Letter | West Main St. needs 'healthy urban design'

(Courier-Journal.com) - With the city’s recent Request for Proposals (RFPs) to develop three vacant sites along West Main Street, we have an opportunity to enhance cultural health and new development that integrates the best in thoughtful design and sustainability.

In anticipation of these goals, we would like to make three suggestions, all of which can be subsumed under the umbrella of “healthy urban design.”

We suggest that the city encourage proposals of a scale that is compatible with existing nationally important historic structures in the area, The West Main Street National Register District; that the deadline for submitting proposals be extended beyond Oct. 7; and that the well-being of the citizenry be observed in plans that are both sustainable and humane.

We believe that following these guidelines will lead to the outstanding development that the sites deserve. Moreover, this plan is set forth in the hope of creating an opportunity to enhance community harmony through greater citizen involvement in the development decisions that impact their lives.

The spectacular sites under discussion, once home to a Kingfish Restaurant, are close to the Ohio River in downtown and adjacent to the Muhammad Ali Center in an area that also preserves significant Victorian architectural structures from our 19th-century past, when Louisville was the second-largest city in the South. Previous proposals for development of these sites include the Vencor Headquarters and Museum Plaza, both mega-proposals that were abandoned before construction began.

Given the city’s awareness of some of the limitations of previous mega-projects, isn’t it time to consider some new approaches? What if there were five developers building five separate projects? Such development happens in major cities every day. The total could still produce $300 million of investment, with highly advantageous outcomes. Structures could be more humanely scaled to the historic streetscape, with its orientation toward pedestrians, trees and other vegetation.

The recent work of the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab has shown us the way. Their two years of work in Louisville has only reaffirmed their previous publication: "Older, Smaller, Better" – which demonstrates the essential value of multiple, humanely scaled projects, well integrated into existing older neighborhoods.

The 30-day deadline for responses to the RFPs is Friday. Although we don’t know who may be interested in acquiring these sites, we do know that one month cannot possibly be adequate to develop a $30 million scheme, let alone a complex $300 million one for highly challenging sites.

Experts say that any serious scheme would have to address complicated issues of design for multiple sites, an undefined mix of users, cost estimating, financing and demand and market analyses. Since the area is outside the floodwall and in the flood plain, additional challenges must be resolved. On the bright side, however, these challenges could become an opportunity to develop best practices in dealing with these issues.

We applaud Mayor Fischer’s vision in bringing forth these key sites for redevelopment. The time is right. Our hope is that we can proceed as a city that is both self-confident and compassionate, able to enjoy the promise of spectacular sites in development solutions that are sustainable, compatible with existing historic surroundings and mindful of the health and aesthetic needs of our citizens. Such design will create harmony in the community, continuing to bring together our people, our river, existing landmarks and future commerce. With enlightened city leadership, these inspired outcomes will occur.

Christina Lee Brown, founder,  Institute for Healthy Air, Water and Soil

David Morgan, former State Historic Preservation Officer

Keith L. Runyon, co-chair, City of Louisville Task Force on Historic Preservation; retired editorial page editor, the Courier-Journal

Edith S. Bingham, veteran preservation leader on national, state and local level

Daniel Vivian, assistant professor,  University of Louisville

Dr. Kathleen Lyons, retired professor,  Bellarmine University

Meme Sweets Runyon, executive director, River Fields Inc.


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