By a vote of 6 to 3 on Thursday, the Metro Historic Landmarks and Preservation Districts Commission rejected a petition to designate the 105-year old former headquarters of the Louisville Water Company as a local historic landmark, widely seen as the last potential roadblock to a full demolition of the downtown block where the proposed $289 million Omni Hotel project would stand.
The petition with over 200 signatures was filed at the last minute in September by Martina Kunnecke of the group Neighborhood Planning and Preservation, to the chagrin of officials in Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration, who say they plan to dismantle and store the facade of the Colonial Revival-style building. Preservationists had wanted at least the facade of the building incorporated into the Omni project, but the developers rejected that idea, noting that Omni’s contract with the city required that all structures on the block be cleared.
A commission staff report presented at Thursday’s hearing stated that while the structure met three of the possible nine criteria for landmark status, this was not enough reason to bestow such a designation. The report stated that the building “is not considered to be one of the landmarks of the Louisville Water Company’s accomplishments” like several of their other buildings, is “relatively modest in appearance and a less refined example of Colonial Revival style,” is “not associated with any significant historical event,” and “has lost integrity of setting, feeling and association due to the lack of historic buildings and the proximity of many surface parking lots and garages in the area.”
The report concluded that “the best and most beneficial use of the site” would be the Omni project, citing projections that it would create thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic impact and tax revenues.
Ken Bohnert, a private attorney for Metro Government, told the commission that the three landmark criteria the building met were only “marginal,” adding in a submitted letter that NPP’s late petition was an “abuse of the process” to fulfill a “private agenda.” Bohnert also wrote that if the commission granted the building landmark status, it would “derail” the Omni project and “have a chilling effect on future development that would be impossible to measure.”
Jeff Mosley of the city’s economic development department told the commission that the Omni would be “transformational” to the city, supplementing the expansion of the convention center to meet tourist needs.
Responding to the criticism of her petition, Kunnecke condemned the Fischer administration — and those preceding it — for abandoning preservation and the needs of downtown residents, and only serving the interests of high-end tourists.
“Unfortunately, we have been held captive by not one, but two administrations that don’t necessarily speak the truth on (historic preservation) matters, or at least their actions bely their words,” said Kunnecke. “Our agenda is to stop placating backroom deals. Our agenda is to really honor our history and our heritage, and help our community recognize that we go beyond bourbon. We have fabulous history in this community, and we keep tearing down every vestige of it.”
Kunnecke also noted that Scott Kremer — one of the two members of the Downtown Development Review Overlay Committee who criticized aspects of the Omni project and voted against it in July — was no longer a member of this commission after serving on it for 15 years, having been replaced in September by new Fischer appointees.
“Why does someone’s term suddenly expire when you speak up for what is right?” asked Kunnecke. “Why does that happen?”
However, Kremer was not absent from the meeting — he was the first public speaker to address the commission, telling its members to disregard the Fischer administration’s arguments and vote in favor of granting the building landmark status.
Kremer opened by saying it was a myth that giving the Water Company building a landmark designation would make it impossible to demolish or disassemble, and that according to city law, landmark status can be bestowed even if only one historic criteria is met.
“Louisville Water Company has been and continues to be a pioneering water company, and its history deserves to be recognized,” said Kremer. “Whatever the eventual outcome or future of the structure, you are asked today to acknowledge, recognize, honor and respect the history of the Louisville Water Company by elevating its former home to the level of local landmark.”
Speaking against the petition was local attorney Ed Glasscock, who said the current building “is simply out of place at this site, and to force it to remain in the middle of the Omni Hotel development is indefensible.” Glasscock said such a move would “waste a golden opportunity to substantially advance our city,” adding the hotel would create jobs, “attract upscale tourists to our bourbon capital,” and add a “top-level grocery.”
Glasscock added that “it’s unfortunate that a few citizens feel that they can dictate what Louisville’s downtown should be.”
“Why do citizens in other cities seem to work together to achieve their goals, but we always appear to challenge each other on major projects?” Asked Glasscok. “With respect to this project, why don’t we keep Kentucky’s motto in mind: United we stand, divided we fall.”
After the public comments, chairman Robert Vice stated that while the building met three of the historic landmark criteria, “I don’t think any of those three criteria are compelling.” He added that he was concerned about the integrity of three of the building’s facades that have been altered over the years.
Commission member Joanne Weeter took “very strong exception” to Vice’s remarks about the building’s integrity, citing a photo taken of a parade in front of it in the early 20th century in which it looked identical to today. She also discounted arguments highlighting the lack of historic buildings in proximity to it, noting that several of those were abruptly demolished by the city over the summer.
“I still think that the entire building has integrity,” said Weeter. “I would like to see the entire building designated as a landmark, and for us to go through the process of evaluating the possibility of what the building might be as part of the Omni development.”
Commission member Chris Hartman criticized the late filing of NPP’s petition, saying it put them in “a precarious position” of possibly thwarting the progress of the Omni project, and that it “doesn’t send the right message and it really subverts the integrity of the landmarking process.”
“Yes, the building has some integrity, it has some historical significance,” said Hartman. “But it is a key part of blocking the potential progress of that block moving forward. This is just not a position that I wish we were in right now.”
Commission member Emily Lui — who is also the director of Louisville Metro Planning and Design Services — said she had reviewed 12 landmarks cases over the last eight years, and most buildings reviewed had met between five or six of the historic criteria, even the two that were denied such status.
Vice, Hartman and Lui voted to reject the petition, along with commission members Reba Doutrick, Tamika Jackson and Roberty Kirchdorfer. Weeter voted against this motion, along with Carrye Jones and Amin Omidy.
After the meeting, Kunnecke told Insider Louisville that those voting to reject NPP’s petition “carried water for the mayor,” and took aim at Hartman’s belief that it put them in a tough position, saying “if you can’t address tough issues, don’t show up.”
“This administration is more focused on corporate connections — and not so much on what the citizens want in this community — that they have begun to water down the process and the interpretation of our ordinances,” said Kunnecke. “This commission turned its backs on the real owners of this community.”
Regarding Kunnecke’s suspicion about the abrupt removal of Scott Kremer from his position as vice chair of the commission last month — along with his position on the Downtown Development Review Overly committee — Kremer told IL last month that he received a letter from the Fischer administration thanking him for his service and that his city email would be shut off. While saying he was still serving on an expired term, Kremer added that he was unsure if that meant he was being removed from all of the boards he was on, and was seeking clarification on that from the administration.
In September, mayoral spokesman Chris Poynter told IL that Kremer’s term had expired and three new commissioners were appointed to spots on the board. Asked if Mayor Fischer was pleased or displeased with Kremer’s performance, Poynter replied “we generally try to appoint new commissioners after three terms on all boards.” Asked Thursday if Kremer was replaced because he was sometimes critical of and voted against projects that were priorities for Fischer, Poynter said that wasn’t the case.
Weeter, who has been on the Landmarks Commission for six years, said she didn’t know why Kremer was not reappointed to the body but said she was glad to see him testify before his former colleagues on Thursday.
“I can’t speak to that… I think perhaps that question should go to the mayor’s office or Chris Poynter,” said Weeter. “But I was glad he was here to speak his mind… freely speak his mind.”
Two of Fischer’s three new appointees voted against the motion rejecting NPP’s petition, but did not give any significant comments on the matter.
In a statement after Thursday’s vote, Fischer praised the commission for batting down the petition and moving the Omni Hotel project forward.
“The Omni is a transformative project for downtown and a job generator — 765 construction jobs and 300 permanent jobs in what will be our city’s biggest construction project outside the bridges project,” said Fischer. “I wish to thank the Landmarks Commission for its careful deliberation on this important case.”