Sunday, June 28th, 2009
A few weeks ago, JC Stites, co-founder of 8664 invited me down to Louisville to talk about the proposal and take a first hand tour of the riverfront. Even as a Louisville native, I had never really walked around there, which shows you how disconnected the city is from the river. The experience is eye-opening. So I thought I’d share some of what I saw with you.
First, here’s a short 40 second video of JC talking about 8664 and what they hope to accomplish:
First a bit of history. There’s long been a desire on the part of many, especially in Southern Indiana, to connect the Indiana and Kentucky legs of I-265 by building a new bridge in the East End. Among other benefits, this would shorten travel times for many to major East End employment centers and open up large amount of already industrially zoned land, including an old army depot, for development. The logic of this connection can be confirmed with a simple look at the map.
However, prior to city-county consolidation, Mayor Jerry Abramson strongly opposed an East End bridge, fearing it would allow traffic to bypass downtown Louisville. He insisted on a new downtown bridge instead. Also, the East End bridge would past through the most wealthy and influential suburbs of Louisville, notably Prospect, and residents there strongly opposed an East End bridge. Hoosiers were adamantly in favor an East End bridge.
As a result, the two sides compromised and agreed to build both an East End and downtown bridge, under the fiction of a “two bridges, one project” solution. The problem is that the price tag is outrageously high – $4.1 billion and getting higher by the day. This is likely the desired outcome for East Enders and their fake environmental group River Fields. They demanded ultra expensive features designed as a poison pills to kill the project.
A bigger problem came to light later. Namely the destructive impact the bridge would have on downtown Louisville. You may remember this graphic showing the immense scale of the redesigned Spaghetti Junction interchange on the Kentucky side of the river. Again, to put this in perspective, note the baseball stadium in the lower left:
It’s worth taking a step back and considering Louisville as a river city. It was originally founded as a portage point on the “falls of the Ohio”, a rapids area that was the only non-navigable point on the river. As with most cities, it’s waterfront was originally industrial and commercial, with all the negatives that implies, and the city turned its back on the filth and vice that filled the area. The river became cut off from the city, first by elevated railroad tracks, then by the elevated I-64 freeway.
Today, however, riverfront across America are being reclaimed as the old heavy industrial era passes, our rivers are cleaned up, and the water becomes valuable for recreational and other purposes. Today, the riverfront in Louisville is a wonder and beautiful area:
There are so many cities across America with glorified creeks that they are nevertheless trying to reclaim as valuable riverfront parkland. My friends, this is what a real river looks like.
Unfortunately, Louisville has long been cut off from the river. While its downtown is only a stone’s throw from the riverfront, there’s almost no sense that it is there when you are in the city. Downtown and the West End are cut off from the river by a combination of a flood wall and a freeway. The only time most people in Louisville is ever see the river is when they drive across a bridge or visit the Belvedere, a sort of elevated public plaza.
To see why, just check out the photos of what blocks the riverfront today, right now:
That’s taken directly from under I-64. Here’s another:
Here’s another one showing the 9th St. ramp system:
Speaking of 9th St., it’s not just the river that’s cut off from downtown. The 9th St. corridor is a huge barrier between downtown and the West End:
Let’s just say that I highly doubt this shot of Main St. is likely to get featured in a Louisville tourist brochure.
It’s not just I-64. The expansion of Spaghetti means the widening of the I-65 approach through the hospital curve. Our friends at Broken Sidewalk put together fabulous coverage of this. Here’s a rendering they pulled from the bridges project materials:
There are a large number of buildings that will destroyed, including as Broken Sidewalk notes, “the Baer Fabrics Building, a small red brick 1880s building, a century old ice warehouse, part of the century-old Vermont American factory, and others. Maybe worse than demolition, the Billy Goat Strut apartments on Main Street and Hancock Street, one of the first redevelopment projects in town with some of the best historic architecture, will have a great view of the highway, which appears about 15 or 20 feet from its windows.”
To put in in perspective, here’s the current I-65 with the footprint of the new overlaid on it:
The road is more than doubling in width. The extensive damage to the urban fabric of the medial district area and Butchertown is big, but especially galling in light of what is happening in Prospect. There, the locals got together to hastily propose an estate for National Register inclusion so that the federally funded bridges project couldn’t harm it. Naturally the Drummond Estate happened to be in the path of the highway. So, in one of those poison pills I mentioned, a $250 million tunnel under the property was proposed. (The KYTC can’t even successfully bore a test tunnel at the site, so I’m not optimistic the actual tunnel is constructable for anything near $250 million).
But wait, as it turns out, the estate isn’t actually impacted by the path of the road at all:
Seeing the treatment of this suburban area versus downtown Louisville is mind-boggling.
8664 has a better idea. Instead of all this destruction, Louisville can:
- Build the East End bridge as planned. (As an addition, I’d suggest ditching the tunnel).
- Tear down I-64 from just east of 22nd St. to the Kennedy Bridge, replacing it with an at grade parkway.
- Simplify Spaghetti Junction to remove un-needed ramps and reduce congestion.
- Re-route I-64 over I-265 across the new East End bridge. Rename the current I-64 in the interior of that bypass as I-364.
- Saves a huge amount of money by eliminating a second bridge and extensive Spaghetti Junction reconstruction.
- Avoids huge urban destruction in the area of Spaghetti Junction
- Enables the city to exploit the riverfront as a recreational area, and reconnect downtown to the riverfront and West End.
The choice is very clear. Does Louisville want this:
The answer seems like a no-brainer to me. 8664 is better and cheaper. How often do you get a choice like that?
The rendering above does show one quibble I have with 8664. Notice the lack of a floodwall. Even if I-64 were removed, the floodwall will still cut off the city from the river. There are creative ways for landscape architects to deal with flood plains, but I haven’t seen any details on how 8664 would solve it. Clearly, investment would be needed to do major alterations or reconstructions on the floodwall, and it may never be the case that people will walk out of their house and be directly to the riverfront as this makes it appear. I’m convinced this is a solvealbe problem, however.
The pictures below show the huge opportunity that awaits. There are literally hundreds of acres of land on the landward side of I-64 that are a wasteland today, but could be reclaimed for park space. Check this out:
Notice the rail lines in the picture. Freight or old streetcar lines? The remains of an old brick street are clearly visible there. JC mentioned something about a Frederick Law Olmsted designed Northwest Parkway, but a mental block prevents me from recalling the details lest I start crying.
There’s plenty of land if you look the other direction too:
That billboard in the background appears to be built on public land. What an insult to the city.
And here’s a last look at I-64 cutting off downtown from the river.
If you want to see what the future could hold instead, check out this one minute 8664 video showing a conceptual view of the new riverfront from the vantage point of a river along a true Riverfront Parkway.
Don’t take my word for it. Do your own comparison at the official web site of the Ohio River Bridges Project and the homepage of 8664.
Better and cheaper. What’s not to love?
Of course, not everybody likes better and cheaper. Highway construction and engineering companies sure don’t. And they carry a lot of political weight. But Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels was already wealthy before taking office, doesn’t need anyone’s money, and isn’t angling to do anything but serve out his last term as governor and continue pushing for change. He’s brought a keen fiscal eye to the Hoosier State, and 8664 would save Hoosiers a bundle by not having to pay for 50% of a downtown bridge plus 100% of the approach work on the Indiana side. With projects like I-69 running over budget, this could be a great place to save money. Plus, the Major Moves funds allocated to the bridges project are not sufficient to pay Indiana’s $1.2 billion share of the project, period. And 8664 preserves the East End bridge that Indiana cares about and which is a no-brainer.
Gov. Steve Beshear took office at a tough time in the Commonwealth, and I think he’s brought some needed seriousness to the role. He strikes me as the kind of guy who is willing to listen to common sense, particularly when Kentucky has huge budget problems, is already having to cancel projects because of highway funding shortfalls, and which has already mortgaged part of its future with GARVEE bonds to pay for the work it is already doing.
Tolls could bail this thing out, but better than toll money is no money. Just because you’re taking it out of motorist pockets at the toll both instead of the gas pump doesn’t mean it is any less a tax and government expense to build this thing. And 8664 is fully compatible with a toll-funded solution.
The East Enders will never give up in their fight to kill the East End bridge, so obviously nothing will convince them. Anything that makes the project less expensive and thus more likely happen they won’t like.
And of course the Courier-Journal, whose editorial page is effectively the PR arm of the Abramson administration, will never stop beating the anti-8664 drum.
But the majority of the public is not in the construction business or a wealthy resident of Prospect. Polls have shown that the public overwhelmingly supports 8664. It is an idea whose time has come. The choice is clear: more of the same or a bold choice for Louisville’s future. 8664 is certainly not risk free, but it’s a bet I believe is well worth taking.