Tom Owen’s face twists into a grimace when he remembers the stench that once wafted from the old city dump at the corner of present-day Frankfort Avenue and River Road.

Fires would often erupt within the heap, he said, filling the air above nearby homes with the putrid fumes of burning trash.

The mound stood so tall that heavy winds could scatter garbage across The Pointe, a historic neighborhood decimated in the 1937 flood, said Owen, a historian and longtime Louisville Metro Councilman.

These days, the dump is long gone — buried beneath a bank of soil.

What was a swampy stretch of Beargrass Creek bottomland now rises above the city’s floodplain and offers views of Louisville’s growing downtown skyline. And in the coming years, the plot of land will be transformed into a botanical garden, complete with an educational center, conservatory and restaurant.

Botanica renderingCourtesy Botanica

Botanica rendering

The $50 million project is led by nonprofit Botanica. The group plans to develop the project in phases. On Thursday, Botanica hosted a Louisville Metro Council committee to provide an update on the planning and fundraising processes.

The group conducted a handful of environmental tests on the site to ensure it’s ready for reuse, said Kasey Maier, director of program development for Botanica. She said the group plans to break ground next year on the first phase of development, which is set to become an educational and event space with room for up to 250 people.

The cost of the first phase will be about $4.2 million. To date, the group has raised about $3.6 million.

The plot of land is currently owned by Metro government. Maier said Botanica has entered into a lease agreement with the city and will purchase the 23-acre site for $1 in about six months.

Maier said Louisville needs this project for its cultural draw. She said the botanical gardens would attract scores of visitors due to its proximity to downtown, Waterfront Park and neighborhoods like Clifton, Butchertown and NuLu.

A weekend festival is planned to help raise more funds; it is planned for Saturday and will include bluegrass music and beer.

The completion of the project is seen as a key component of a larger effort to connect River Road with the nearby Clifton and Irish Hill neighborhoods, said councilman Bill Hollander, who represents the area.

Funding has already been set aside to examine efforts to improve the streetscape along Frankfort Avenue between River Road and Pope Street, Hollander said. He plans call for a sidewalk along the stretch of road where currently one does not exist.

“You have a lot of people from Clifton, Crescent Hill, Butchertown walking to the river in, really, pretty unsafe conditions,” he said. “We hope to improve that.”

Efforts are also underway to examine a potential connection of multi-use paths along Beargrass Creek. One path currently begins near Cherokee Park and ends in Irish Hill, while another begins in Butchertown and ends on River Road.

And while Hollander praised the botanical gardens project as a way to “fill in a missing link” along Frankfort Avenue, he boasts more about the project’s potential to bring more attention to the often neglected Beargrass Creek.

“If people see the creek, we’re going to improve the creek,” Hollander said. “We hide it way too much, nobody knows it’s there, we don’t treat it very well.”

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.