This weekend, the 300 block of Woodlawn Avenue will experience a sudden transformation via “Better Block Woodlawn Avenue.”
The event will bring the Beechmont neighborhood in the South End a vision of what their area could look and feel like in the future — more green spaces, more places to relax, safer streets and more businesses, activating an already active area and pushing it to reach its fullest potential as a neighborhood center.
This transformation is part of a national movement by Better Block Foundation that has come to Louisville through the efforts of the Center for Neighborhoods (CFN), an organization that is “building healthy, sustainable, safe and attractive neighborhoods through engaged, informed and committed neighbors,” according to its website.
Tom Stephens, executive director at CFN, talked with Insider Louisville about getting buy-in from Beechmont, the partnerships it takes to make “Better Block” happen and what visitors can expect Friday and Saturday, June 15-16.
“It’s part of a national movement, started by Jason Roberts who launched the Better Block Foundation out of Dallas,” Stephens said, “which itself is part of a bigger tactical urbanism movement to test out design and community ideas within the community.”
For CFN, the connection started at the organization’s Neighborhood Summit in 2016.
“Jason Roberts was the keynote speaker, sharing the work they were doing and kind of inspiring everyone. So last year, we launched ‘Better Block Louisville,’ kind of using that model,” Stephens said.
In 2017, CFN transformed a block of the Shelby Park neighborhood by bringing in trees and helping activate vacant buildings with pop-up shops. They did so with input from the neighborhood, in the form of a one-day charette, an intense day of design and planning.
For the “Better Block Woodlawn Avenue,” CFN wanted to get even more input from the community.
“One of the things in Beechmont we’ve really tried to highlight is the community values,” Stephens explained. “We’ve worked with an advisory group, so that kind of led the process … They’ve articulated the values they want to uphold. One was diversity, another was local business.”
After identifying the community’s values, CFN began the design process and invited the community to join in that process as well.
“For five days, we met with the community and had a group of pro-bono volunteer architects from different firms around town,” Stephens said.
CFN took that community input and developed a site plan and an action plan for the “Better Block” event.
A big part of that plan involves physical changes, including new green spaces and vegetation, outdoor café seating, new crosswalks, public art and public gathering spaces.
A simple example of a physical change is a feature Stephens called “bump-outs.” At busy intersections, the street corners are pushed a little further out, with greenery from a few large planters and some outdoor seating. It encourages neighbors to visit instead of heading home after shopping; it beautifies the neighborhood, and it slows down traffic, making the area safer, which in turn makes nearby residents more willing to walk to go shopping, he said.
It’s a small change physically, but it can have a large and somewhat self-reinforcing effect on the livability of the neighborhood, Stephens said.
The bump-outs, like many aspects of “Better Block,” are made possible by donations from partners.
Brown-Forman donated the barrels that make the planters. The plants are coming from a local business, and a hardware store offered the rest of the materials at a steeply discounted price. The labor for installation comes from the neighborhood.
This weekend’s event also includes activities, the sorts of things one might find on a weekend in a thriving neighborhood — live music, food, participatory mural projects, kids’ activities, pop-up shops and a business hop. There’s also an incentive for making sure people engage in activities and stop at as many of the stores and restaurants as possible.
“It’ll be a little card they can pick up and go through and get it signed or stamped at each business, to be entered in a drawing for door prizes from each business,” Stephens said.
As much fun as the activities and installations of this particular weekend sound, the idea of “Better Block” is to create momentum for long-term change.
“One thing we’re really working to grow into in Beechmont is … trying to do a few more things that are permanent and semi-permanent,” Stephens said. “There will be a mural that will be started that the community can participate in painting. Some of the planter boxes and landscaping material will stay behind at one of the businesses where the owner has created an outdoor plaza.”
That business is a recent addition to the neighborhood, Cocoberry Pops. The outdoor plaza will have to go through the standard permitting process, but, if approved, it will the gourmet popsicle purveyor a permanent outdoor seating area for those long summer afternoons.
“(Louisville) Metro is an important partner in this, too — they are actually one of the partial funders through Louisville Forward and their arts external agency grant program. They really focus on business corridors like this,” Stephens said.
“Better Block” is talking with public works about how they can permanently shorten the crosswalks to make them safer and provide outdoor seating for local restaurants.
“They are already talking about the next step. They are already at the table. That’s the goal,” Stephens said. “It’s to show people how to move forward, and that it takes very little money to test it out, as opposed to a $6 million streetscape project.”
“Better Block” is transforming the 300 block of Woodlawn Avenue from 5 to 8 p.m. on Friday, June 15, and from noon to 10 p.m. on Saturday, June 16.
Check out the video below of the changes you can see this weekend.