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A Compassionate City Respects Its Built Environment

Tomorrow, Louisville will host a conference that has significance for the future of public discourse, and urban design, in our city.

Sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Green Lab, it will focus on the Omni Hotel project.

I’ve commented on several occasions about this important development which promises to affect, for better or for worse, the livability of our central business district. And indeed, for all of Metropolitan Louisville.

The Omni will be built on the block that is bounded by Third, Muhammad Ali, Second and Liberty streets. This is choice real estate that has, in my own lifetime, been neglected and sadly ignored for the most part. At one time, it was a busy and effective block; for most of the 20th century, it was the backside of more important places, including the Starks Building, the Pendennis Club and Christ Church Cathedral. Over the mid-century years, most of the buildings in the block were razed and replaced with surface parking lots. These have contributed to the heat island effect in downtown, and they are just plain ugly.

Since the late 1990s, talks have been underway about finding new uses for these spaces. For a long time, some community leaders thought this would be a good site for the basketball arena. The Cordish Group, developers of Fourth Street Live! hoped to extend their investment in downtown to this block, but in time they withdrew.

In the last year or so, Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration has negotiated with the Omni Hotel group to locate a hotel-condominium development on the block. And in the last few months, it has all “come together,” and plans call for construction to begin in January 2016.

I have been following (and commenting on) downtown projects for almost 45 years. I had some wise mentors including The Courier-Journal’s urban affairs editor Grady Clay, its publisher, Barry Bingham, and local historian Samuel Thomas. Sadly, they are all gone now. But the unifying theme in all of these discussions has been public involvement, transparency and sensitivity to the character of our city, which is unlike any other. Were I still at The Courier-Journal, I would hope that the editorial page would have engaged with this process at length. Today, I am weighing in, hoping that it might have a little bit of effect on the decisions soon to be made.

It is long past time we have a community conversation about our built environment. I wrote editorials about that in 1978 and 1979, and later. We ought to talk about architecture. The houses, the churches, the schools, the firehouses, the factories, the stores … all the structures that as much a part of our everyday lives as our souls.

Louisville has a reputation for being a city that is progressive and respectful of its past. Some people scoff at the respect for the past. And more than a few people I know scoff about being progressive. I say, bravo for each.

But, I side with preservation, and I want to explain why.

Almost every week, I drive about six miles from my home in Harrods Creek to the Eline Memorial Library in St. Matthews. It’s been a major part of my life. When I was 8 or 9, my mother and other PTA board members at the Greathouse School in St. Matthews formed a committee to petition the Louisville Free Public Library to establish a branch so we kids didn’t have to go downtown, or to Crescent Hill, to check out books. Soon thereafter, a small, 1950s modern structure was constructed on Church Way, just behind the church where I was christened and where we worshiped most weeks.

The Sidney Eline Memorial Library was named in honor of a young man from St. Matthews who had been killed in World War II. So was his good friend and neighbor, Lonnie Snowdon. Lonnie’s mother, who also went to our church, became my baby sitter, even before the library opened. But before the first book was placed on the shelf, I had a kinship with that library.

This is what many of us call community. Others call it “roots.” I say it is my idea of home. Today, I drove to the Eline Library, which is located in the third grade classroom of the old Greathouse School where, nearly 60 years ago, Mrs. Mills taught me to read, to do multiplication tables and to learn about current events through My Weekly Reader. Mrs. Mills’ classroom was too small for the entire branch library, so some of it has spread into what was once the cafeteria, a tile lined room that smelled of curdled milk, mop buckets and baking shortbread cookies. To others that may sound foul, but to me it is very sweet.

There are more than a few people who want to tear down the old Greathouse School. After all, it is getting old. Built in 1923, it is the same age as my mother would be. But, when she used to escort me into the classroom, she was a pretty young woman and the school was considered modern, state of the art. We had a P.A. system where every morning one of us would read the Bible, and others would sing the National Anthem.

Every inch of that school remains familiar to me in my mind. And even though it was transformed inside more than a quarter-century ago to become a library and the St. Matthews City Hall, I can still (if I try) smell faint whiffs of chalk dust, Mrs. Sacra’s (my first grade teacher) Woolworth perfume, and the wax that was applied weekly to the shiny pine floors. Once I fell down a flight. One never forgets that.

These are the sensations that many of us feel when we look at other buildings from our city’s past. Our past, you see, is part of our present.

Prince Charles summed it up well in his recent address at the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville: “In the United Kingdom I’ve been trying very hard for quite a long time to remind people of just how important our heritage is, and how you can reuse, save and … find new uses for many of these buildings: Great mill buildings or stockyards or army barracks or huge 19th century hospitals and mental hospitals convert very well to other uses. And not only that but when you use those buildings … you can also use them as inspiration for what new building you do around it.”

For too many years, the differences between those who seek to preserve, reuse and cherish the past have been denigrated and dismissed by those who believe progress means tearing down, building new, and making a great deal of money in the process. During my own career, I’ve tried to argue against that perspective, encouraging those who make their way through development that respects, reuses and benefit from our historic landmarks.

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We’re at the crossroads in that discussion today in Louisville. The proposed Omni project, something that could be quite remarkable for our city, and treasured among urbanists across America, is stalled in a battle over a few old buildings. A few old buildings. One of them, now gone, was a garage. A heated parking garage with an elevator to take autos from one floor to another. Anachronistic? Perhaps. But in its time, it was quite remarkable. Other buildings in the block have other traits. Not one of them is as notable as, say, Louisville City Hall, the Old Jail, or even The Courier-Journal Building, where I went to work day in and day out for more than four decades.

Together, however, like the old Greathouse School, they are a template for the memories, the aspirations, and the accomplishments of a great American city, one we call Louisville. Those who stumble over government regulations, not to mention narrow-minded ideas, would try to dismiss the feelings of affection that bind us to these places.

If there is any one thing that should link a truly compassionate city to its heritage, it is the love and respect for the built environment. When I walk down Grandview Avenue and enter the old Greathouse School, on my way to return a library book or to look for a new one, I feel as vibrant as a 6 year old, and full of life, hope and health. Our greatest gift is the health that we inherit from the past. How can we destroy that source of well-being?

The charrette offers us a unique opportunity to explore, and treasure, that.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.