Downtown Louisville is experiencing a renaissance these days. Surface parking lots are being replaced with high-density developments. The city’s long-awaited bike share program kicked off over the summer. Art murals are popping up all over the place.
Perhaps most importantly, there is a serious effort to reconnect east and west Louisville neighborhoods.
Through an initiative led by Louisville Metro and the Louisville Downtown Partnership, a design team of urban planners, contractors, architects, metal fabricators and lighting designers has been assembled to redesign the underpass at the intersection of 9th and Main Streets.
Led by Philadelphia-based Interface Studio Architects (ISA), the team included the local construction firm Shine Contracting, the landscape architecture firm Element Design, the metal fabricators from Core Design and the lighting designers from LAM Partners, based out of Cambridge, Mass.
Called “The Louisville Knot,” the design team created set a giant urban furniture installation that will span the entire block between 9th and 10th Streets, fashioned with art and amenities to improve the pedestrian experience and create a curious destination for travelers.
“An underpass is not the most inviting space,” said Jeff O’Brien, deputy director at the Office of Advanced Planning. “Trees under ramps aren’t very successful, so we had to find alternatives to brighten the area. It’s part of a larger vision to connect people together and encourage biking, walking, and other means of exploring the city.”
With the westward expansion of Waterfront Park on the horizon and the reconstruction of Beecher Terrace soon to take shape, city officials view this project as the first step in stitching together the burgeoning businesses in the Russell community and the Main Street corridor.
Though the majority of Louisville tourists tend to hit the major hotspots in the Central Business District — museums, bourbon distilleries and The Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory — the city wanted to find a way to pull some of that foot traffic across 9th Street. But to do so, the concrete tangle of overhead highway would need to be remade into something more walkable.
“When we came out to Louisville, we were struck at how pleasing the underpasses were,” said Brian Phillips of ISA. “They were clean, well-lit, and about 14 to 15 feet off the ground, so it’s to the human scale.”
Phillips and his crew understood that they were non-residents tasked with addressing the localized effects to upend racial segregation — the history of which led to the demolition of African-American-owned businesses in the Russell neighborhood and the rise of surface parking lots that further divided east and west Louisville.
“We wanted to listen to the people of Louisville because we know how an outside voice could interpret something,” Phillips said, adding that his team held several community meetings to collect feedback from area stakeholders. “We understood that it had historical meaning, so the whole idea of The Knot was to facilitate the identity of the city, not define it ourselves.”
The Knot itself will be a tubular assemblage of metal pieces that will incorporate a playground-esque “talking tube” pipe that carries sound between both ends of the Knot, as well as lighting fixtures to illuminate the sidewalk from underneath the benches.
Other features include a bike rack, placemaking signage, an oversized swing, and a large candelabra — a nod to the “Happy Birthday” song, which was written by Louisville sisters Patty and Mildred Hill, whose memorial plaque currently stands next to the 9th Street underpass.
“The idea was to put this intersection on the map as a social space that would add value to the adjacent properties,” Phillips said. “We imagined food trucks parked at The Knot and it being the type of place for pop-up events.”
Although it’s not a total street makeover, The Knot could be considered a tactical intervention project in that it’s a low-cost, high impact attachment to the urban fabric that’ll be constructed for the long haul.
“The average cost of a streetscaping in downtown Louisville is about a million per block; the Louisville Knot costs about $150,000,” O’Brien explained. “Short of demolishing the ramps altogether, we’re looking at this as an immediate solution to get people crossing 9th Street and supporting businesses in that area.”
Details about the design and implementation of the project will be discussed at the Mayor’s Music & Art Series on Thursday, Nov. 16 at 5:30 p.m. The event will take place at the Mayor’s Gallery, located at 527 W. Jefferson Street, and will be open to the public.
“It’ll be an opportunity for the mayor to highlight the work that artists and designers contributed to the project,” said Sarah Lindegren, public art administrator for Louisville Metro. “The evening will include a presentation by ISA about what we can expect from The Knot, followed by a conversation with Mayor Fischer to take questions from attendees.”
The project is expected to be completed by spring 2018. Here is a gallery of the project: