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Could Louisville Be Friendlier To Developers?

Rush Hour in Louisville, Kentucky Skyline at Sunrise
Rush Hour in Louisville, Kentucky Skyline at Sunrise

Louisville has a reputation as a tough place to develop property, says the head of the city's economic development agency.

For a developer to gain approval to build or redevelop buildings or land, he or she must adhere to form districts and an expansive land development code, not to mention ensuring that plans align with the demands of architectural or overlay district review committees, said Mary Ellen Wiederwohl, chief of Louisville Forward.

In all, developing in Louisville can be an arduous process, Wiederwohl said during a Louisville Forum event on Wednesday dedicated to preservation issues in the city.

That multi-layered entitlement process is designed to protect the city's existing aesthetic and ensure new developments fit within the fabric of the neighborhood they're planned for, she said.

"But a lot of other cities don't have quite that many layers to go through, so it can be daunting," she said.

Charles Carlisle doesn't disagree with that. He's a principal of the Nashville-based Bristol Development Group. His firm has developed a project in Norton Commons and, more recently, plans to build a seven-story mixed-use apartment building on Main Street downtown. That development is displacing four structures once deemed historic.

Carlisle said in some instances, provisions related to zoning codes, form districts and neighborhood overlay districts conflict. This can make just starting the process to get a project approved difficult.

"Louisville is maybe more complicated than many of the places that we develop, and I think part of that is because the layers ... those aren't seamlessly integrated," he said.

Carlisle is quick to point out that these layers aren't necessarily inappropriate. He said residents value the history of their neighborhoods, and developers should respect that.

But he said some improvements to the development process could be reformed without hurting the quality of projects coming into the city. Streamlining the process would be a good start.

Wiederwohl said one of the first projects Mayor Greg Fischer took on after being elected focused on just that: streamlining the planning and zoning process. And there's more work that can be done, she said. But there is a careful balance that must be maintained between preserving the city's familiar fabric and allowing new growth.

Fischer's administration has been roundly criticized for its handling of high-profile projects that require displacement or demolition of historic structures. Most recently, Wiederwohl's agency and the mayor's office drew scorn from preservationists who wanted to see the Omni Hotels chain incorporate the Old Louisville Water Co. building on Third Street into the proposed hotel's design. Instead, parts of the building will be dismantled and preserved by the city, and the rest will be demolished.

Fischer and his team also drew sharp rebukes several years ago, when they nearly allowed a developer to tear down the historic Whiskey Row buildings downtown.

It's tough to tell if the planning and zoning process is causing Louisville to miss out on economic development opportunities, she said. But it's common to hear frustration from out-of-town developers regarding the process, she added.

Wiederwohl said lumping review committee issues together in an updated comprehensive plan is one route officials may take to make the development process less burdensome.

"That's an area for debate, and that's the place to have that debate, in the comprehensive plan," she said.

As to actually making any changes, though, Wiederwohl said it's too early to say what should be done. She said the city needs to collect more information, and officials want to take the time to listen to residents and developers about what they'd like to see.

"What we don't want to do is make it so easy that we lose something that's also important to us, and that's preserving our historical fabric," 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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