Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Russell Renaissance Part 1

I've been wanting to write this post for a long time. I've written several post on my thoughts for economic development in West Louisville, but this is my first one about just the Russell neighborhood as a whole. It's also the first one where I put a name to the project (and collection of past ideas) I have been working on and/or blogged about.

To my knowledge this is the only economic development article (aside from my earlier post) written about West Louisville in the past 10 years. 10 years. The one that was written in 2001 can be found here and is labeled as the West Louisville Competitive Assessment Study.  The biggest difference between what I have written and what the city did are mainly 2 fold. First, the original study didn't included any residents of West Louisville. Now, there are folks on the original committee who work in West Louisville, but none of them live in West Louisville. Also, from reading the study no effort was made to ask what people in West Louisville wanted. Second, the cities study focus one only 3 types of economic development for the area: Logistics/transportation/distribution, manufacturing, and life science (mainly device manufacturing). There is a little about business development, but the vast majority of the study focuses on the 3 types of development I mentioned previously.

On the service that doesn't seem to bad. After all, as the study points out, West Louisville has a ton of cheap labor, it's close to the expressway, it's close to the river, and it's close to rail service. All we need to do is acquire large parcels of land (which the mayor put in his budget) and give it to the best manufacturer or distribution company and there you go 1,000 of jobs that will pay the average worker anywhere from $8 to $10 an hour. Meanwhile, we will tear large swaths of historic buildings to make way for suburban style warehousing. If you drive down 12th street south of Broadway you will see what the city wants to do. There is the old Porter paint warhouse, Packaging Unlimited warehouse, a Recycling Center, Sud Chemical and other warehouses and light industrial places. When I was a kid that was a neighborhood filled with houses, corner stores and churches. It was vibrant. Now it is a faceless urban industrial park that doesn't employ anybody in the neighborhood except Packaging Unlimited which pays a little above minimum wage.

What I have written is a far cry from what the city wants to do with West Louisville. I want to revitalize the neighborhoods. I want to bring back the mom and pop stores, corner retail, keep the historic and urban character of the neighborhood intact. Basically, bring back what was once there. If you can have this type of retail and development a long East Market street, Bardstown Road, Oak street in Old Louisville, why not Russell? Why does Russell have to be further torn down to make way light industrial, distribution, and warehousing that will not enhance the neighborhood, but give us nothing but low paying dead end jobs? If traditional urban retail development is good enough for east Louisville then it's good enough for Russell.

The other difference, is that I don't treat as a giant area of the city. West Louisville is made up of several distinct and different neighborhoods. What may work in Russell, may not work in California, Portland, Shawnee, Parkland, or Chickasaw. Each neighborhood needs its own development strategy just like Highland's plan is different from NULU's. This is for Russell, but many parts of it can and should be used through West Louisville.

                                                                      The Plan

Artist Relocation Program

Russell has a lot of vacant properties and lots. We also need to increase the amount of home owners as well as increase incomes in the area. You can't have local corner stores or businesses without the residents having enough disposable income to support them. You can try and convince young urban professionals to move to Russell, but thats unlikely to happen in any significant numbers. Russell, Like the rest of West Louisville, has a reputation for high crime. What I suggest is an artist relocation based on the Paducah, Kentucky model. Artist tend to be first movers and are usually more willing to move to distressed area (you can read my original blog post here and here about the program).  The gist of the program that is an artist can prove that they can support themselves with their chosen artist profession, and they are willing to live in the neighborhood for several years then we will give them a house or a vacant lot in which to build a home. The Russell Relocation Program will partner with various banks and the city to help provide the artist with low interest rate loans (to refurbish or build the house/storefront) and a forgivable second mortgage to further help with financing either the rehab or building of the house/storefront.

The Russell Relocation Program will also do everything we can to ensure that artist that move to Russell are as successful as possible. We will do this by being a conduit to firms that provide micro-lending (such as Community Venture Corporation) and organizations that offer business support and development ( such as the Nia Center and The Peer Group) If Paducah can do it then so can we.

The Haymarket

Russell needs a permanent haymarket, preferable on the border of both Russell and Portland. I would love for the haymarket to have an outdoor amphitheater so the neighborhood can hold outdoor concerts, meetings, and be a great gathering spot for local residents. Haymarkets serve as natural small business incubators and development hubs. At most haymarkets small retailers cut their teeth and learn how to run a business. If they are really successful they will either move from the haymarket to a store front or keep both a haymarket booth and a store front. To help facilitate this process we can connect those retailers who want to move up and grow their business with various buisness development organizations that we have connected with for the Russell Relocation Program. Even if the businesses don't want to move up, they still have provided much needed retail and services for the community.

The Quinn

The project that I have been working the hardest on and is the corner stone to Russell's renaissance is the old Quinn Chapel.  I want to turn Quinn Chapel into the Clifton Center of West Louisville. This will be the West Louisville's only performance arts space, but it will much more than that. It will also hold art classes, filmmaking classes, playwriting workshops, costume making workshops, music school and much more. This will also be a venue where you can go and watch plays, concerts, speakers, and much more. The Quinn will once again become the hub of activity for the entire West-End.  


In the late 40's and early 50's Louisville made a serious investment in it's youth and funded boxing gyms for all of it's community centers.  At the time this was scene as a way to get kids off the street and to get them something productive that will also teach them discipline. That investment paid off in late 50's, 60's and 70's when Louisville produced 3 heavyweight champions. Not only did Louisville produce 3 heavyweight champions, but local boxing could be seen every Saturday morning on Tv as well as weekly amateur matches at the convention center. How much money did that generate for the city? How many boxing promoters sprung up in the city? Trainers, graphic artist, boxers, ticket takers, bartenders, and all of the support staff for sporting events? Now, boxing is pretty much dead in Louisville. There is only 1 maybe 2 full time boxing gyms in the city. 

Boxing may be dead or on the decline, but MMA is HUGE is Kentucky. In fact, Kentucky is the 4th most active state in the United States for MMA matches. It would be higher, but the state doesn't have enough people to sanction all of the matches. Why can't Russell be the hub for training the next generation of athletes? 

All it would take would be to convert 1 old firehouse or grocery store into a gym. I know several guys who want to open a gym in Russell, but they need a space that is big enough. We did it once we can do it again.

Reconnecting Russell

Just like the NuLu Connectivity Project, Russell needs to be reconnected with the central business district. Like I wrote in a blog post earlier you can't have a vibrant downtown if you cut off it's surrounding neighborhoods. We need to reconnect Russell to downtown. 


One way to reconnect Russell with not only downtown, but to other neighborhoods is with a street car line. I would like to see a street car line run from one end of Market Street to the other end. In order the keep cost down you can even use the existing track that is buried underneath the asphalt.  In every city that has installed street cars several things have happened. First, along the street car routes investment in businesses and housing has boomed. This will not only be a plus for Russell, Portland, and Shawnee (all three neighborhoods are bounded by Market), but will help downtown tourism by further connecting downtown with all of the new and exciting developments in NuLu and Phoenix hill. 

In Part 2 I'm going to go into a little bit more detail about how all of the parts fit together not only to the rest of West Louisville, but the city as a whole. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Why Downtown is Dying

Downtown Louisville is dying. Actually, it has been dying since the 1950's. The growth of suburbs after WWII drawing people out of the center core hurt. The city's decision to suburbanize its urban core by tearing down buildings to build surface parking lots didn't help either. Don't get me wrong. There have been some very successful efforts to try and save downtown. Slugger Field, Waterfront Park (which will be covered up by the Bridges Project), West Main street museum district, and 4th Street Live to name a few. On that list only 4th Street Live could be considered a question mark. These are great projects and there are some others on the way, but in the end they will fail to resurrect downtown.

If you want to "save" downtown Louisville then you have to reconnect downtown with its surrounding neighborhoods. What made downtown a special place before the 50's was that it was connected to its surrounding neighborhoods. The surrounding neighborhoods feed the central business district. The stores in downtown catered to the people in those neighborhoods. Even if some to most of those stores in the 50's didn't serve black folks you still had old Walnut St that was in downtown.

Before urban renewal downtown was connected to its surrounding neighborhoods. After urban renewal it is completely disconnected and it's now its own separate entity. On the west side of central business district you have the 9th street divide. On the east side there is I-65.

When you hear city officials talk about bringing retail back to downtown they say we need more people living downtown. There's not enough people to support downtown retail. There are tons of people to support downtown retail. They just happen to live in Portland, Russell, Smoketown, Butchertown, California, Phoenix Hill, and NULU.

I'm not saying that this is the only reason downtown is dying. There are a ton more reasons, but I think this is the biggest. If Old Walnut street and east Russell had not succumb to the wrecking ball would downtown be in as bad of a shape?  Over 3,000 single family homes and businesses were torn down and replaced by surface parking lots and subsidized housing. The destruction was so complete that there is not 1 single family home left from 5th Street to 16th street in Russell. Same thing happened to east Portland. How much potential economic activity was lost?

We need to stop thinking about downtown Louisville as just the central business district. It should be much more than that. We need to make reconnecting downtown to its surrounding neighborhoods a priority. We need to work on reconnecting and revitalizing those old business corridors (Market St, Broadway, Main St, and Preston) so they can once again funnel people downtown. We need to visually and physically reconnected these neighborhoods back to downtown.

Before the 1950's if you saw a map of downtown Louisville you would think it was just one giant neighborhood. Not now. We need to become that one giant neighborhood
 once again.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

30 acres and a Mule

The city has recently announced that they have purchased 30 acres of land in west Louisville for the purpose of economic development. The city intends to market this land to potential developers for the purpose of light industry, manufacturing, and distribution. Several weeks after making the announcement city officials held a forum at Shawnee high school to discuss what they plan to do with the property. 

City officials re-affirmed their stance that they will market the property for light industrial, manufacturing, and distribution only. They will list the property in trade magazines and highlight the fact that the property is close to rail, the river and the expressway. They also said that they do not want to subdivide the land and that they want to sell it whole. Many of the people who attended the forum (most were from the Shawnee neighborhood) seem to have deep reservations about the city intentions. Many residents expressed fears of polluting industries moving into the neighborhood, increase noise and truck traffic, will the development keep with the dense urban design of the neighborhood, will it be possible to have retail as a part of the development, and will residents have a say as to what businesses move into their neighborhood. The city officials attempted to calm the fears of the residents by stating that their number one goal would be to find good sustainable jobs, that the city will look for low to non-polluting businesses if possible, and we wil make sure that the business will bring good jobs with good wages. 

Basically, trust us, we know what's best for you. 

The city officials made it clear that the neighborhoods will not have a say as to what business moves into their neighborhood. The reason being is that negotiations like these are usually done in private. They did say that when they have something signed they will advise the business to have meetings with its new neighbors. When asked about the design of the development and will it fit in with the dense urban character of the neighborhood they answer was the are doesn't have a design overlay, but they will see what they can do. Basically, no. 

The residents weren't against light industrial businesses, jobs, manufacturing, or distribution. They just wanted more for their/our neighborhoods. We can create jobs, but we wanted businesses that fit the character of the neighborhood, that would pleasant to look at and live with. After all, the 30 acres of land is in the middle of 3 residential neighborhoods. 

I spoke with several residents after the forum and they wanted to know why can't we subdivide the land. Some of it can be for what the city wants. The other parts could be used for much needed retail, perhaps a west Louisville haymarket, and mixed use mixed income housing. 

Maybe we can build something like they have Charlotte  NC where they converted several old warehouses into concert venues and outside concert venues/plazas. Granted the warehouse on this location has been demolished, but an open air concert venue and amphitheater ( like the one at Iroquois Park) would be great. Then you could also add an west Louisville Haymarket that would serve the 3 neighborhoods that border this particular piece of property (Russell, Portland, Shawnee) 

You could surround the property or at least build on the market street side Mixed used/Mixed income housing. There are several examples of great mixed income housing like what is at Park Duvalle or perhaps this low income project that is being built in DC..

or maybe this mixed income development from Portland..

I know the city is hellbent on only attracting manufacturing, light industrial businesses, and distribution which is cool. But why not focus on targeting green companies? The city has stated several times that they want the Portland neighborhood to lead Louisville's green revolution. There are $500,000 in loans for this purpose. If that's the case then why not start with this 30 acres? What could be better? You could couple these developments that I have mentioned above with a company that processes organic vegetables from local farmers. Maybe couple these projects with an urban farm project that grows vertically. Why not invite businesses that are the future? We all know that green jobs/manufacturing is the future. Vertical and urban farming methods are the future. Why not invest in those companies? Why is the city so determined to focus on industries whose time has come and gone? If you truly wanted to bring Louisville into the 21st century then invest in 22nd century businesses models.

This project could be a win/win for everybody. If the city had said we are looking for green companies, and we will put together packages to make that happen then I believe the neighborhoods would be behind them. If the city had said we want green companies plus any of the other possibilities that I mentioned above  the city would have gotten our support 110%. But it seems the city doesn't see it that way.  Its just business as usually.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Urban Renewal 2.0?

Last Night at the Louisville Metro Dems meeting Mayor Fischer said that the biggest obstacle to economic development in West Louisville was the accumulation of large parcels of land. The old American Tabacco factory site at 30th and Ali was held up as a great example of this. This also fits in with metro government's push to demolish as many vacant homes as possible. This isn't the first time that I've heard that rationale or that particular line of thinking before. I have spoken with many GLI officials over the years and they talked about how West Louisville would be perfect for warehouses and light industrial development. Not one time was it ever mentioned that West Louisville could be a great place for small scale retail or the type of businesses you see along Bardstown Road and East Market.  Metro government only sees West Louisville as great place for warehousing. Warehousing of goods and for warehousing the poor and undesirables.

Are we looking at Urban renewal 2.0? Hasn't West Louisville seen enough of the destructive power of the wrecking ball? West Louisville, especially black Louisville, has sacrificed enough to enrich the other parts of the city. The city destroyed our thriving business districts to build parking lots. Or to put it more bluntly to remove black folks from downtown. Urban Renewal was really just negro removal. Joshua Poe of the Leo wrote an article about how race was the prime motivating factor for urban renewal. 

The intentions of the 1957 plan stated the demolition of black neighborhoods would “insulate and protect the tremendous values in the central business district against the run-down and blighted neighborhoods around it.” Thus urban renewal was never motivated by the well being of residents, but the economic health of downtown based upon the exclusion of blacks.
Is this "new" push to tear down homes and warehouses just more of the same and a continuation of urban renewal? Yes. Its a plan to create wealth for the small few while disenfranchising the masses of West Louisville residents. Do you think these warehouses will pay a decent wage that you can raise a family on? No. Will they add to the economic vitality of the community. No. What's going to happen is that a small cadre of developers will make a ton of money on tearing down warehouse and houses and then building new warehouses. The businesses that move into the warehouses will have an endless supply of cheap labor around their warehouses because West Louisville is where we warehouse the poor. 

What happens to the residents? It would seem that nobody really cares. On the flip side. If we treated West Louisville like we did the Highlands or East Market how much better of a city would we have? How much better for the bottom line would be if citizens of West Louisville had the same buying power as the folks in Clifton? If Old Walnut Street had never been razed and the black community had the ability to accumulate wealth in West Louisville how much richer would Louisville be? Would the city even be looking at a deficit? 

We can't keep going down the same path. It has to stop. We can't keep looking at vacant properties as problems but as opportunities.  We can't keep disenfranchising a whole section of the community to the  benefit a small few. We have to wake up. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

What to do about Vacant Properties in Russell?

Louisville has over 7000 vacant properties and something has to be done about them. The Russell neighborhood where I live has a ton of vacant properties. As we all know vacant properties bring down the value of the surrounding houses (as if it can get any lower), invite crime, and a whole host of negatives. The City as an answer for the vacant property problem. Tear them down. On the surface that sounds like a winner, except now you have another problem. What to do with the vacant lot? The city has sold several vacant lots in Russell to Oracle development and they have built smallish section 8 homes. The homes are brightly colored and look decent enough on the outside, but they are not to scale of the current houses in the neighborhood, and they are quite small for homes in this area. Most of the shotguns and camel back houses in Russell have more usable space. Then there is the issue of building more section 8 homes in a neighborhood or neighborhoods that are dominated by section 8 homes and half-way houses. What value does that bring to the neighborhood? Can a neighborhood really comeback if you turn vacant lots into section 8 homes (that will have a hard time being sold as single family homes because of their size and construction materials) and half-way houses? I would say no. Which leads me back to the question of what to do about vacant houses?

What we need to do is to think about vacant houses not as a problem, but as an opportunity. An opportunity to revitalized forgotten neighborhoods and breathe new life into them. An opportunity to provide affordable housing to those who can't afford it and to preserve the historic nature of our city. If we look around the country we can see all sort of examples of how other communities have turned vacant houses into a catalyst for neighborhood redevelopment. For the Russell neighborhood I have a suggestion.

The first thing we can do is to urge the metro council to fully fund the Louisville Affordable Housing Trust Fund or LAHTF. The LAHTF would refurbish vacant and abandon homes and in-turn put those homes into the hands of people with people with fix incomes like seniors or those with disabilities, young families starting out who may not be able to afford a home, and for working people who wages are not enough for them to purchase or rent.

Fully funding the LAHTF is step one. Step 1.5 should be for Russell to become an Urban art district. Think Harlem, New York from 1920's. How do we accomplish this with vacant properties. Simple. We copy the Paducah model.  Paducah, KY has an artist relocation program, where they will give artist vacant or dilapidated houses for as little as $1 and up to $2500 for professional design fees. The Paducah Artist Relocation Program has completely transformed the LowerTown neighborhood. I really suggest you click the link above and read about the program. If Paducah can do it why can't we?

As a resident of the Russell neighborhood and a member of the Concerned Association of Russell Residents, C.A.R.R. I'm going to make it my goal to push for Russell to become an art district and to start an Artist Relocation Program. Something has to be done and there is no time like the present.