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Preservationists To Turn Louisville Into 3-Year 'Living Laboratory'

For the next three years Louisville will become a testing ground for a range of preservation strategies that look to bolster the framework of historic communities.

Louisville's abundance of historic structures, coupled with the strong interest in preservation, access to data and an increasing market for urban living led the National Trust for Historic Preservation to choose the city for the study, said Margaret O’Neal, senior manager for sustainable preservation with the National Trust.

Heading the study will be the Preservation Green Lab, an extension of the National Trust that looks to explore the value that older buildings bring to their communities. Similar studies have been conducted in Baltimore and Philadelphia, but O’Neal said the Louisville study will be the “first time the National Trust is bringing together all of our resources to test the impact of targeted, collaborative work.”

This means the researchers will be using myriad concepts to determine the best way to address challenges and opportunities of historic places in urban environments. These include:

  • developing financial tools to assist innovation in older neighborhoods,
  • using data and mapping to determine how to overcome barriers associated with property reuse,
  • educating Louisville residents on ways to increase energy efficiency and working with local and statewide partners to strengthen the Kentucky Historic Preservation Tax Credit.

O'Neal said the study will be "three year's worth of work testing and measuring the impact of concentrated, multi-disciplinary efforts."

Rebecca Matheny, the executive director of the Louisville Downtown Partnership, said the specifics of the study have not yet been finalized and researchers are still in an “information-gathering mode and a relationship building mode.”

She said the study will look to go beyond the “brick and mortar” aspect of historic preservation.

“This is much more a holistic approach, it’s not just about buildings that need to be rehabilitated, it’s also about buildings that are in a healthy existing framework,” she said.  “It’s the continued success of buildings in addition to their initial revitalization or their initial reuse or rehab.”

Matheny said the financial tolls that come along with preserving historic structures can be intimidating “at the onset,” but she believes the study will “entice people to make an investment and to really appreciate and embrace the positive impact of historic structures and preservation of historic structures.”

And she added that preserving historic places is important to the economic development of a community.

“It’s really about place-making,” she said.  “Places that look and feel authentic and retain their historic fabric and that embrace what makes them unique and reflects the history and use of the area are really incredibly vital aspects to have.”

The study comes with a near $1 million price tag, paid in part by the Owsley Brown II Family Foundation, the rest will come via fundraising, said O'Neal, with the National Trust.

Marianne Zickuhr, the executive director of Preservation Louisville, said the “living laboratory” the researchers will create in Louisville will “look at plenty of historic neighborhoods across the city" and what preservation strategies could best fit each neighborhood.

Those neighborhoods include Old Louisville, Butchertown, the Highlands, Russell and Portland, she said.

Louisville boasts near 20,000 structures considered to be "historic," Zichuhr said.  To garner this distinction, a building must be at least 50 years old, she said.

Zickuhr said she also couldn’t give specifics about what the three-year study will entail, but is hopeful it will help change how residents look at preservation efforts.

“At the end of the day there will be more people in Metro Louisville talking about preservation and the wonderful assets that it brings to a city,” she said.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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