The new rendering from Omni shows the corner of Third and Liberty streets.
A new rendering from Omni shows the corner of Third and Liberty streets.

After nearly five hours of testimony and debate on Wednesday, the Downtown Development Review Overlay committee approved the proposed design for the new Omni Hotel and Residences, and it authorized Metro government to remove the former Water Company headquarters from the development’s footprint.

The votes, both 6-to-2, came after the panel for the second time in two weeks heard public input and debated design elements of the 30-story, $289 million tower that will be bound by Second, Third, and Liberty streets and Muhammad Ali Boulevard.

The committee also created new requirements for the project: It voted to give city planning staff the authority to review and approve the materials Omni uses on the exterior of the main tower. And it approved requirements that the hotelier landscape the southernmost portion of the block — which will be used as a construction staging area — as green space within six months of completion, and that it add fixed benches, public art, bike racks and other pedestrian amenities to the Liberty Street side of the building.

Omni can now move ahead with more detailed design and construction proposals, which will require further city approval. But Wednesday’s votes effectively put to rest objections over the building’s basic design and orientation.

“I’m pleased with the enhancements Omni made based on the community/committee inputs: our city has emerged with a better development,” Mayor Greg Fischer tweeted after the meeting. “Thanks to all of the parties involved to make this important development happen.”

Officials with Omni, lead designer HKS Architects and Metro government quickly left the meeting after the vote, refusing to talk to media. They entered a back door of a city building without making any comment about the outcome.

The main points of contention at Wednesday’s hearing, articulated by several public speakers and two members of the DDRO committee, remained the proposed design of the building’s Third Street side and the future of the Water Company Building, which was constructed in 1910. Preservationists have pushed Omni to incorporate that building into the hotel’s design, arguing that the deal struck by Louisville Forward, the city’s development agency, in which nearly half of the project is publicly financed entitles the community to greater participation in its design.

Scott Kremer, an architect and member of the DDRO committee, objected to Omni’s decision to locate two service docks on Third Street. In a genuine moment of drama, it briefly appeared the committee might require Omni to move the service area to the south side of the hotel, where it is constructing an alley. But an effort to do that failed in a 5-3 vote.

Kremer also proposed a requirement that Omni build out four proposed “vitrines” — or fake storefronts — on Third Street into actual retail spaces. That motion failed in the same vote.

Wednesday’s hearing was a continuation of a meeting that began two weeks ago and stretched longer than four hours, after which Omni presented updated renderings showing changes to the Third Street side of the development. They include the addition of glass on the facade of the proposed “urban market,” metal meshing intended to partially obscure the concrete parking garage, the vitrines, and trellises that city officials said would feature live vegetation. Those changes were intended to make that portion of the building more inviting for pedestrians.

DDRO committee member Ed Kruger, who is also an architect, said he was “frustrated” and “very disappointed” with that response, charging that Omni did not address any of the concerns he and others raised at the July 15 hearing.

With today’s vote, the committee also included a requirement that Omni place six panels of metal meshing to further deemphasize the concrete ramps that will make up the majority of the building’s Third Street facade.

Metro government is also now authorized to remove the old Water Company Building from the site, fulfilling a promise it made in its development agreement with Omni. Officials with Louisville Forward are reviewing proposals from private investors to move and repurpose the building, including two concepts from business partners Mac Sawyers and Ross Lerner. One would place the building’s facade in Founder’s Square — a city-owned public green space at Fifth and Muhammad Ali — and present it as a monument; the other would move the first 35 feet of the building to that site and convert it to a restaurant.

One proposal from local business partners Mac Sawyers and Ross Lerner would make the Water Company Building's facade into a public monument. | Rendering courtesy Sawyers and Lerner
One proposal from local business partners Mac Sawyers and Ross Lerner would make the Water Company Building’s facade into a public monument. | Rendering courtesy of Sawyers and Lerner
A second proposal from Sawyers and Lerner would turn the Water Company Building into a restaurant. | Rendering courtesy of Sawyers and Lerner
A second proposal from Sawyers and Lerner would turn the Water Company Building into a restaurant. | Rendering courtesy of Sawyers and Lerner

Lerner said at Wednesday’s meeting he is a strong supporter of the Omni project. He said city officials have not yet responded to his proposals.

If Metro officials pass on these or other proposals from private investors, they plan to dismantle the building’s first 25 feet — including the facade — and place it into storage for possible further use. At a media briefing earlier this week, Louisville Forward deputy chief Jeff Mosley — the city’s point person on the Omni project — declined to discuss specifics of the proposals or the process.

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.