By Reed Weinberg
I read the opinion piece recently written for Insider Louisville by Joe Dunman regarding preservation vs. development in Louisville. While I certainly respect Dunman’s opinion, I have to admit I couldn’t resist responding. I read it and had a bit of a Jerry Maguire moment and decided to write my own short and simple take on why we need to support certain development in our fair city.
First, and I know this is the classic line that many pro-development folks use, but I am all for historic preservation. I agree with Dunman’s important examples of how back in the 1960s, developers ran roughshod in areas like the Cherokee Triangle to tear down old, historic homes and build ugly (at least by today’s standards) apartment complexes. Ironically enough, one of those 1960s-era complexes, the Bordeaux, is now being proposed to be torn down and replaced with the very controversial Willow Grande condo project.
I do not pretend to be an expert on historic preservation and do not follow closely what buildings in Louisville contain historic designation (or have potential to be labeled as such). I am also not in favor of tearing down any older building just to make way for new development.
However, I do believe many progressive thinkers in Louisville share the view that not every building that is very old deserves to be saved if a project that is vitally important to growing our economy will be built in its place. I hold the same view with regard to architectural standards in the Land Development Code. While they are critically important to enforcing responsible development, there are definitely instances where they may actually be applied inappropriately and impede a vital development project. Hence the concept of seeking a variance in front of the zoning adjustment board, a practice that is applied on a routine basis.
As I mentioned above, I am not an expert on historic preservation. But I do know a bit about what has been proposed to go on Main and Clay streets in Butchertown. Bristol Development, a multifamily developer from Nashville, has proposed a 260-unit, state-of-the-art apartment project that will be an enormous catalyst for living in downtown Louisville. It will be filling a serious void. While there have been new and expensive “for sale” condo projects built over the past 10 years, we have had a dearth of new rental units constructed that will cater to a younger, educated workforce. Some developers, like Bill Weyland of City Properties, are getting the ball rolling with important new multifamily projects, but we need more.
Dunman pointed out some facts that are very daunting about Louisville with regard to the income levels of our younger workforce. We also struggle significantly with regard to the educational attainment of our citizens. This is one of the biggest threats that Louisville is facing in its future. As laid out in the Louisville Downtown Partnership’s “State of the Downtown” event, we lag significantly behind other peer cities in the number of young professionals living downtown. We are also ranking poorly in having downtown residents that have college degrees and earn above-average incomes.
The fallacy, though, is to use those statistics as a reason against projects like the one proposed for Butchertown. Those stats are all the more reason we need to push for new development that will reverse the trend. We need development projects that will attract younger, educated workers to move to Louisville. Or, better yet, projects that will draw companies and businesses that employ such a workforce and are seeking cities with a vibrant, growing, livable urban core.
The facts are clear that on a national level, there are huge swaths of the young and educated who want to live in and around a vibrant urban environment. Further, what about the idea that there could actually be some real pent-up demand among people currently living here who would move to downtown apartment projects if the right ones are built?
Louisville is currently lacking these amenities while cities like Nashville are drawing young professionals by the thousands. Why is Nashville having so much success? Well, let’s ask Charlie Carlisle of Bristol Development — the developer proposing the project in Butchertown. His company has played a crucial role in developing projects that have spurred Nashville and its downtown into one of the hottest secondary markets in the country. He believes Louisville has the same potential, and his company wants to put their money where their mouth is. He has made it work elsewhere, and he wants to help make it work here.
So, what do we do? We throw up roadblocks and stand in his way. People actually use scare tactics to say the project could fail and become an empty eyesore. Instead of spooking them, I believe we should be encouraging the risk-takers who put their balance sheets on the line to build transformative projects for Louisville. If not, we will stay stuck in our current situation and be unable to reverse the aforementioned trends with our workforce.
Here’s to hoping that the important work of preservation-minded citizens will enable them to work hand-in-hand with developers to bring important and responsible projects to fruition.
Reed Weinberg is the president and a principal of PRG Investments.