This story is starting to get old, but another project under guise of community improving is tearing apart the future potential of West Louisville. The YMCA of Greater Louisville is set to build a new facility on Broadway between 17th and 18th streets in partnership with the University of Louisville, made possible by Philip Morris’ donation of its former 11.5-acre tobacco processing facility. One major detail of the story that was never clearly reported is that the group plans to demolish a large historic brick warehouse dating to the 1890s when half the site—what looks to be about 5 acres—sits as surface-level parking lots.

Former tobacco warehouse to be demolished. (Courtesy UL Photo Archives)

The warehouse in 1921. (UL Photo Archives)

Current proposals

The Y plans to build a new $15 million, 40,000 to 50,000 square foot facility including a swimming pool, fitness areas, and classrooms on the site. The University of Louisville has joined the project and aims to occupy about a third of the space with a health clinic and outreach services. Steve Tarver, CEO of the YMCA of Greater Louisville, said final plans are still in the works for the new facility and no design has been prepared, but in accordance with Traditional Marketplace Corridor form district along Broadway, the new building will face West Broadway and 350 surface-level parking spaces will be located to the south. Rather than building on another portion of the property, Tarver said the Y wanted the higher-profile site on West Broadway for their new building, citing visibility and transit access. “We felt it was critical to have our facility have Broadway frontage,” he said. The Y had previously been negotiating to be part of a mixed-use project across Dixie Highway called the NewBridge Crossings (discussed below).

In addition to the new building, Metro Louisville is planning to realign Dixie Highway with 18th Street at the current dogleg condition, using a portion of the 11.5-acre site. The road project is aimed at speeding up cars through the intersection at Broadway. It’s layout doesn’t affect the historic building.

Metro Louisville Historic Preservation Officer Richard Jett said the 30-day protection against demolition associated with demolition permit expired in August 2011. Since the building doesn’t sit in a historic district or have landmark status, Jett said there’s nothing the city can do to stop the Y from razing the building unless a citizen effort to landmark the property is initiated.

Historic context

The five-story brick structure was built in 1898 as a processing plant for the American Tobacco Company and contains nearly 70,000 square feet per floor for a total of 350,000 square feet. The U-shaped building faces Broadway and a historic map indicates a large cistern buried beneath its central courtyard. The grand presence on Broadway and the sheer amount of space encompassed in the building make it an obvious choice for adaptive reuse of some kind. The scale of the building and the affordability of incremental reuse of existing buildings (it’s much more expensive to build new) make this property essential to the future redevelopment of West Louisville.

Site of the threatened building. (Via Lojic)

Site of the threatened building. (Via Lojic)

Two newer buildings on the site include a two-story, 87,000 square foot building and a one-story 58,000 square foot warehouse with 30-foot ceilings and wide column spacing. That brings the total square feet of existing space on the property to about 500,000, compared to the 40,000 to 50,000 proposed by the Y as a replacement.

According to the Y, the five-story building did not suit their needs. Tarver said the building was not up to current seismic codes and the interior wouldn’t work well with humidity associated with the Y’s program, such as a swimming pool. Luckett & Farley Architects were brought on board to study potential site layouts and handle demolition on the site. “We haven’t really advised the YMCA on reuse of the buildings,” said architect Eric Andrew. “We really didn’t do any of that research.”

Demolition undermines objectives of Park Hill Corridor Study

The building sits in the Park Hill Industrial Corridor that stretches from Broadway south to near U of L’s Belknap Campus and covers portions of the California, Park Hill, and Algonquin neighborhoods. The Park Hill Corridor has been heralded as a key to bringing new, green jobs to the city. A report prepared by EDAW / AECOM in 2009 touts the vast adaptive reuse potential of the area, specifically citing the reuse and infill opportunities of the Y site.

The existing building stock within the Industrial Corridor is one of its greatest assets. Reusing structures within the corridor is an attractive option for growing businesses looking to inexpensively expand or change their location to better serve their clients. These buildings can be creatively integrated with new development.

Industrial districts in cities, like Baltimore, MD; Durham, NC; and Fredericksburg, VA, offer good examples of how competitive cost and a characteristic architecture can combine to attract new businesses and establish a new sense of place.

Specifically in the Broadway District of the Park Hill Corridor, the report says Louisville should “Encourage new infill development with first floor retail/commercial and possibly upper-floor residential. New prototypes that include residential units in upper stories should be encouraged existing large-scale buildings—such as the Philip Morris property—should be encouraged as reuse with commercial/retail at ground level and residential above.” The report also notes that the site has has completed remediation of contaminants.

Site plan of NewBridge Crossings, adjacent to the Philip Morris site. (Courtesy NewBridge)

Site plan of NewBridge Crossings, adjacent to the Philip Morris site. (Courtesy NewBridge)

Suburbanizing an urban corridor

Visible in the aerial photos of the site, the area around 18th and Broadway has already been eroded from bad planning decisions dating back decades. Strip malls, car washes, gas stations, and fast food restaurants have created an auto-centric zone in the middle of the city. This trend continues today.

Even if the Y’s new building meets the sidewalk along Broadway, it still represents a suburbanizing trend along the West Broadway corridor that’s a dangerous urban pattern to be following. First, as mentioned above, the destruction of the historic urban fabric and the sense of place it reinforces weakends the areas identity and potential to create unique experiences. On a site with non-contributing buildings and surface parking lots making up the majority of the space, destroying one of the areas flagship buildings should be viewed as an affront to the community. A new building won’t have the character of a century-old brick landmark and the vast amount of parking promotes driving instead of walking or transit use.

By insisting on creating an arterial system that ignores the prevailing grid layout of city surrounding city helps to reinforce an auto-centric city. The Y dismissed other locations on the site, including a prime spot on the corner of Dixie Highway and Maple Street because it wanted a location on the main strip, no matter what context sits in its way.

A similar suburbanized scheme is planned across Dixie Highway from the Y’s site on another portion of the former Philip Morris headquarters. A seven-story building was demolished there in 2008 to make way for the 300,000 square foot, $40 million NewBridge Crossings lifestyle center, pictured above (time lapse demolition can be viewed here). While lifestyle centers attempt to create a new walkable environment, the concept is most common in a suburban context where a walkable street grid doesn’t exist and a new town-center must be created. As you can see in the NewBridge Crossings site plan, the town center pulls away from the city grid into a cloistered mega-block that ignores its surrounding context. It’s essentially an open-air shopping mall. That’s still better than when the city was looking to build a big-box Walmart or Target on the site, both of which fell through.

Even the realignment of Dixie Highway to avoid its dogleg with 18th Street erodes the character of the area. While there are legitimate concerns about the bottleneck created by the dogleg, we should learn what happened when we attempted to speed cars through other parts of the city. It’s imperative that we create a real place at this major intersection that promotes walking, lingering, safety, and community.

This all takes place immediately north of one of Louisville’s best examples of adaptive reuse, the Brown Forman campus along Dixie Highway. With so many jobs already in place in beautifully adapted buildings, enhancing the community at large is far preferable to turning a cold shoulder.

A better approach would be to embrace the existing grid and knit together a community that has already been fragmented from decades of neglect and demolition. If the Y doesn’t have resources to renovate the five-story building on Broadway, it makes most sense to “mothball,” or preserve the building for future use. The ground floor could easily be converted incrementally into retail space serving the neighborhood and converting upper floors to new uses is significantly more affordable in an existing building than in a new one.

Site of the threatened building. (Via Bing Maps)

Site of the threatened building. (Via Bing Maps)

Demolition imminent

Tarver said the immediate next step for the project involves clearing the site and a bids for the demolition work are currently being collected. Demolition is expected to take about six to eight months. Despite no formal plans or design architect for the project, Tarver hopes the new building could be under construction in about a year. No plans exist for the rest of the site not containing the new facility.

It should be made clear that the proposed Y facility and the health-partnerships it represents with U of L could be a real boon for the Park Hill, California, and Russell neighborhoods if a responsible urban pattern were found. The health and fitness implications as well as the community draw are sorely needed in the community and the proposal should not be viewed as tied to the specific proposed construction site. West Louisville can have both the new Y and its associated facilities and keep the historic building, too. The requirement of Broadway frontage combined with a 350-car surface parking lot and the destruction of a major historic building that could provide significant economic development potential for the area should encourage a reconsideration of what community improvement means.