NuLu business owners’ emotions mixed over streetscape improvements

This aerial rendering shows the proposed changes to East Market Street. | Courtesy of Carman Landscape Architects

This aerial rendering shows the proposed changes to East Market Street. | Courtesy of Carman Landscape Architects

Business owners along East Market Street have mixed feelings about the NuLu Streetscape reimagining project.

Some fear that inevitable declines in sales will drive stores or restaurants out of business. Others believe the changes will be well worth weathering the construction, but they want to know: Will the new streetscape design ever become a reality after years of talk and at least one delay?

“I’m very excited about it, but it’s sort of been a long time coming. I will believe it when I see it,” said Leslie Bowers, owner of Peace of the Earth.

The $13.4 million NuLu Streetscape project was delayed while the Ohio River Bridges Project was underway, but now that the transportation project is nearly complete, work can move forward on East Market Street.

Still, the project relies on the state releasing already approved funding for the streetscape work; project leaders have said that they expect that to happen this summer after a joint review by the city, Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and federal transportation officials. However, that timeline could change again.

“I think it will be nice in the end — if it ever happens,” said Leigh Kayrouz, manager at Scout.

A committee of neighborhood stakeholders has been working for a few years with landscape architect John Carman and the Louisville Downtown Partnership to refine plans that include a cycle track, parallel parking spaces, more trees and landscaping, infiltration gardens and places for shoppers to relax. The plans aim to slow down vehicular traffic and improve the experience for pedestrians and cyclists.

However, making the plans a reality means East Market Street will be under construction for about eight months, during which time fewer people are expected to visit the neighborhood’s shops, restaurants and other businesses as they won’t want to deal with potential congestion and blocked roadways.

“People are going to take more convenient routes,” said Ryan Rogers, owner of Feast BBQ and Royals Hot Chicken. “We need that traffic for our business.”

Unlike some other businesses, Rogers’ restaurants rely on foot traffic. Rule of thumb says to expect a 20 percent decline in business during construction, Rogers said, and he can’t raise prices or cut the wages or benefits for his 40 to 50 employees.

“That’s a huge hit,” he said. “That’s a scary situation to be in.”

Royals' dining room. | Photo by Steve Coomes

Royals Hot Chicken owner Ryan Rogers is concerned about how construction will impact his business. | Photo by Steve Coomes

Brooke Vaughn, co-owner of the coffee shop Please and Thank You, expressed similar concerns about the project’s impact on sales.

“I say if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” she said. “I don’t think it is going to improve my business at all.”

People pick a coffee shop based on convenience, Vaughn said, adding that 51 percent of her customers each month are new. Those first-time customers aren’t going to stop in if they have to deal with construction, and tourist will avoid the neighborhood, she argued.

Please and Thank You provides baked goods to other businesses and has a second location on Frankfort Avenue, so it will be able to withstand the drop in sales, Vaughn said, but other NuLu stores may not be in the same position to hang on.

Vaughn isn’t in favor of the project at all, but Rogers isn’t wholly set against it. He is in favor of the cycle track, bumping out the sidewalks and new trees, but Rogers said he is concerned that the trees proposed to go in front of Feast BBQ will block the building from view and affect his patio seating at the front of the restaurant. There also is a bench proposed in front of Royals Hot Chicken, which Rogers fears will draw loiters or panhandlers.

His main problem is what he sees as a lack of communication with business owners. Meetings have been held at times that aren’t as convenient for retail store and restaurant owners in the neighborhood, Rogers said. “I think there has to be more transparency.”

While still concerned, Rogers did email Insider Louisville to note that there was positive discussion last week about forming a board to handle businesses concerns about the construction.

Michael Trager-Kusman is a partner at Rye and Galaxie in NuLu. | Courtesy of Rye

Michael Trager-Kusman is a partner at Rye and Galaxie in NuLu. | Courtesy of Rye

Michael Trager-Kusman, a partner at Rye and Galaxie, said he hasn’t heard much about the project in the past six months or so, but added that he has not made a concerted effort to be involved with the entire process because he’s focused on running the two NuLu businesses.

“Personally, I am excited for it,” Trager-Kusman said. “It’s nice to see public funds going into the neighborhood to take it to another level. …What could be better than putting in new sidewalks, better lighting to tie the neighborhood together.”

Although he has “some fears” about the construction, he is happy with the changes coming as part of the NuLu Streetscape project, particularly the installation of street lighting up and down Market Street.

“I think it is a short-term impact for a long-term return,” Trager-Kusman said.

Scout’s Kayrouz said the retail shop will be OK as long as the project leaders work with the businesses to mitigate the impact and ensure that construction doesn’t interfere with the lucrative holiday season.

“We literally make 60 to 70 percent of our year’s entire income during November and December,” Bowers, of Peace of the Earth, said. “If that is impacted, then there is nothing to sustain.”

Still, she is optimistic that the streetscape improvements combined with the Kentucky International Convention Center renovation, the development of the NuLu hotel and the construction of apartments on East Main Street will make NuLu “even more of a destination spot, a place that is going to appeal more to potential residents.”

Bowers described the feeling among NuLu business owners as similar to the feeling people have before going to the dentist. People dread it beforehand, but “once it’s done, you’ll be glad you did it.”