Unable to tear down ‘Ninth Street Divide,’ city instead will add lighting and improve streetscape

The I-64 exit crossing over Main Street, between Eighth and Ninth Street

The I-64 exit crossing over Main Street, between Eighth and Ninth Street | Via Google Earth

Mayor Greg Fischer announced in a press release Wednesday that the city is accepting proposals from firms to improve the streetscape underneath the Interstate 64 exit overpass along Main Street, between Eight and Ninth streets — often said to be the physical manifestation of the city’s “Ninth Street Divide” separating the largely African-American west Louisville from the rest of the city.

The proposal to improve lighting under the overpass is not to exceed $150,000, and Fischer said it would be an extension of the city’s Vision Louisville initiative, seeking to revitalize the west Louisville neighborhoods of Portland and Russell by connecting them with downtown.

But as Insider Louisville reported in January, the city’s economic development department had planned on seeking a federal TIGER grant later this year to tear down the entire overpass — redesigning the I-64 interchange and making a large portion of Ninth Street more hospitable to pedestrians. The Vision Louisville initiative proposed re-imagining the Ninth Street corridor by improving streetscapes, as well as “perhaps re-locating the Interstate 64 ramps.”

Mayoral spokesman Chris Poynter told IL those grants “are very, very competitive, and we did not receive that.” Louisville Forward spokeswoman Jessica Wethington added that such changes to the exit ramp would likely be at least a decade away.

“We applied for a TIGER grant in 2014, but did not receive it,” said Wethington. “There is no pending federal grant. We will be conducting a feasibility study to explore the options of modifying the 9th St. ramp, but this will be a decade long journey. In the short-term, we have released an RFP to support the expansion of the Business Improvement District.”

Mary Ellen Wiederwahl, the head of Louisville Forward, added that “the Feds didn’t offer TIGER planning grants this year so there was nothing to apply for this round. They only offered capital grants, and we have an application pending for Dixie (Highway) for a capital grant. If TIGER planning grants are offered again in the future, we would likely reapply for 9th St.”

Fischer’s press release touted the new lighting under the overpass as “one part of Louisville’s broader strategy to revitalize West Louisville,” including the aforementioned western expansion of the Business Improvement District of the Downtown Partnership, the proposal to expand Waterfront Park into Portland, and the CHOICE Neighborhoods project to renovate the Beecher Terrance housing in east Russell. He also said this underpass is seeing increased usage due to new attractions such as Old 502 Winery, Falls City Brewing Company, Kentucky Peerless Distilling and Over the 9 restaurant.

Poynter says the improved lighting would encourage pedestrians to cross “that really dark underpass,” just past the Frazier Museum on Main Street. “How do we make that better lit, how do we make it look better so people will pass Eighth Street and go on to Ninth Street and into West Louisville.”

Metro Council President David Tandy also praised the new lighting as a way to encourage pedestrian traffic, saying that tearing down the overpass is “something that we’ll continue to have to study. When the new bridges are done, we’ll see what the new traffic patterns look like, to see if it makes sense.”

Martina Kunnecke of the nonprofit Neighborhood Planning and Preservation was not as impressed with the plan for lighting the underpass, referring to it as more window dressing than substance.

“Revitalization goes much deeper than throwing up some lights so people will walk another block, and he just doesn’t seem to get that,” said Kunnecke. “I don’t know how long the public will be able to ignore the ongoing outpouring of public dollars for window dressing. We have all this money that we can throw at landscaping, we have so much money to give to Omni to build a hotel that we feel we don’t really need, instead of helping local businesses get going, getting some varied housing downtown. That’s the root of real revitalization.”