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New 10-year plan offers ideas to improve Louisville’s post-pandemic downtown

An urban sidewalk scene without people
J. Tyler Franklin
Downtown residents say they want to see more restaurants, public art and outdoor seating in their neighborhood.

A Louisville agency focused on the downtown district has a new 10-year plan it says can strengthen the area.

City leaders say revitalizing downtown will require a multi-pronged approach, as the area continues to face difficulties stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Louisville Downtown Partnership released its latest 10-year development plan on Thursday, offering a list of suggestions that it believes will help improve the Central Business District.

The agency works with government, commercial and local leaders to improve downtown. It held more than 70 meetings, according to the plan, to help shape its strategy for the future.

LDP sorted its recommendations into three categories:

  • “Activate Downtown,” by investing in the medical and education district, promoting the area’s arts and culture scene, and improving bus transit
  • “Reinforce Downtown as a Residential Neighborhood,” by giving property owners incentives to help turn offices into living units and revising zoning code
  • “Enhance the Public Realm,” by making streets more accessible to pedestrians, beautifying areas under Interstate 65 and better utilizing Jefferson Square

The partnership’s executive director, Rebecca Fleischaker, said during an event celebrating the plan Thursday that “the state of downtown is strong.”

She presented data showing that investment dollars toward announced, underway and completed projects last year had nearly doubled compared to 2019.

“This tells us that there are a whole lot of people who are willing to bet on downtown, who know its importance and relevance to the entire region,” Fleischaker said.

In January, the city signed agreements with three developers to renovate certain city-owned “underutilized” downtown sites, including a parking lot and the former police headquarters.

Fleischaker also highlighted data from Placer.ai, a location data analytics company. It showed that while the total number of downtown visits by residents, employers and visitors last year was down compared to 2019, the average number of unique people visiting daily had increased.

However, according to data released in October by the University of Toronto’s School of Cities, Louisville’s downtown foot traffic has recovered at one of the worst rates among more than 60 North American cities since the pandemic.

Top of an office tower
Justin Hicks
Louisville-based Humana said last month that it plans to relocate workers out of its iconic downtown Humana Tower over the next two years.

Downtown has also struggled to bring back workers and refill office space, which Fleischaker acknowledged. Last month, major local employer Humana announced it plans to vacate its iconic tower within the next two years, continuing its steady withdrawal from offices across the city where it’s operated for decades.

Louisville officials established a new downtown revitalization fund last year to entice companies to locate downtown, but reworked it in early February to require less leased office space. WDRB reported at that time the city had just received its first application for the fund.

The fund no longer includes money for residential conversions of office buildings, one of LDP’s core plan recommendations, but could in the future. At Thursday’s event, Mayor Craig Greenberg said he’s looking for state lawmakers to assist.

“Part of our ask to the state is to help us convert these vacant units that need a little bit of help to get over the financing finish line,” Greenberg said.

He also referenced the Kentucky Senate’s budget package, which includes $100 million toward downtown projects like improving the Belvedere, reopening the Louisville Gardens and repurposing vacant lots. That money has not yet been finalized and approved by the full legislature, and Greenberg said that his administration is working to ensure it remains.

The mayor added the city is working toward achieving a new police contract to address and prevent crime downtown.

Fleischaker said she’s heard downtown employers and employees express safety concerns due to the area’s unhoused residents, and she hopes to see more police officers focused on downtown.

“Due to the many and various needs of this population, this is an extremely complex issue,” she said. “Perception is reality. And we have some work to do as a community to help our people most in need.”

In December, the city announced Volunteers of America would operate the planned Community Care Campus, which aims to provide supportive services for unhoused residents.

A housing needs assessment released yesterday found there were around 14,000 residents living in and near downtown in 2021, according to the most recent estimates. About half of households were considered cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing.

This week, the Louisville Downtown Residents Association shared the results of a community survey that had about 150 responses. It found that public markets, restaurants, public art and outdoor seating were among the amenities respondents said they most wanted to see downtown.

It also found respondents had mixed feelings about feeling safe in the area at night, especially compared to during the day, and many said “better management of homeless services” was a key need.

Jacob is LPM's Business and Development Reporter. Email Jacob at jmunoz@lpm.org.