Developer Todd Underhill addresses the crowd at a news conference at Colonial Gardens while Mayor Greg Fischer (left) looked on. | Photo by Michael L. Jones

Mayor Greg Fischer, members of the Metro Council and representatives from Underhill Associates Inc. held a news conference on Monday to announce the first two tenants in the redeveloped Colonial Gardens near Iroquois Park.

The long-vacant south Louisville landmark will become a high-end food court with four restaurants that share an outside beer garden. Popular Mexican restaurant El Taco Luchador is expected to open on June 1.

Union 15, a pizza and taproom concept from the Couvillion owners Paul Blackburn and Alex Tinker, will open later in June.

Blackburn and Tinker, who also own Citizen 7 in Norton Commons and Parlour in Jeffersonville, grew up in South Louisville. At the news conference, Blackburn said Union 15 will be their last restaurant.

“When we started getting in business six or seven years ago, one of our dreams was to come back to the South End and do something folks here could be proud of. This community shaped who we are as people. We always joke that if you are from the South End you have a little bit of a chip on your shoulder. I think that’s what motivates me to do different things,” he added.

El Taco Luchador will open in Colonial Gardens in early June. | Photo courtesy of El Taco Luchador

Developer Todd Underhill said he expects all the space at Colonial Gardens to be fully rented in the next few months. All the tenants will serve dinner and alcohol, he said, and they will have access to a beer garden, which will be the focal point of the development.

“We’re very close with the two other buildings and I would hope in a week or two there would be a supplemental press release going out on the other tenants, which will be diversified from what we heard about today. They are going to complement each other,” Underhill explained.

One of the people in the crowd was Greg Brown, an owner of the Jeffersonville craft beer pub Growler USA. Brown was there with an architect who was touring the main building.

Brown told Insider he is interested in learning about the opportunities at Colonial Gardens.

“I’ve been following this project for a while and I’ve just been impressed by the community support. I’ve seen these high-end food court concepts work in other places and I’m just interested in seeing what is happening here,” he added.

Fischer said the six-year, more than $5 million renovation of Colonial Gardens is an example of how public and private interests can join forces to create something that will benefit the whole city.

The Louisville Metro Council agreed to purchase Colonial Gardens in 2013 for $430,000 from the Schmid family, which owned it for several decades.

Underhill Associates was the only developer to bid on the project. The firm encountered numerous delays, most of them related to the fact that the original property had been split into three parcels and two them had tenants. Little Caesar’s Pizza was the last tenant to move out.

In all, Fischer said, the city has invested $2.4 million in the project. Included in that number is the cost of acquiring the property, $1.2 million in construction grants, $200,000 in pedestrian and safety improvements, and a new TARC bus stop.

Fischer warned that the city’s current budget crisis might endanger future projects like Colonial Gardens.

“Projects like this are important to keep a city’s momentum. I would be doing mayoral malpractice if I didn’t remind everybody that if we don’t figure out how to get more revenue to the city budget, projects like this simply won’t happen,” he said.

Colonial Gardens has been vacant since 2003, but south Louisville residents have consistently lobbied for it to be reopened because of the important role it played in the development of their community and Iroquois Park.

The historic structure was originally owned by German immigrant Carl Frederick Senning, who opened it as a beer garden and restaurant with his wife, Minnie, in 1902. Their son William took over the business in 1920. In order to survive the impact of Prohibition, Williams turned the beer garden into Louisville’s first zoo.

In 1939, the property was sold to B.A. Watson for $15,000 and renamed the Colonial Bar and Grill. But things started going downhill around 1968 when psychedelic rock made the old-style dance hall obsolete. There was what seemed like an endless string of businesses opening and closing at the location over the next few decades.

In 2008, a group of south Louisville businessmen attempted to buy Colonial Gardens and raze it to make way for a new complex.

Former Metro Councilwoman Vicki Welch, D-13, and Stefanie Buzan, a south Louisville resident who helped to prevent Colonial Gardens from being razed. | Photo by Michael L. Jones

Stefanie Buzan, a member of the Iroquois Neighborhood Association, led a campaign to have the historic property landmarked to thwart those efforts. She said her actions divided the community for a while as the landmark sat empty, but now she feels the struggle was worth it.

“There are a lot of emotions circling in me right now. Excitement is the big thing. I’ve always wanted to have a community gathering place that was right across from the park. I think it will be a destination for people in the city and the state,” she added.

Underhill said the new Colonial Gardens will feature statues of animals and Elvis, whose grandparents lived in south Louisville, in a nod to the neighborhood’s past.

The Southwest Dream Team, a south Louisville economic development group, was one of the first groups to push for the city to get involved with the Colonial Gardens redevelopment.

Vince Jarboe, one of the Dream Team’s founders, said now that the former beer garden is set to reopen his group will be pushing to leverage the foot traffic into more economic development in the area. He said he would especially like to see more retail stores in the area.