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Landmark Idiocy

In earlier posts I've commented on the importance of the built environment to a city's culture and brand, and a few things have happened recently that harkened to this idea. Also, they made me a little crazy. What shocks me is the extent to which both the average Louisvillian as well as the Louisville "elite" have such comically parochial views of how the built environment effects them and the culture/brand of this city. Both factions use such short-sighted, NIMBY, knee-jerk thinking it's no wonder that a city with so many incredible assets has seen negative net-migration and jobs lost for the last decade.

Both of these issues involve the concept of "Landmarking" and all of the peril that comes with it. (Note: I am neither a preservationist or lawyer so I'm sure my general ignorance of these things will result in me saying something I will regret) Two instances should help illustrate and add some color to what I'm driving at. I'll try to give some context for my theoretical, non-Louisville readers.

The Twig

Somehow, nobody complained when they painted it this hideous orange

At the corner of Bardstown Road and Douglas Loop, towards what we call the "upper highlands" is a local jaunt called The Twig and Leaf. This is a mainstay of 2 a.m. drinkers who need a greasy spoon to soak up the festivities of their evening. It has been at the corner since 1941. I had my first date with my wife there (she bought – as I was, ummm, underemployed shall we say). So trust me, I understand emotional attachment to this place. A development group out of Cleveland looked into purchasing the building as well a few neighbors in order to put a CVS Pharmacy at the corner.

As you can imagine, when news of the inquiry hit, people got their panties all in a bunch. This is a landmark! it's been there since 1941! And so ensued the great and now ongoing push to declare The Twig and Leaf as having landmark status.

Are you all looking at this building? If someone offered to build this building on the corner as new construction we'd all cry out in disbelief. And now the freaking thing is neon tangerine. The only relevant design aspect of the place is their phenomenal neon sign – which isn't even attached to the building. This isn't the diner from Nighthawks we're talking about here.

Okay, I will say it is one of the few mid-century buildings in the Highlands, but it's not a terribly shining example of the form. Landmarking this building means that when somebody finally get's tired of having to work at 2 a.m. for razor-thin margins on tater-tots and closes the doors once and for all, the prize we get is this neon dreamcicle building. Consider the fabric of the neighborhood saved!

Tops in neon!

Proposed drawings for the new building were in line with buildings that try to be "historical" on the cheap. Brick with limited details, but it wasn't going to be a cinderblock nightmare.

In a wee bit of irony (at least I think it's irony) there was a classic mom and pop pharmacy that lived right across the street form the twig. The pharmacist went to CVS down the road and now a realtor is in the space. I find the loss of a true neighborhood pharmacy (you could run tabs and even get home delivery! The pharmacist was at minimum second generation) way more disturbing than a diner that's changed hands a few times along the way and frankly has suffered dramatically under the new ownership.

So why the 6,000 fans of the Save the Twig facebook page? Why the rush to get the building landmarked? What are we losing if we lose the Twig? Some would say the culture of the neighborhood would be diminished. In a certain way it would be true. There is a certain nostalgia and pride that comes along with having a mid-century diner in your neighborhood – even if you don't walk in it because the food is mediocre on their best days and the place could really use a bleach spray down. Part of it was the desire to fight for the little guy. And you know what? That might be reason enough to try and fend off CVS.

Speaking of Big Bad Business
Todd Blue, one of Louisville's more well known developers recently struck a deal with the city that would allow him to demolish the back ends of a strip of buildings known as the Iron Quarter, while preserving or reconstructing the facades. Louisville has the largest collection of cast iron facades of any American city not named New York. Blue purchased the buildings what seems like a million years ago and has sat on them leaving them to fall into serious disrepair. In a bid to apparently become what seems (to some) to be a deep-pocketed asshole, he petitioned to demolish the buildings in totality, citing safety concerns.

Admittedly there were all manner of negotiations leading up to his petition, though things seemed to be destined to get to this point somehow. And as you can imagine people were not pleased. I am one of them. The Iron Quarter is something that actually is truly unique to the city of Louisville. Iron facades are an embedded part of the architectural culture of the city. Louisville's architectural tradition and associations are from the 1800's not the 1940's. It's one of the things people tell tourists about. It's part of our culture and brand in a way that is incredibly important. the fact that an entire block of these buildings – on Main street no less – sat decaying for decades is a travesty unto itself.

With this in mind, a rush of people ran to have the buildings put on the historic register to try and force Blue to leave the buildings standing. The entire building, not just the facades. And here is the rub. The back ends of most of these buildings are not architecturally relevant, and more importantly are not designed to house the kinds of things that that block needs. The spaces are generally too big for retail, particularly local retail, of which downtown is severely lacking. Only with significant reconfiguring are they viable for other commercial endeavors. In short, taking them down would drastically help with the development of the block.

The Iron Quarter/Whiskey Row today

The proposed development

And this is where the sticky wicket of Lamdmarking things comes into play. It is sometimes a useful tool to maintain the architectural record and help solidify architectural culture. But in some situations it's a nuclear option, particularly in dynamic areas of a city that have changing needs. These are two examples of where the past crashes face first into the future. For some people, one of these must be the winner. You're stuck in the past or heartless towards heritage.

This is a shortsighted and tragic way to view the world.

In the case of the Twig, landmarking a completely insignificant building in terms of architecture simply means that you are ensuring killing that corner for the future. Bardstown and Douglass is a corner that has incredible potential to be a dense mixed use intersection. It's at the border of very walkable parts of the Highlands and as such gets excellent foot-traffic as well as motorized traffic. It currently houses a very successful coffee shop, an ice cream shop, a bakery, a barber, a framer, a pizza joint, a hardware store as well as office space. There is a bank and two churches. Douglass Boulevard is almost entirely residential as well as are the surrounding streets. To build a multifloor building with living, office and retail space would only make the corner thrive and improve on the neighborhood's viability.

The sad part is that the Highlands is supposed to be a progressive leader in the Louisville community. But progressive policy, and actual progress sometimes mean change. And sometimes it's for the better.

In the case of Whiskey Row/The Iron Quarter you have a developer who in the beginning seemed to appreciate the meaning of those facades (note the proposed development saves them, see above photo). Then through a series of unfortunate events (economy number one), and stupid declarations about destroying the buildings wholesale, he lands on the wrong side of history. On the other side are people who in this case are saving something important but in a way that also possibly kills a corner.

That block of buildings has sat vacant for more than 20 years. An opportunity to create more viable living, working and retail space is incredibly important to that section of downtown. It's called Main Street for god's sake. It's important geographically and architecturally. Yet it has been a blighted corner for my entire existence in this city. Is the development proposed exactly what I would do? Maybe not, but it is certainly an improvement over decaying buildings.

Why the city didn't come to the conclusion that it needed to help fund the preservation of the facades in the first place is beyond me. Particularly since that's where we ended up after all the hullabaloo. And we're still actually in danger of having "rebuilt" facades rather than "restored' facades.

But all of this is to say that sincere thought needs to go into what our built environments do for a city and it's brand. Cities are often remembered for the people, the service, the interactions, but they are equally remembered for the physical surroundings and attributes. The physical attributes can spur growth and community, but only if we keep a level head and understand the implications of our actions.

For Louisville to be a place that encourages growth, progressive urban planning, community, vibrancy, economic vitality we can't afford to be overly nostalgic. To compete with our regional cities we have to be able to show we are a city that does things, not sits on the sidelines waiting.


(Note: I understand there are about one million variables surrounding both of these things, particularly the Iron Quarter debacle, but the larger point remains that consistently holding back development is doing nothing to improve our neighborhoods or our viability as a city, and this attitude seems to permeate every aspect of how we do things. Did someone say East End Bridge? Not me!)

Jason LaughlinComment