban planner Joshua Poe, Jeana Dunlap of Louisville Forward and Don Edwards of the Justice & Sustainability Associates in Washington, D.C. Edwards had helped craft the AIA proposal that originated the concept of an arts and cultural corridor. The panel discussed avenues for combating raised property rates like homeownership and resettlement programs.
Vickie Cobble-Forehand left the event in high spirits. She is planning to open a gift store called ReVital later this year in the Shawnee neighborhood. Cobble-Forehead hopes her fledgling business finds a home in the Walnut District someday. She thinks it is needed in Russell.
“My business came about because my car wouldn’t start one day, and I was frustrated because there was nowhere in West Louisville where I could shop for what I wanted,” she said. “I think everyone wants to be able to spend their money in the place where they live and not have to drive somewhere else.”