A Metro government map of the Russell neighborhood
A Metro government map of the Russell neighborhood

City officials and stakeholders in the Russell neighborhood will hold the first in a series of public meetings about the future of Beecher Terrace tonight, part of a planning process funded by a federal grant to determine what’s next for the 76-year-old housing project and the neighborhood of which it is a part.

The $425,000 federal grant, from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Choice Neighborhood Program, initiated a two-year local process earlier this year to devise a plan to revitalize the neighborhood, where 62 percent of the more than 10,000 residents live below the federal poverty line. A task force made up of city officials, neighborhood residents and activists also will look for ways to attract more private capital to Russell, where violent crime is five times the city’s current rate.

The group — chaired by Louisville Central Community Centers president and CEO Sam Watkins and Scott Love of Louisville Forward — is one of a long list of organizations and individuals who will provide input during the planning process, according to Louisville Forward and the Louisville Metro Housing Authority. Schools, educators, health care centers, churches, neighborhood business owners, housing providers, more than 20 Metro departments, and key institutions in Russell are all expected to participate.

The plan is likely to begin by addressing the future of the deteriorating Beecher Terrace facility, a 768-unit public housing complex plagued by crime and neglect. For several years, city officials have explored ways to obtain and then leverage ever-diminishing federal HOPE VI funds to replace the public housing complex with a mixed-use development, as has happened with Park DuValle and Liberty Green. If Beecher Terrace is razed, city government would be required to replace it with an equivalent number of subsidized housing units.

“Residents would not have to meet any work/income requirements in order to return, and returning residents would have a wait list preference for both on-site and off-site replacement units,” according to a fact sheet on the planning process circulated recently by Metro government.

Russell, where 90 percent of residents are African-American, is one of the most historically significant neighborhoods in the city. Once known as the “Harlem of the South,” it is home to the Western Branch Library, the original Quinn Chapel and Central High School.

Today, the neighborhood sits at the edge of an increasingly intense wave of development moving west through downtown. Watkins told IL in January that he wants Russell to be ready as developers move west to — and past — Ninth Street.

“We expect new residents to move into Russell. We desperately need that,” he said at the time. “We expect current residents who have good character, who are committed to transformational change, will stay in Russell. We’re going to be fighting for those residents.”

And while the planning process appears to have relatively broad support, including cautious optimism from Russell Neighborhood Association president Haven Harrington, as he told IL earlier this year, some remain cynical about the prospects.

“Instead of innovative or visionary reuse, it is likely to be a boon for demolition companies, developers and politician résumés,” said Martina Nichols Kunnecke, president of Neighborhood Planning & Preservation, in an email Monday. “The end result? Probably more ‘urban/urbans’ removal  from downtown — facilitating the aggressive ‘gentrification’ of the downtown area so favored by the very politicians, ‘gatekeepers’ and developers that aided and abetted the  ‘ghetto-izing’ our urban neighborhoods for decades.”

The first meeting of the Russell Choice Task Force is Monday, June 1, at 6:30 p.m. at Louisville Central Community Centers’ Old Walnut Street Development, 1300 W. Muhammad Ali Blvd.

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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.