A government map of the Russell neighborhood | Courtesy of Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has announced that Louisville will receive a nearly $30 million grant to transform and revitalize the Russell neighborhood, which runs west of the Central Business District from the so-called “Ninth Street divide” to 32nd Street.

HUD posted a press release Monday afternoon announcing that Louisville was among five finalists to win its Choice Neighborhood Initiative Implementation Grant, which go toward redeveloping distressed public or assisted housing and revitalizing surrounding neighborhoods. HUD also posted details on the Russell project, which plans to raze the 758-unit Beecher Terrace public housing complex and replace it with mixed-income housing, as well several initiatives to boost “educational and economic opportunities.”

Louisville previously won two Choice grants over the last two years, the first of which allowed the Metro Housing Authority to create its comprehensive Vision Russell plan for the neighborhood. Louisville applied for the $29.5 million grant this year, and in September HUD announced that Louisville was among five finalists to receive the grant.

The Choice Neighborhoods Initiative is part of the Obama administration’s plan to reinvest in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty, with HUD Secretary Julian Castro stating in a press release that “these game-changing investments will breathe new life into distressed neighborhoods and offer real opportunities for the families who call these communities home. What we do today will leverage private investment and bear fruit for generations of families looking for an opportunity to thrive in neighborhoods that are connected to the economic and social fabric of their communities.”

City leaders gathered in the Baxter Community Center — across the street from Beecher Terrace — late Monday afternoon to celebrate winning the grant, which Mayor Greg Fischer called the largest federal investment in the history of West Louisville. Citing statistics about improving economic conditions in Louisville, Fischer added that “not all Zip codes of the city are benefiting from this prosperity. Today’s announcement is a major step to further ensure that West Louisville shares in the renaissance of our city.”

Referring to Louisville’s infamous “Ninth Street divide” — the street that in many ways splits the city by race and economic class — Fischer said the project’s goal is to replace this with “a beautiful new bridge of opportunity and hope.”

Congressman John Yarmuth referenced University of Louisville football star Lamar Jackson, calling the day’s announcement “the Heisman Trophy of HUD investments.”

“This is what hope looks like,” said Yarmuth. “This is going to be a gem of our community.”

Rendering of mixed-income housing on Ninth Street | Courtesy of HUD
Rendering of mixed-income housing on Ninth Street | Courtesy of HUD

HUD’s project overview for Louisville says the Russell neighborhood “is challenged with high vacancy rates, a heavy concentration of poorly designed, subsidized housing complexes, and a perceived dividing line that cuts the neighborhood off from downtown.” According to the most recent city records, 58 percent of the 9,651 residents who live in the neighborhood have an income below the federal poverty level, including over 71 percent of children. Of adults in the labor force, 31.7 percent are unemployed, and fewer than 10 percent of those over the age of 25 have a college degree. The neighborhood also has been one of several in Louisville to be plagued with a dramatic increase in shootings and homicides over the past two years.

HUD states that the housing authority and its development partner McCormick Baron Salazar Inc. will replace the Beecher Terrace project “with 640 mixed-income units that reflect historic and contemporary designs, offer first-floor retail, and are reconnected to the neighborhood street grid.” This site also will include a new park with sports fields, a community pool and a pavilion, while an additional 438 project-based vouchers will be awarded to private developers “to create mixed-income developments in opportunity-rich neighborhoods across Louisville.”

In their effort to improve educational and economic outcomes for children and families, national nonprofit Urban Strategies and a variety of partners “will connect residents to training, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy efforts,” while Jefferson County Public Schools “will lead partners in bolstering quality early education and launching an innovative school Transformation Model to turn around the Roosevelt Perry Elementary School.”

The project overview goes on to state that Louisville Forward, the city’s economic development department, will help start an “eCommerce Business Incubator,” expand small business lending to facilitate startups, and fill in gap financing for the construction of a 30,000-square-foot office and retail development.

HUD stated that for every $1 in Choice funding a city receives, the city and their partners will be able to leverage an additional $5 in public and private funding for their project proposals. For the Louisville project, HUD estimates that this will amount to over $200 million in total investment locally. The other cities to receive the grants Monday are Denver, St. Louis, Boston and Camden, N.J., altogether totaling $132 million, which HUD says will be able to leverage $636 million and stimulate another $3.3 billion indirectly to magnify the impact of the projects.

The Metro Housing Authority stated earlier this year that construction at Beecher Terrace could start in late 2017 and might take seven to 10 years to be completed. The city is required to offer housing to those displaced residents, who have the first right of return and lifetime rights once the new development is completed. When the Sheppard Square public housing project in Smoketown was torn down, 80 percent of its displaced residents chose to take Section 8 vouchers or move to other public housing.

Critics of tearing down Beecher Terrace fear that these displaced residents will have trouble finding affordable housing elsewhere in the city, and the mixed-income development replacing it will be out of their price range. Supporters says the deteriorated housing project is riddled with crime and unsafe for residents, with a revitalization effort needed to fully transform the area.

Metro Housing Authority executive director Tim Barry — one of the key city officials responsible for Louisville winning the Choice grant — made a direct promise at the announcement next door to Beecher Terrace that its residents being displaced will not be let down by the city.

“You have my commitment and our promise — the housing authority and city government — that we will do everything we can do to make your transition successful,” said Barry. “In the end all of us will be judged by how we treat the Beecher residents. Everything else will fall into place.”

Asked if the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump could in any way rescind this federal grant and block the project’s implementation, Rep. Yarmuth — soon to be the ranking Democrat in the House Budget Committee — said it could not, as “this money has been allocated and appropriated, and now it’s been committed.”

“They could eliminate the (Choice) program if they wanted to, but we’d still have our money,” said Yarmuth. “The terms of this grant are already established, so they will carry through to the end of the grant… But this could be the last Choice Neighborhoods grant.”

This story has been updated.

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]