A rendering shows the Omni from the corner of Third and Liberty streets. | HKS Architects/Metro government
The latest rendering shows the Omni from the corner of Third and Liberty streets. | HKS Architects/Metro government

A Metro planning committee delayed a vote on plans for a new Omni Hotel and Residences on Wednesday, after four hours of testimony that challenged key aspects of the building’s design.

The Downtown Development Review Overlay Committee, which considers all downtown projects, is expected to resume its review of the 30-story, $289 million tower at its next meeting on July 29. The committee is examining both the proposed design of the complex and the plan to clear the site, which includes deciding the future of the former headquarters of the Louisville Water Company.

A group of prominent Louisvillians has led a late-stage push to incorporate more sustainable design elements in the Omni, which will sit on roughly two-thirds of the block bounded by Second, Third and Liberty streets and Muhammad Ali Boulevard. Among them are green roofs, better pedestrian access at street level, and a more responsive streetscape on the Third Street side of the building.

According to Omni’s most recent design documents, that side of the building would be dominated by a six-story, 850-space parking garage. At street level are four retail vitrines, essentially dummy storefronts, as well as two service docks and a street entrance to the garage. There are also two staircase towers in the latest design, but they are no longer encased in glass, a change that Omni’s lead architect said Wednesday would save the company $500,000.

Those design elements — when combined with the current parking that dominates the west side of that block of Third Street — would create a “tunnel” that would turn pedestrians away and interrupt urban progress in a key section of downtown, architect and developer Roberto Bajandas told the committee on Wednesday.

“That tunnel that will be developed on Third Street is not what we want to do for the future of Louisville,” he said.

Designer Claude Stephens called the planned streetscape on Third a “canyon dead zone.”

“With so much public money going into this, there are some opportunities to move the needle further,” he said. Nearly half of the project will be financed with taxpayer funds drawn from future tax revenues generated at the site.

A rendering shows the Omni from the corner of Third and Liberty streets. | HKS Architects/Metro government
A new rendering showing the main entrance of the Omni on Second Street near Liberty. | HKS Architects/Metro government

In a concession, Mike Garcia, Omni’s chief financial officer, said the company would explore adding retail to Third Street. He also said the company is seeking additional ways to make that side of the development more friendly and accessible to pedestrians.

“You have to put your parking somewhere,” he said. “We know it’s important, so we are working towards trying to soften it up.”

More than 20 people spoke out against the Third Street design and plans to move or dismantle and store the Water Company building, which was constructed in 1910. A group of prominent Louisvillians led by philanthropist Christy Brown has organized a recent effort to incorporate the building into the hotel’s final design. That group has also asked for greater public input in the design aspects of the project.

Brown told the committee and officials there from Omni on Wednesday she hopes they will “pause” the project to further consider how it could be used to reduce heat island effects downtown and mitigate stormwater drainage problems.

“We have an opportunity to become an extraordinary urban healthy laboratory,” she said.

That group, which includes former Courier-Journal opinion editor Keith Runyon and John Huber, former president and CEO of the Louisville Water Company, also tried to screen the video below for the committee and Omni officials, but technical glitches won the day.

Members of the committee pressed Omni and Metro officials on pedestrian-friendly elements absent from the design and sought to learn more about plans for the Water Company building. Scott Kremer, an architect and member of the committee, said he supported the vast majority of the project but would not vote for it until changes are made to the Third Street side’s design.

Jeff Mosley of Louisville Forward, who has been city government’s point person on the Omni project, said Metro has two options for the historic building: disassemble the portico, facade and up to 30 feet of sidewall and store it for some future use, or move it with the help of a private investor.

The latter effort appeared to have stalled recently, and Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration announced it would extend the deadline for proposals until later this month. City officials said last month they received one proposal but that it was not economically viable. Asked if the administration is currently reviewing any proposals to move the building, a spokeswoman for Louisville Forward told IL the agency is “still open to receiving proposals for review.”

On Wednesday, Mosley said moving the building could cost $900,000, while building a foundation to support it at a new site could cost between $300,000 and $500,000. He also said incorporating the Water Company building into the proposed Omni would cost $6-12 million. Fischer has said that is cost-prohibitive.

Committee vice chair Tim Mulloy closed the meeting by extending the discussion another two weeks.

“There is still much to discuss,” he said succinctly.

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Stephen George
Stephen George is news editor of Insider Louisville. He is a former editor of LEO Weekly and the Nashville City Paper, and a former news editor of the Nashville Scene. He has written for various other news and culture publications and is happy to be back in Louisville.