Sunday, February 25, 2007

RiverPark Place Begins

The long awaited RiverPark Place development along the banks of the Ohio River will finally have it's ground breaking this week. On Friday, March 2, city officials and project developers will meet to ceremoniously turn the dirt on this long awaited project. Site prep has been taking place for the last several months, but this will mark the beginning of "official" work.

Phase 1 of the project will run a cool 200 million dollars, and will include two 14 story towers, a river esplanade, as well as a collection of low-rise condos and apartments, office space, a marina, and restaurants. This will be one of the densest projects to be built in the urban core in many years - and it will combine many different uses to create a vibrant community.

This project has been in the making for nearly 20 years. The exact same site that is being built upon today once had a similar development planned for it in the early 1990's, but those plans fell apart in the late 90's when financial support couldn't be found.

Today, the project is full steam ahead - and if phase 1 is successful, multiple other phases have already been conceived that include six more 14 story towers along the river and could total 500 million more dollars in investment. This project is huge, and is a boon for the city of Louisville.

My one beef with this project is the "safe" architectural stylings they used. The design isn't offensive at all - it just seems, well, a little bland. I feel as if I could pick up RiverPark Place and put it in any Southern boom town, and it would look as if it completely belonged there. I realize there is a market for this type of architecture, and i am not saying the design is actually bad, I just think it is a bit boring and I wish we could have seen something that is a bit more original, or even revolutionary.

Despite my critique, i still think the project is going to be a huge boost or the city and for urban living in the core. It will be a huge draw for the unique waterfront setting and the new neighborhood it will anchor - here's to hoping they're wildly successful!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Louisville's City of Parks

Louisville is a city that has long prided itself on the stunning system of parks and parkways that were designed for us by the landscape architect genius Frederick Law Olmsted. The father of landscape design molded the Louisville landscape into one of his largest and best pieces of work. His amazing labors have helped to form the Louisville psyche and our reverence for large, urban green spaces.

This is a love and passion that is alive and well in the Louisville of the 21st century, just as it was in the 19th century when our grand park system was planned and dreamed of. We can see our love of urban green space in the new Riverfront Park in downtown, which has won award after award for it's reclamation of industrial brown fields and it's innovative design. We see it in the preservation of our legacy in the Olmsted system that we have cherished for well over a century - and we see it in the renewed vision and invigoration of these magnificent public spaces. Beyond our renewed focus on our downtown park and Olmsted masterpieces, we find Louisville striving for the next great step in urban parks. This new focus has led to the creation of the "City of Parks" initiative.

The "City of Parks" initiative has been a dream of Louivillians for decades, however it was only recently that events have been set into motion that will create a new "emerald necklace" around the city's periphery. The master plan is still being created, however many of those documents are expected to released to the public in Fall 2007.

Still, before those master plans are released, we already know many of the large-scale efforts and expectations:

  • A new trail will link the "big 3" parks from the original Olmsted system, along with many improvements to the original city parks.
  • A trail of more than 100 miles will surround the city - linking downtown to all the suburbs in Jefferson County.
  • A "recreation corridor" along River Road just east of downtown.
  • The Jefferson Memorial Forest, already America's largest urban forest, will expand.
  • Floyd's Fork, a stream that cuts through eastern Jefferson County, will be the focus point of more than 30 miles of trails, and several new large parks - many of which will be larger than Cherokee Park in the Highlands of Louisville.
  • Protection of the watershed of Floyd's Fork.
  • Addition of new sports fields and recreation opportunities along the Floyd's Fork route.

This project is not some pie-in-the-sky dream that the city is going slowly about in completing - they're actually moving forward at a breakneck pace.

Sen. Mitch McConnell has already secured millions of dollars in federal funding in last year's budget, and local philanthropist and businessman David Jones has been kneading the local professional community for donations of land and money. Jones has been highly successful, raising in excess of 35 million dollars, and convincing local landholders to donate thousands of acres of land to the Jefferson Memorial Forest and donate the land needed to build the new parks along the Floyd's Fork.

Just last week Jones was able to buy 175 acres near the Bullitt County line that adjoins another 114 acres he secured in December. Jefferson Forest added 400 acres in December and hundreds of more acreage has been stockpiled for this project even before that. Other stories from just this last week chronicle the efforts that civic leaders are doing to make this project a reality.

The "City of Parks" project is the first large scale park building and renovation project in Louisville in more than 100 years. Based on what I've seen so far, it is my opinion that these parks in the suburban areas will be as beautiful and well used as the parks in the urban core. These parks are also going to sort of "make or break" our suburban areas.

These park projects are currently in rural Jefferson County, where residential and commercial development has not yet swallowed up all available land. Nearly all of the land currently expected to become parkland is farmland or horse pasture and is surrounded by very sparse residential homes. Yet, suburban development is quickly encroaching on the area - hence the need for speed in acquiring all the land for this project.

These parks - and the ensuing development around them - will become a defining feature of suburban Louisville and speak to our city's collective personality. The question is, what will it say about us? Will we work together and create a true enhancement to the original Olmsted system only to build typical vinyl-sided homes on cul-de-sacs in the surrounding neighborhoods? Will we build walls around the parks and only have a few automotive entrances? (Besides the "decorative" walking trail connectors?)

Or will we learn from the amazing examples we already have in the urban core. We already can see the great neighborhoods that can be created when we weave them together seamlessly with great public spaces - will we let that be our guide in a new format that is suitable for the suburbs? I can say that I hope so, but the public will have as much to say on that as does the city government.

Louisville really is a city of fantastic parks and this project will only solidify the city's commitment to that reputation - let's hope we're able to take these new public spaces and graft them onto our city's urban life equally as well as we have done with the parks of our past.

The King Expressway

39 years after the death of Reverend Martin Luther King Junior, Louisville has decided to name a busy stretch of highway after him.

In August Interstate 65, from the Indiana border to the Bullitt County line, will be renamed the Martin Luther King Jr. Expressway. It will be a welcome change for some, and an awkward one for others.

The name change basically fell out of the blue late last year when a Louisville councilwoman proposed renaming a busy street in west Louisville in honor of King. The proposal was quickly abandoned after the residents of the Portland neighborhood expressed their feelings that King's name would not reflect their Irish-Catholic heritage. However, this did not kill the debate. There as a sudden push to rename a major thoroughfare after King, and there was no way to get in it's way.

Not long after this idea was shot down, the mayor and several council members proposed the renaming of Interstate 65. It was debated, and passed the city council before going to a vote in the Kentucky Legislature. There it won approval - by a vote of 99 to 0. The governor has said he will sign the bill and road signs will soon be placed on the highway advertising it's new name.

Any change to a roads name will be met with resistance at first - simply because it is seen a huge new change. But the name will quickly be absorbed by the city, and become as common as using "the Watterson" to describe Interstate 264, or "the Snyder" to describe Interstate 265. Eventually Interstate 65 will simply become "the King".

While I believe that it is imperative for the city of Louisville to honor the memory, legacy, and accomplishment of this great man, I can't help but think Louisville should have picked one of it's own unsung African-American civil rights heroes for this road. Louisville and Kentucky has no lack of great black leaders, and this could have been a great opportunity to honor one of our own leaders in a unique way. To me, this isn't a major point of contention, but maybe something that can be thought about in the future.

In the end, the renaming of Interstate 65 may be a small controversy for those citizens who do not value diversity (that's a nice way to put it, wouldn't you agree?) but will probably go unnoticed by most.

What I truly wish is that this community would not honor it's black leaders with sweet platitudes and interstate names, but that we would honor them by creating a society that is equal and just for all Kentuckians. A place where the "West End" isn't for the blacks and the "East End" isn't for the whites. A city where we try to live up to the American Dream of creating a more perfect union with all of our neighbors. Does that sound idealistic? Maybe. But sometimes it is nice to have a dream.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Zirmed's New Tower

So the rumors were true.
Yet another parking lot in the city's core is going to be filled by a mixed-use project.

On Thursday afternoon the mayor is going to announce a new project for the western section of downtown Louisville - The Zirmed Gateway Towers. (unwieldy name if you ask me)

The project is being spearheaded by downtown Louisville developer Bill Weyland. Weyland, if you didn't already know, is one of the key figures in the renaissance of downtown Louisville in recent years. His company, City Properties, has rehabbed and built several major projects in downtown since 2000. His most current project, the YWCA conversion on Third Street, is now in the finishing stages. He owns a gravel lot fronting Fourth Street that is rumored to be the site of a new mid-rise hotel/residential project. He is also currently renovating a shuttered building on Fourth Street into a new upscale Japanese restaurant. Perhaps his most famous project is one of his older ones - the Glassworks Building on the west side of downtown.

When originally conceived, the Glassworks Building was supposed to be the first anchor in a new Glassworks District. The Glassworks District was envisioned in the early days of former mayor Armstrong's administration. Plans called for an expansive area of homes, offices, and glass-working artists. Phase 1 of the project was the wildly successful renovation of the Snead Manufacturing Building - now known as simply the Glassworks Building. Phase 2, which immediately followed phase 1, was the relatively small conversion of a day-work jail into space for artists. This was completed early in the decade. Since then, nothing has happened.

In fact, the Glassworks District concept had all but evaporated, and many Louisvillians forgot about the project altogether. That all changed today when it was revealed that phase 3 will be two new mid-rise towers on a gravel lot currently across the street from the original Glassworks Building.

The two new towers, at the corner of Market and Roy Wilkins, will rise 12 and 10 stories into the air. With that number of floors, the buildings will be well over 100 feet tall. They will help to form a new gateway for western downtown Louisville when exiting to Ninth Street from I-64.
The main tenant will be Zirmed, which in mid-2006 announced it had outgrown it's current space along West Main, and needed to consolidate operations in a bigger space. And they wanted a landmark building to showcase their epic growth. With his announcement, they will get both of their wishes. They will lease 45,000 square feet of space in the buildings, leaving another 35,000 feet for another tenant. There will be a new restaurant and catering business to be headed by Jeff Jarfi, and space for another large retail tenant. The buildings will also offer 15 to 20 condos, ranging in price from 300,000 dollars to 500,000 dollars. Several units have already been reserved.

Phase 3 will also include a 285 spot parking garage. A small parcel of land will be left undeveloped on the lot for an anticipated phase 4 - perhaps to be small hotel or another residential project.

Financing has been secured through several national banks, and construction is expected to begin in March. The city of Louisville offered the developers a 600,000 dollar low interest loan through a program started in the early 2000's and the city will spend around 180,000 dollars to bury power line, plant trees, and install other beautification elements.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Louisville: A Competitive City?

On Friday the Greater Louisville Project (from henceforth to be known as GLP) issued it's 2007 Competitive City Report for Louisville. The stated goal of the GLP is to "accelerate the pace of change to redefine Louisville as a skilled and educated community that claims it's place in the top tier of American cities."

That is a lofty goal indeed. Especially for Louisville.

The report is a slick presentation of graphs, maps, and promotional messages. Much of the information was useful...and encouraging. Some of it was simple blubbering by a civic group - but what can ya say, they're all that way anyway.

The GLP report focuses on the central county - Jefferson County, Kentucky - unlike this recent report that focuses on the entire metropolitan statistical area. The GLP report is simply one piece of an overall puzzle that represents the trends and movements in the Louisville region. In some cities, a report that focuses on the central county would be less important than it is in Louisville - but this report holds a lot of weight for Louisville because 3 out of 5 residents of the MSA are residents of Louisville Metro - Jefferson County.

This report focused it's energy on three points of comparison - Educational Attainment, Professional Jobs, and Balanced Regional Growth. The report compared Louisville to 14 other competitor cities - Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro, Richmond, Nashville, Omaha, Cincinnati, Columbus, Birmingham, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Memphis, Jacksonville, and Dayton. And at least on the education front, we're making real progress

By steadily increasing the number of people in the age group of 25-34 with Bachelors Degrees, we have moved from the near the bottom of the pack at 11th place, to the middle of the pack, at 8th place. In 2000, only Dayton, Memphis, and Jacksonville fared worse than us in this age group, but by 2005, Louisville had rushed past Greensboro, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Birmingham in this category. That is progress for Louisville.

In the performance of JCPS students on the Kentucky state CATS test, we've also seen marked improvement in only 4 years. In 2001 79% of JCPS students were proficient in reading, 70% in science, and 59% in math. By 2005 those numbers had increased to 87% in reading, 77% in science, and 72% in math. Those are big leaps in a district as large and diverse as JCPS, and in such a short period.

Louisville ranks near the top of cities in the category of citizens with *some* college experience. That highlights a huge opportunity for Louisville's institutions of higher education to develop new program to retain and graduate more students.

In 1990 nearly 1 in 5 Louisvillians hadn't even finished high school. In 2005 that number had essentially been cut in half, to 1 in 10.

Louisville's college and university have seen a swell in the number of college students in recent years, and an increased student population has led to a large increase in the number of degrees conferred in the area.

In regards to personal income Louisville has also seen some good growth. In 2000 Louisville was ranked 11th, only ahead of Memphis, Nashville, Indianapolis, and Dayton, when measuring Median Income. By 2005 Louisville was right in the middle of the pack, ranked 8th. In those 5 years Louisville had also surpassed Birmingham, Jacksonville, and Kansas City.

Another bright spot for Louisville is it's low crime rate when compared to competitor cities. Only two cities - Dayton and Raleigh - boasted a lower crime rate.

Of course, not everything can be good news.

One of the trouble spots for Louisville was the stagnation when it comes to creating and retaining high-paying professional jobs. In 2000 Louisville ranked near the bottom, at 11th place...and still occupies that position. Despite large leaps in educational attainment, we're still having trouble luring in professional opportunities.

Louisville's African-American community lost ground in home ownership rates.

In 2000 Louisville was next to last (a good thing in this case) in the percentage of families spending more than 30% of their income on housing. That number has increased, and Louisville has moved up several spots. This means working families are finding it increasingly difficult to afford good housing on their salaries in the central county.

Despite growth in home values in Louisville, it has been slower than many of our competitors, and Louisville has lost ground in this measure as well.

It is my opinion that this report, despite it's shortcomings, shows a stregthening city, and one full of opportunity for continued improvement. If you throw out all the comparisons to other cities, you find a region that seems to have fully awoken from it's doldrums of the 70's and 80's. We're growing larger, better educated, and have better oppotunities than any other time in our city's history. This is truly an exciting and great era for Louisville.

Friday, February 09, 2007

JCPS gets "Seal of Approval"

Jefferson County School District was named a "Quality School District" by the Southern Association of College and Schools, an accreditation group.

In their report, they noted many of the districts greatest strengths, including "gains in achievement, valuing diversity, attendance gains, stable leadership and a solid level of teacher preparation (over 80 percent have advanced degrees.)" They also mentioned the strong ties between the business community and JCPS.

JCPS is one of only 100 districts in the US that was chosen far this designation. I will last for five years.

This designation reflects on the excellent quality of education for a school district as large and urban as JCPS. If progress continues, it only points to an even better future for the city.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Two High Schools Announce Downtown Plans

Two local high schools that are located downtown released plans for expansion last week:

Presentation Academy released initial plans to build a new gymnasium and arts wing on a lot they purchased at Fourth and Breckenridge in the SoBro "neighborhood" adjoining downtown. Currant plans show a building on the southwest corner of their lot with a large structure that will contain a gymnasium, theatre, and class space for art. The building will cost over 5 million dollars, and a private campaign will commence soon to raise the money needed.

This plan, which will develop and bring some vitality to a relatively quiet block in the city's core, has one hitch: to build this new expansion, they will have to raze a building with some historic value for it's Art-Deco form. The 900 Building, which has been abandoned for years, will not be incorporated into the design. Some local preservationists have objected to this planned demolition, pointing out the historic value to the structure.

Despite the value of the current building, only a few people have openly assailed this project. And with the prospect of new investment at the site and some renewed energy, don't expect the city to block the plans.

The other announced expansion plan was by St. Francis High School at Third and Broadway. They recently purchased the former YMCA building and garage. Their announced intentions are to invest some money into the garage while the school completes a long term study of their needs for this new building. Eventually the property will house an expansion at St. Francis.

These school expansions are helping to solidify to foundation of downtown as a place for Louisvillians to congregate, live, work, and educate their children. Projects such as these bring in another element to a downtown - and a needed one. They make downtown useful to other demographics than just your 20-somethings who want to buy a condo and go to Fourth Street Live. These types of projects bring teenagers and families to the core more often, fostering a sense of safety and vitality, even on days when there are not huge events going on downtown.

Besides the "blockbuster" projects currently planned for downtown, these types of projects bring in your typical Louisvillians to the core on a consistent basis, not only for "high-minded" uses, such as museum, art galleries, and high-end restaurants. These types of uses are equally as important as others because they convince citizens that downtown is for everyone and all uses, not just out-of-towners and conventioneers.

Downtown needs to encourage uses such as this to keep the core relevant to the lives of typical citizens.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Louisville's New Airline (again)

For the second time in less than a month, a new airline has picked Louisville for increased service. In mid-January, Denver-based Frontier Airlines announced new direct service flights from Denver to Louisville. Today, ExpressJet announced new direct service to Louisville from Kansas City, Mo and Raleigh/Durham, NC. Both cities are top 20 for business travelers from Louisville.

This new carrier promise to offer Louisvillian travelers all leather seating and XM satellite radio in flight. Dates of service and prices for tickets will be announced next week.

This announcement is yet another sign that outsiders are recognizing the solid and growing market that Louisville offers. Louisville's business community continues to expand at levels unheard of here in decades - and it shows. Flights such as these make Louisville more attractive of a destination for ease of use and connectivity. While flights will not spur a huge growth in business, they are a sign of renewed strength in the Louisville economy. And in turn, they can be a deciding factor on whether a company stays in your town, or flees to other, larger markets.

These new flights are a great win for Louisville...and the city seems to be on a roll.

PharMerica in the Suburbs and Louisville's Genlyte

On Friday it was reported that Louisville's newest corporate citizen would by planting it's roots in suburban Jefferson County - off of Blankenbaker Parkway in Jeffersontown to be more precise.

The new 2 billion dollar company will fill the space that was vacated over a year ago when Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield built a new suburban building at Eastpoint Business Center and consolidated their operations. PharMerica is expected to lease nearly 100,000 square feet of space in the Blankenbaker Crossings building for their 300 to 350 new employees.

PharMerica looked at three locations in Louisville - 2 suburban and 1 downtown - before settling on Blankenbaker Crossing. Jeffersontown's mayor has commented that the city will bend over backwards to support the new company in any possible ways.

While I think it is a missed opportunity for the downtown core to score this fantastic, growing is a win for the Louisville business community to have them settle roots here. The number of Fortune 1000 companies has been reduced in the last decade with RJ Reynolds being acquired and moved to North Carlina and the takeover of LG&E in the mid 90's by German electric conglomerate E.ON. Thankfully for the latter company, LG&E was basically left unchanged and E.ON made Louisville it's US Headquarters - although that still isn't quite as nice as having LG&E as our own Fortune 1000 company again.

Fortune 1000 companies are a point of pride for any community, and it is one indicator of a regions general economic strength and importance. Fortune 1000's are not the only indicators, o even the single most important one, but it is still great to have as many as possible.

It is because of this that I am excited about recent news from Louisville-based Genlyte. Genlyte is a homegrown company that has experienced explosive growth and is acquiring companies left and right, like last weeks announced acquisition of Pennsylvania-based lighting manufacturer, Hanover Lantern.

Genlyte's 2006 revenues were announced to be 1.48 billion dollars. Had Genlyte posted that number in 2005, they would have easily made Fortunes 1000 list. But last year they had sales of 1.2 billion - nearly 200 million dollars short of breaking into the top 1000 public companies. Revenue is up nearly 25 percent this year from last, and if they don't make the Fortune list for 2006, there is no doubt they will make the cut for 2007.

Louisville has a reputation of plodding along without much growth - and to a degree that has been very true. But times are changing, not just for Louisville, but for Kentucky. Kentucky is expected to ride the next wave of Southern expansion as people start looking for places that aren't yet saturated - such as Florida, Georgia, or Texas. This means we'll start seeing more economic diversity, more local companies, and greater opportunity.

Recent economic news from Louisville has been very bright, indeed. And I expect that momentum to continue. Not every week will bring with it a new company or large expansion, but Louisville will continue to do what it does best - nurture small groups and daring entrepreneurs. That's how Genlyte started. And Smoothstone. And Zirmed. And a whole slew of others.

Louisville has a lot of baggage to overcome...but slowly, we're turning the corner, and news like these recent developments, only embolden us more.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Crisis Averted

Two days after the developers of Museum Plaza and the city's Convention and Visitor's Bureau appeared to be headed to battle, the crisis was averted.

At issue were the plans by Museum Plaza to use 80% of the Westin's room taxes on public infrastructure improvements instead of being handed over to tourism officials. In his hallmark fashion, the mayor quickly gathered both sides and sat them down to create a compromise - and it didn't even take 24 hours.

Under the plan crafted by both sides, Museum Plaza will keep the first 400,000 each year of the hotel taxes for public infrastructure upgrades. Every year that 400,000 dollars "cap" will grow by 4% for the 30 year life of the TIF district. All revenues above this will go to tourism officals.

This compromise still has to be approved by the State Legislature, but now tourism officials will give Museum Plaza their support, and the plans are expected to be rubberstamped by the state.

I'm just happy they got this resolved quickly. Now, let's get ground broken!