Everyone knows the orange and bronze, the mirror ball, and the flags, at the corner of Market Street and Floyd Street in the Haymarket district in Downtown. It’s The Connection, of course, and it’s been a Louisville institution for more than 25 years. Evolving from the legendary Downtowner, which has been noted even in the national press, this newer hub of our city’s LGBT community is soon to move due south, down Floyd into Smoketown.
Within the past few years, several parcels on an underutilized block adjacent to the old Louisville Male High School were purchased from the Salvation Army for $600,000 by Connection owners George Stinson and Ed Lewis. Since that time, we’ve been witness to the welcome restoration of the four-story circa 1860 Ryan-Hampton Tobacco Company warehouse building at 822 South Floyd Street. Undergoing reincarnation as Vu Guest House, the now pink-and-orange painted brick structure commands attention in an otherwise drab and distressed neighborhood.
This boutique hotel, which will cater to LGBT patrons, both local and tourist, is part of a larger block-size campus set to be redeveloped as The Village. That partially-gated complex will add to Vapor Spa, which opened in 2014, and the aforementioned $15 million, 55-room Vu, set to open in mid-2016.
What’s in store at the Village
The latest piece announced last month is a 15,000-square-foot banquet and event space and 750-seat theater dubbed C2. Part of the old Ewald Radiator company building on Breckinridge Street will be re-clad and incorporated into this new building. The structure, presently painted lime green, will also serve as an entry point to a walled patio bar fronting the street.
The Village is expected to grow to fill the entire block. On the west side of the block, three existing buildings (two with historic value) will be reused. Various reports suggest an upscale Italian eatery plus catering facility, a diner or BBQ joint, and retail. With the possibility of 35 additional hotel rooms housed in a generally nondescript modern inn already situated in the southwest quadrant, this block will soon radiate much-needed social and economic activity into the surrounding area.
Undeniably, this reinvigoration is welcome news. But in Louisville, change for the better often proves perilous, as the city so frequently appears to have relegated preservation, planning, and design to the whims of individual developers and investors. In short, Louisville has been happy to settle for “good enough.”
Such is the case in The Connection’s sale and The Village’s development. Both sites embody many of the missteps of Louisville’s redevelopment period of the early 21st Century. And here, we’ve got a double-whammy on our hands, in a city that decidedly needs more than just “good enough.”
Smoketown has weathered its storm
First, Smoketown. Decimated by decades of depopulation, disinvestment, and demolition, this neighborhood is now confronted with welcome redevelopment, but one which is marred by a strikingly insensitive design proposal.
The block upon which The Village is emerging is just west of the Smoketown National Register Historic District but is itself a notable segment of the earlier-designated but oddly-named National Register Historic District #1, listed in 1983. Significant to this designation were numerous Italianate homes, notably along Brook Street, just north of Breckinridge Street. Here were the Rauchfuss Houses, for instance, themselves National Register of Historic Places (NRHP)–designated in 1982. They now exist as nothing more than a collection of broken concrete slabs, unkempt weeds, years of litter, and a double-sided billboard facing the behemoth Interstate 65 across the street.
Around the corner, and within more recent memory, were three additional Italianate houses also contributing to the district. With the consent of Metro Louisville, Stinson had them bulldozed, much to the chagrin of Louisville’s preservation advocates. More demolition for surface parking—a common refrain in our fair city. This heat-trapping asphalt expanse will now serve as the grand entrance for the suburban-inspired banquet hall to be known as C2.
Facing west, C2’s main entrance addresses the parking lot, and the interior of the block. Physically and visually separated from Breckinridge Street by 100 parking spaces and a metal fence, at best, it’s giving its Smoketown neighbors more than just a hint of side-eye. The also-NRHP-listed Louisville Male High School, just across the street, certainly deserves a bit more deference.
A more context-sensitive design might reverse this Walmart-inspired layout. Conveniently, two alleys split the block running east-west, and would provide easy access to parking situated in the interior of the block, thus allowing C2 to be constructed to address the sidewalk, and the neighborhood as a whole.
The uncertain future of Downtown’s Connection site
More on this, and what Louisville’s development code might suggest, in a bit. In the meantime, let’s look back north, at the current site of The Connection at South Floyd Street and East Market Street.
In this case we’re at an earlier stage, dealing again with demolition, with outside developers, and with government transparency (or the lack thereof).
Unlike the Smoketown site, this site is afforded some specific protections—at least in theory. Lying within the Main-Market Downtown Overlay District, this plot is subject to Downtown Development Review Overlay (DDRO) oversight. For perspective, so was the Omni development where we’ve recently weathered the demolition of multiple NRHP-listed structures.
The specific history of this block of Floyd Street is not well-documented. It’s part of the historic Haymarket area, and includes a two-story brick structure in the center of the block likely constructed in the latter half of the 19th century. A larger building attached to the south appears to be modern concrete-block construction, and is non-contributing. To the north, a wide one-story building includes a marker indicating its construction in 1925.
The fate of these two historic buildings, and the urban streetscape they create, is unclear. The site appears to have been sold to an out-of-town investor, and destined for immediate clear-cut demolition. According to a report from Sheldon Shafer in the Courier-Journal, any plan for the site currently hides behind a confidentiality clause in the sale contract.
Once again, preservation and planning advocates find themselves forced to play another game of catch-up. As Metro remains characteristically tight-lipped, the fate of another character-rich block of Louisville’s people-centric built environment is clearly in jeopardy.
And yet, in this era of monolithic mega-projects, these two seemingly ordinary—but irreplaceable—sturdy brick structures are ready for inclusion in the redevelopment of The Connection’s site. If thoughtful design and redevelopment practices are promoted by those entities responsible for their protection, that is.
But based upon recent history, including outright hostility toward pragmatic preservation or thoughtful planning, and with protections granted by the Landmarks Commission, the Board of Zoning Adjustments (BOZA), and other entities all but hollowed-out, and when even landmark structures such as Louisville Water Company headquarters and Odd Fellows Hall are afforded little dignity, we all know better what fate likely awaits the humble structures at 120–130 South Floyd Street.
Credit where credit is due
Despite this criticism, largely of Metro, we should pause here and give credit where it is due—to Stinson and Lewis. Since the mid-70s, their investment in the city’s core has helped to strengthen otherwise tarnished neighborhoods. When The Connection opened, this part of Downtown was a shadow of its current self.
Similarly, their creative vision at the old Kentucky Theater, a marketplace and restaurant in the heart of the Fourth Street district, helped reinvigorate Theater Square. And now, in Smoketown, they are poised to do it all again. Indeed, Stinson has been described as a visionary (and a shrewd businessman) in both the LGBT and the real estate communities, and his and Lewis’ success is hard-earned.
Metro must stand up for the city
And yet, like so many other potential-laden projects in Louisville, Metro fails to step in and enforce common sense regulation. Back in Smoketown at the Village development, Metro and the BOZA have already green-lighted the creation of additional heat-islands, a car-centric suburban design in a walkable urban neighborhood, thoughtless demolition of NRHP structures, and insensitivity to demoralized-but-historic neighborhoods that stand to regain their lost luster through thoughtful renewal.
Downtown at the Connection site, we’re dealing again with the issue of speculative demolition by out-of-town developers. To any active observer of the situation, it looks like nothing less than the systematic dismantling of what many spent decades to enact and enforce.
We’re dealing with an inability or an unwillingness to promote changes in property tax law for the purpose of encouraging development of surface lots rather than clear-cut demolition of existing, usable structures to create an unnecessarily vacant lot.
Clearly, the onus here is upon Metro to enforce the rules and to standardize and level the field for developers and projects of all sizes. If we can enforce a restriction on vinyl replacement windows in a single-family home, then surely we can abide by a few guidelines for an entire city block of a National Register district.
The guidelines are already on the books
Now, I’m not a planner. Not an architect. Not a developer. Which is why I’m glad there are many of these experts to assist Metro (which is full of bright, dedicated individuals) in developing a set of guidelines, some of which I’ve chosen to include below.
First, from the DDRO document outlining Downtown Character & Goals for the East Main/Market corridor:
The East Main/Market area has attracted a number of smaller cultural arts galleries, shops, loft housing, and restaurants that thrive in communal, neighborhood fashion. The many historic buildings in the area have attracted significant 1st floor retail uses with urban, loft residential opportunities in the spacious upper floors of the historic buildings…
Buildings in the district range from single story structures to high rises well over 100’ in elevation with a more common range of 3 to 5 stories in the historic district. The three blocks east of Floyd Street between Main and Market Streets are listed as part of the Phoenix Hill National Register District. The three blocks bounded by 2nd, Main, Floyd, and Market Streets (within which lies The Connection) contain buildings of historic and architectural merit that are similar in character to buildings within the Phoenix Hill National Register District. Significant rehabilitation and improvement efforts have been completed and other opportunities exist.
Overlay Districts (such as the DDRO, of which The Connection’s site are part) are intended to promote compatibility of development with existing land use and design features. Within designated areas, proposed developments and physical changes to the exterior of a building are reviewed in accordance with established principles and guidelines addressing urban design elements.
Further, guidelines for new construction within Metro preservation districts would also be rightly applied within National Register of Historic Places districts (both The Connection and The Village sites can reasonably be considered to be included).
Regarding the historic buildings at The Connection, and the three already-demolished Italianate homes on Breckinridge:
- NC2: “Do not demolish contributing structures in a historic district to make way for new or large-scale construction.”
Regarding any future development at The Connection:
- NC12: “Design infill construction that reinforces the spatial organization established by surrounding buildings. The character of historic streetscapes relies heavily on the visual continuity established by the repetition of similarly-designed facades.”
- NC24: “Incorporate set-back upper stories into designs for new construction that exceed the established cornice line.”
- NC31: “Design new construction to emphasize the existing cornice line on each block.”
All of this can be achieved by incorporating the existing historic structures into a new development.
Regarding the C2 banquet hall at The Village:
- NC3: “Design new construction so that the building height, scale, massing, volume, directional emphasis, and setback reflects the architectural context established by surrounding structures.”
- NC5: “Select materials and design elements for new construction that are sympathetic with surrounding historic buildings in the district. Materials should be of a complementary color, size, texture, scale, and level of craftsmanship.”
- NC8: “Design infill construction that enhances the pedestrian-oriented character of historic commercial districts. Commercial buildings should have a well-defined base at the pedestrian level with details conveying a sense of horizontality and progression along the sidewalk.”
Regarding parking at The Village:
- NC38: “Design new construction so that access to off-street parking is off alleys or secondary streets wherever possible.”
- NC40: “Generally speaking, parking should be located in the rear.”
- NC41: “Design required new parking in such a way that it is as unobtrusive as possible and minimizes the impact on the historic setting. Shared parking areas among groups of businesses is encouraged.”
While there are reasonable compromises to be made—not every existing structure, for instance, can or need be saved—the above guidelines are a reasonable point of reference. They outline a vision for what we, collectively, and with expert guidance, have decided we want for Louisville to become.
It is Metro’s responsibility to balance the desires of a developer’s bottom line with the needs relevant to the creation of a healthy city. As it stands currently, the scales are well-weighted toward the former, at the expense of the latter. In order to become a sustainably competitive, vibrant, and magnetic 21st century city, we would do well to start evening things up. The Connection and The Village are two great places to start.