Preservation Green Lab analyzing how older, smaller structures can build strong Louisville neighborhoods

Germantown Mill Lofts is still a construction zone. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

A prime example of adaptive reuse is the Germantown Mill Lofts project. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

Researchers can tell a lot about a city block by looking at the age and size of its buildings, including the locations of the best places to eat.

In Philadelphia, “99 percent of the top restaurants and bars in 2014 were located on majority pre-(World War II) blocks,” said Michael Powe, associate director of research for Preservation Green Lab, a division within the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Researchers with Preservation Green Lab have been collecting data on Louisville since mid-2014 and are mapping the data online to show interesting patterns similar to the Philadelphia example.

“It’s partly just about letting people explore and learn about the city,” Powe said. “We hope that can be a site people can bookmark or visit and see new things over time.”

The online map, which is still in the works, will show where in the city there is considerable construction or demolition, among other tidbits.

It is easy to see why new construction would be of interest, but demolitions also are telling, said Jim Lindberg, senior director of Preservation Green Lab. A high volume of demolitions can be bad for a block or neighborhood and create vacant lots that may or may not be filled.

“When you take an older building down, it doesn’t necessarily lead to new development,” he said. “In a way, it eliminates possible development.”

While the organization will attempt to pull people in with patterns, the goal of the Louisville project is much broader. Preservation Green Lab’s map will highlight blocks with the most character, with the overall goal of creating a guide to where the city and developers should invest economic development money.

Old Water Company Building

The old Water Company building was torn down to make way for the new Omni. | File photo

“How can we think about these as assets and look at buildings as really a foundation for building a strong community?” Lindberg asked.

Last year, Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government, and the mayor’s office in particular, faced backlash when the city decided to disassemble the 105-year-old the Louisville Water Company building to make way for the more than $300 million Omni Hotel and Residences. Preservation activists failed to get the building landmarked, but it brought up larger questions about how serious city leaders are about preservation and their willingness to demolish buildings in favor of new development.

Lindberg said the fallout from the Omni building created an opportunity to bring city officials, developers and other parties together to talk about barriers to reuse.

“The city has been very interested in what we are learning, and we are hoping we can bring forward and point to ways we can strengthen the climate for use and adaptive reuse,” Lindberg said. “We feel this is really timely work.”

To gauge the character of a block, Preservation Green Lab looks at three criteria — the median age of the buildings, the size of the building and whether it has a mixture of old and new structures. Neighborhoods with a mix of older, smaller buildings play a “valuable role” in sustainable cities, according to a study the organization completed in May 2014.

The study found that neighborhoods with older, smaller buildings scored better than ones with mostly larger, newer structures when considering 40 economic, social and environmental measures, including number of non-chain businesses, diversity in residents’ age, income and ethnicity, number of jobs per square foot, walkability, and intensity of cellphone activity.

Photo from Google Maps

A strip of businesses along Frankfort Avenue | Photo from Google Maps

“(The former) makes better environments for restaurants and retail,” said Powe, noting that preservation is about reusing existing older structures, not just maintaining historically significant buildings. “A lot of people still think of preservation as Monticello.”

Unsurprisingly, Frankfort Avenue, Bardstown Road, Main Street, Smoketown and Germantown in Louisville all score high on the Preservation Green Lab’s character scale. There are a couple neighborhoods that also scored high and are only recently seeing more investment. However, they still have a long way to go after decades of disinvestment.

“Really striking on this map is Portland and Russell and some of the neighborhoods in the west side that have really great bones,” Powe said.

In addition to the mapping project, Preservation Green Lab has partnered with the NuLu Business Association on America Saves!, an energy-efficiency program that identifies ways property owners can save on their utility bills. University of Louisville students are collecting data for the project.

“We’re trying to make it easy for (property and business owners) to see opportunities for energy savings and helping them do the implementation,” Lindberg said.

The organization decided to pilot America Saves! in Louisville’s NuLu neighborhood because of efforts to make it a “Sustainability District” and receive a LEED for Neighborhood Development certification. Part of that effort is the creation of a green streetscape.

“There is so much momentum right now,” Lindberg said.