A group of preservationists, design professionals and prominent Louisville philanthropists is planning to challenge the proposed design of the downtown Omni Hotel and Residences at a city committee meeting to review demolitions at the site Wednesday morning.
In a lengthy letter to Anna Tatman, chair of the Downtown Development Review Overlay Committee, that was shared with Insider Louisville on Tuesday, the group criticizes the current design of the 30-story Omni for lacking pedestrian amenities and access points. In particular, the letter highlights the proposed structure’s Third Street side, which according to design documents is dominated by a massive parking garage and includes loading docks, a parking entrance, and three small retail spots at street level.
The group also contends the current design violates the DDRO’s urban design guidelines, which include minimizing service functions, sensitivity to surrounding historic buildings, location-appropriate scale, and inducements for pedestrians to interact with the structures, such as storefronts, public art, seating and green space.
“We should not be creating any more blank facades in our downtown,” the letter says. “We should not be implementing designs that fail to observe our standards for development. We should expect projects (especially ones such as Omni, that are almost 50 percent government financed) to be respectful of our design standards and to provide an active pedestrian realm that fosters urban commercial growth.”
The letter is signed by 20 people, among them former Metro officials Charles Cash, who served as director of Louisville Metro Planning and Design Services, and Art Williams, who was head of the Air Pollution Control District. Christy Brown, Edith Bingham and Eleanor Bingham Miller also signed the letter, as did former Courier-Journal opinion editor Keith Runyon and architect Bill Weyland, who redeveloped the Henry Clay and Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum, among other projects adapting historic structures.
Many of the signatories plan to attend Wednesday’s meeting, scheduled for 8:30 a.m. at the Old Jail Building at 514 W. Liberty St. They are expected to present a video and speak in opposition to parts of the design, and to advocate for a more sustainable design — economically and environmentally.
Earlier this week, Metro staff recommended the committee approve the current design with several caveats, among them improving pedestrian scale along the Third Street side through design elements that include the use of glass facades, and incorporating public art. The design plan includes the demolition of all structures at the site except the Odd Fellows Hall, on the south side of the lot facing Muhammad Ali Boulevard.
The Omni’s design — which IL detailed here last month — would have a major effect on downtown streetscapes.
Design documents show significant changes to Second Street, where the Omni’s grand main entrance and a new steakhouse will be located. The six-story entrance is set back from the street and dominated by glass exteriors. On the corner of Second and Liberty streets is another restaurant. And along Liberty, the design includes a coffeeshop and an urban market near the corner with Third Street, with outdoor dining proposed along Liberty. A new alley is proposed at the southern edge of the development, separating it from the remaining lot, where the historic Odd Fellows Building will remain.
But one doesn’t have to use much imagination to foresee the Third Street side of the Omni ending up like the Fifth Street side of the Kindred complex and The Courier-Journal/Gannett printing operation a few blocks southwest. There, a stretch of Fifth Street between Broadway and Chestnut is a pedestrian dead zone, overwhelmed by blank, uninteresting facades — a service entrance on the east side — giving the pedestrian a nothing-to-see-here vibe and indicating that he or she should speed through to the next block as efficiently as possible.
“Indeed, Third Street is treated more like an alley,” the letter says.
Officials with Louisville Forward, the Metro economic development agency, declined to comment on the letter or Wednesday’s meeting.
The pushback on the Omni design comes amid intensifying efforts to preserve the former Water Company headquarters, built in 1910, which fronts the Third Street side of the site. Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration continues to review at least one proposal from a private investor to move the building to a new site. That site is thought to be Founders Square, a city-owned public park on Muhammad Ali Boulevard between Fifth and Sixth streets, although Metro officials have not confirmed it.
Gill Holland, the developer behind NuLu and the Portland Investment Initiative, recently penned a blistering letter to The Courier-Journal in which he called the public input process for the $289 million Omni — nearly half of which Metro government is paying for through rebated taxes generated by the new development — “a serious disappointment in democracy.” (Read about that process here and here.)
Holland, who also signed the letter to the DDRO committee, proposed that Metro Council require 1 percent of the total investment in any major project be placed in a mitigation fund that could be used for various purposes, including preservation of historic structures.
Preservationists have urged the Fischer administration and Omni officials to incorporate the Water Company building into the hotel’s design. In May, Fischer said doing so would cost taxpayers $6 million and, as a result, was off the table.
But the idea came up again during a recent charrette — a meeting of design professionals and other stakeholders — and was later presented to Metro officials, one of five options to come out of that meeting, which was sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Green Lab.
“We are concerned about the dead zone that will be created on the Third Street side of the project, where the proposed parking garage would be,” said Marianne Zickuhr, director of Preservation Louisville. “Integrating the Water Company Building would lead to a more pedestrian-friendly area on Third Street and also would keep in place a piece of our historic infrastructure on the streetscape.”
Omni has incorporated historic structures into a number of its hotels, including in San Antonio, Detroit, Boston, New York, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
If the DDRO committee approves the plan on Wednesday, it would go next to the Board of Zoning Adjustment for review.