Saturday, March 3rd, 2007

Louisville’s Big Plans

They say make no small plans, because they have no power to fire men’s souls. Louisville’s problem hasn’t so much been a lack of big plans, but a lack of an ability to execute them. A very divided community was seldom ever able to advance the ball, save when a particularly forceful corporate executive put his personal clout and money behind a project.

Today the environment seems much different. With city-county merger complete, political in-fighting in Jefferson County is at a minimum. Mayor for Life Jerry Abramson is back at the helm of the combined entity. The trends in city development now work in favor of Louisville. And for now there’s no real competition from suburban counties. I believe this presents a unique 5-10 year window in which Louisville can really start to get some things accomplished before the growth story in Jefferson County is over.

I’ll talk here about a few of these big plans. Not only are they large in size and in cost, but they also have significant transformational power. For good or for ill, they are going to change the face of the city assuming they cal get done. These are Museum Plaza, the City of Parks initiative, the Ohio River bridges project, and a new downtown arena.

Museum Plaza

I’ve already covered Museum Plaza extensively on this blog, so I won’t go into details here. But this 60 story, 700-ft. mixed use tower is possibly the most significant development anywhere in the Midwest in the last 50 years outside Chicago. Designed by internationally renowned architect Rem Koolhass (of Seattle Library fame), this building not only has a striking design, but it will be by far downtown’s largest building. This isn’t just cutting edge architecture, it’s a project that is going to become the public face of Louisville. Seldom has any city’s dominant building been so avant-garde. This world class structure will bring international attention to Louisville for years to come. It is an absolute home run project.

Local government TIF financing to support the project has been approved. A pending state law change to allow what is in effect the TIF-ing of hotel taxes from the included Westin Hotel appears to be sailing through the legislature despite opposition from local hotel groups. (I like to say that in Indianapolis the leadership of the community invariably supports a proposal, no matter how bad it is, while in Louisville some vocal group will always fight a proposal to the death, no matter how good it is). Private financing is still a question mark, but supposedly the local backers of the project have enough personal funds to make it happen. Construction could begin as early as this fall. Given the lack of private financing details, I can’t give a good estimate on the likelihood of this being constructed, so call it 50/50.

City of Parks

An item I’ve written little to nothing about to date but which deserves a significant amount of press is the City of Parks initiative. LouisvilleJake recently put a nice posting about this on his blog. Louisville has long been known for its network of urban parks, designed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York’s Central Park. (My understanding is that contrary to popular local belief, Olmsted himself had nothing to do with Louisville’s parks). I remember spending many an hour enjoying myself at Iroquois Park as a kid.

The problem is that Louisville’s parks hadn’t been expanded in decades. Mostly this was because the old city of Louisville had all of the parks it needed and in the outer county there was a patchwork of dozens of tiny municipalities with no scale to build real parks. Again, merger has allowed the city to address this. As outer Jefferson County fills up with development, the window to acquire significant tracts of vacant land for parks is closing. To take advantage of the time remaining, the city launched the City of Parks initiative.

The master planning for this is not yet completely, but already hundreds of acres of land have been acquired. A lot of this came from donations. There are also plans for network of trails 100 miles long throughout the county, one of the most aggressive such plans anywhere. The combination of private, federal, and local funding makes this both a true community project and what’s more, a very doable one.

When completed, this is going to give Jefferson County one of the best urban parks infrastructure anywhere. I believe it will be clearly better than what I’ve observed in other competitor cities. As this is underway already, the likelihood of it happening in some form is a near certainty. I certainly hope that Louisville garners the national recognition it deserves for this highly ambitious project.

Ohio River Bridges

There has been talk of building another bridge over the Ohio River for nearly 40 years. Louisville is currently served by three bridges: the Sherman Minton Bridge carrying I-64, the Kennedy Bridge carrying I-65, and the old George Rogers Clark Bridge which parallels the Kennedy and is an older bridge carrying mostly local traffic destined for downtown. Louisville has a partially completed outer beltway, I-265, with no links across the river. No one has seriously promoted a western crossing in rural Harrison County, but for years Indiana has wanted to build an eastern linkage across the two sections.

Meanwhile the Kennedy Bridge crossing in downtown began to experience congestion. While the bridge itself is not that big of a problem at the moment, the very poor design of Spaghetti Junction on the Kentucky side of the river is. What’s more, Mayor Jerry Abramson of Louisville, long someone who hated anything not inside the city limits, recoiled with horror at the idea of a new eastern bridge that would allow traffic to bypass downtown. He was opposed to an east end bridge in favor of a new downtown span. Backing him in this were residents of the affluent town of Prospect who would lose their homes for a new bridge.

This standoff continued for years until, in the best tradition of politics, the two sides agreed to “compromise” and build both bridges. Of course, they also had to be built at the same time because of mutual suspicions across the border. Thus what is really two projects became to be defined as one in the eyes of the community. An EIS was conducted, and the Ohio River Bridges Project was born.

The big problem with this project has been cost. The estimates have continued to spiral upwards, and now reach $3.9 billion for the entire project, making it one of the most expensive projects anywhere in the United States. The most expensive portion is the rebuild of Spaghetti Junction, which is $1.7 billion by itself. The two states are dividing the cost using a formula where each side is responsible for those improvements which lie entirely on its side, and the bridges themselves are being split 50/50. This puts Indiana’s share at $1.1 billion and Kentucky’s share at $2.8 billion.

Funding in Indiana was secured as part of the Major Moves program. I’ve long been critical of the high Indiana share of this project, but that’s the subject of a later posting. The key is that Gov. Daniels fully funded it – but based on previous cost estimates. Major Moves only included about $600 million for the bridges – only half of what is needed. This puts a huge gap in the program funding. The Kentucky side is even worse, where to fully fund the project, it would peak at 1/3 of Kentucky’s total transportation budget. In a state where Louisville has never been that popular, that puts a big red question mark on the project. Even the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet realizes it can’t all be funded at once, and so is, to the mayor’s chagrin, proposing to construct the lower cost eastern span first.

Muddying the waters further is a grass roots proposal to radically redo the project. This is the “8664” proposal. The idea being to “86”, that is, tear down, the elevated section of I-64 through downtown and greatly simplify the Spaghetti Junction reconfiguration. The backers goal is to reconnect downtown to the riverfront, open up significant new park land, and remove the unsightly expressway. They have promised this will spur development similar to what has happened with removed freeways in San Francisco, Portland, and Milwaukee. It is an interesting idea, though their comparisons are flawed since all of the other cities they mention tore down spur routes, not major through expressways. Still, a lot of people have signed on to this, and the appeal is growing since it reduces the project cost. The problem is that it puts, per usual, cracks in the facade of civic unity, which could undermine efforts to secure federal funding.

Speaking of federal funding, that was put into even greater jeopardy when five term congressman Ann Northrup was defeated as part of the Democrat takeover of the House. Jim Yarmuth, the new congressman, is a freshman with little clout, plus was long on record as an opponent of the bridges project. He’s backtracked on this a bit, but it seems unlikely he’s the kind of guy who is going to really go to bat for the project.

How this will all play out is yet to be seen. As with all major Louisville projects, there is huge drama surrounding this one. But this project is simply too important to the region to let die. Right now it looks like the east end bridge has the most momentum because it seems the most buildable with current funds and is far less expensive and complicated than the I-65 bridge. What’s more, construction on the Kentucky approach has basically already started.

I strongly suggest looking at ways to utilize toll financing to build the eastern bridge. This would not only free up funds for the downtown bridge, conceivably a concession payment a la the Indiana Toll Road could contribute even more. (The downtown bridge cannot be toll because federal law prohibits converting existing free interstates to toll roads). I have heard that tolls were previously studied and rejected as unworkable. However, I always take these studies with a grain of salt since no doubt no one really wanted to build a toll bridge. I suggest that Gov. Daniels should lead the way on this, just as he is doing with the Indiana Commerce Connector and the Illiana Expressway.

Absent toll financing, it is looking doubtful that that the entire project could be built anytime soon. But it does look like at least an eastern bridge is feasible in the short term.

New Downtown Arena

Ever since John Y. Brown, Jr., later to become Kentucky’s governor, elected to take a buyout and fold the ABA Kentucky Colonels rather than pay a franchise fee and attempt to secure a spot in the NBA, certain local leaders, notably attorney J. Bruce Miller, have been trying to lure an NBA team to Louisville. Part of this was to try to build a new downtown arena with modern amenities suitable to the NBA. As usual, there were many abortive attempts at this over the year, but the city was never able to put together the package to make it happen.

However, recently, again in the wake of merger, the idea of a downtown arena came back, this time in a form that seems a virtual certainty to be constructed. An Arena Authority has been established. The financing is already in place and all systems are go. There is no talk of an NBA team this time around. Rather, the arena will be the home of University of Louisville basketball, secured by a deal that gives UoL such preferential rights to the arena it would have to be renegotiated to bring an NBA team in, and used for conventions and other events.

The city is right to forego shooting for an NBA team to launch the arena. The world has changed, and you can’t get a team with the mere promise of an arena – you have to have a world class one build ready for a team to move into. That’s exactly what Kansas City is trying to do, building a new arena with no tenant lined up. I’m sure Louisville hopes to get back in the game once the arena is built, though the UofL lease will complicate things. Also, Louisville has shot for a team and come up short so many times, I’m convinced there is something going on behind the scenes to torpedo it.

This arena was inspired by Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. In fact, in many ways it is a clone of that facility. However, the price tag is far from a clone. Conseco Fieldhouse was $175 million, much of it private money. The Louisville arena will be $450 million, making it one of the most expensive arenas ever built, and almost all of the money is public funds. With no team even playing there, that makes it a fairly dubious investment in my opinion. If eventually an NBA team lands there, it might be worth it, but even then, the city has really sunk a lot of its precious funds into something with dubious payoff.

Of the four major items highlighted here, this is by far the least transformational and most questionable project. It strikes me that a good arena at a minimum could have been constructed for half the price the city is paying.

A city like Louisville simply can’t afford to do everything. It has to pick and choose where to invest its precious dollars. For better or worse, these projects are where the city has chosen to invest. I believe that the Museum Plaza and City of Parks initiative are both fantastic programs that really differentiate the city and are among the most important urban planning undertakings anywhere in America.

The other two projects I’m less enthusiastic about. It is clear that the city needs better bridge crossings, but these projects will likely end up pulling huge amounts of funds away from other local transportation investments that, in their totality may have been worth more to the region.

The arena I think is fairly dubiuos. It will probably have benefits, and if an NBA team locates there eventually may be worth it, but ultimately I think there would have been better places to spend $450 million.

It is interesting that Louisville is the land of the mega-project. I personally have believed Louisville, because of its size and lack of financial heft, should stay away from playing keeping up with the Jones’s with arenas, etc. and rather should look to focus on great neighborhoods. On this axis, the City of Parks really stands out because it is something that is going to provide long term benefits that permeate the region. It’s not just one fancy park a la Millenium Park in Chicago, but rather a network of parks and trails to benefit the entire city. That makes it in my book the most important long term development.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Economic Development, Transportation
Cities: Louisville

11 Responses to “Louisville’s Big Plans”

  1. Crocodileguy says:

    Tearing down the waterfront interstate sounds like a great idea. Waterfront interstates are an eyesore, and I can’t think of a reason to keep it. Everyone cheared the destruction of the Embarcadero. Also, 64 will just be diverted, so I don’t see a real interruption.

  2. Jacob says:

    Urbanophile, thanks for the publicity in your blog. 😉 I appreciate it.

    And I agree with *most* of your opinions about these Louisville projects.

    MP is fantastic, and this deserves some tax funding. City of Parks is something that really has the opportunity to change the suburbs of Louisville for the better. I agree the east end bridge should be built first, and I wish the mauyor hadn’t stonewalled it years ago. The only one we don’t generally agree about is the arena – but that is cool, I do see the value in your arguement that the arena will cost too much for Louisville. I do hope that it at lest breaks even.

  3. Jason says:

    That’s a good summary of what’s going on. I’m going to focus my comments just to what you say about the bridges because I see that as the most interesting and “transformative” part of these big plans.

    I totally agree with you that the east end bridge should be built first and tolled. If affluent louisville wants to keep sprawling east and now north, then it should pay for the privilege to sprawl over the river into Indiana. It’s that simple.

    There is something that you didn’t include in your analysis. Louisville’s twin city: CINCINNATI.

    Cincinnati has a decrepit bridge which does not meet current federal visibility and safety requirements. This is the Brent Spence Bridge which carries I-75 from KY into OH. It is the main artery into the city on a major interstate. Just like its twin downriver, Cincinnati’s Bridge project would involve the junction of multiple interstates (I-71 and I-75) post-bridge.

    ODOT is only in the preliminary stages for this project but it could be expected that funds for this would be needed just as Louisville’s bridges are starting to get built. My money is on there being a need for TWO bridges (and tearing down the current one). One which will feed I-75 and another for I-71.

    Ohio, of course, has its share of problems and might try to delay this much-needed bridge.

    The funding formula you outlined above _is_ grossly unfair to Indiana and later Ohio because Kentucky OWNS the river and therefore should incur most of the cost of building any bridge. Indiana/Ohio should only have to pay for the approaches on their side.

    Regardless of how the funding gets worked out–assume another 50/50 split–where will Kentucky come up with the money when THIS project is added to the heap?

  4. The Urbanophile says:

    Jason, thanks for the mention of the Cincinnati situation. The Brent Spence Bridge is definitely in need of replacement and truthfully that project is probably of greater need than the Louisville one. Twill be interesting to see how this plays out.

    Agree with all your points on ownership of the river and the funding split between states. This will be another opportunity to see how Kentucky treats Louisville vs. Cincinnati when the small side of the river is on the Kentucky side. Will they still go for a 50/50 split, or try to make Ohio pay more?

    If I were Indiana or Ohio I’d tell Kentucky that if they want help funding bridges, they should be willing to split ownership of the river down the middle.

  5. Anonymous says:

    As is usual in Kentucky (or Indiana)leave it to the basketball coach to say it all:

    “…Pitino stopped short of dismissing the idea of an arena altogether — but he seemed skeptical that lawmakers will ever get it off the ground.

    ‘You’re all wasting your time,’ he said at Friday’s press conference. ‘The legislature’s not going to vote it in. We are behind the times as far as looking at Louisville as the economic engine that drives the state.'”

    The state is so behind (and desparate) that it is eager to publicly fund an arena as a “growth strategy” without first having even a pro team as a tenant. Maybe the legislature would go for an arena if it came with a sales tax increase?

  6. Jason says:

    Looks like tolling is on the way for the Brent Spence Project:

    “[Secretary of DOT Mary]Peters urged the Greater Cincinnati delegation to start thinking seriously about other ways to pay for the project, including privatization and making it a toll crossing.

    Whether publicly or privately operated, the essential concept would be to establish a 6.5-mile toll corridor starting someplace near the Kyles Lane interchange in Fort Wright, Ky., at the top of the “Cut in the Hill” and extending northbound on I-75 to about the Western Hills Viaduct in Ohio.

    This wasn’t the first time such a concept has been mentioned in connection with the Brent Spence project. But it was certainly the most forceful presentation to date. And coming as it did from the head of the federal agency in charge of transportation planning, it’s an option that must be taken seriously.”

    Two guesses what she told Rep. Yarmuth in his meeting with her weeks before.

    Tolling Bridges: not just for coastal cities anymore.

  7. The Urbanophile says:

    Interesting, jason. I was under the impression that free interstates cannot be converted to toll. If the Brent Spence project could be tolled, then no doubt the Kennedy replacement in Louisville could be as well.

  8. Jason says:

    Yes, they can toll “free” interstates. But there has been slow movement on states trying this pilot program. Soon, however, you will see them trying to toll anything they can.

    But since you didn’t guess what Sec. Peters told Yarmuth, I’ll have to tell you.

    She was like, “At least one bridge must be tolled. Your project will become higher on my priority list if you toll both of them.

    And since the new I-65 Bridge will be northbound, prepare your constituents for the idea that they will have to pay for the privilege to enter Indiana.”

    To which he answered, “Look, I’m new to elective office and I can let this issue simmer before the next election comes and voters start looking for things that I’ve done for them.

    Moreover, there is a Governor (Fletcher) of the opposing party with exceedingly low poll numbers who might not even survive the primaries in May. A strong Governor will be necessary to get this project moving. Isn’t there some way we can stick it to the Hoosiers instead?”

    Her reply, “You could toll the JFK Bridge. We have this program that noone has taken us up on. [See paragraph: “Section 1216(b) of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century…”]”

    Yarmuth: “I’ll look into it. But I’m going to sit on this for a while. No Rush. Have to see who’ll be Governor by the end of the year. Meanwhile, I’ll say to the public we had a productive meeting.”

    Which was abbreviated in the press account (Courier- Journal 3-18-07) to:

    “Yarmuth said he and the secretary agreed that traditional funding methods for projects like the bridges aren’t going to work.

    Yarmuth said Peters agreed to work with him to explore alternatives, though specifics are still forthcoming.”

  9. Anonymous says:


    Perhaps you should post about Chicago’s Big Plans.

    From Millenium Park and the Bean; an O’Hare modernization project; The flying saucer that ate Soldier’s field; leasing the Skyway; and to a proposal for a Crosstown Tollroad (innerbelt)

    this city really, really, really, really wants the 2016 Summer Olympics. I think they should get it, too.

    I’ve detected an undercurrent of a story of who gets awarded the Olympics.

    Seoul 1988: See, we are a new,growing, prosperous economy and not a military dictatorship.

    Barcelona 1992: ditto.

    Atlanta 1996: We’re the city too busy for hate. It’s the New South. We’d like to buy the World a Coke.

    Beijing 2008: After hundreds of years being down, we’re back on our way–forget what Napolean said (“Let China sleep for when she awakes she will shake the world.”)

    London 2012: (compared to runner-up Paris) The way of “les Anglo-Saxons” works. Free markets, free minds, minimal state. Canary Wharf not La Défense.

  10. The Urbanophile says:

    Good idea – as some point I should work up a posting like that highlighting Chicago’s major development projects.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Like you said in your articale…they have good ideas, sadly there is rarely any execution. I will be shocked if
    MP or the Arena are built anytime in the next 10 years.

    Oh, and here is one thing I never understood about the MP project. What museum? Is one just suppose to pop up out of thin air. Last time I check Louisville doesn’t really have any art museums of great note.

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