After a string of news stories about Fourth Street Live! losing tenants over the past year, the last couple weeks has brought reports of new tenants finally filling up some ever-growing empty space in the downtown entertainment complex.
While this is good news for the complex, do local and national trends portend the end of these master-planned developments? Salon.com ran a piece in September about reinventing downtowns in which Fourth Street Live! was prominently mentioned.
The key? Let us drink in public!
When Dave Armstrong moved into City Hall as the newly elected mayor in 1999, downtown Louisville was already in serious need of redevelopment. Noticeably absent was an entertainment district anywhere in the central business district.
Armstrong embraced the challenge under his “live, work, play” downtown mantra.
For the play part, he turned to Baltimore-based The Cordish Companies to reinvent the Galleria, the failed previous savior of downtown. The city had purchased the downtrodden shopping mall from Toronto-based Oxford Properties and turned it over to Cordish for a $70 million makeover using a combination of public and private funds.
By the grand opening in 2004, Cordish had fulfilled its mission by turning the enclosed shopping mall into a lively festival market-type entertainment district, catering largely to the city’s convention-goers.
In addition to its newness, the complex had a strong competitive advantage: an exemption from the open container liquor law. Patrons are allowed to carry drinks from one establishment to another and imbibe on the sidewalks between Liberty Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard.
This is exactly what the Salon.com piece says is the key to redeveloping staid downtowns. Without going into the article’s history of open container laws, it basically states cities that have relaxed these laws in designated areas have seen downtown nightlife spark back to life.
In addition to Louisville, the reporter cited Memphis’s Beale Street, Kansas City’s Power & Light District and the Fort Worth Stockyards, among others, as places that have taken advantage of relaxed open container laws.
Up river, Ohio is attempting to liberalize its open container laws in hopes of spurring redevelopment in various urban areas. A push for open container exemptions in Louisville to move beyond Fourth Street Live! would help level the playing field for other entertainment districts across town, especially downtown.
Since its opening success the relationship between the city and Cordish has grown strained, though as Business First’s John Karman wrote in July, this love-hate relationship is not unique to Louisville.
At Fourth Street Live!, large blocks of space have remained empty, locally-owned tenants have been priced out and a string of nasty lease disputes have led to multiple lawsuits. Cordish has also thrice failed to deliver on plans to expand the complex.
And even while attracting some 4.65 million customers per year (more than Beale Street or the equivalent of a NuLu Festival every day of the year), the city has yet to be paid a single penny despite the existence of a profit-sharing agreement between the developer and city.
These tensions notwithstanding, a recent economic analysis of the city’s contribution in Fourth Street Live! led by retired University of Louisville economist Paul Coomes concluded that it’s been money well spent in terms of return on investment.
As the city waits for movement on the City Center expansion, the third attempt to expand the entertainment district, other areas downtown are beginning to thrive organically. A fourth reincarnation of the City Center plan calls for a $245 million investment centered on apartments and an upscale supermarket financed in a part with another tax increment financing district.
NuLu is already well established and the hottest area in town for new restaurants.
The burgeoning arena district is holding its own and primed for significant growth once the old-Whiskey Row buildings are converted into additional bars, restaurants, offices, apartments and a potential bourbon-related tourism attraction.
Portland could well be the next hot destination spot with the announcement of Gill Holland’s vision of the Portland Stroll District and the East Portland Warehouse District.
The convention trade has largely embraced Fourth Street Live! whereas natives haven’t been as receptive.
Both local and national trends seem to indicate that folks are looking for more authentic dining and nightlife experiences and complexes filled with national tenants more commonly found in suburban strip malls are suffering.
Look no further than Baltimore, Cordish’s hometown, where their flagship downtown development Power Plant Live! is struggling and requested $3 million of rent relief from the city.
Cordish mega-developments in Kansas City and St. Louis have also run into problems.
Though Cordish has done very little to engender itself to the local public, they delivered on their initial mission of establishing a downtown entertainment district.
Yet current trends seem to be working against them. Since that time, other areas have established themselves as downtown entertainment districts.
If open container exemptions were spread more equitably around these other downtown districts and the rest of Louisville, Fourth Street Live!’s one-time competitive advantage could lead to its ultimate demise.