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On Thursday, January 29, the Louisville Metro Planning Commission voted 8 to 1 to grant waivers exempting a Walmart Supercenter—proposed just a mile outside the traditional bounds of Downtown Louisville—from conforming to the city’s long-established land development code, Cornerstone 2020.

The decision comes as Walmart fortified its bargaining position, strong-arming Metro Louisville into approving a stale development proposal for a suburban big-box store. The city was ultimately unable to stand its ground in the face of blatant bullying from the mega-retailer, instead succumbing to threats that Walmart would walk away from the project entirely if it didn’t get its way. In hindsight, however, there’s not a lot surprising about in the commission’s decision, as the development story has been unfolding over the past 15 years.

Nicknamed the West End Walmart, the project site actually sits in the California neighborhood on the southern border of Russell, at the confluence of three major streets—West BroadwayDixie Highway, and 18th Street. This crossroads is an important one where distinct urban conditions come together and where the urban grid has been eroded by years of consolidation by previous users and neglect from the city at large.

To understand Thursday’s decision, it’s important to step back and look at the entire story, which began in 2001 when the Philip Morris tobacco company shuttered its Louisville factory, ending cigarette production in the city for good.

Aerial view of the West End Walmart site looking south. (Courtesy Bing)
Aerial view of the West End Walmart site looking south. (Courtesy Bing)

Repeated Plans for the Philip Morris Site Go Up in Smoke

The Walmart site has had a troubled development history for over a decade, surely one factor that led to Thursday’s decision. The redevelopment process has spanned three mayoral administrations and a number of development proposals, but one trend has reappeared in scheme after scheme—the city wanted to see big-box retail at the site.

Formerly the home of the Philip Morris tobacco company, which at its peak employed over 3,000 people there, the site has been vacant since 2001 when the company ceased its Louisville operations, laying off 1,400 workers who were making an average of $21.50 an hour—a significant economic blow for any city to endure. Former Mayor David Armstrong purchased the 23-acre site for $100 and the search for a redevelopment scheme began—which almost exclusively and rather obsessively revolved around attracting a big-box store to West Louisville.

An interesting historical aside: Philip Morris purchased the Axton-Fisher Tobacco Company in 1944. The company’s former facility was likely built in the 1920s and expanded in the late 20s or early 30s. An ornate Axton-Fisher building still stands at Broadway near 14th Street.

The original Axton-Fisher Tobacco Co. building, right, and the expanded facility in 1933, left, before being purchased by Philip Morris.
The original Axton-Fisher Tobacco Co. building, right, and the expanded facility in 1933, left, before being purchased by Philip Morris.

First to take the plate in 2004, after the site had been abandoned for three years, a development group headed by prominent African-American business leaders Charlie Johnson, Wade Houston, William Harmon, Winston Pittman, and Ulysses S. “Junior” Bridgeman held an option on the property as they tried to attract a big-box store like Target. The group was not able to secure a tenant and those plans struck out in 2005.

NewBridge Crossings Rendering (by Tucker, Booker, Donhoff)
NewBridge Crossings Rendering (by Tucker, Booker, Donhoff)

In 2006, big, bold, and reasonably urban plans emerged from developers at The Mardrian Group (TMG), headed by Frank and Teresa Bridgewaters. A lifestyle center designed with the pedestrian in mind and the parking lots behind the buildings was unveiled for the site to great applause. The $40 million plus project, called NewBridge Crossings Towne Center, would have brought a mix of residences, offices, retail, and restaurants in about 300,000 square feet of space, anchored by some sort of big-box retailer. “This project is going to be a model other cities can look at,” Robert K. Holmes, assistant vice president at TMG, told Business First in 2006.

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

To jumpstart TMG’s project, the city gave the $1.3 million, 23-acre property to the developer for one dollar with the condition that the developer clear the site of about 15 buildings left over from Philip Morris with a combined 600,000 square feet. Most of those buildings were of little value, but at the center of the site—along what was once Maple Street—two sturdy concrete industrial buildings towered seven-stories tall, holding their own among Brown-Forman’s giant bourbon warehouses in the surrounding blocks.

The city-sponsored destruction of these buildings was the first mistake at the site—those were buildings worth saving. They could have been easily retrofitted to include apartments with 14–20-foot-tall ceilings, offices, and retail—or left mothballed for future development. (And these structures sat on the parcel’s southernmost point, which is not part of today’s Walmart site.)

Philip Morris facility prior to demolition. (Branden Klayko / Broken Sidewalk)
Philip Morris facility prior to demolition. (Branden Klayko / Broken Sidewalk)

On August 13, 2007, former Mayor Jerry Abramson and Metro Councilman David Tandy cheered on the demolition. Echoing what has been common practice in Louisville for years—clear a site before financing a project and hope for the best—Abramson said, “The demolition creates a vista for retail, commercial office space, and potentially residential development,” according to Business First.

A London-based company handled the $5.5 million “deconstruction,” recycling and selling much of the scrap, which reduced the demolition costs to $2.3 million. According to NewBridge Development, “Concrete from the building’s structure was crushed and has been reused on many local projects as site fill, under roads, parking lots, sidewalks, etc.”

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[Above: The West End Walmart site before it was cleared and the site as it appears today. (Courtesy Google)]

Also in 2007, Metro Louisville funded a retail analysis study for the site to help attract retailers to TMG’s project, but the developer was ultimately unsuccessful in finding tenants. As the original plans for NewBridge Crossings were looking less and less real, the developer briefly courted Walmart to take the site, but those plans also fell through.

Next up was the YMCA, which wanted to build its new West Louisville branch on the site. That deal also fizzled and the YMCA opted to build its own facility across the street after knocking down one of the area’s most significant historic structures—the other half of the old Philip Morris factory dating to the 19th century.

During this time, TMG sold about seven of the original 23 acres to Brown-Forman, located immediately to the south, for $1.1 million, according to a 2010 WDRB report. The remaining 15.6 acres, what will eventually be developed into the Walmart Supercenter, has remained vacant ever since.

Rendering of the West End Walmart. (Courtesy Walmart)
Rendering of the West End Walmart. (Courtesy Walmart)

The Second Coming of Walmart

While Walmart opted out on its first look around almost a decade ago, the mega-corporation was back on the scene in March 2014, as Mayor Fischer and Councilman Tandy presided over the now vacant site with the big announcement. Fischer said at the press event that the deal was a year in the making, and indeed his administration had hinted in late 2013 that development news was forthcoming.

“The entire city government team, from economic development to our planning staff to the Metro Council, has worked hundreds of hours on this project,” Fischer said in a statement last year. “From the first moments after I announced I was running for Mayor until as late as yesterday, people have stopped me to stress the need for new business, new jobs and new retail for Western Louisville. My team is proud that we can deliver.”

The Walmart site plan overlaid on an aerial map of California and Russell. (Courtesy Lojic; Walmart)
The Walmart site plan overlaid on an aerial map of California and Russell. (Courtesy Lojic; Walmart)

The Great Flood

The city had said Walmart would bring “a number of environmentally-friendly features” such as “native plants and trees” and “a rain garden and bio-swales” making the project sound more like a lush park than a exurban strip mall plopped in the city’s core. Indeed, that “rain garden,” more properly a storm retention basin, takes up over an acre on the site’s southwest corner, and is required to handle the rainwater runoff from a 621-car parking lot. It’s misleading to call a retention basin a “garden”—these are not community assets nor public amenities—and they’re certainly not designed to be beautiful. Here’s what storm retention basins look like at eight other Louisville-area Walmart Supercenters. They’re infrastructure for anti-urban projects, often sitting behind chain link fences.

Storm retention basins at 8 Louisville-area Walmart Supercenters. (Courtesy Bing)
Storm retention basins at 8 Louisville-area Walmart Supercenters. (Courtesy Bing)

The city further noted that the project would help increase the city’s tree canopy and “from an urban design perspective” placed 40 percent of parking to the side of the structure. That provision is about as advanced as the urban design on the site gets. As a concession to pedestrians—this site sits in a densely populated part of Louisville—a pedestrian path leads some 470 feet from Broadway to the front door of Walmart—that’s the length of a standard Downtown Louisville block.

The issues surrounding this storm retention basin, the massive parking lots, and the native landscaping are important to Louisville—and especially its western neighborhoods—for a number of reasons. Among the foremost is that this area is historically prone to flooding due to its low-lying geography on the site of a former creek. The Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) is demolishing 128 houses immediately west of the Walmart site, indicated in red below, due to frequent flooding. (Did I mention that the YMCA is building its own 350-car surface-level parking lot across the street?)

Further, as America’s hottest city due to the Louisville’s exorbitant heat island effect, surface parking lots of this scale are a step in the wrong direction, and planting trees in such parking lots is not an effective way of dealing with the city’s dwindling tree canopy. The planning tools that are shaping this part of Louisville are bringing the worst practices of the suburbs into the core of the city, and our leaders should not mislead us that this is a smart way to develop even the most retail-starved areas of Louisville.

The residential area indicated in red will be razed by MSD due to frequent flooding. Also noted is the Walmart site, the portion sold to Brown-Forman, and the YMCA site. (Montage by Broken Sidewalk)
The residential area indicated in red will be razed by MSD due to frequent flooding. Also noted is the Walmart site, the portion sold to Brown-Forman, and the YMCA site. (Montage by Broken Sidewalk)

Broadway as the new Hurstbourne Parkway

On the site’s western and eastern edges, two parcels are being retained by TMG for future development. The 1.6-acre and .9-acre sites respectively currently have no development plans, but several planning commission members spoke that they hoped these parcels could be more responsive to their urban location than the Walmart. The city has said their development “is anticipated based on the experience with other Walmart Super centers,” so watch out for two new fast-food restaurants with drive-thrus proposed next year.

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This stretch of West Broadway has seen abundant suburban-style development over the years—and there are abundant suburban style retailers lining it. Strip mall after strip mall here contains a mix of big retailers like a Kroger grocery store and gas station a few blocks west to lower-quality retail like pawn shops to the east. Sitting like islands in a sea of parking, every fast food restaurant imaginable lines the stretch. In this context, more Hurstbourne Parkway than urban core, a Walmart Supercenter would fit right in.

This area doesn’t appear to be “retail starved,” but more accurately lacking in quality retail development, something this Walmart largely won’t solve. The Walmart site is about 5 miles and 8 miles to the nearest Supercenters in the area. Other parts of Louisville are, like Phoenix Hill, Irish Hill, Clifton, and Crescent Hill are just as far—or farther—from Walmart shopping. Those areas have restaurants and cute boutiques, but many parts of those neighborhoods lack even the level of retail as this stretch of West Broadway.

What the Land Development Code says

West Broadway is designated a Traditional Marketplace Corridor while the Walmart site is considered a Traditional Workplace. (Courtesy Metro Louisville)
West Broadway is designated a Traditional Marketplace Corridor while the Walmart site is considered a Traditional Workplace. (Courtesy Metro Louisville)

At this point, it’s important to know that the Land Development Code has classified Broadway as a “Traditional Marketplace Corridor Form District.” According to Cornerstone 2020, that means:

Traditional Marketplace Corridors (TMC) are characterized by older, pedestrian-scale development along major roadways adjacent to traditional neighborhoods. The corridors typically contain a wide variety of land uses (retail, restaurants, office, institutional and residential) that range from low to medium intensity. Buildings along the corridor are often narrow, closely spaced or attached, and built out to or near the street with display windows and wide sidewalks in front. Parking is usually provided on the street or in parking lots located at the rear of lots. Commercial corridor development is closely integrated with adjacent neighborhoods through side street connections and alleys, which typically delineate the boundaries between corridors and traditional neighborhoods, running along rear lot lines. The corridors have a high degree of pedestrian and transit use. Examples include Frankfort Avenue and portions of Broadway, Bardstown Road and Baxter Avenue.

The code seeks to promote:

  • Development that reinforces the corridor’s traditional visual character, function, and identity.
  • Alternative modes of travel.
  • Linkages between commercial development within the corridor and adjacent residential uses.
  • Compatibility between corridor development and adjacent neighborhoods.
  • High quality design of individual sites.

The Walmart site itself sits within a closely related form district called Traditional Workplace, likely left over from its days as a factory and office use:

The Traditional Workplace Form District (TWFD) applies to older established industrial and employment areas that contain primarily small-to-medium scale industrial and employment uses. These uses are often historically integrated with or adjacent to residential neighborhoods, especially traditional neighborhoods. District standards are designed to encourage adaptive reuse and investment in these areas while ensuring compatibility with adjacent uses and form districts, to ensure adequate access and transit service, and to retain distinctive land uses and patterns such as connected street grids.

According to Cornerstone 2020, “The TWFD often must accommodate relatively large volumes of traffic and parking while also providing for alternative travel modes.” It seeks to promote:

  • Compatibility with adjacent form districts and non-workplace uses.
  • Adequate access for employees, freight, and products.
  • Alternative modes of travel.
  • High quality design of individual and integrated sites.
  • A mixture of uses on a site especially employee-serving commercial businesses (e.g., day care centers, auto-servicing, dry cleaners, and restaurants).

These designations are at the heart of the debate over whether the planning commission should have issued waivers for the project. The Land Development Code “is a regulatory document that has been created to implement the goals and objectives within the Cornerstone 2020 Comprehensive Plan.” Cornerstone 2020 itself “represents the vision of Louisville and Jefferson County, brought into focus by hundreds of citizens whose labor over seven years (from 1993-2000) produced a plan for a more livable, attractive, mobile, efficient and environmentally sensitive community.”

As has been repeated over and over, it is, in fact, common for the planning commission to grant waivers for projects to deviate from this code. But what is not as common is the level to which this Walmart project diverges from from the code. To move from zero setback to over 400 feet of setback in a traditional form district is a drastic move. The commission’s decision essentially set a precedent that could allow other developers to ignore the form district guidelines altogether, which could have negative ramifications, not just along West Broadway, but citywide.

The local architecture community represented by the Central Kentucky Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA-CKC) previously voiced opposition to the project’s disregard for the city’s building regulations. AIA-CKC president Matthew Triplett wrote in a letter to the C-J:

The [AIA-CKC] supports the use of the 2006 Land Development Code in the construction of the proposed Walmart at 18th and Broadway. Positioning the building adjacent to this strategic intersection, as well as providing a contextually sensitive aesthetic, will strengthen the functional and economic viability of this development to the surrounding community.

The 2006 Land Development Code regulations were carefully prepared in a collaborative manner and were endorsed by many diverse constituencies. To lessen these guidelines would set an unfortunate precedent that would ripple throughout the metro area.

For more on the ransacking of Cornerstone 2020, be sure to read architect Steven Ward’s take on why this is such a bad move for the city to be making.

The Times Are Not a’ Changin’

Reading the project description from that public unveiling, anyone would be hard-pressed to find real differences with the plan that was approved Thursday night. That’s because the project largely did not change—and Metro Louisville is as much at fault as Walmart. City officials worked for a year behind closed doors with Walmart and TMG, and then Mayor Fischer publicly unveiled a plan that violated the city’s land development codes. Why didn’t Fischer’s economic development and planning staff who helped negotiate this initial design insist on a better project from the get go?

Rendering of the planned West End Walmart. (Courtesy Walmart)
Rendering of the planned West End Walmart. (Courtesy Walmart)

According to a November 12, 2014 report in the Courier-Journal, Fischer said in a statement, “The company incorporated changes to make the project more bike and pedestrian friendly and more environmentally sustainable.” That report also stated, “The latest version features mostly a concrete exterior in varying shades of brown, with liberal use of glass near the main entrance.” On the eastern side of the building, plans call for a drive-through pharmacy. Like most Supercenters, this Walmart will include a full grocery, pharmacy, optometrist, and garden center.

A humorous aside: The Bentonville, Arkansas–based architect of the West End Walmart (and many other big-box and fast-food stores around the country), Harrison French & Associates, changed their official name late last year to “HFA: Creative Solutions, Meaningful Places” (emphasis not added). According to Larry Lot, HFA president, “These words represent the essence of what we do and why we are here at HFA.  Our people are creatively driven, each and every day, for any project type or challenging assignment which ultimately defines our mission: to create meaningful places for our clients and community.”

Many opponents to the Walmart plan cited examples in other cities of the mega-store accepting its urban environment by fitting into mixed-use buildings or rearranging its site plan to fit an urban grid. Walmart has received praise in the architectural and national press numerous times for its innovative designs for urban stores, but realistically, these types of stores would not have worked on West Broadway in today’s economy.

The neighborhoods in other cities where these projects have been built have very high land values and affluent populations beyond anything known in urban Louisville. They also have a development scene that can support building the rest of the project—the mixed-use that goes on top of the Walmart. Most of those stores have also been Walmart’s newer urban types, such as the Neighborhood Market, which require significantly less square-footage. And more importantly, they have city oversight that keeps Walmart in line.

I have written about how big-box stores are not incompatible with city life—and how well-designed new development can make them a boon for city life—but a 154,000-square-foot Supercenter has no business in a city core and realistically would prove incredibly difficult to mash into an urban prototype. The shopping behaviors associated with a Supercenter are entirely auto-dominated and cater to suburban development patterns—the opposite of how a real city functions.

The plan at left shows the pedestrian path, yellow, leading to the Walmart, red. Green islands in the parking lot will have trees. On the right, a recently rebuilt Walmart in the East End includes upgraded facade treatments and a more lush pedestrian walkway. (Courtesy Bing; Walmart)
The plan at left shows the pedestrian path, yellow, leading to the Walmart, red. Green islands in the parking lot will have trees. On the right, a recently rebuilt Walmart in the East End includes upgraded facade treatments and a more lush pedestrian walkway. (Courtesy Bing; Walmart)

Walmart Sticks to its Guns

A planning commission delayed acting on the Walmart plan at a meeting on December 18, telling the company’s representatives that the design needed to be amended to fit the city’s land development code and asking them to submit a revised plan. At this first sign of push-back, Walmart circled its wagons, and instead threatened to kill the deal entirely if the city didn’t take exactly what the store had proposed.

Walmart’s director of public affairs, Kevin Thompson, told Business First that it all comes down to money. Following Louisville’s land development codes “just doesn’t make sense to us from a business standpoint,” Thompson told Business First.

Laughably, the Business First interview continues:

Thompson noted that Walmart already has altered the proposed design in an effort to make the store fit more seamlessly into the neighborhood. The company added brick that evokes the warehouses in West Louisville and has modeled its steel and glass windows off of draft designs of the YMCA that is planned across from the Walmart site on 18th Street, he said.

Thompson and Walmart supporters have criticized the planning commission for seeming to put the project through the wringer. Thompson said most Walmart projects he has been involved with don’t receive the level of scrutiny that the West Louisville store has, nor do they involve as much public input.

If asking a developer to follow long-established law is putting a project “through the wringer,” then Louisville has hit a new low.

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A toothless Louisville can only ask Walmart to change its plan, but without teeth, Louisville will never be able to back itself up. “Staff has directed (Walmart) from the beginning to try to direct the building toward one of the streets,” Joe Reverman, with Metro Louisville Planning & Design, told Business First. “They stated that they would look into it with the developer and owner, and they came back with roughly the same proposal.”

But Louisville had a hand in the game from the beginning, it just chose not to play. The diagram to the right shows the locations of all Walmart Supercenters (red) and Neighborhood Markets (blue) with 3-mile and 2-mile radius rings around them. Louisville’s pretty much covered, with one notable exception: the city core. With more than 60,000 people living in West Louisville, the Broadway / Dixie location is one the company likely wanted to have covered. With this new store, just about every Louisville citizen will live within a 5-mile radius of a Walmart store.

Further, the city is giving the developer and Walmart millions in subsidies to build the $25 million project. Metro Louisville is already on the hook for about 10 percent of the entire project cost—$2.3 million—yet is acting as though it has no right to ask for an appropriate design. The city contributed $1.8 million to purchase six adjacent parcels and is giving the mega-corporation $500,000 if it meets a threshold of 225 new jobs for five years. It’s also important not to forget that the city previously gave TMG the property, which was valued at $1.3 million in 2006 (that’s over 1.5 million with inflation), bringing the total subsidy to $3.8 million—more than 15 percent of the entire budget. (The city will also pay approximately $500,000 to realign Dixie Highway at Broadway.)

(Courtesy Joseph Minicozzi / Urban3)
(Courtesy Joseph Minicozzi / Urban3)

Bad development makes for bad economics

While the city is subsidizing Walmart and developers with millions in taxpayer funds, the resulting project brings back a stunted return on investment. It’s been shown time and time again that building massive single-use big-box stores, especially Walmart Supercenters, is not sound economic development policy. In his famous comparison of an Asheville, NC Walmart Supercenter to a small mixed-use building in downtown Asheville, architect and planner Joseph Minicozzi showed how “the best return on investment for the public coffers comes when smart and sustainable development occurs.” He wrote:

We’ll use the city of Asheville as an example. Asheville realizes an astounding +800 percent greater return on downtown mixed-use development projects on a per acre basis compared to when ground is broken near the city limits for a large single-use development like a Super Walmart. A typical acre of mixed-use downtown Asheville yields $360,000 more in tax revenue to city government than an acre of strip malls or big box stores.

The flaw of our current property tax system is that when it comes to assessing how much a property owner owes, we place very little value on the land beneath a building as compared to the building itself. Compounding that issue is the fact that if you construct a building without innovative architecture or sustainable materials, you actually benefit by lower tax value. The combination of these two factors creates a disincentive for good architecture. The result is that the community loses, both in terms of the property tax it collects and the long-term legacy of cheap single-use buildings. In basic terms, we’ve created tax breaks to construct disposable buildings, and there’s nothing smart about that kind of growth.

Minicozzi’s analysis is also covered in the recent book, Happy City, by Charles Montgomery. You can read an excerpt about his findings here. While it’s unlikely the site could have been developed entirely with dense mixed-use buildings, the Walmart is certainly low on the totem pole of projects that are good taxpayer investments.

Despite this, John Gant, Metro Louisville Director of Economic Development, told the Courier Journal that he believed the Walmart was “by far” the best and highest use of the site, a troubling statement from the Mayor’s top economic development official. While the 300 jobs the Walmart will bring may be needed, the company has not released details about what those jobs will pay or how many are full time employees. Further, the job density at this site comes out to be less than 20 jobs per acre, much lower than a real urban environment would support.

And bad urban form

The redesigned Dixie Highway will make West Broadway more dangerous for pedestrians. (Montage by Broken Sidewalk)
The redesigned Dixie Highway will make West Broadway more dangerous for pedestrians. (Montage by Broken Sidewalk)

Beyond the actual Walmart, Metro Louisville has already paved the way for a more auto-centric intersection at 18th Street and Broadway. Currently, Dixie Highway ends at Broadway, forming what urban planners call a “terminated vista”—an enclosed view at the end of a street that can highlight a building or place—and 18th Street picks up approximately 120 feet to the east. This dogleg formation can help create a sense of place, make a street safer for pedestrians by slowing down traffic, and build community identity by shaping real places. But they can slow down car traffic (a good thing in a walkable area, we’d argue), and Metro Louisville will remove it, shifting Dixie Highway to align directly with 18th Street, at a cost of $500,000.

The end result of this change will mean cars can speed through this intersection at higher speeds—and that was the plan. The stated goal of this project, according to KIPDA’s Horizon 2030 documents, is to “improve operation of signal by eliminating offset intersection,” which translates to “moving cars through the intersection faster.”

Compounding the problem, Dixie Highway will be reconfigured with three lanes—one in each direction with a continuous central turning lane—in this redesigned stretch. The travel lanes measure 13 feet wide, according to Walmart’s site plan, and the turning lane is shown at 12 feet wide. These widths promote speeding and dangerous driving through an area packed full of pedestrians.

Worse, the new corner radius at Dixie and Broadway increases from the current 15 feet to a whopping 50 feet, meaning the already speeding motorists can take corners at high speeds as well, making the street even more dangerous.

This change could potentially lead to other urban design issues with the development of the outlot on this corner. The old Dixie right of way will be held as a utility easement, meaning it much be accessible for utility companies to access underground pipes and wires. This could hamper any building effort on the site by limiting the site of the structure and leaving more space for parking.

A counter-proposal by West Louisville Talks sought buildings along Broadway to screen the Walmart. (Courtesy West Louisville Talks)
A counter-proposal by West Louisville Talks sought buildings along Broadway to screen the Walmart. (Courtesy West Louisville Talks)

West Louisville extends an olive branch

An eleventh hour proposal by a group of concerned West Louisville citizens put forward an incredibly simple compromise proposal that could have improved some of the project’s urbanism without actually touching the Walmart building. A group called West Louisville Talks had proposed the bare bones plan to keep the Walmart store sited as the company proposed, while adding additional outlot development space along Broadway to create an urban edge along the site perimeter, as noted in orange on the plan above.

The group held a public meeting Tuesday before the planning commission meeting to discuss their proposal. Cassia Herron, an urban planner and a member of West Louisville Talks, told Broken Sidewalk in an email:

Since Wal-Mart refused to submit a new design, West Louisville Talks has been working with local architects and attorney Steve Porter on an alternative plan. The majority of the small crowd supported the group’s alternative though many think it does not go far enough. Some voiced concerns over the public investment and lack of transparency as meeting organizers shared their efforts of trying to convince local officials—elected and Metro staff—to have public meetings about the development to no avail.

Development as religious revival

The build-up to Thursday’s meeting took another strange twist with the injection of religion into the development game. Much of the support for the project was organized through area churches, whose pastors serve as community representatives, and a 4,100-name petition was presented to the planning commission in support of the project, largely with the help of church communities.

Some of those pastors actually led their constituents to the streets to pray for God to intervene in the planning commission’s decision. According to a report from WDRB, members of the prayer vigil were heard saying, “Help Walmart, heavenly father, to keep the door open,” and “Father, we’re asking in your name that you would intercede.” Insider Louisville reported that one of the rally’s organizers, Reverend Milton C. Seymore, opposed the “fleecing” from locally owned small businesses since they charge more than Walmart for similar goods.

At a counter rally, an anti-Walmart demonstrator, Chanelle Helm, told Insider, “It’s kind of contradictory to Christian values to be praying for a multibillion dollar family. They definitely don’t need any help or prayers, they’ve been doing really fine taking advantage of people globally.”

At a third event, Insider noted that Reverend Gerome Sutton, of the African American Think Tank, said, “Walmart is just a bully. It’s an insult that they would come in our community and try to intimidate our mayor and intimidate the planning commission, to say that if they don’t get what they want, then they are going to take the deal off the table. What kind of arrogance and unmitigated gall does that suggest?”

Elevations of the planned Walmart. (Courtesy Walmart)
Elevations of the planned Walmart. (Courtesy Walmart)

Judgement Day

The fervor in display from both sides carried into the planning commission meeting, and countless citizens spoke in favor of and against the Walmart. At stake were three waivers Walmart needed from the commission to avoid conforming to the land development code. Walmart wasn’t there so much to ask for these waivers, but to demand them. The company had said multiple times leading up to the hearing that they would not alter their plans to meet Louisville law nor would they comply with the commission’s previous requests to compromise on the issues.

Walmart needed three waivers to move forward with their project:

  • One to set the building back from the street some 400 feet from Broadway when developments laws stipulate buildings meet the street with no setbacks
  • Another to eliminate an entrance on the Dixie Highway side of the building and only provide an entrance on the north side.
  • And a third to reduce the amount of required glass the store is required to incorporate into its design.

Hours of impassioned testimony came from both sides before the vote, but ultimately the commission sided with Walmart after a brief deliberation. The planning commission repeatedly spoke in support of the economic development Walmart would bring to West Louisville, a message repeated by Mayor Fischer over the past year. Walmart has become a sort of pet project for the mayor, and he has held it up as an example of how his administration is helping West Louisville.

Most of the members of the planning commission called the plan imperfect in some way, some regretting the urbanism on display. Others praised Walmart for upgrading its paint color to match neighborhood buildings. Some hoped that future development in the northeast outlot could improve the aesthetic scars the Walmart would bring. In the end, the commission voiced its belief in Walmart’s ability to lift West Louisville out of poverty, and all but one commissioner voted to grant the waivers.

The Commissioners in Their Own Words

“It would be relatively easy to vote against this because I do think we should uphold the code—and with a staff report with so many reasons not to vote for this,” Commissioner Vince Jarboe said at the hearing. “I do vote for it because I am not willing to risk the property to be empty for another ten years.” He expressed disappointment in Walmart for threatening to walk away from the project.

Commissioner Clifford Turner was happy with Walmart’s plan. “They have satisfied all of my concerns,” he said, noting that safety was his top priority. “Walmart has committed to lifting that neighborhood up, lightening it up. I tip my hat to the Walmart family for committing 25 million.”

“I’m kinda disappointed with Walmart,” Commissioner Lloyd “Chip” White said. “They coulda done a whole lot better than this. I believe, though it’s not the best, you gotta make lemonade out of lemons.”

“Personally, I would have liked to have seen a more pedestrian friendly element to the design, said Commissioner Jeffrey Brown of Louisville Metro Public Works. “I would support the waiver because that’s the only way we’re going to get solid development in the area.”

“The thing I’m going back to is the economic development for the area, and I think that’s important,” Commissioner Robert Peterson, Jr. said. “I feel like the design has been brought forward in a positive light by walmart, for several reasons. They know what they need to do to succeed in their business. I do believe the positioning on the lot will work very well.”

“I think this is a very good revitalization of a site that’s been vacant a very long time,” Donnie Blake, planning commission chair, said. “I think with all these trees and landscaping that it will be highly beneficial to the area. It’s going to be pedestrian friendly and its going to be bike friendly. The lighting, It’s going to make that corner very safe… It will be very inviting for customers to come in.”

“I thought a lot about this particular project. I think we had a good intellectual argument about urbanism,” Commissioner David Tomes said. “When people worry about walking the 400 feet, right now to find a Walmart you can walk to you’d have to walk about 8 miles. I enjoy my Walmart and Costco and Kroger. This development is still a high risk. I commend Walmart for taking the risk.”

“I do feel this is a good plan,” Mayor Fischer’s designee to the commission, Robert Kirchdorfer of Louisville Metro Codes & Regulations, said. “I know from my working career for the last 30 years driving up and down Broadway, there was a parking lot there… I do think the parking lot would fit in compatible with the area. It’s been compatible there for the past 20 or 30 years. This is a 150,000 square foot building. Our development code… I can’t say everything that we write is designed for a building this size. I am in favor of the plan as submitted; I’m not seeing any problems.”

“As an architect, there’s a thing about good design and what it can do for a community. I am scared this isn’t a good design and this could be detrimental to the community,” David Proffitt, planning commission vice chair, said. “We do grant waivers and variances all the time, but we only give them—and we’re trained to only give them—when they’re warranted. I know for a fact something different could have been done… If someone wants to do something there’s always a way to do it; it wouldn’t have been detrimental to the operation of the store. There’s too much evidence to the contrary. They have elected to set one of those stores right in the middle of downtown Louisville, and I find that appalling.” He added, “Good design matters. I just don’t think its been accomplished here,” to applause from the crowd.

Walmart heads to BOZA

The West End Walmart must still go before the Board of Zoning Adjustments (BOZA), which Proffitt chairs, to receive its setback variance, so the battle isn’t entirely over yet. BOZA will meet on February 16.

Final thoughts

While I am disappointed in the planning commission’s decision, their vote for Walmart was not surprising. As I mentioned above, the area today has been eroded by poor planning choices to a point where it barely resembles the traditional form district that is supposed to govern its growth. This decision makes that form district distinctly optional in the eyes of developers moving forward, and could jeopardize the efficacy of Cornerstone 2020 moving forward.

From my observations of the commissioners’ comments, I do not believe the body has a full understanding of what it means to build a city—and uphold the land development code that was carefully put in place to ensure good development. For a planning commission to so easily capitulate to the thoughtless demands of Walmart after the city has facilitated and subsidized the project is disgraceful. And what’s the point of a planning commission in the first place if they end up conceding to the demands of developers, handing out ill-conceived waivers willy-nilly.

Compromise could have taken place here, but Walmart and by his tacit support of Walmart’s hard line, Mayor Fischer, did not allow that to happen, to the detriment of the entire city. Louisville is giving Walmart and TMG millions in city funds, rebuilding streets to cater to the new auto-oriented form Walmart is bringing, and granting waivers to completely neglect any semblance of smart growth that the land development code espouses, but what are we getting in return? The minimum investment possible for Walmart to push their way through the approval process and not hurt their bottom line.

(Courtesy Google)
(Courtesy Google)

But perhaps the Land Development Code is already broken. The above Family Dollar was recently built on West Broadway and appears to meet the guidelines of the Traditional Marketplace Corridor form district—or at least attempts to do so. If this is what we can expect to see when things go right, then there’s something wrong with the process.

I am also troubled by the short-sighted rhetoric that says this Walmart is needed for the survival of West Louisville. The store will bring jobs—low paying, unskilled service industry jobs—but patience and a smarter redevelopment policy could have brought so much more. Since the beginning, this site has been targeted for big-box retail. A smarter approach might have been to study reknitting this site—and the other Philip Morris site now owned by the YMCA—into the urban fabric of California and Russell. The street grid could have been restored and broken up into manageable development bites, that may or may not bring large-scale retail. Why was a Walmart Supercenter, which blows away the scale of anything else around, considered an appropriate store type to locate in the urban core? Walmart has developed smaller-scale stores for just this purpose, such as the Neighborhood Market type, which can respond to its environments in a more sensitive way. Instead, the Supercenter model, which revolves around driving rather than walking at its core shopping experience, will further erode the chances of correcting an already ailing West Broadway corridor.

Louisville needs to abandon this idea of silver bullet development—bring in a Walmart and check off West Louisville from your economic development to-do list. West Louisville deserves better.

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Branden Klayko

Branden Klayko

Founder and Editor at Broken Sidewalk
Branden founded Broken Sidewalk in 2008 while practicing architecture in Louisville. He continued the site for seven years while living in New York City, returning to Louisville in 2016. Branden is a graduate of the College of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, and has covered architecture, design, and urbanism for The Architect's Newspaper, Designers & Books, Inhabitat, and the American Institute of Architects.
Branden Klayko

10 COMMENTS

  1. Branden, your last two paragraphs sum this issue up quite well. Three to 5 years from now, many will point to this development as something that looks shiny and added jobs to the area. Seven to 10 years from now, we will all be looking at all of the lost jobs in other nearby stores and vacant buildings that used to contain independent retailers, service centers, drug stores, etc. The super center effect will be wide-stretching, impacting areas miles beyond the block this store will be located.

    This feels exactly like “checking off” West Louisville as if the city has now done its part and can move on to other things. This city deserves a more thoughtful, patient approach to planning and economic development.

  2. The executives at Wal*Mart should be ashamed. Sam Walton is probably rolling over in his grave. This was not his way of doing business, and he would have looked at the whole picture. Politics is fully in play here as well. Shame on the Mayer and the planning commission as well as the city council.

  3. Some of the proverbial wind beneath Walmart’s wings came from the acceptance of Walmart’s “revision” from the Mayor and a point that was missed in this otherwise comprehensive think piece – the desperation of West Louisville in having retail shopping convenience and more jobs – even low-pay, low-benefit entry level ones.

    That property has laid idle for nearly 15 years. The unemployment rates of West Louisville neighborhoods, particularly in the Russell and California neighborhoods closest to this project, have unemployment rates at least twice as high – and in some zones as high as four times – the unemployment rates of East End neighborhoods.

    Your take from this site focus on matters of planning and design, and you folks do a fabulous job of that. Design matters…however, it is an education process for communities and neighborhoods that are hurting and impoverished. Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and apply the bottom rungs of the pyramid to the plight of many West Louisville citizens.

    The minister’s prayers were less for Walmart the corporation than it was Walmart as an economic engine for this part of the city. Yes, West Louisville has been abandoned, whether benign or malicious, for decades. Although Walmart may be a punishing corporate citizen to traditional “mom an pop” small businesses in many cities and towns, but relatively speaking, West Louisville does not have that. What that area is populated with are pawn shops, check cashing facilities, gas and food marts that charge significantly more for goods than Walmart. In short, yes, the state of that part of West Louisville is so starving for commerce and more jobs that *Walmart* with an inefficient suburban-based design with a weak facade of urban window-dressings will yet be a net benefit for the area. That is how bad off this part of the city is.

    While the alternative ideas discussed on this site are beautiful projects, and certainly more aesthetically attractive and ecologically sustainable, no one ever showed us the money. We cannot afford to wait.

    Michael R. Hicks
    narrowthegap.org

  4. First, thanks for writing an article that was not so dumbed-down it demeaned the reader. The state of journalism in Louisville is bad, Broken Sidewalk is appreciated. The Wal-Mart approval looks like the ‘golden rule’ in action–them with the gold makes the rules.

    Also extending your analysis past ‘urban forms’ to some commentary on the socio-economic impacts of WalMart in the West End shows a maturing or even ‘radicalization’ of perspective. If the rules don’t matter anymore and all urban planning is back room decisions by plutocrats for immediate gain, the long term effects will be to destroy the efficiency and sustainability of the larger community. They don’t understand that or don’t care about it, because its not their problem. Its supposed to be Mayor Fischer’s problem but he’s not planning to be Mayor for Life.

    Please devote an entire article to how the religious mis-leaders in West Louisville are wielding the support of their sheep to whatever bad idea purports to be ‘helping’ the West End. You might notice that the chronic racial oppression of ‘blacks’ in the West end has subjected so many for so long to joblessness, incarceration, rampant black market in drugs, and failing education efforts for children of homeless and impoverished broken families, that Norris Shelton has founded ‘The Descendants of American Slaves.” They will be meeting at 314 Dr W J Hodge Street at1:00 pm on Feb 7.

    The comparison between the plight of slaves immediately after the civil war and the continuation of poverty and disadvantage in segregated West Louisville is disturbing. The grip of the Master’s Bible on black minds functions quite as effectively as iron chains on ankles. The lurid horizon of apocalyptic religious fantasy has repeatedly short circuited attempts to raise the education level of the community. The Wal-Mart decision being a perfect example. Huddling in the streets to pray to God for urban design that makes sustainable economics while bag men pass in the corridors of power funding each others non-profit institutions to continue ignorance–a sad spectacle.

  5. Brandon:

    I really was glad to see this piece. Despite its many contributions, though, the long history anchoring the piece obscures rather than illuminates the core problems here.

    Namely:

    * You talk about the bullying behavior of Wal-Mart, but it seems clear to me that the company’s firm stance was in every way emboldened and perhaps even enabled by the mayor’s position from the beginning. Wad-Mart knew that there was a finger on the scale from the get-go, and had very little reason to fear the outcome of a Plan Commission vote. How that happened — what specifically the mayor’s folks did to ensure that outcome, for instance, is part of the story that so far we’ve only been able to guess at. Your piece assumes, in part, that reality but doesn’t do anything to explain how it happened or why. And by focusing on Walmart’s ‘bullying’ it helps reinforce the notion that the city has little choice despite, as you note, its investment of tax dollars.

    * I don’t think the knock at the churches is helpful, as it’s no surprise and part of a long history that civil rights leaders in Louisville (and elsewhere) have come, especially, from the black churches, and they’ve often been involved in questions of jobs and community development. That they were involved was a given, but why they chose to come down on the side of the super store has everything to do with the artful and wrong-headed framing of the debate as Bad Walmart or No Walmart, which (again) city hall had everything to do with. What’s needed now is reporting to determine what role the city, if any, played in lining up the support from the churches. Was it coordinated? Or did their support of the project grow naturally out of the mix of an understandable demand for jobs and investment and the false choices that were part of the city-driven narrative?

    * You seem to contradict yourself. Fairly high in the piece you say that the more acceptable Walmart designs found elsewhere wouldn’t work in Louisville — for, best I can tell, several reasons. Including: higher land values, more affluent neighbors, and a development scene that can support the mixed use add-ons. “Most of those stores have also been Walmart’s newer urban types, such as the Neighborhood Market, which require significantly less square-footage. And more importantly, they have city oversight that keeps Walmart in line.”

    And yet, deep in the piece, you call for the site to have been broken up into smaller pieces, knitting together a smaller-scale retail scene. Couldn’t such a scaled-back, chopped-up approach have included as an actor a smaller Walmart, one that was built to look at home in a revitalized neighborhood 10 years from now?

    In short, Brandon, you deserve thanks for taking the time to lay out this history. The perspective — and, to cite one great example, the demonstration of the other ‘gardens’ at Walmart super centers was dead-on — you bring is informed, persuasive and helpful.

    Your conclusions in the last few graphs are eloquent and, in my view, right on. I think what this decision does is pump some immediate help into an area that needs it — but at the cost of mortgaging its future, by way of putting a cap on its potential as a neighborhood 10 or 20 or 30 years from now.

    That’s a trade off that was anything but inevitable, even if it was not entirely unexpected. By focusing on the street corner decisions and history of the site the piece suggests a kind of inevitability that didn’t exist.

    In 20 years, the site will be what it is not because of vague historical forces, nor even bullying behavior of the largest company in the world. It will be that way because of individual decisions — discreet phone calls, conversations, private meetings — on the part of the people elected and appointed to guide the city. What’s needed is a better understanding of how and why those decisions were made.

    In Louisville, with its lop-sided balance of power between the council and the mayor, those decisions aren’t often easy to decipher.

  6. Kudos to Branden and Broken Sidewalk for bringing attention to this issue that is lacking in other local media. Thank you.

    One issue that does not get addressed, and has seemingly only been mentioned in passing, is the fact that TMG, the city and Wal-Mart do not control the property closest to Broadway. The ariel photo at the top of the story shows a brown grassy area along Broadway, not sure if the house is still there, but you can see the fence, this is not part of the project.

    Wal-Mart could not bring the store up to the street even if it wanted to. Could development really occur in the outlets if this property is not controlled by the developer? Just looking for some clarity.

  7. Of course they could build to the street! You rescale the store to ahem fit the site. Or incorporate the house as a separate small scale business . The only lack of clarity is in our non transparent non visionary leadersheep – you can also move a house of that size easily. Walmart could’ve designed a (gasp) site specific development but instead they just went to the back garage and pulled out the oldest
    Most archaic site plan from someplace else, pasted it over the site, went yep. None of those Walmartians at the hearing even knew what city they were in because NONE of them were local. The attorneys fees alone would have paid for design studies, many of which already exist.. Hell.
    I could’ve drawn a better plan drunk.
    Exposing this farce at least shows the public how easily they can be bought and sold. Like shooting ducks in a retention basin.

  8. The issue of employment opportunities coming to a very poverty stricken, unemployed area where many people are receiving welfare and damned food stamps or WIC, unchecked, without paying annual or quarterly taxes to the IRS concerns me. It’s probably simple to assume the audience here, as no one has noted this yet. Working at least 40 hours per week is the path to real health insurance, rather than ObamaCare, which is in effect more costly after copays or the annual opt-out fee, which is die to increase when he checks out and says for you! But, of course, that would be assuming that people in this part of the area worked full time if they were 18+ (the job market is vibrant for all skill levels, or the unskilled) and paid annual income and property taxes.
    And you probably won’t make $15/hr unless you have a degree, lots of experience, or are performing a skilled trade or job with risk. Why? Plain and simply, the market won’t bear it. Other citizens would be happy to work that job. Wally World can’t afford that. They have too many lazy, slow, incompetent slackers already.
    Here’s the cold, hard truth: Smaller shops will need to work smart, as many have done in every other part of the city. Stop whining and pull up your bootstraps. No one is too good for any job that pays, so lose the attitude, because there is no one who wants to hear you fuss or truly cares unless you need to feed them.
    Face it: The West End of Louisville needs Walmart and the methane plant for economic growth. Hopefully if the companies pump some money into people’s pockets the pride (of home maintenance and ownership, health and fitness, neighborhood programs of a positive impact) will rise and we can stop hearing about all of the neglected children and non-cartel related shootings over there that are so petty and assinine. After growing up near shitty cities, the last thing I want to hear about are dumb, low IQ problems, but that’s what’s there.
    Take the corporations and make an effort to elevate into normal, respectable society, or please take option 2 and cease your complaints, cease contact with the government in all forms, and make the West End it’s own little society like ISIS, but remain within the territory that has been claimed as yours, where corporate development and job creation is not welcome.

  9. this is really depressing, on a partially related note, they are leveling an entire neighborhood? what do the houses look like in that area? can’t they just sell the houses off for a dollar with the condition that they’re moved from the site. it’d save everyone money.

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