On Friday, June 19, Broken Sidewalk’s Branden Klayko joined a collection of local and national leaders in architecture, preservation, and community building to study reusing the old Water Company Building, currently staring down a wrecking ball at the site of a planned 30-story Omni Hotel & Residences that will sprawl over 3.7 acres in Downtown Louisville.
Among those at the Water Company Charrette was Jim Lindberg, Senior Director at the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Green Lab, which is in the midst of a three-year research project about sustainability and the built fabric of Louisville. Lindberg heads the project from the National Trust’s Denver field office. I sat down with Jim at Denver’s newly opened Union Station, the centerpiece of the city’s LoDo (Lower Downtown) neighborhood, one of the country’s best examples of preservation and adaptive reuse.
As soft music swirled through the air of the station’s former waiting room—now the community room and lobby for a boutique hotel—Lindberg and I discussed the Green Lab, preservation in Louisville, and the charrette to save the old Water Company Building.
Branden Klayko: What is the Preservation Green Lab?
Jim Lindberg: The Green Lab was set up six years ago. We’ve really become the research and development arm of the National Trust, which is a national nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. Our role is to connect historic preservation to the growing interest in sustainable development.
It’s been amazing how quickly that has evolved. Our work has grown dramatically over the course of the last six years. We started off in a sort of defensive mode of having to prove we had something to say. Now we’re in a completely different place where we’re being welcomed into conversations of all kinds about the role of existing buildings and the future of our cities.
Is this Preservation 2.0?
That’s a good way to put it. The preservation movement officially turns 50 next year if you measure it by when the National Historic Preservation Act was passed in 1966, a watershed foundational federal legislation. So much good work has been done. I think people in preservation would like to take credit—as they well should—for the success of places like LoDo around the country that have spurred revitalization of cities and have helped us to hold onto great older neighborhoods. So much of that is now bearing fruit. But do we just keep doing the same old thing or should be think about how now we’re almost in a mode of having won the war? What does our role look like now that, in many ways, our principles have been shown to be sound?
The idea of reknitting the fabric of our cities, I think a lot of people would embrace. What can we do to speed that, to make that happen faster and more readily. And to make sure, too, that it happens in a way that benefits broad community, not just the higher-end development. Our role is to strengthen those connections between preservation and sustainability, thinking about not just environmental but also social and economic sustainability, the resilience of communities—all those good things we know we want our cities to be.
How many cities are you working with?
Right now we’re in Louisville—in a big way. We’re thrilled to be there. This year we’ve also started work in Detroit, where we look forward to being part of efforts there to see what we can do to advance the cause of regeneration. In Chicago, right now, we’re working with partners at ULI [Urban Land Institute]. We also have a network of smaller cities where we are active around a program about energy conservation and retrofitting of smaller commercial buildings. We’re very active around the country.
Can you tell me about how you came to work in Louisville?
Christy Brown and her vision is really what brought us to Louisville. She has very holistic understanding of the role of the environment in creating healthy communities and healthy citizens. That has to do with all sorts of dimensions from air, water, land, the physical built environment, the economy. That fits in beautifully with how we feel we can contribute.
What we’re working on is a multifaceted program of work, but it’s all designed to position existing buildings, whether they’re designated or eligible as historic—simply those buildings that exist, those neighborhoods that exist—that really are the inheritance of the city and to think about how they can be more successfully integrated into the future of the city and contribute to its growth in a way that allows Louisville to achieve its goals for sustainability.
This is a three year process?
It’s a three year engagement, but it may be more than that. It involves more than just study. We’re hoping it can turn into specific actions, programs, and policies.
We started formally last fall, in November, and we are well underway. We’ve already had a chance to be part of some pretty exciting events from the visit of His Royal Highness to this most recent charrette that we held that we thought was a great community conversation about a specific property downtown, the old Water Company Building.
Our team, Mike Powe, who is our director of research, has been leading work to gather data from the city and other sources to start producing maps and analysis about how the built fabric in Louisville is laid out and what are some of the relationships between the physical character of buildings and neighborhoods and places and how well they’re contributing to Louisville’s community and economic vitality. We think that’s going to show us some ways that there may be policy ideas that may emerge that could make it easier to use older buildings that support people who are small startups or entrepreneurs or who are buying their first home.
Louisville has had some hiccups with preservation in the past. What are the strengths and weaknesses you’ve seen in the city so far and how can we get better?
Louisville has been progressive in a number of fronts. The city was one of the first to adopt a form based zoning code, years ago. That is designed to reinforce patterns that are different rules for different vintages. They represent a sea change in planning and zoning.
My hope is the work that we’re doing can show the benefits of really asking for and implementing a high standard of urban design. In our view, urban design best practices now, if you look around the country, include not just how new buildings are built but how older buildings are part of the fabric and integrated. The two can work together and reinforce eachother.
Cities that have clear standards, have clear guidelines, have a clear vision—and have the willpower politically and as a community—and have a development community that’s willing to follow through on that and exceed them, that’s what you want. Sometimes you do have to ask for that—sometimes when folks come in from out of town, they’re going to try to do what’s most convenient. I think that becomes almost a culture shift in trying to get the best. Especially now that we have the economy coming back strong, we have every reason to ask for the best.
In a city the size of Louisville, it can sometimes feel like we’re in a competitive pack of other mid-size cities in our region all fighting for the same development money. How do we stand out?
Louisville is part of a cohort of cities in the region and around the country that are smaller urban centers. But they’re great places to experiment. You need to stand out with some great character. I think that’s where the older buildings have so much to offer. If you think about where the energy is going—where are new startups going, where are new businesses and restaurants, where are existing neighborhoods attracting new investment. All of those things line up very well with places that have a sense of place and character, history, diversity, offer flexibility.
We like to say old buildings provide space for the new economy. And I think you’ll see that if you look at some of the hottest markets in the country, San Francisco, Denver, New York. A lot of the older buildings are commanding rents for the same price or higher than Class A new space. There’s no reason to sacrifice what makes your city unique to be competitive. In fact, the opposite is true. The uniqueness is what makes you more competitive.
What are your impressions of the Omni charrette?
We felt great about it. It was a tremendous event and a great day of creative, passionate people getting together, rolling up their sleeves, and demonstrating that there are some pretty interesting alternatives to simply erasing the history that remains on that block.
Admittedly, it’s a challenging situation where you have just a handful of buildings left on a block that’s otherwise vacant. In contemplating a large-scale new development, integrating those older buildings is a challenge. But it’s one that’s been shown to be possible around the country. We started the charrette with a couple of examples from other cities—including examples where Omni itself has integrated older buildings. It can be done.
If they need to be moved, we think those buildings could be moved to places where they essentially begin to knit back the fabric that’s been torn and is missing in Downtown Louisville—places like a vacant parking lot or underutilized park. We looked at some sites that I think could work quite well for that building to be moved and then be returned to a new viable use.
Now there’s still some questions that need to be answered. We got a long way [at the charrette]—in 24 hours we did a lot of work. It was a team effort of about 40 people from the community and from outside of Louisville who dedicated their day to this. We think that’s pretty good. And it was a good response to the Mayor’s call for solutions within a very short timeline.
That report made it to the mayor?
Yes. We sent a summary power point of the options to the Mayor. We asked him to help think through how we could take these ideas and make them reality. We’re excited to be where we are and hope the city will be as excited as we are and willing to explore in detail at least one of these alternatives to see if we can make it work.
As the Green Lab progresses, what can people expect to see?
We’re doing the mapping project now. Everyone loves maps of their hometown and we’re looking forward to using those to engage a conversation with the community about what’s important and what’s the relationship between the great old fabric of Louisville and the future.
We also are looking at ways to partner with other groups in the city that are calling attention to place. We’ve been thrilled to see ReSurfaced as an example and to learn about that. That’s an exciting initiative that’s really about changing perceptions of place and what’s possible.
We’re also working with neighborhood groups and others to think about ways to engage people in pointing what places are important. We’re looking for ways to do that in a very public manner. We’re continuing to work on looking at the policy environment, particularly at the state level. There’s an opportunity to strengthen the state historic preservation tax credit and we’ve had a good run at trying to do that with partners at the state level—the Kentucky Heritage Council and Preservation Kentucky have been great partners. We will also be looking at similar things in the city—what can be improved in terms of policies and incentives around vacant and older properties.