In the 1860s, a block of cast iron and brick warehouses on Louisville’s bustling waterfront was an epicenter of the bourbon industry. Today known as Whiskey Row, the block is in transition with a mix of new development on one end of the block and blighted abandonment on the other. Located a block away from a major new arena, two thirds of the landmarked block remains boarded up after decades of neglect. In a blow to preservationists and the local landmarks commission, the city has granted its demolition, to take place this May during the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s National Preservation Month.
Preserving the block has been at the center of a contentious fight between the community and developer Todd Blue and his firm Cobalt Ventures. After purchasing seven buildings and a vacant lot, where another structure had collapsed from neglect, for $4.3 million in 2007, Blue once hoped to build a $50 million retail and office complex with a tower ascending from its center. Highly praised at the time, plans called for razing the structures while leaving their Main Street facades intact. The project languished in the recession, and Cobalt Ventures eventually sought to tear down the buildings citing public safety concerns.
Preservation groups quickly spearheaded a petition drive resulting in seven buildings being designated local landmarks in June 2010, preventing demolition except for safety emergencies and economic hardship. The non-profit Downtown Development Corporation also issued an independent report suggesting that, while decayed, the buildings were salvageable. “If Whiskey Row is demolished, it would be the first group of individually landmarked buildings in Louisville history to be torn down,” said Stephen Porter, a Louisville attorney and preservationist.
Cobalt Ventures sued the City of Louisville last year to raze the buildings after its demolition permit was denied. “The facts of this case were always based on the concern for the safety of the community and nothing else,” Blue said in a statement. After taking office in January, Mayor Greg Fischer settled the case with Blue on January 31, citing fears that a federal judge could order an emergency demolition with no provision to save the facades. The mayor proposed allocating a minimum of $450,000 toward potentially saving the facades. Chris Poynter, the mayor’s spokesman, said this figure could increase. “We’re in difficult financial times, so it can’t be a huge number. We didn’t feel a maximum was necessary.” The transaction must be approved by Metro Council. Jim King, Metro Council President told Louisville alternative weekly LEO, “You would find in general that we’d prefer preservation as opposed to recreation. The council might approve an expenditure to preserve the facades if the city has ownership of them.”
According to the settlement, Cobalt Ventures will be issued a demolition permit after a 90-day stay, bypassing landmarks and overlay district review. In that time, the city will fund a study determining the feasibility of saving or rebuilding portions of the facades. According to Porter, Blue would also be allowed to build a surface level parking lot on the site for five years, which could be extended if development plans don’t materialize, requiring the review of the overlay district which denied the original demolition plan. “Mayor Fischer’s pro-business attitude is already apparent, and he’s less than 30 days into his administration,” Blue said in a statement.
Porter is disturbed by the decision’s implications on preservation moving forward. “The language of the deal is terrible. This is a harbinger of bad things to come,” Porter said. “It sets a precedent. If a developer can’t get what he wants from the Landmarks Commission, he can just sue the city in an attempt to scare them.”
Preservation groups have banded together to again stir up public support against demolition, and Porter said they are considering asking a court to intervene and open up the settlement. “The goal is to get rid of the current plan and create a new one that forces the preservation of the facades,” he said. Preservationists have already made compromises, realizing the buildings themselves likely will be destroyed. “I don’t love just saving the facades,” Porter said. “But it sure beats a blank lot.”