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.
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.