Rendering of the Main and Clay development from a Metro government filing
Rendering of the Main and Clay development in Butchertown from a Metro government filing

In recent weeks, multiple proposed new construction projects in Louisville have pitted property developers against local preservationists. From the West End Walmart to a large condo building in Butchertown, the seemingly eternal struggle between those who demand the new and those who prefer the past has raged anew.

On West Broadway at 18th Street, big-box behemoth Walmart has all but vanquished the apparently unpopular defenders of Louisville’s building and zoning codes. The company will likely succeed in building a suburban-style store in an urban neighborhood, prevailing development rules be damned.

Meanwhile, at Main and Clay Streets just east of I-65, a battle rages over a proposed 260-unit condo building slated to take up an entire city block. The Butchertown Architectural Review Committee approved the plan, which will incorporate only the facades of the existing buildings that must be demolished to make room for it. Attorney Steve Porter and his allies are appealing the decision. They argue the building is out of scale with its surroundings and would erase part of the historic aesthetic of Butchertown.

These struggles have sparked yet another war of words between preservationists and supporters of unrestricted new construction. Calls to preserve the past are met with warnings that strict rules will cripple needed infill and investment. In the words of local real estate broker Gant Hill, for example, “Louisville has historically had a reputation for being a tough city to develop projects.” Preservation is important, he says, “but I feel that we sometimes take that too far.”

If Louisville has such a reputation, it’s a recent phenomenon. The city once had no qualms at all with leveling entire city blocks filled with historic structures to make way for new development. There was, for example, the Urban Renewal era of the 1960s and 1970s during which huge, still-occupied portions of downtown were totally demolished. Most of the antebellum and post-Civil War legacy of Louisville architecture has been lost forever.

Butchertown itself is just a fraction of its past glory. First the 1937 flood and then the construction of the I-64 and I-71 interchange devastated the neighborhood, along with an area called The Point, just to its northeast. Historic houses and other buildings were demolished wholesale, their lots left bare or filled with industry and scrapyards.

It wasn’t until 1973 that Louisville had any official preservation policy. Mayor Harvey Sloan created a Landmarks Commission that began an incremental and often unsuccessful effort to preserve some of the city’s architectural history. Today, a patchwork of certifications, zoning rules and neighborhood organizations limits the total freedom of property developers in some areas of the city, but demolition and new construction is hardly impossible. As Walmart has proven, rules and restrictions are no match for the heft of big money interests.

Besides being exaggerated, much of the fear-mongering about preservation also ignores the fact that coordinated efforts to preserve historic buildings have been proven over several decades to raise property values and encourage tourism.

The primary enemy of preservation is short-term greed. In the early 1970s, frustrated by the decimation of much of the city by Urban Renewal, Professor William Morgan wrote in The Courier-Journal that “architecture and history take a back seat to economics, and, as so often happens in Louisville, dollar return takes precedence over all other considerations; imagination and the possibility of reasonable alternatives are casualties of a planning that puts dollars and cars ahead of people.” Little has changed in 40 years.

Proposed West End Walmart
Proposed West End Walmart

Developers care about costs; if you keep the cost of new construction to a minimum, profits will be higher. Though preservation boosts property values over time, clear-cutting a block rather than renovating the old buildings which inhabit it makes for bigger immediate returns. So there is an incentive to totally replace the old rather than renovate and incorporate it into new projects.

Opponents warn that preservation rules will raise the cost of new development too far and scare away investors. Without new development, old buildings and neighborhoods will languish, empty and forgotten, and surrounding properties will crater in value. Meanwhile, big money developers will seek more favorable climes, such as Nashville, which has enjoyed a recent boom of urban infill and a jump in downtown population.

But a balance can, and must, be reached. Not every new project is appropriate for its desired location. And those that are appropriate do not have to come at the cost of whatever was there before. After all, a failed new project may mean a community’s historic legacy was bulldozed for nothing.

The inherent risk involved with many new projects is a good reason to preserve and protect Louisville’s existing architecture. After all, there is no reason to believe that a large, expensive apartment building in Butchertown will be a success story.

Among the real estate crowd, there is ever-increasing chatter about those magical, mobile Millennials who would just love to spend a lot of money on downtown urban living but simply don’t have enough options. If only Louisville can vastly increase the supply of luxury condos and apartments in the downtown area, the argument goes, smart and youthful future leaders will flock in droves.

We should be highly skeptical that such a demand exists here. After all, of the roughly 85,000 Louisvillians aged 25-34, half have an annual income below $25,000, and more than 60 percent make less than $35,000. Surely few among them have the means or desire to pay $1,000 a month for a studio apartment when much larger spaces (at much lower prices) are easy to find in nearby neighborhoods like Germantown or Clifton. Granted, existing apartments in outlying areas lack the expensive luxuries that Millennials apparently crave, but when you’re on a tight budget, a pool and a pet spa probably slip down your list of priorities.

Louisville is not a rich city, after all. In fact, it was recently ranked the 11th-poorest city in the country. Its young professionals are few in number and aren’t, as a group, paid very handsomely. And housing is not so limited or overpriced that quality apartments, condos, and even single-family homes can’t be found for affordable prices very close to a downtown that remains mostly a daytime destination for white-collar commuters.

New residential developments like the proposed condo building in Butchertown are risky endeavors. And without preservation restrictions, there is a danger that historic structures will be lost to new projects that end up vacant or underutilized if demand for pricey condos and studio apartments fails to fully materialize.

Urban infillers and their allies must compromise with preservationists and neighborhood associations. Louisville has a grand architectural legacy that must be preserved, but that doesn’t mean progress should be impossible. Success stories like the Cherokee Triangle have proven we can have both if we want them.

William Morgan’s wise words 40 years ago still ring true today. “Louisville must accept the principle that the planning of a city is an equation into which economics is only one factor, and that when public good comes before private profit, everyone will benefit.”

Joe Dunman
Joe Dunman is a Louisville, Kentucky attorney whose practice focuses on civil rights and employment law. He tweets @JoeDunman and blogs at www.joedunmanlaw.com.