Last month, Mayor Greg Fischer announced plans to save all or part of the Old Water Company building from being cleared to make way for the new Omni Hotel downtown, giving 30 days for a private interest to come forward with plans to purchase and move the building to a new a site. The building’s future is far from certain, but it has been spared the wrecking ball for now.
While this can be characterized as a positive development in the fight to save the Water Company building, it could be argued that the announcement was largely in response to the outcry that arose from the sudden demolition of the historic Morrissey Garage and Falls City Theatre buildings nearby. The controversy surrounding the historic buildings on the Omni Hotel site has, unfortunately, become fairly common in urban Louisville.
After decades of decline, and a Recession-enforced stagnation, downtown and the neighborhoods surrounding it are experiencing a small explosion of new growth and development. In the 21st century, urban living has become desirable again, and development interests have responded by opening new attractions, shops and restaurants, and building hundreds of new apartments and condos.
But the spate of new development in Louisville’s urban core has re-ignited that age-old struggle of preservation vs. economic development. The Omni Hotel is just the latest in a number of instances where the desire to preserve the city’s architectural history has collided with development projects that are finally beginning to create the dense, active and livable urban core Louisville needs.
This struggle is one of the more important issues in Louisville today, and one that invokes a lot of passion. However, it is this very zeal that can at times obscure the need to find a middle ground on this subject and hash out a compromise that will enable Louisville to continue moving forward.
A clear example of this is the fight that erupted around the Bristol Apartment Complex, about to break ground at Main and Clay streets in Butchertown. The development is seen by many (myself included) as a major step forward for the East Main Street corridor; a solid infill project that will bring hundreds of new residents to downtown, create new opportunities for retail on East Main, and generally improve the area.
Other people, however, are not so enthusiastic. The project requires the demolition of several historic buildings (of varying quality), and as a result, some historic preservation activists have skewered the development. To hear some detractors, the Bristol project is a monstrosity completely out of character with the neighborhood. If the project were to be approved, it would set a precedent for clearing the rest of historic East Washington Street to make way for massive new development projects.
I found such criticism puzzling, as I was excited to see the apartment complex get built. I found the block of dingy warehouses currently on the site to be neither attractive nor historic in character, and was looking forward to seeing some new activity in a quiet part of downtown. Additionally, the Butchertown Neighborhood Association and NuLu Business Association both supported the project. We could debate the finer points of the building’s design; but I’m an urban planner, not an architect, and as an urban planner I see all the things I want to see in an urban structure: multiple stories, mixed use, built to the sidewalk, street level retail, etc. So why did this project attract so much unwanted attention?
Most of the arguments against the project centered on the concept of neighborhood character. While the desire to preserve a neighborhood’s character has merit, it falls short of the mark in this case. This is primarily due to the fact that there really isn’t any historic character left in that part of Butchertown. The area around Clay and Main was a small-scale residential neighborhood at one point, but it has long since ceased to serve that function. The encroachment of I-65 and heavy industry have chipped away at the corner shops, shotguns and townhouses until almost nothing historic remains.
The transformation has been so complete that the Butchertown Preservation District’s own guidelines show that the block is within an “Industrial Character Area” (detailed here), rather than a residential one. So when the argument for preserving the neighborhood’s character is made, to what character are we referring? The memory of the historic residential character that no longer exists, or the gritty industrial character that exists now?
But the preservation of any neighborhood’s character (be it residential or industrial) should not be absolute; there must be some allowance for it to transform, evolve. After all, this is how cities have always changed and grown, and Louisville is no exception.
A perfect example can be found at the northeast corner of Fourth and Broadway. At the beginning of the 20th century, that area resembled a street in Old Louisville, lined with stately Victorian homes and ornately decorated commercial buildings. Sadly, those buildings are no longer with us, as they were torn down to make way for a massive new building that, at the time, was quite out of character with its surroundings. That building was the now-famous Brown Hotel, one of Louisville’s most recognizable landmarks
Much like the proposed Bristol apartment project, the Brown was out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood when it was built. As can be seen in the linked picture here, the new hotel towered over what was then a small scaled, single-family residential Broadway. But time, and the changing city landscape, seems to have erased any concerns about the Brown’s impact on the neighborhood’s character; today, the building is one of Louisville’s most cherished landmarks.
What would have happened if a grumpy James Graham Brown had tried to build his hotel in the same location today. Would he have been able to complete the building in 10 months, as he did in 1923? Or would it get bogged downed in a protracted battle to save the Victorian homes that previously occupied the site? A rhetorical question, but one that drives home the point that the passage of time often causes us to view a particular building in a different light. Modern structures like the Bristol Apartments or the Omni Hotel will be no exception.
To be clear, I am not trying to be overly critical of preservationists or historic preservation. I applaud the hard work historic preservation organizations perform to protect the architectural heritage of this city. It is thanks to their efforts that we can still see and enjoy hundreds of historic structures (like the soon to be renovated Whiskey Row on Main Street) and even entire historic neighborhoods (like Butchertown).
Besides, it’s easy to see where their passion comes from: Louisville’s urban core is littered with the scars of past mistakes: swaths of vacant lots and surface parking, where everything from humble homes and small businesses to grand theaters and public buildings once stood. Their destruction has severed an important link to our city’s long and rich history, and made the revitalization of Louisville’s downtown and neighborhoods that much more difficult.
Louisville has lost so much of its historic architecture, but this doesn’t mean we should cling to every brick laid before World War II. As with so many urban issues, we need to find balance; a balance that preserves Louisville’s history while simultaneously allowing the city to grow and evolve.
A neighborhood’s “character” is not something that should be frozen in any one time period. Instead, it is constantly in flux, as new architectural ideas and traditions inform new construction. This is how cities developed for most of human history.
Having a variety of structures in its built environment is what makes a city an interesting place to see and explore. We should endeavor to create that kind of variety here in Louisville, and sometimes such an effort will (though we should try to avoid it as much as possible) involve the demolition of a historic building.
The pace of new development in downtown and other historic areas of the city shows no sign of slowing down, and there will undoubtedly be future projects that will cause development and preservation interests to butt heads.
We need to find ways — in addition to existing historic preservation ordinances — to minimize this conflict. That discussion is best suited for its own post, but examples could include prohibiting demolition in certain parts of the city, or tweaking the city’s tax code to incentivize the development of vacant parcels of land.
Regardless of how it is done, a balance must be found between preserving Louisville’s past and building its future.