Local developer Andy Blieden, left, worked with geologist and consultant Robert Perkins to turn a former brownfield into a thriving business. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.
Local developer Andy Blieden, left, worked with geologist and consultant Robert Perkins to turn a former brownfield into a Mellow Mushroom pizza restaurant. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.

The Mellow Mushroom pizza restaurant on Bardstown Road beckons passersby with its sleek, mostly black exterior, lots of windows and sharp angles. The eatery’s interior welcomes patrons with square wooden tables, brick walls and a psychedelic centerpiece above a counter that reveals the shiny, stainless steel of the pizza ovens.

The upstairs portion of the restaurant boasts a large bar, a deck, additional seating areas and more groovy wall designs featuring guitars, vinyl LPs and images of rock legends such as Jimi Hendrix.

The building’s current appearance stands in stark contrast to its dilapidated predecessor: a defunct dry cleaning business. Paint peeled off the building’s front. Faded letters, barely visible, hinted at the business’ name. A dingy basement hid grimy walls and rusty pipes.

For years, fears about potential environmental contamination had kept buyers away from the property, which sits on a prime stretch of real estate.

However, an Environmental Protection Agency grant, new state legislation that limits property buyers’ liability for pre-existing contamination, and a motivated developer who lived nearby effected a turnaround.

The project will be highlighted at an upcoming brownfields workshop.

Louisville developer Andy Blieden told IL he tried to buy the property twice but balked at the initial cost and worried about being liable for the potential contamination.

The restaurant's interior. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.
The restaurant’s interior. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.

Robert Perkins, a geologist and environmental consultant who helped Blieden on the project, said the developer had good reasons for his concern. The dry cleaning business used toxic chemicals, including solvents that can cause problems, especially if they get into the groundwater.

But Blieden did not want to give up. The eyesore irked him.

“I was sick of driving by this place and seeing it fall down in my neighborhood,” he said.

In spring 2012, he got help from the Kentucky legislature and then-Gov. Steve Beshear: A new law allowed people to buy properties without having to worry about being held liable for any pre-existing contamination — so long as they properly assessed the problem and generated a plan to minimize further complications.

Meanwhile, the city of Louisville provided about $4,000 in federal grant money to help Blieden pay for part of the needed environmental assessment.

Being exempt from any fallout from the existing contamination allowed Blieden to obtain a loan to buy the property and begin cleanup and construction.

Nonetheless, Perkins said, the project was complicated and required the removal of about 2 feet of dirt and the installation of a protective vinyl barrier to prevent the spread of potential solvents in the ground.

Workers also stumbled upon an underground gasoline storage tank — “a total surprise,” Blieden said — but thanks to Perkins’ contacts at the state, the tank was removed within hours.

A wall on the restaurant's second floor. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.
A wall on the restaurant’s second floor. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.

“This was like a steeplechase, where the hurdles kept getting bigger,” Blieden said.

The insight and connections of people including Perkins helped push him to the finish, Blieden said. And the city and state were highly motivated to see him complete the race.

Blieden and Perkins, who works at Amec Foster Wheeler, recently met at the restaurant for a lunch and shared insights about the project. They occasionally ribbed each other like old friends. Perkins recalled how he met Blieden while the developer was wearing shorts and flip-flops. Perkins said he remembers thinking he needed to get a job like Blieden.

The developer estimates that the extra work to prevent any potential contamination from spreading cost him $150,000. In total he invested about $1 million in the project, but, he said, it remains a good investment.

Herb Petitjean, the state’s brownfield coordinator, said about 100 properties in Kentucky have been developed with the help of the 2012 legislation. The total investment is unknown, because developers keep some of those figures to themselves.

About 30 such projects have been tackled in Louisville, said Theresa Zawacki, senior policy advisor with Louisville Forward, the city’s economic development branch.

“A large majority of those projects would not have moved forward” without the availability of the EPA assessment grants, she said.

Developers have welcomed the legislation, but it also benefits the public, Petitjean said. People often think about the negative implications of potentially contaminated properties, but with the proper care, projects on former brownfields can be quite successful, he said.

The 2012 law fosters redevelopment of the properties, but it also protects the public, because it addresses environmental problems and prevents them from getting worse because the buyer has to implement a property management plan that shows how to protect workers and customers or clients who could visit. And successful projects also generate tax revenue and improve a city’s quality of life.

The Mellow Mushroom, which employs 120, is a prime example, he said, as it removed a defunct business that was a detriment to the entire neighborhood.

“That’s been a big turnaround,” Petitjean said.

An estimated 8,000 brownfields in Kentucky remain, though the state has no list or database. Petitjean said the state does not want to attach a stigma to the properties, which could hinder their redevelopment, and keeping track of them and their status would be a huge undertaking.

The city, too, does not track all local brownfield sites, though the Louisville Environmental and Property Search shows hundreds of potentially contaminated sites, including many with underground storage tanks and about 50 that are in the EPA’s Brownfields Assessment, Cleanup and Redevelopment Exchange System.

Perkins and Blieden will highlight the Mellow Mushroom Pizza success story at Wednesday’s Brownfields for Bankers Workshop at the Louisville branch of the Federal Reserve Bank.

Registration is required by Friday. For more information, contact Faith Weekly at 502-568-9216 or [email protected].

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Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.


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