Bad planning and development choices don’t just affect their immediate sites and surrounding neighborhoods—their problems take on lives of their own, often outlasting the original use and causing problems for generations. That is especially evident in efforts by the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) to stem Louisville’s Combined Sewer Overflow problems all over the city. The underlying problems here didn’t happen overnight. They happened slowly, piece by little piece, over decades.
For more than half a century—and to this day—Louisville has made short-sighted decisions about how to grow and develop, paving acre upon acre with impermeable surfaces, mostly surface level parking lots, that service sprawling single-story buildings that add even more impermiable surfaces to the landscape. These flat paved expanses don’t just wreak havoc on the city’s walkability, urban character, and neighborhood aesthetics, they create problems “downstream” as rainwater runoff leaves the site, in some cases traveling miles away, and then causes the city’s antique sewer system to overflow, sending raw sewage into local waterways like Beargrass Creek.
That hazardous pollution is of great concern, but the problems aren’t over yet. Agencies like MSD all across the country have entered into “consent decrees” with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to solve their CSO problems, and in many cases drastic actions are taken that have consequences beyond fixing the sewers. Currently, MSD is working to tear down 128 houses in the California neighborhood that suffer from flooding partly caused by poor planning of industrial sites in the area. A block away, the city is set to approve a 620-car parking lot for Walmart and the YMCA is building its own 350-car lot. Have we learned anything? In places like Portland, Smoketown, and Irish Hill, MSD is building enormous storage tanks at exorbitant prices that can exceed $50 million and bring blight to the urban streetscape.
In essence, this emergency approach to fixing CSO is a little like destroying the city to save it—and brings to mind the heavy-handed approach of urban renewal and highway building decades ago. MSD is doing what it knows how to do to fix a problem it knows has to be solved—and fast. It’s an agency run by engineers who know how to do their jobs—MSD’s business is sewers, not typically placemaking (although this is beginning to slowly change)—but the agency could do well to work with architects, designers, preservationists, and the community at large to create more sympathetic solutions that take place into account. The decisions MSD is making today will be with us for generations to come.
Such is the case at 980 Schiller Avenue in the German-Paristown neighborhood. A small wooden commercial building dating to the teens or early ’20s is scheduled for demolition due to a sewer project nearby. Steve W. Emly, chief engineer at MSD, told Broken Sidewalk in an email that “there are improvements planned to a large sewer next to this structure that we determined could not be constructed without placing the structure in jeopardy.
Currently, a CSO outfall into the channelized Beargrass Creek runs in front of the building. MSD is building an interceptor line to divert the CSO to a massive 84” diameter pipe leading to the Logan Street CSO Storage Basin (pictured above)—the same basin that we mentioned will be deadening the streetscape in Smoketown. But first, MSD wants to get rid of the historic commercial building even though it doesn’t obstruct the project site.
The 980 Schiller building previously housed offices for a remodeling company, but MSD purchased the site last November from owner Neal Linker for $110,000, according to a deed provided by Metro Louisville.
This type of historic commercial building is exceedingly rare in Louisville and offers an unlikely opportunity for neighborhood retail or affordable office space. And despite sitting right next to the creek, it is out of the flood plain. The structure, in fact, predates the channelization of Beargrass Creek, as the photos above show.
If Louisville could undertake such a large engineering project in the 1920s and not disturb this building, then today’s MSD can build their planned project without tearing it down, too. The agency does utility work in urban areas all around town near other historic buildings regularly.
Emly explained MSD’s side of the story:
Concerns have been raised regarding the structure’s structural stability and effects that blasting and excavation may have upon it. MSD staff visually inspected the property inside and observed that the entire structure is leaning towards the creek. The first floor has a noticeable tilt towards the creek. The basement slab is broken and cracked in multiple locations with some places heaved up into the building. With the building having apparent structural issues it is very likely that construction activities this close to the building would have had additional negative impacts on its condition. MSD believes it is safer and less of a liability to have the building removed prior to construction on CSO 091 than to have concerns of it becoming more unstable during construction. Given the condition of the structure, relocation did not appear to be a practical option.
This case reminds me quite a bit of a demolition I reported on about a tiny but unique substation on Armory Place in Downtown Louisville that LG&E wanted to tear down in 2011, also citing “liability” and potential structural issues. The power utility eventually did the right thing and saved the building after public outcry. MSD needs to step up and save 980 Schiller Avenue. It would be a mistake to let the continued problems of the past 60 years destroy the potential of Germantown for the next 60 years.
The building is currently in a public notice period about the demolition, which expires on March 19. After that, MSD can tear the building down.[Historic photos: Courtesy UL Photo Archives – Reference One, Two, Three, Four.]