Some people think historic preservation means “No, you can’t do that.” The fact is that in 40 years of protecting our architectural heritage, the Louisville Landmarks Commission has said "No" only a handful of times. In the vast majority of cases – including the one that OK’ed the changes proposed for the re-use of the old Bauer’s restaurant – the commission has worked with owners to come up with workable solutions.

By Doug Stern

I could think of a bunch of reasons why the old Bauer’s on Brownsboro Road is sitting vacant.

“Terrible building” would be at the bottom of the list.

Yet that’s the reason quoted Monday by Insider Louisville in its Monday Business Briefing.

Here’s more: 

Our sources say every player in town has looked at the property, but under restrictions related to Historic Preservation, no one can make the building work as a restaurant. Said one source, “Trust me … we looked long and hard at it, and we couldn’t make it work. Great location. Terrible building.”

  • Costly to update? Probably.
  • More costly than new construction? Not as a rule, but who knows.
  • Challenging and time consuming to design, get approved and built? What isn’t.

There are, I’m sure, other possible deal breakers. But I’m not going to give a pass to the myth about the impact of historic preservation restrictions.

Say what!?!

For starters, the metro Landmarks Commission has already recently approved significant changes to Bauer’s, which had its beginnings as a blacksmith and wagon repair stop in 1868.

Yep. That’s what I said. The Landmarks Commission has already approved significant changes to the Bauer’s property. In May 2010, the commission’s architectural review committee green-lighted the demolition of the newer additions in the back and a total re-skinning of the entire exterior as part of the development of a new restaurant, the very use which seems to befuddle some of us just two years later.

Oh, in addition to OK’ing a total makeover of the landmark as a restaurant, the commission also approved the construction of a new, 14,000-square-foot Rite Aid Pharmacy behind it.

The restaurant, by the way, was to be co-developed by Andrew Smith and Terri Cardwell. Smith is the owner of the highly-regarded 211 Clover Lane restaurant, and Cardwell is the retailer behind the upscale Parallel 38.

Will someone explain to me how approval of these various changes can reasonably be called restrictive?

As far as I can tell, the only proposed change that’s been restricted is the building’s demolition.

By the way, the Landmarks Commission has turned down a mere handful of the thousands of proposals it has reviewed under its jurisdiction since 1973. The commission and its committees have seldom denied a request because they work with applicants so diligently, creatively, reasonably and in such good faith that issues are typically resolved before things get to “No.”

Ann Hassett set the tone for this attitude and approach from the very beginning. It’s just one of her great legacies.

Ghosts, goblins and Adam Smith

OK, back to Bauer’s.

Facts and reason never seems to dull the edge of someone with an ax to grind. Google it for yourself and you’ll find that Louisville’s conspiracy theorists harbor several explanations for Bauer’s sad state.

These include Greg Fischer’s supposed lapses, outside agitators, neighborhood intermeddlers, too much power with Metro Council, too little power with Metro Council, something Harvey Sloane did 40 years ago and so on.

It’s none of my business, but I’d say the most valid reason for the status of the Bauer’s site has to do with land economics. It sits on some of our most expensive land outside of downtown, a factor that narrows the field of development candidates.

This is probably one of the reasons why the Doll’s Market space next door to Bauer’s is still vacant a year after its closing was announced.

Another reason is that somebody hitched Bauer’s wagon to the Rite Aid star. The chain’s shares fell 75 percent from September 2007 to September 2008 in the midst of record-breaking losses. That was just about when the company became part of the Bauer’s conversation.

Talk about bad timing.

A postscript

Speaking of the mayor, I wonder whatever possessed Mr. Fischer to drag Bauer’s into the recent debate about amendments to the landmarks ordinance.

Sure, he’s entitled to his opinion. But talk about walking face first into a buzz saw.

Maybe he saw something in the record. Maybe he saw something in the painstaking research on the Bauer’s site and the lengthy deliberations of the Landmarks Commission with which he took issue.

Or, he has a different take on the landmark evaluation criteria and their application in this case.

Still. I doubt that the mayor goes to a ribbon cutting of, say, a new fire station and declares, “What a great day for Louisville and its citizens. It’s too bad, however, that this fine new fire station was built on the wrong side of the street.”

I mean, why gratuitously undermine the authority of a public commission to do what it’s legally empowered and expected to do? One you profess to like and support?

I must be missing something.

I’ve lived in Louisville nearly my whole life. Born and reared.

Yet, this was one of the times I’ve been reminded of how little I understand of the ways of my city and its people.

About Doug Stern. Doug is a freelance business writer based in Louisville who served for several years on the Landmarks Commission and two of its Architectural Review Committees. Contact him at [email protected]