This past Easter I had the pleasure of spending an extended weekend back in Louisville. In addition to visiting with family and old friends, I also had the opportunity to see how the city has continued to change and evolve over the last seven months (I moved to Norfolk for a job last August). I was pleased to see progress in many parts of the city, but there was one part of town that genuinely surprised me: East Main Street.
Growing up, East Main Street was always a “drive through” part of town; a street my family always took to visit the museums and other attractions in the heart of downtown. We never had a reason to stop on East Main Street, unless it was to catch a baseball game at Slugger Field. It’s much grander and more historically intact western counterpart has always overshadowed East Main Street, but in my humble opinion that may be about to change.
I took the brand new all electric circulator bus from Nulu to Downtown (a service that I found to be clean, modern, and overall a vast improvement over the diesel smoke belching Toonerville trolley buses) to meet a friend for lunch on Fourth Street. Imagine my surprise when I stepped off the bus in front of the historic Belknap Building onto an East Main Street that looked very different from the one I thought I knew.
The most prominent change is the new eight-story, 175-room Aloft Hotel that recently topped out at the southwest corner of First Street and East Main. I fondly remember the humble yet handsome Marine Electric Building that hotel has replaced, but I found the new construction to have improved the overall look and feel of the block. To my eye, it looked more filled out (perhaps due to the elimination of the small parking lot that used to occupy part of the space) and more urban. Having such a strong anchor on the corner turned what has always been an underdeveloped stretch of buildings into a proper downtown block. The hotel’s guests will be a welcome addition to the fledgling downtown retail scene, and the outdoor bar planned for the first floor will undoubtedly help bring energy to the street on warm evenings that until now has largely been missing.
Looking south down First Street, I spotted something interesting: a one-story shell made out of brick and faced with limestone. The forlorn looking structure is all that remains of a small antebellum warehouse, that was once on the cusp of being restored and renovated into a new addition to a revitalizing downtown. But the city forced the owner to demolish the upper stories when an exterior wall was found to be leaning and structurally deficient. I had known the backstory, but I was surprised to find brick and limestone remnants to be intact and completely untouched by the construction next door. With the revival of downtown accelerating, this small but resilient piece of historic Louisville may yet find a new lease on life.
The Aloft Hotel was the biggest visible change to East Main Street, but there were other signs of progress that, while smaller, are equally significant. The Ice House Lofts on East Main near Floyd Street (pictured at top) is finally showing new signs of life after years of recession-induced dormancy. Crews have started to cut openings into the tall brick facade for future apartment windows.
Signs can be seen for 111 Whiskey Row, the long-awaited (and frankly long-overdue) redevelopment of the Whiskey Row block of former bourbon warehouses into office space, restaurants, and apartments. Also visible on the block is a notice for a zoning change from C-3 commercial to EZ-1 (Entrepreneurial Zone), a legal step that recently cleared Metro Council to advance the planned $30 million Old Forester bourbon distillery. For most of my life, Whiskey Row has been little more than a block of decayed, abandoned buildings. That is all about to change, and in the best possible way. A few years from now, Whiskey Row will be one of the most active, unique, and interesting blocks in the entire Central Business District.
I have always remembered East Main Street as a quiet place, without much to see or do. But it is clear after my visit, that will soon no longer be the case. With new apartments, shops, restaurants, hotels, and even a few full scale bourbon distilleries all either under construction or in the planning stages (not to mention some Louisville’s largest sports venues), East Main is well on its way to becoming a great mixed-use street. I very much look forward to seeing its transformation progress, and to see yet another part of urban Louisville slowly but surely come back to life.