This week, developer Todd Blue of Cobalt Ventures and owner of a series of 19th century buildings on West Main Street dubbed the Iron Quarter announced his intention to tear down the historic properties citing the buildings’ deteriorated condition. Blue had once planned a $50 million mixed-use center for the site which involved tearing down the guts of the building and saving the facades, a practice referred to as facadectomy.
After a report funded by the Downtown Development Corporation (DDC) suggested that the structures could potentially be saved if appropriate action was taken to stabilize the buildings, Mayor Abramson stepped in to negotiate the sale of the buildings. Blue was dismissive of the DDC report claiming it was done by an outside party and lacked comprehensive data. At the time, he said he did not personally know the condition of the buildings.
Abramson had arranged several potential buyers who planned to restore the buildings and had met with Blue to strike a deal to sell the historic properties. The Mayor says the Iron Quarter buildings are important to the history and urban fabric of Downtown and because of their proximity to the new arena, they shouldn’t be squandered. The Mayor’s Deal would have allowed Blue to break even on his $4.3 million investment in the Iron Quarter dating to 2007.
Mayor’s Deal Falls Through
Two months later, the deal has fallen through and Blue appears unwilling to sell. Calls to Cobalt Ventures for comment were not returned. Chris Poynter in the Mayor’s office said Abramson is disappointed the deal has fallen through and doesn’t look forward to the proposed demolition.
What The Engineer’s Say
Blue hired his own consultant engineer, Steve Leonard of Prospect, to visually evaluate the buildings’ condition in early April. According to Leonard’s report, he had previously reviewed the structures in October 2009 and February 2010. He finds, “After reviewing the buildings once more, my opinion remains that these buildings are a threat to the life, health and safety of pedestrians, workers and passers-by.”
Leonard’s report further details deteriorated or partially collapsed floor decking, water damage, and deteriorated roofing in various Iron Quarter buildings. These observations are in line with those made in the DDC report. The Leonard report was skeptical that some of the buildings could receive new roofs due to deteriorated parapet wall conditions.
The report concludes that “[t]here is no doubt the existing collapsed areas throughout the buildings are a result of water infiltration due to the poor condition of the roofs.” It speculates that a series of collapses could happen at any time and recommends demolition of the structures.
Neglecting the Roof
It was pointed out on Broken Sidewalk in 2008 that there were large holes in the roofs of the Iron Quarter buildings allowing water to pour into the structures. There’s no worse enemy to a building than water penetration. Both the DDC report and the Leonard report seem to condemn Cobalt Ventures for not properly maintaining the Iron Quarter buildings by acknowledging the inadequate maintenance to the roof as the predominant deterioration factor.
Louisville currently has an Abandoned Urban Property program through the Department of Housing meant to discourage neglected properties by increasing property taxes three-fold on structures vacant for a year or more that are uninhabitable or have accumulated trash through neglected maintenance. The Iron Quarter was never placed on the list although it clearly fits the criteria. I placed a call to the DOH and will have an update next week.
What Happens Next
Now that Blue has requested to demolish the Iron Quarter, a process that could take two months or more will begin to play out. Because the Iron Quarter sits within the boundaries of the Waterfront Development Review Overlay District (WRO), the Waterfront Development Corporation (WDC) must first approve or deny the demolition permit.
After the WRO receives the appropriate paperwork from Cobalt Ventures, a meeting to evaluate the permit’s merits will take place. That first step could take two to three weeks. According to the WDC website, the WRO works with a team of architects from the AIA-KY to determine whether to approve or deny the permit. Historic preservation has won battles in the past that went before the WRO including demolition denials for the Paget House and the Heigold Facade.
If the WRO does approve the permit, a 30 day moratorium goes into effect before actual demolition can occur. In all, this nearly two-month window will give preservationists the opportunity they need to save the Iron Quarter.
Already, preservationists and neighborhood activists are mounting plans to save the block. The greatest defense against demolition is declaring the buildings Louisville Landmarks, a process that involves collecting 200 signatures and paying a $500 fee. Unfortunately, each of the six buildings threatened in the Iron Quarter must be declared a landmark, resulting in a fee of $3,000. If landmarked, demolition would then require approval of the Louisville Landmarks Commission and likely would require Cobalt Ventures to prove economic hardship.
Marianne Zickuhr, Director of Preservation Louisville, said the petition and fundraising effort is already underway. She pointed out that May is National Preservation Month and expects a large turnout in support of the Iron Quarter buildings due to their high profile in Downtown. The Iron Quarter buildings made it onto Preservation Louisville’s 2009 list of most endangered buildings.
Anyone interested in signing the Landmark petition or donating to the effort can contact Marianne at director (at) preservationlouisville (dot) org and request a petition sheet to print out and distribute to friends and neighbors. In recent years, the Bauer’s / Azalea’s Restaurant building and the American Standard Building were declared Louisville Landmarks to prevent demolition.
Preservation Louisville is planning to release their 2010 list of most endangered buildings at a press conference at 10:30 a.m. on May 18th in front of the Patrick O’Shea’s on the same block as the Iron Quarter. Petitions will be available for signing at the press conference. I think it’s safe to assume the Iron Quarter will appear on this year’s endangered list as well.
Before then, two events planned on Tuesday, May 4th will draw attention to the plight of the Iron Quarter. At 4:00 p.m., Neighborhood Planning and Preservation will be holding a Strategy Meeting to save the Iron Quarter at the Whiskey Row Gallery at 131 West Main Street. Topics include an update on the demolition process, information on the petition drive, input from adjacent property owners, and info on a Trolley Hop public awareness event sponsored by Bill Weyland, Valle Jones, and Stephen Jones, developers of the Whiskey Row Lofts on the same block. Attendees are asked to RSVP to npplouisville (at) aol (dot) com or by voicemail at 502.713.5573.
Later on May 4th, Preservation Louisville will be holding its Preservation Neighborhood Council Meeting at 5:30 p.m. at the Brennan House at 631 South Fifth Street. Information on the demolitions and how to get involved will be discussed, and I’m sure petitions will be available to sign.
To stay informed on the latest news regarding the Iron Quarter’s fate, supporters have created a Facebook group called “Save the Iron Quarter!” In about a day, the group has already attracted 175 supporters.
The Last Resort
Another more drastic option is still on the table as a last resort effort, although no one seems excited to talk about it. Metro Louisville has the power to condemn the Iron Quarter buildings as blighted, an action that hasn’t happen in Louisville for some time. An agency called the Land Bank Authority was established in 1988 to take over neglected and distressed properties and sell them to developers.
Then, hypothetically, the city could sell the series of buildings off to parties interested in preserving the structures that emerged during the Mayor’s Deal discussions. That option, no doubt, would lead to more delays and possible lawsuits.
Blue has touted his record as a preservationist noting several conversion projects he has undertaken in the east Downtown area. He is undoubtedly nervous of collapse after part of a historic building on East Market Street he was working on collapsed during construction. If the demolition of the Iron Quarter does proceed, Blue will also have on his record the destruction of one of the largest historic sections of Downtown in recent memory.
It’s clear that simply adding a roof in 2007 to the Iron Quarter buildings (a cost the DDC report estimated at around $500,000 this year) could have protected them from further decay and structural instability. It’s unfortunate that the buildings were neglected years before Blue took ownership and continued to be neglected under Cobalt Ventures.
The best move for the community would have been if Blue cashed out of the Iron Quarter and took Mayor Abramson’s advice on selling the properties. Details on the breakdown of Abramson’s attempts to broker a sale of the Iron Quarter are not available. Blue must recognize the value of the land adjacent to the arena and the potential profit from redeveloping the area. In that case, breaking even might be seen as a loss.
Saving the Iron Quarter block is one of the most significant preservation battles in Louisville’s recent memory, but there are certainly some community leaders who don’t want to see the buildings torn down. With the support of the community and the rejuvenated economy spurred by the arena in the area, hopefully some favorable resolution will come forward.
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