JBS Swift Plant from Mellwood Avenue (BS File Photo)
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As anticipated, the Louisville Board of Zoning Adjustments (BOZA) will not revoke JBS Swift’s conditional use permit to operate a slaughterhouse in Butchertown. One more stage in the battle is behind us but pending lawsuits will keep the discussion simmering. While the sometimes dramatic back and forth struggle between the neighborhood and the corporation play out in various courts, let’s take a look at the changing urban landscape of a transforming urban core.

The Rise and Fall of Butchertown

Let’s first look back at the historical background of the area. Of course, everyone knows Butchertown grew up as a mixed residential and industrial neighborhood. It, in fact, began in 1796 with the construction of a gristmill.  The Butchertown we know today began to take shape in the 1820s when Louisville annexed a portion of the area and German immigrants, many of them butchers, began to settle in the emerging neighborhood.

Louisville had already banned slaughtering in the city core but because Butchertown was then on the outskirts of town and next to a creek that served as a sewer at the time, butchering grew rapidly. In 1834, the Bourbon Stockyards were constructed and fringe industries developed including tanneries and cooperages. The land was platted in 1841 and the working class neighborhood thrived with a distinct German culture that included many breweries.

By the late 19th century, large meat-packing plants began moving in, changing the feel of the neighborhood culture and rapidly industrializing the area. By 1931, the city zoned Butchertown industrial and the Flood of 1937 destroyed much of the neighborhood’s housing stock. Urban flight continued this downward trend into the mid-twentieth century and Spaghetti Junction was built in the 1960s cutting Butchertown off from the Ohio River. Also in the 1960s, I presume, the current 43-year-old JBS Swift plant was built.

Butchertown Rises Again

It looked like Butchertown was experiencing its death throes. As industry spread throughout the area and hope faded, the last remaining homeowners in the 1960s banded together to promote Butchertown’s preservation. The group was successful in achieving Louisville’s first “down-zoning” from industrial to residential, ending the razing of houses for industrial growth. By the 1970s, the neighborhood was seeing reinvestment with festive street fairs and new boutiques opening up.

(Quickly, the information above was garnered from the Encyclopedia of Louisville and an essay by Grady Clay titled “The Grady Clay Cross-Section Method.” There’s also a great vintage film from KET on the subject if you ever get a chance to see it and Tom Owen has a great video on the history of Butchertown as well.)

Current Events In Historical Context

It was never an easy ride for Butchertown, but the seeds planted in the 1960s have germinated into the quickly revitalizing area we see today. But what does all of this history mean? How do the butchers that settled the area relate to the modern slaughterhouse in question today?

First, let’s keep in mind that a city and its neighborhoods are constantly evolving. To stand still is to become a museum of dead artifacts. It’s the constant change change of a place that reflects its life. The arguments being thrown around today that claim the presence of the word “butcher” in Butchertown means it should always be home to such industry is purely nostalgic and could be compared to the type of theme-park preservation found at colonial Williamsburg. It’s a sort of tyranny of the dead over the living.

Most visibly, the city boundaries and our own notions of our environment have changed drastically in the last century. Butchertown is no longer on the outskirts of town and it’s no longer acceptable to treat Beargrass Creek as an open sewer. When Butchertown was growing up, slaughtering was banned from the city core, then much smaller. Now in a much larger Louisville, Butchertown has been absorbed into the city core yet an incredibly large slaughterhouse has been allowed to operate for decades.

It’s also worth pointing out that the “original” Butchertown, the neighborhood up until the late 19th century, was overtaken by large-scale industry that almost killed it well before JBS Swift was on the scene. While it’s useless to say the predecessor smelled any better (it was likely much worse), it’s also unfair to argue that JBS Swift was there first. The 43 year old plant appears to be contemporary with the first “greedy yuppies” who were gentrifying the neighborhood by saving it from complete destruction.

Butchertown & Environs Today

Butchertown diagram (map underlay via Butchertown Neighborhood Plan)
Butchertown diagram. (map underlay via Butchertown Neighborhood Plan)

Now, let’s take a look at the map of Butchertown above and draw some observations. The heavy black lines represent physical barriers to the neighborhood such as Spaghetti Junction, the cloistered Home of the Innocents campus, and railroad tracks. Red lines represent the commercial corridor distinctly identifiable as Butchertown (Story Avenue) and the blue lines show commercial areas associated with Nulu. The purple line over Main Street represents a corridor of shared identity (what I call a “zipper corridor”) and the light red gradients illustrate porous borders between adjacent neighborhoods. The orange dot represents the JBS Swift plant.

Geographically, Butchertown bridges the grid of the city to the west and the spines of former turnpikes to the east. The twisting nature of its grid wrapping along Beargrass Creek and the banks of the Ohio River help to express its individuality from the two. The grid of Nulu provides for commercial opportunity on main streets and side streets while Butchertown adopts a much more residential feel punctuated by corner stores. Story Avenue helps to channel the economic activity of the city eastward to Frankfort Avenue as a commercial grid becomes a commercial corridor.

Personally, my greatest interest in street grids is the often confrontational and neglected confluence of two patterns. These occurrences provide interest in what could otherwise be a monotonous grid. Butchertown is lucky to have such a situation at the heart of its commercial core, though today it’s largely vacant land. This industrial void serves to effectively split the neighborhood into two halves with JBS Swift largely in the middle. In time, Butchertown’s commercial center could fill the area and connect the neighborhood.

What does all of this mean besides colorful lines on a map? It represents the organic growth of Butchertown overlayed with modern realities. It represents a logical progression of growth from city to suburb. It shows how the area could one day grow to form a vibrant city again and demonstrates Butchertown’s unique position as an urban neighborhood connected with the rest of the city. There are certainly challenges to realizing Butchertown’s potential but great rewards as well.

The Purpose Of Land Use & Zoning

The concept of zoning originated in the 20th century and was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that it acted to ensure the compatibility of uses in a given area and provided a means by which a city could be planned. Among its earliest applications was to separate incompatible uses such as slaughterhouses and factories from residences.

If a use doesn’t fit under the allotted zoning restrictions, a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) may be issued as is the case with the JBS Swift plant. What many of the employees at the company feared was that the CUP would be revoked because JBS Swift violated the conditions of its permit by illegally expanding its facility. Without this zoning exception, the slaughterhouse would not be considered appropriate for the area and could be forced to close.

Zoning is complicated and I only wanted to touch on it briefly here, but it’s sure to come up again in more detail on some other story. You may also want to check out Butchertown’s neighborhood plan that was adopted by the city in 2008. The neighborhood has repeatedly pointed to the document as evidence that a slaughterhouse does not belong in Butchertown.

A Path Forward

This ordeal between JBS Swift and Butchertown has certainly been sensationalized in the media and in real life, but hopefully as it moves forward, the true significance of relocating a slaughterhouse from Louisville’s urban core will become apparent. It’s not helpful for the company to pit its workers against the neighborhood or use them as shields against enforcement. Tacky arguments about butchers in Butchertown must be revealed for what they are. Political rhetoric about moving the plant has been going on for over a decade but the time for real leadership is upon us.

It likely would have been reckless for the Board of Zoning Adjustments to revoke JBS Swift’s CUP and shutter the factory (but probably productive is BOZA made them sweat a little). We can’t just leave the current decision to sit on a shelf until the next boiling over point, however. City and State leaders must work together to facilitate an appropriate move for the slaughterhouse on a definite timeline.

It might be useful as a first step to publicly declare the actual cost of such a move. The only figures we currently have are from JBS Swift who has no incentive to reveal the true cost. Benefits must also be weighed for increased development potential in the core area as well. Yes, it’s true property values will go up when the plant is moved, that’s only to be expected and there’s nothing wrong with it. Consider, also, incentives recently issued to Ford for investing in the retooling of its facilities to the tune nearly $200 million in land, tax rebates, and worker training.

We can no longer accept non-committal statements that “We’re working on it.” It’s a scary thing for a politician to demonstrate such leadership with the region’s third largest employer who happens to be a multinational corporation, but if we are to move forward as a city, the discussions must be happening in earnest.

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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

11 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent article, I’ve already sent it to friends of mine who’ve only heard the rhetoric regarding this situation.

  2. Very well put Branden. I might add reclaiming the junk yard on Mellwood that borders a gorgeous section of Beargrass Creek and we really do have a very unique series of urban neighborhoods and urban greenspaces that would transformative…JBS Swift must be relocated.

  3. I agree about Beargrass Creek, David. I should have noted on the map how Butchertown is essentially still turning its back to the creek because it’s lined with industry and junk yards. It’s amazing to consider what a little urban design and park space could do to really make it a focal point of the neighborhood.

  4. Long time reader, first time commenter…

    Most of the time I find myself nodding along with your thoughts about the future of Louisville and how cities function overall.

    But I think this article hits a bum note, for two main reasons:

    1. Jobs matter to cities. The job environment in Kentuckiana and most of the country is horrifying right now. Cities bustle and thrive for all of the reasons you write about on this blog, but jobs are, like it or not, a crucial factor. The jobs at Swift are increasingly rare in Louisville and nationwide: full-time work with basic health care and retirement for non-college graduates can get. Eliminating those jobs in our community would carry real social costs. The Swift workers may not live in Butchertown itself anymore, but they live in other neighborhoods in the city. If you want to shut down Swift, we need to think about what that means for the neighborhoods where Swift workers live — and the dollars their wages and benefits contribute to the local economy.

    Moving the jobs “somewhere else” wouldn’t just be another blow to the local economy — it might also contribute to the sprawl and infrastructure problems that already hold back the city.

    2. Workers deserve a say. Opponents of the packing facility tend to depict this situation as a clash between plucky local residents and a big corporation. The reality is more complicated. Opponents of the facility rarely admit that the recent protest was organized by the members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 227. To be sure, Swift was certainly pleased to see the workers’ union take this step. But it comes across as condescending and arrogant when closure-supporters argue that the workers are just pawns being pitted against Swifts opponents. The workers are stakeholders here just as much as the company, local residents, and local business owners. They aren’t crazy to want to hold onto their jobs in this economy. “Poverty sucks, Save Swift” is an all too accurate slogan coming from them.

    It’s fair enough to argue that Swift’s estimates for the impact of closing the facility might be fudged. But folks who want to close the plant need to take the workers’ future into account and respect their hopes, too. That means factoring in the costs of moving or eliminating those jobs when they make guesses about what post-Swift development could mean.

    [Side note: It’s interesting that the cities that city lovers tend to admire for various reasons: Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Chicago, NYC — to say nothing of Northern and Western Europe — tend to have comparatively strong local union movements. Louisville’s unions have also been historically strong for a smallish city on the border of the South. Urbanists need to think more about why that is. I suspect that independent worker organizations can serve as a civic and social counterweight to short-sighted corporate growth that yields big highways leading to big malls and shopping centers employing lots of nonunion workers in minimum wage jobs with no benefits]

  5. If and when the plant is relocated within Jefferson County (and I believe it will be), how will the jobs be lost? I think the workers, the company, and Butchertown neighborhood residents should work in tandem to help the company move to a more industrial location.

    I honestly sympathize with both the workers and the neighborhood residents simultaneously. Surely something can be worked out that satisfies both?

  6. What kind of environmental issues would need to be dealt with at this site if or when the plant is relocated? One big factor in the reclamation of industrial lands for mixed use (particularly the residential component) is the cost of cleaning up the brownfield that is required. An issue with the old River Metals site on Lexington Road is that the projected cost to remediate the site to a level acceptable to build residential is not an economical option, at least that was the argument as I understood it. What would the site look like if it were redeveloped, would it be a big box in a sea of asphalt?

    I am not arguing that the plant should stay, but I wonder if taking a hard look at the realities of the site, what could feasibly be expected to happen to it once the plant moved? I definitely think that there are successful ways of incorporating industrial into residential as in Brooklyn and many other national examples, but I would say that it really depends on the industry. I don’t think that a meat packing operation is the best fit given multiple pollution sources (odor, noise, idling trucks etc). I know personally that the odor was a deal breaker when I was looking to buy a new home a year ago, even though Butchertown probably was at the top of my list due to location to downtown.

    Hopefully there is an answer that will both improve the core of downtown and keep the jobs in Louisville, at a reasonable location not too far from where the workers live.

  7. The site will have the usual environmental cleanup including underground tanks and asbestos removal. Not a deal breaker. A move would take the new administration, GLI and State assembling a package to present to JBS Swift.

  8. What most people are missing in this case is that even if BOZA were to revoke the CUP, it would not close the plant. The plant was originally built in the proper zoning district.

    KRS 100.253 states “The lawful use of a building or premises, existing at the time of the adoption of any zoning regulations affecting it, may be continued, although such use does not conform to the provisions of such regulations, except as otherwise provided herein.”

    The next paragraph explains that the use can not be expanded.

    What that means is that if the CUP were revoked, then the plant would have to go back to it’s original state prior to receiving the CUP. It does not mean the plant would close.

  9. In all the above comments, a root problem is not addressed…
    the fact that the plant STINKS. Keep the jobs, fix the stench.
    Is there a place in this city that would tolerate this stench?
    Would it be tolerated on Dixie Highway,at Stonybrook,or Hurstbourne?

    Why is JBS not willing to address the noise and air pollution.
    Certainly, that would cost a lot less than relocation.

  10. I am inspired by the intelligence of both Branden’s reporting and Carter’s response. I sometimes feel compelled to drift to extremes, but it actually is the middle ground that is Louisville’s genius (its situation at the nexus of so many geographical points serves as its core metaphor). We must address both our desire for a new, green, purposeful, urbane, hip future and our socially responsible needs – the ones that keep us still moving towards justice – in education and other areas – and fairness.

    I would love to see Louisville become the place where we REALLY address the relationship between class and race and a vision of urban progress. The town I moved from, Rochester, seemed unable to address that question and so has gotten neither progress nor fairness. Maybe we can… in Butchertown, with Wayside, with the West End, with schools.

    Let’s go for it.

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