Workers at Colonial Gardens
Workers install personalized bricks purchased by local residents at Colonial Gardens. | Photo by Michael L. Jones

Colonial Gardens is on track to open at the end of the summer after missing several earlier deadlines. Jeff Underhill of Underhill Associates said hungry South End diners could be enjoying tacos and tortas from El Taco Luchador in the next couple of weeks. Union 15, a pizza parlor and taproom, is expected to open in the long-vacant South End landmark later in August.

“El Taco Luchador is almost done. They just have to install the drop-down ceiling in the kitchen,” said Underhill. “I hate to give exact dates because we’ve had so many starts and stops over time, but we are very close to the finish line.”

Colonial Gardens, vacant since 2003, originally was slated to reopen at the beginning of summer, but Underhill said construction delays and tenant issues made that impossible.

In May, Mayor Greg Fischer and several members of the Metro Council held a news conference at the site to announce that the first tenants in the facility were opening in June. Underhill said city officials jumped the gun on the announcement because they were being criticized by some residents over the more than $2 million the city has invested in the project.

“I think the city had a lot of bad information they’d been dealing with, and they wanted to have something happy to deal with,” Underhill told Insider. “I’d rather have had them come out here now when we are further along, to be frank. The monument sign is scheduled to be installed this week, and the landscaping should be done by the last week of July.”

Jeff Underhill and Louise DeSpain
Developer Jeff Underhill and Louise DeSpain, president of the Beechmont Women’s Club | Photo by Michael L. Jones

The city purchased Colonial Gardens in 2013 for $430,000. It also provided the project with $1.2 million in construction grants and made $200,000 in pedestrian and safety improvements as well as adding a new TARC bus stop in front of the building.

Underhill Associates, the only developer who bid on the project, bought the property for $1.

The developer pledged to invest $5 million of its own funds to renovate Colonial Gardens but ran into delays from the start. The original property had been split into three parcels, and two them had tenants.

Underhill Associates had to wait three years to take possession of the parcel occupied by Little Caesar’s Pizza, the last tenant to vacate.

The six-year wait for Colonial Gardens to open has caused frustration among South End residents.

Insider showed up to the construction site last week when Underhill was giving a tour to Louise DeSpain, president of the Beechmont Women’s Club. DeSpain said she reached out to the developer on behalf of her members because they had heard negative rumors about the project.

Underhill said the main delay, other than the Little Caesar’s lease, has been the deterioration of the original structure. He said his company had to spend an extra $1 million on the restoration.

“I know people are getting impatient to see something happen, but they have to realize the building had been vacant for nearly 20 years,” he explained. “We’ve basically rebuilt it from the inside out. We had to redo the foundation and some of the walls.”

The original Colonial Gardens space has been redesigned to include a spiral staircase, a dumb-waiter and an elevator. Once construction is finished, the building will have a porch facing New Cut Road.

El Taco Luchador at Colonial Gardens
The El Taco Luchador at Colonial Gardens is only weeks away from opening. | Photo by Michael L. Jones

In addition to making changes to the original structure, Underhill Associates built three new buildings that mimic its style. The new Colonial Gardens includes a high-end food court with four restaurants. Each will have its own patio space and share a 10,000-square-foot patio area that harkens back to the property’s roots as a beer garden. The patio will be decorated with items representing the history of Colonial Gardens and the South End.

Underhill said it has been a challenge trying to find the right mix of restaurants to inhabit the new building. Initially, local chain Wild Eggs was set to occupy the space now being used by El Taco Luchador. Underhill said the Wild Eggs deal fell through because of financing issues.

“Wild Eggs ran into some franchise problems with the person that was going to be the operator here,” he said. “They wanted us to wait for that to burn off, but we just said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ at that point. We moved El Taco Luchador into that spot, and that opened the door for Union 15.”

Insider reported in May that Greg Brown, owner of the Jeffersonville craft beer pub Growler USA, attended the city’s Colonial Gardens news conference in May with an architect in tow. Underhill confirmed that Brown is indeed set to occupy the original structure pending financing approval of his concept. The new pub will be like Growler USA, Underhill said, but it might carry a different name — one that reflects its South End setting.

“The idea here is a high-end, family-style pub,” he said. “They are doing well with their Jeffersonville store. They have 100 taps on the wall. I think with the tradition of Colonial Gardens being a beer garden, this should be a home run.”

There is no tenant currently slated for the last spot at Colonial Gardens, but there is interest. Underhill said the group behind Cincinnati’s Venezuelan restaurant Maize approached him with a concept for a white-table-cloth restaurant there. He said a Louisville group also has shown interest in opening a breakfast spot that might be used for something else later in the evening.

Jimbo's Bar-B-Q
Underhill Associates purchased Jimbo’s Bar-B-Q in April and intends to renovate the space. | Photo by Michael L. Jones

Because Colonial Gardens is next to a residential neighborhood, Underhill said, none of the restaurants will be open after 11 p.m.

Underhill Associates also plans to open a fifth restaurant on Kenwood Drive, directly across the street from Colonial Gardens. The developer bought Jimbo’s Bar-B-Que in April.

Underhill said when he learned the family-run restaurant was for sale, he wanted to ensure it was renovated to the same standards as Colonial Gardens.

“We have a barbecue restaurant going into there that I will leave unnamed at the moment because they are going through loan approval right now,” he said. “If that is successful, we’ll jump on that real quickly. We’ll use the same contractors and move them across the street.”

DeSpain was impressed by the work she saw during her tour of Colonial Gardens. She said the South End has needed a development like this for a long time.

“Everything I’ve seen has been first class,” she said. “This space already has so many memories for people all over the community. I think the new development is going to become a meeting place for all the neighbors. I know my members will want to have meetings here.”

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Michael L. Jones
Michael L. Jones, a freelance journalist and author, covers communities for Insider Louisville. His latest book "Louisville Jug Music: From Earl McDonald to the National Jubilee" (History Press) received the 2014 Samuel Thomas Book Award from the Louisville Historical League. In addition to his contributions to Insider, his writing appears regularly in LEO Weekly, Louisville Magazine, Food & Dining – Louisville Edition, and Who’s Who Louisville: African American Profiles. He also sits on the board of directors of the National Jug Band Jubilee. Jones and his wife, Melissa Amos-Jones, a physical therapist, live in the Kenwood Hills neighborhood near Iroquois Park.