Downtown Louisville‘s planned Omni Hotel is a mega-project if the city has ever seen one. This is way more than a 600-room hotel. It’s way more than 200 luxury residences stacked on top of that hotel. It’s even more than the two gigantic ballrooms housed inside. (Trust us, the Grand Ballroom spaces alone can hold 20 shotgun houses inside!) Wrapped up all together in a 3.7-acre footprint and 30-story tower, Louisville’s planned Omni Hotel & Residences will certainly be nothing short of “transformational,” as put by Mayor Greg Fischer at its unveiling in January.
Yet while the Omni will, in fact, be transformational for the city, just looking in awe at zoomed-out renderings and calling it a day is only doing half the job. Less than half, really. A project this big is going to affect Downtown overall and especially its surrounding streets and neighbors a lot in major and more subtle ways. Some of those changes will be great while others warrant little concern. But others still can inflict wounds on the city that will last decades and negatively alter how the rest of the city grows around the Omni. Let’s dig into the details to see what’s good, what’s bad, and exactly what’s planned based on development documents Omni’s Dallas-based designer, HKS Architects, filed with the city.
They used to call this the Water Company Block
First of all, the obvious stuff. While Dallas-based Omni Hotels has development rights to the entire block bound by Liberty Street, Second Street, Muhammad Ali Boulevard, and Third Street—the so-called Water Company Block—the Omni Hotel & Residences does not occupy the entire block. The building that’s on the table today will only take up about two thirds of it—and that’s a good thing. Here’s why. The Water Company Block is a sort of “superblock” for Downtown, larger than a typical 450-foot square we see in most places. The city has said Omni will later develop the rest of the block in a “Phase 2” project, which will bring a more variegated aesthetic to the site, rather than one enormous building on the entire block.
The Omni site plan shows the complex occupying the northern side of the block and installing a 24-foot-wide alley—more a street than an alley at that scale, though. To the south, the historic Oddfellows Hall and an expanse of surface-level parking lots occupy what’s vaguely called a “Future Development Site” on the plan. The hotel will also use these parking lots as staging areas for the construction of the new buildings.
This thing is big—we’re talking Museum Plaza big
Despite only occupying two thirds of this superblock, the Omni is still a behemoth project. It counts its total footprint as 161,600 square feet—that’s over 3.7 acres. And that’s because there’s a lot going on here. Think of it as a sort of land-loving Museum Plaza sprawling out over the block instead of a bundle of skinny towers with its mass floating in the middle.
To begin understanding the building itself, it’s first important know the Omni is really two distinct buildings. On the eastern two-thirds of the block, the actual Omni Hotel & Residences takes up a site measuring 240 feet by 450 feet. The remaining third of the site—about 126 feet by 450 feet—is the 830-car parking garage.
For comparison, that means the Omni proper is a little bigger than the footprint of the Marriott on the block to the north. At the 634-room, 18-story Marriott, built over a decade ago, an underground 416-space parking garage was included on the block where five historic buildings were demolished. Taxpayers footed $42 million of the $100 million budget for the project. (At the Omni, taxpayers are on the hook for $139 million of the $289 million budget.)
This parking garage element, as we’ll discuss later on, is one of the more contentious parks of the project—it’s what already knocked out two historic buildings and has the old Water Company Building in its sights next. Some rough napkin math indicates that putting the parking underground would add about $13 million to the total project cost—about 4.5 percent of the overall budget. Freeing up the land it sits on for additional development could certainly offset these costs, of course.
Next, if we examine the site plan for the new Omni Hotel & Residences—it’s a little difficult as there’s a lot going on here—we can see that the development calls for several urban design tweaks to the city’s streets and established urban street wall. This is where it’s really exciting, as the way the Omni changes the streets and sidewalks around it are the ways we typical Louisvillians will come into contact with the building the most.
First, the Liberty Street and Second Street facades of the buildings are pulled back from the lot line to enlarge the sidewalks on those streets—good start. This is a significant design feature of the project as it adds a sidewalk scale to Second Street that matches the thoroughfare’s grand width and it opens up Liberty to provide a better pedestrian experience. Along these new sidewalks, tree wells, benches, planted areas, and al fresco seating areas are indicated. The downside? Look how many trees exist along Second Street today: a row on each side of the sidewalk. The Omni’s site plan doesn’t come close to that many, which is a missed opportunity in a city struggling to maintain its tree canopy amid a growing heat island effect. Let’s get some more trees in there.
On Second Street, a large porte-cochère—typical of these large convention hotels—allows motorists to pull into a covered entrance to unload bags at the hotel lobby and call on valet parking. In Louisville, similar examples exist at the Galt House, the Marriott, and an unfortunate after-the-fact example was added at the Hyatt, eroding what was once sidewalk space. Notably, Louisville’s historic hotels—the Brown, the Seelbach, and even the 21c—do not require these auto-centric intrusions. In the case of the Omni, renderings show a pretty nice brick sidewalk, which will hopefully be detailed well enough to alert drivers that they are pulling up into pedestrian space.
(One other small but important detail along Second, two cuts—24-feet and 26-feet wide—are planned in the median to allow motorists to turn into the hotel driveway and into the alley, which will add complexity to an already busy street and remove more trees.)
Here on Second Street, the building’s facade is clad in dark charcoal precast brick—a thin layer of brick veneer pressed into a precast concrete panel. A steel trellis climbs over 50 feet into the air and renderings show the structure covered in lush vines. Lots of glass on the sidewalk opens up the corner restaurant—a welcome sign—which is expressed by changing the brick color to red. The lower half of the tower is cantilevered slightly out beyond the building mass, which should offer some visual excitement from the main entrance, but generally the bulk of the towers will be hidden from sidewalk view, at least until you cross the street.
Next up, better design news. The block of Liberty Street between Second and Third streets is getting an all-out road diet, narrowing the roadway to two lanes (or perhaps three, it’s hard to tell on the plan), expanding the sidewalk on the Marriott side of the street and adding pedestrian bumpouts and neckdowns to define hotel and resident drop-off areas for the Omni. Details on this are a little fuzzy, as it’s unknown whether this will ultimately be part of the final plan, but Omni’s drawings show a sidewalk on the north side of the street wide enough to handle a row of robust street trees in what is now a parking lane.
Currently, the sidewalk along the Marriott side is a collection of deep pits with metal grates over top lining a very blank wall interrupted only by a smelly loading dock and cars whipping in and out of the hotel’s underground garage. An improved sidewalk here would be very welcome, indeed.
The blank wall that the Marriott projects onto Liberty Street and sheer dehumanizing ascent of its slab tower jutting up into a boring grid of repetitive square windows should be enough of a lesson that design matters as any I can think of. And HKS’ lead architect, Eddie Abeyta, either agrees a change must be made or else has never been to Liberty Street. He told the Courier-Journal in early June that the new Omni will “transform Liberty Street from an auto-centric environment into the city’s new pedestrian thoroughfare. It will invite the neighborhood in with the smells of freshly brewed coffee, baking bread and fragrant fresh flowers and will serve as a gateway to the community for hotel guests and locals alike.” We’ll see about that.
As the building turns onto Liberty, the band of red brick wraps around and continues along the facade. Walking west, the scale of the building juts upward with vertically oriented glass projections that serve as stairway exits from the convention spaces on the second floor. In between the two is the hotel’s side entrance.
West from here, a small entrance to the coffee shop clad in dark grey metal panels leads to the retail space tucked away from view of the sidewalk behind one of those massive staircases.
The facade then jogs out again to indicate the residential lobby, clad in another 25-foot-tall expanse of glass before being shrouded in a veil a dozen stories tall of blank charcoal brick—the ens of the hotel portion of the taller slab tower—save for a sliver of windows at the end of each hallway. From the sidewalk the full height of the building can be seen abstractly looking straight upwards. Once the luxury residences begin a couple hundred feet up, the slab’s skinny end opens up again with glass and balconies—this portion indicates the tower has reached over top of the neighboring Marriott.
At this point, the structure reveals itself to have switched from Omni to parking garage, and the Lifestyle Market anchors the corner. The materials here change as well, taking a turn for the worse. Two large, L-shaped floating brick panels are attached to the garage structure, but the main material at the sidewalk level here and all the way down Third Street is split-faced concrete block—similar in style to what you likely see at your neighborhood Walmart supercenter.
The market itself features glass storefronts and has a strong corner presence with an entrance and a canopy.
Above the first floor, the parking garage is opened up to allow necessary ventilation—those car fumes have to go somewhere—but is screened at the corner with perforated copper. Moving down Third Street, the copper screening is eliminated and the naked parking garage is exposed. A series of seven metal mesh bands are shown applied to the facade for vines to climb.
Save for the first 76 feet on the corner, the parking garage presents a dead wall to Third Street. Compounding this numbing blankness, there’s already another parking garage across Third Street, so the block will be severely stunted on an activity level for decades to come. The scale of the blankness is also worth noting. The facade is punctured by an entrance to the garage and an even larger opening for the loading dock and its sure-to-be-fragrant dumpster. But the concrete block is stacked 25 feet tall, dwarfing those little tiny people in the elevation above.
Adding insult to this lifeless facade, three “retail vitrines” are indicated on the facade. These are not retail spaces and you can’t enter them or interact with them. Rather they are like storefronts with no store inside. Billboards stuffed with goods you will never be able to buy on Third Street or plastered over with images of a real, quality place.
Finally, back around the extra-wide alley, the parking garage third of the façade is covered in more concrete block—a blank expanse of more than 80 feet until it opens for cars to enter the garage. Above the first floor, solid concrete panels cover a portion of the garage while another floating piece of brick hovers over the automobile entrance. To the east, the Omni picks up again with a massive 60-foot-tall blank red precast brick wall that continues back to Second.
Welcome to the Omni, let’s take a look inside
So imagine you’ve walked up to the main entrance on Second Street—but who are we kidding, most people will drive up to this thing from out of town—and are ready for a stroll around the lobby. So what takes up three-and-a-half acres on the ground floor? A lot.
The hotel lobby is flanked by two monumental, barrel-vaulted hallways. On one side, two hotel gift shops, one catering to bourbon goods, are planned. The hall winds around to a separate entrance on Liberty Street, likely a common spot for guests to shortcut the corner to the main entrance. The other hall leads to a “gallery,” a circulation hub that contains escalators to the upstairs convention functions and leads to the hotel elevator bank.
Connected here is what’s called the Library, a sort of hang-out spot filled with tables, chairs, and couches with what appears to be a bar at one end. These types of spaces are becoming common in a lot of top (boutique) hotels—they typically are hip, comfortable places to work or talk and are open to the community at large. (If you’ve been to New York City, a great example is the common room at the Ace Hotel.) This type of room would be a nice addition to Downtown Louisville and help to make Second Street a place to hang out.
There’s also a lot of boring, behind-the-scenes stuff on the first floor. Behind the lobby, a bunch of office and functional spaces—laundry, mechanical, trash—keep the hotel operating and are kept neatly out of sight.
Besides these core hotel spaces, a number of retail venues are planned. On the southeast corner of the building, the plan notes a 2,100-square-foot “Future Retail” spot next to a 4,100-square-foot steakhouse and bar. Behind these two spaces is what’s called “Speakeasy Lanes,” a hidden bar and bowling alley accessed through the alley, about 100 feet off the street. Notably, the old Falls City Theater Company’s neon sign, which was removed before the building on Third Street was demolished, marks the entrance (take a look above).
On the north side of the building, beginning at Second and Liberty streets, a 3,600-square-foot restaurant includes ample sidewalk dining space. To the west, a coffee shop—surely what the architect was referring to when evoking the smells of coffee wafting down Liberty Street—sits between the hotel’s side entrance and the large residential lobby. It’s doubtful that you’ll actually smell coffee from this shop on the sidewalk (unless you have a cuppa right under your nose), however, as it’s predominantly tucked away behind a staircase, looking more inward toward the lobby. But the thought of wafting coffee sounds nice, right?
On the Liberty Street side—what’s envisioned as “the city’s new pedestrian thoroughfare”—there are five potential ways to interact with the building—to enter the restaurant, the hotel itself, the residences, the coffee shop, or the market. That works out as one potential interaction every 73 feet of facade. Compare that intensity to the narrow storefronts along East Market Street in Nulu where three to four times the number interactions can be found.
About that “Modern Urban Lifestyle Market”
Occupying the rest of the Liberty Street side of the building and stretching into the base of the parking garage is the highly anticipated grocery store component of the project. (Downtown’s getting a grocery store!) The thing is, though, that this doesn’t appear to be the cut-and-dried grocery we think of with Kroger or or ValuMarket. The Omni’s 20,200-square-foot grocery is labeled as a “Lifestyle Market” and was later embellished by architect Abeyta as a “modern urban lifestyle market.” Can we add in a few more buzzwords and call it the super-duper hipster chic modern urban gourmet artisanal provisionary lifestyle market? Couldn’t hurt.
These all tend to be code for upscale, gourmet, expensive food rather than the cheap toilet paper you’re looking for after hours as a Downtown resident. And Abeyta’s description of the place in the C-J certainly backs up that notion. Remember our olfactory designer’s hints of freshly baked bread and flowers enticing pedestrians into the store? Freshly baked bread and flowers are hallmarks of fancy markets. A real grocery store is more likely to sell bread bagged up and pre-sliced for sandwiches and less likely to be doing the baking on site. At any rate, you could potentially smell flowers here as the Lifestyle Market includes a flower shop on the corner and a 1,000-square-foot wine store, both with their own entrances.
It’s going to take a lot of flowers, however, to mask the smell the architects didn’t warn you about—fumes wafting from cars in the Lifestyle Market’s 40 surface-level parking spaces inside the garage fronting Third Street. If this is a going to be a true urban grocery store, maybe we could cut out that parking requirement? Urban grocery shopping is fundamentally different than suburban grocery shopping. In a city, you typically go more frequently and purchase less—what you can carry home. In the ‘burbs, you’re more likely to fill up the cart and load up the SUV with enough grub to feed a small village.
Moving upstairs, it’s time for a convention
On the second floor (see plan above), it becomes clear why the overall Omni complex is arranged the way it is—in a word, ballrooms. The hotel is so big because it contains its own mini-convention center—a boon to a city like Louisville looking to expand its available space for shows. The two ballrooms—a 10,300-square-foot junior ballroom and a 20,500-square-foot grand ballroom—are one likely reason city negotiators were willing to put so much taxpayer money on the line. There’s only so much space at the nearby Kentucky International Convention Center for expansion.
Each of the Omni’s ballrooms is able to be subdivided into as many as eight smaller rooms and the floor is ringed with another nine meeting rooms averaging about 850 square feet. The rest of the floor is occupied by circulation, service areas, and a large banquet kitchen. If you look carefully at the plan, you can see how these two column-free ballrooms straddle the slab towers of the hotel and residences above. You need clear, unobstructed spaces for a convention center. Placement of these ballrooms helped determine the L-shape of the tower above.
These first two floors account for the first 60 to 70 feet of building height rising up from the sidewalk. On top, the hotel amenity deck includes a pool, rooftop bar, spa, fitness center, and six additional meeting rooms. A rooftop dog park for residents is also indicated. The rest of the roof is your standard PVC variety. (But really, can we get some green roofs on top of these ballrooms?)
This isn’t a hotel tower, it’s a bourbon still
Rising from this initial podium mass are the L-shaped slab towers. The hotel’s 600 rooms occupy the next 12 floors in the full L-shaped plan, rising to a height of about 190 feet—very nearly the same height at the Marriott to the north. Here, the residential amenity deck includes its own pool and roof deck, a “Social Living Room” with a kitchen, a fitness center, and a business center. The Omni’s 200 residential units rise up to the 30th floor, or a height of about 370 feet. For comparison, the Waterfront Park Place tower, currently the city’s 5th tallest structure, rises 364 feet. Louisville’s tallest skyscraper, 400 West Market Street, tops out at 549 feet at the pinnacle of its dome.
Architects removed notches from various parts of the slab towers, giving them a more playful appearance. The masses look like they are more dynamically overlapping than would otherwise be the case. I would stop just shy of Abeyta’s description, however: “the intersection of hotel and residential towers are uniquely expressed as bold, overlapping architectural forms meant to represent the crossroads of the past, present, and future of Louisville.” Poetic, but what does that even mean? It get’s worse, though. He added that the design is inspired “by the image of bourbon pouring out of a still, the prominent tower ends become an expression of the inner spirit of the project being expressed visually outward.” If you can translate this, please leave a comment below.
The towers use very similar square windows as the Marriott but group them in stacked pairs to emphasize verticality. This tower portion is clad in dark charcoal brick and glass, and the slabs are pulled away from the sidewalk to avoid the awkward effect of the Marriott’s sheer wall, so hopefully the end result will be an improvement on the architectural shortcomings of its neighbor.
A family of luxury convention center hotels
Architects like to tout their design as “embracing and celebrating Louisville’s authentic quality in a new and forward thinking way,” but what they never tell you is that this two-slab overlapping form is the same two-slab overlapping form that’s celebrating Kansas City‘s authentic quality and is embracing Los Angeles or Nashville in a new and forward thinking way. The programmatic constraints of these very complex buildings—remember how the ballrooms have to fit just so?—force the form before an architect even begins thinking about adding a unique design to a project.
Hotels prefer a long, double-loaded corridor (a hallway with rooms on each side). That’s why hotels tend to be slabs like the Omni or Marriott. Louisville’s design does feature some nice upgrades above what we might otherwise have received from a less design-conscious brand as Omni—and HKS is a very capable architecture firm—but it’s foolish to kid ourselves that we’re getting something that’s truly unique to Louisville. These developments are most efficient when they follow a formula and add on a new skin.
So what have we learned about Louisville’s planned Omni Hotel & Residences? Hopefully that the project is a lot bigger and more complex than we are giving it credit for. Given that Louisville is on the line for 48 percent of the building’s cost, we should make sure we know exactly what we’re getting and demand the best quality project available. Then can we really step back and look in awe at the tower’s transformative effect on Downtown Louisville.