The iconic neighborhood landmark, a former Carnegie Library, now the community center. | Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The area immediately east of downtown Louisville is quickly becoming one of the most active and fastest changing districts of the urban core with multiple revitalization efforts underway.

There are the familiar hot spots: the NuLu district of Phoenix Hill has opened a new chapter in its redevelopment, with the completion of major projects like the AC Hotel and the Rabbit Hole Distillery (with several more on the drawing board).

Germantown has become home to hundreds of new apartments with the redevelopment of several historic mill buildings, the most recent being the 147 unit Bradford Mill Lofts; the neighborhood continues to see new shops and restaurants move in. But the positive energy that has long resided in these places has started to spread.

Porter Stevens | Courtesy

Butchertown has seen unique projects (the amazing Copper & Kings Brandy Distillery being the most prominent), development, and new restaurants move into the neighborhood, including at least one new multifamily project on East Washington Street.

Paristown Pointe has also grabbed a lot of attention in the last few years with the transformative $28 million arts and culture project that will include a refurbished Louisville Stoneware campus, new arts performance center, brewery, restaurants, and entertainment venues.

All of this new development has undoubtedly been a positive change for Louisville as a whole, as the transformation has attracted scores of new residents and businesses to parts of the city that have long been struggling with economic stagnation and disinvestment.

However, such rapid change simultaneously raises questions that cities across the country are struggling with. How will new development impact housing affordability in this part of the city? How many different economic strata of Louisville’s citizens be able to enjoy the new shops, restaurants, and other amenities coming into their neighborhoods?

Ultimately, will current residents be able to take part in the transformation taking place in and around their homes, or will they ultimately be pushed out, as has happened in other cities in the United States?

These are questions with complex and difficult to find answers, and the discussion of how to find them in Louisville is just beginning. But there is one neighborhood east of downtown where at least part of the puzzle may be found and, while it hasn’t gotten quite the media attention as some of its neighbors, is playing an increasingly significant role in the area’s positive momentum. That neighborhood is Shelby Park.

Shelby Park, quite simply, is a wonderfully fascinating place.

There is a great opportunity to see the work being done in this unique neighborhood. On Saturday, Sept. 22, Shelby Park will host its third annual PNC Renovation and Open House.

The centerpiece of this event will be a showcase of eight properties around the neighborhood, under renovation by New Directions Housing and River City Housing. There will also be guided tours of the Olmsted Park, open houses at several local businesses, and an opportunity to check out the much-anticipated Logan Street Market. Check out the event on Facebook.

A classic neighborhood

Shelby Park borders Germantown.

Shelby Park is sandwiched between Old Louisville and Germantown, bordered by East Kentucky Street to the North, I-65 to the west, and the CSX railroad tracks to the south and east.

In one sense, Shelby Park is a classic Louisville neighborhood: quiet streets lined with proud shotguns and town houses, numerous historic landmarks, a main commercial drag lined with local businesses. At the center of it all sit the district’s namesake, the circa-1907 Olmsted-designed park, with tree-lined walkways, playgrounds, and sports fields.

These are all strong features that make many Louisville communities wonderful places to live. But Shelby Park can also claim assets that are curiously unique: the neighborhood boasts interesting historic landmarks like a rare surviving streetcar storage barn, and the ornate Queen Anne row houses (a rare housing type in this part of the country) and industrial structures of the Preston Street and St. Catherine Street Historic District.

Victor Mature | Courtesy IMDb

Shelby Park can also claim one of Louisville’s famous sons: Victor Mature, a well-known and well-respected Hollywood actor in the 1940s and 1950s, grew up in the neighborhood. You may have seen his Hometown Hero banner proudly displayed on the side of a building on South Shelby Street.

However, despite its many positive qualities, Shelby Park has also faced more than its fair share of challenges over the years. Like many neighborhoods around downtown Louisville, Shelby Park had to struggle with the exodus of jobs and residents to the suburbs during the latter half of the 20th century.

Deindustrialization was another blow; the last of the large mills in the Germantown area closed in the mid-1980s, leaving the neighborhood without a major employer. Shelby Park in many ways continues to struggle with the legacy of that chapter in its history; abandoned buildings, vacant lots and crime are still some of the biggest issues the neighborhood is currently dealing with.

But, a visit to the neighborhood today shows significant progress is being made in overcoming those challenges. While that fact is itself encouraging, the manner in which that progress is being achieved stands out.

To date, there has been no major infusion of new money into the neighborhood, at least on the scale seen in other areas around downtown. There has been no large apartment or hotel development within the boundaries of Shelby Park (though, to be fair, some of the new multifamily developments in Germantown are just over the railroad tracks), and no large acquisition of property or direct subsidy of redevelopment by Louisville Metro.

Instead, revitalization in Shelby Park is being driven by a grass roots coalition of citizens and nonprofit organizations, who have been making smaller, more incremental investments in the neighborhood.

One area of focus for this coalition has been housing; like many urban neighborhoods in Louisville, vacant and abandoned properties have been a frustrating problem in Shelby Park. Boarded up homes and overgrown vacant lots can have a substantial negative impact, dragging down adjacent property values, exacerbating crime, and creating a poor (though inaccurate) perception of the neighborhood.

But steady progress has been made in solving this issue, thanks to work of the Shelby Park Neighborhood Association and several housing nonprofits.

New Directions Housing Corporation has been especially active in the neighborhood; Shelby Park and neighboring Smoketown have been designated by the nonprofit as the site for a “targeted community stabilization initiative.” This effort centers on making focused investments in the neighborhood, to eliminate abandoned properties and encouraging and preserving homeownership among existing residents.

In 2010, the NDHC made a large impact by redeveloping a stretch of abandoned property on East St. Catherine Street into new single-family homes, sold to buyers with incomes of 80 to 120 percent of the area median income.

One of eight homes NDHC purchased. | Courtesy Shelby Park Neighborhood Association

NDHC has also acquired, restored and sold a number of abandoned historic homes in the neighborhood; the organization recently purchased eight vacant buildings from a single property owner, and is in the process of fixing them up to be sold as a mixture of affordable and market rate homes.

Finally, Shelby Park is a regular participant in the organization’s annual Repair Affair, a wonderful event where teams of volunteers help local residents make improvements and repairs to their homes.

The environment has been another area of focus for revitalization efforts in Shelby Park; specifically, trees. Trees, at first blush, may not inherently seem like a key element to neighborhood revival. But the establishment and maintenance of a healthy tree canopy can have a profound positive impact on the quality of life of any community.

There is the obvious aesthetic value; tree-lined streets, shady yards and colorful fall foliage are all inherently pleasant images. The shade that healthy trees provide is also extremely important; they reduce ambient air temperatures and make hot summer days more comfortable which, in a city with the nation’s worst heat island effect, is vital to the health of residents.

Trees also clean pollutants from the air (also important, given the consistently poor air quality in Louisville), reduce stormwater runoff and provide numerous other benefits to an urban neighborhood.

Recognizing this, the active and dedicated citizens of the Shelby Park Neighborhood Association have made planting new trees a priority in their community. Partnering with organizations like Louisville Grows and the Olmsted Parks Conservancy, Shelby Park has made impressive progress toward establishing a healthy urban forest.

A team effort at Shelby Park | Photo by Mickey Meece

Through annual Neighborhood Planting events, volunteers and property owners to date have planted 475 new trees in the neighborhood, with a 150 planned at the next planting event in the spring. Work is also being done to plant new trees within the park itself, as part of an effort to restore the original Olmsted design.

The road to revival in Shelby Park has been long and rough, but within the last few years all of the initiatives at work in the neighborhood have started to bear some very encouraging fruit.

Property values have been slowly inching up, as private and nonprofit efforts to restore abandoned homes and fill vacant lots have reached critical mass; according to renovated historic homes in the neighborhood are now selling in many cases for $150,000 to $200,000.

Yet the average home price, also according to Zillow, is still $90,000; a price point that has become attractive to millennials and young families who are finding themselves increasingly priced out of the Highlands and more recently Germantown.

The neighborhood is experiencing an influx of new young residents, many having moved here not only because of reasonable home prices, but for the neighborhood’s ideal location; Shelby Park is only a few minutes from downtown Louisville, the University of Louisville, Germantown, the Highlands and NuLu.

Scarlet’s Bakery, one of the local businesses in Shelby Park (Source: Shelby Park Neighborhood Association):

The last few years have also seen a growing list of distinctive local businesses moving into the neighborhood. Head First Media has located in a historic church on East St. Catherine Street; Scarlet’s Bakery at Oak and South Shelby Street; Idlewild Butterfly Farm on Logan Street; and Red Top, also on Logan Street. In addition to the money and customers they attract, all of these unique institutions have been and are continuing contribute to the quirky flavor that has come to define Shelby Park.

But by far one of the most exciting developments in the neighborhood in recent years is the Logan Street Market, currently under construction in a warehouse on (surprise) Logan Street.

The market, when it opens next spring, will be the first of its kind seen in Louisville in over 40 years: a year-round community venue that, according to the Courier Journal, will host 36 different local businesses, farmers, and artisans, in addition to a community stage, market kitchen, and other public spaces.

If successful (and there are many reasons to be optimistic that it will be), the market will become a major destination for shoppers and citizens from all over Louisville; these visitors will undoubtedly start to explore the rest of the neighborhood around the market, patronizing other local businesses, visiting the beautiful Olmsted park, admiring the historic architecture, and all of the other charming features that Shelby Park has to offer.

The efforts being made to stabilize and revitalize Shelby Park are by no means unique to this neighborhood; from Schnitzelburg to Butchertown, Phoenix Hill to Russell, and Portland to Beechmont, Louisville is packed full of dedicated citizens and organizers working to restore and beautify their communities.

But what is unique is how the many different initiatives underway the neighborhood seem to be reaching critical mass and, combined with the general positive energy found in the area east of downtown, are creating a self-sustaining cycle of new investment and improvements in the neighborhood.

Shelby Park still has a long way to go; the challenges of poorly maintained properties, empty storefronts, and crumbling public infrastructure all still remain to be overcome. But it is clear that the neighborhood is on a positive and very promising trajectory.

Finally, the story of Shelby Park should stand as an example of how Louisville should be working to revitalize struggling neighborhoods.

Is it the entire answer to the question of how to invest in economically dormant places while avoiding some of the harsher social side effects seen in other cities? No, that is an infinitely complex question with a similarly complex answer that has only just begun to be understood.

But it certainly provides a number of key pieces to the puzzle. Redeveloping historic buildings, preserving homeownership among existing residents, encouraging the growth of small and local businesses, growing a healthy tree canopy, working to restore or improve parks and green spaces; these elements are all crucial building blocks to creating healthy, affordable, sustainable, thriving communities.

Public, private, and nonprofit actors should be strongly encouraged to devote their resources to working with local neighborhoods and communities in a similar manner. The success of such efforts in Shelby Park is proof that this approach to neighborhood revitalization can be just as effective, if not more so, than traditional economic development methods.

Porter Stevens is a Louisville native currently living in Lancaster, Pa., working as a community planner for Lancaster County. Stevens still maintains a strong interest in urban issues in his hometown and in learning about ways to revitalize its urban core. He has written previously for Insider Louisville and was a contributor to Broken Sidewalk.