The destruction of Downtown Louisville by twelve lanes of steel and concrete—about 280 feet wide when massive shoulders are added in—began yesterday with the ceremonial wrecking of a portion of the historic Vermont American Building on the corner of Main and Jackson streets. Governor Beshear, Mayor Fischer, Congressman Yarmuth, Metro Council-member Tandy, and a cadre of other officials gathered to mark the occasion of what’s being billed as the start of the Downtown portion of the Ohio River Bridges Project.
While the VA demolition is the first official building lost to the highway, it’s not the first loss due to the project. The first building to fall that can be linked to the Bridges Project was located a couple blocks to the south, a two-and-a-half-story 19th-century brick commercial building, on the corner of Jefferson and Jackson streets. The structure suffered damage to its roof during Hurricane Ike several years ago but was torn down instead of repaired. Seeing as it sits in the right-of-way of the new highway, however, it would have fallen anyway.
The latest casualties of driving a highway through Downtown Louisville are the Baer Fabrics building on Market Street and the eastern half of the Vermont American building on Main Street. Also in jeopardy or facing uncertain futures but not immediately threatened are the western half of the VA building, two small buildings on Jackson Street that are connected to the Baer building, and what remains of the Grocer’s Ice & Cold Storage building on Main Street (the building lost its top two floors in a fire decades ago, last housed Creation Gardens before it moved, and will see some demolition on it’s northwestern side).
The four structures that may be reused are now owned by the state but don’t cover land immediately needed to build the highway. The state will consider selling them to interested private investors as surplus land. Kentucky Transportation Cabinet ORBP Project Manager Gary Valentine said one private group has stepped forward with interest in the western half of the VA building, which was advertised for sale at the end of May/beginning of June. A decision must be made 90 days after the property is first advertised. Valentine said the state is now in the processes of advertising the two auxiliary Baer properties and the Grocer’s Storage building will follow.
In 2002, a group of investors including Henry Potter, Phil Scherer, and Dale Boden (developers of the Fleur-de-Lis condos down the street) had planned to invest $6 to $8 million in the Vermont American building to convert it into offices and retail space. The site is contaminated from its previous use as a tool-making factory, but an agreement had been reached for the tool company’s parent to pay for clean-up costs, estimated at around $100,000. (Bosch subsequently bought VA, moved its corporate offices to suburban Chicago, and will pay to clean-up the site during the current demolition process.) Potter, principal at architectural firm Potter & Associates, told Business First at the time that the property “is really in very good shape.” As the buildings languished, however, some decay has become apparent in the structure’s brickwork (see photos below).
While it’s heartening to hear a group is interested in working with what will remain of the Vermont American building, the physical gap in the urban fabric brought about by a 280-foot-wide, 12-lane Interstate highway slicing off Louisville’s most vibrant urban neighborhood—Nulu—from Downtown is sure to be felt as the city continues to push for a livable, walkable, urban core.