The contract between Metro government and Omni Hotels for a new 30-story luxury tower requires that the city demolish all buildings at the downtown site, making a series of recent discussions between city officials and local preservationists over keeping at least two historic facades there moot.
However, Metro officials contend the deal — which the city agreed to in January — also allows Omni to incorporate elements of the remaining buildings at the site into its final design, something they’re working with the hotelier to do.
Demolition of the Morrissey Garage and the Falls City Theatre Equipment Company building began on Saturday, two days after Metro government deemed the buildings unsafe and announced they had to come down immediately. But by Monday afternoon, crews hired by the city had only demolished the facades — as if to formally end any conversations about their inclusion in the 600-room hotel’s design.
The facades had been at the center of discussions between Metro officials and preservationists during the past four months about whether the historic structures could be maintained as part of the Omni development. Those conversations continued until as recently as March 11, according to sources close to the discussions. But they never included an acknowledgement that the Omni deal required the city to clear the site, which is bounded by Second, Third and Liberty streets and Muhammad Ali Boulevard.
The development agreement between Metro and Omni requires the city to clear the entire site, including asphalt:
Louisville Metro shall demolish all structures on the New Project Parcel including the asphalt parking surface and all foundations to such structures prior to the Property Closing.
Metro Councilman Tom Owen, D-8, who toured the four buildings at the site — including the former Water Company headquarters and the Odd Fellows Building — with Preservation Louisville executive director Marianne Zickuhr and city officials in March, said he wasn’t aware that the development agreement with Omni required the city to tear down the buildings.
“I think the administration needs to be more straightforward if that’s what they’ve already agreed to do,” Owen told Insider Louisville. “If they’ve agreed to do that, then we’re just spinning our wheels.”
Mary Ellen Wiederwohl, chief of Louisville Forward, the city’s development agency, confirmed the language in the development agreement.
“Yes,” Wiederwohl said in response to an emailed question. “However, Omni and the city have been and are still considering options for the buildings.”
Metro announced it was demolishing the two buildings in an email to reporters on Thursday. Dave Marchal, director of Office of Construction Review for Develop Louisville, told IL the buildings had deteriorated beyond repair and posed a public safety threat. According to permits filed Friday, the city is paying Louisville-based National Environmental Contracting $200,000 to tear them down.
The city bought the Falls City building in 2007 and the Morrissey Garage — which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1983 — in 2008. Before two weeks ago, the buildings hadn’t received an engineering evaluation since 2009. Marchal said Thursday their condition had declined significantly during the intervening years.
Preservationists attempted an eleventh-hour intervention to save the two buildings late last week, with at least one unnamed private interest offering to fund further engineering studies. With the start of demolition, however, those efforts are irrelevant.
Zickuhr said preservationists would now focus on the two remaining buildings, the Water Company structure and the Odd Fellows Hall. Last week, Metro officials said the Water Company building remained under review. Odd Fellows Hall, which houses the PARC agency, is part of a separate review process at the site.
“That is the next part of this,” Zickuhr said. “What is the real story with those other two buildings?”