Louisville Metro Council voted 19-5 Thursday night against an ordinance that would have kept large parts of the Scenic Loop closed to vehicle traffic. The Metro Parks Department will now have until September 1 to repaint road markers, change out signage and reopen the entire loop to cars.
The original story about the tense public debate surrounding the future of cars in Cherokee Park is below:
After months of tense community conversations, Metro Council will vote tonight on whether to reopen the entirety of Cherokee Park’s Scenic Loop to vehicle traffic.
The Scenic Loop, a two-lane, 2.3 mile road was made off-limits to cars at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Mayor Greg Fischer said he was closing the road in order to allow for pedestrians to socially distance. In June, the Metro Parks Department reopened two portions of the loop to allow for access to the park’s amenities, like Hogan’s Fountain and the rugby field.
In a move to claw back power from Fischer, Metro Council voted in July to put themselves in charge of road closures in city parks moving forward. They also required a public engagement process to get feedback on what should happen with Cherokee Park’s Scenic Loop.
Park users have been divided over the future of cars in Cherokee Park. Louisville Metro Council now appears poised to side with drivers and restore vehicle access to the entire loop.
Scenic Loop Closures Sparks Division
Right now, most of the two-lane road is reserved for bicyclists, pedestrians and people on skateboards or scooters. The parts of the Loop that connect to park amenities are shared with vehicles, with a painted lane divider separating the two.
For many people who walk or bike in Cherokee Park, it’s an ideal compromise.
Louisville resident Jacob Holtgrewe, 25, is an avid cyclist, who says much of the city lacks infrastructure made for pedestrians. He said the Scenic Loop feels safer without vehicles, and it’s a good step toward a more sustainable city.
“It is, I think, a small step towards a city that has the ability to grow and be flourishing in the future if we can create a park that is car-free,” he said.
Holtgrewe attended a recent community meeting about the closures, hosted by Metro Parks officials and Council member Cassie Chambers Armstrong, of District 8. While many people were there to support the current compromise, there was also vocal opposition from those who wanted cars to have full access to the Scenic Loop again.
Windy Hills resident Bob Cullen was at the meeting with a sign reading “Reopen Our Park.”
“This is the first protest sign I’ve ever made,” he said. “It’s about the most imaginative thing I could come up with.”
Cullen, like a few others at the meeting, said he’s made a tradition out of driving the Scenic Loop and he wants that back.
“I’ve had three generations of dogs, and on three occasions a week, or something like that, we leave the house, I pile my dogs in the car and we come over and do the Scenic Loop,” Cullen said. “One day, I came over here and the parks closed, which is sort of disconcerting.”
The meeting Cullen and Holtgrewe both attended was heated at times. Some people who wanted vehicle access restored talked over parks officials and grumbled when presented with data they didn’t like. That led others to shush them or try to yell over them.
The meeting was emblematic of fierce disagreements that have played out in Facebook groups, social media pages and emails to elected officials.
Layla George is the president of the Olmsted Parks Conservancy, a nonprofit that helps the city maintain some of its largest parks. George said she thinks the controversy surrounding the issue is due, in part, to the current political atmosphere.
“The political climate right now is heated,” she said. “It’s over mask wearing, it’s over vaccines, it’s over all of these things that are being swept up into this idea of personal freedom and liberty, and I think this is the most recent example.”
George said another reason for the vitriol is some people have a personal connection to the park.
“Cherokee Park has been an iconic park in our community for over 100 years,” she said. “People have stories connected to the park — they have memories, they have lived experiences — and when you shut certain sections of the roadway and they can’t travel that route they used to drive to school or on weekends with their boyfriends when they were in high school, it really feels like something is being taken away from them.”
What does the data say?
In an effort to get past the tension, Parks officials have collected a lot of data.
A study commissioned by the Olmsted Parks Conservancy, a non-profit that helps Louisville Metro maintain some of its largest parks, used cell phone pings to track trends in park usage. It found that visitors to Cherokee Park increased 80 percent during the pandemic, though it’s hard to say whether that’s because of the car ban or a general trend of people trying to get outside when other forms of entertainment were shut down.
The Metro Parks Department also conducted two separate surveys. One in March found that about 70 percent of the more than 7,200 respondents wanted to keep Cherokee Park car-free. A second survey conducted over the last few weeks found similar results: 73 percent of respondents want to keep the current compromise in place. But the second report also included a randomized poll of all Louisville residents, not just frequent park users, and found a preference for bringing back cars completely.
Proponents of reopening the Scenic Loop to cars have argued the current configuration cuts off accessibility for people with disabilities and older people with mobility issues. Olmsted Parks Conservancy President Layla George said they’ve only heard from a handful of such residents.
“The majority of people that we have heard from who are concerned about accessibility, don’t personally have accessibility issues themselves.”
Council member Chambers Armstrong said she also met with a representative from the Commission for Persons with Disabilities, who is not opposing the current compromise.
“Their concerns were around making sure that, in terms of access to amenities, there was parking available within spaces, that there were firm, flat walking surfaces to get to different places and that there were places for people to rest along the way,” she said. “[They felt] the park being restricted to vehicles in some areas did not make the park inaccessible.”
The residents who want to keep the compromise in place have said they feel safer without vehicles on the Scenic Loop or limited car access. Metro Parks officials said data collected by the state shows that there were 93 collisions in Cherokee Park in 2019 compared to 44 collisions in 2020 when cars were barred from the Scenic Loop.
Metro Council Moves Toward Reopening
Based on the survey data, Chambers Armstrong, who represents the Cherokee Park area, introduced an ordinance that would keep the Scenic Loop closures in place. It also has the support of Council member Bill Hollander (D-9), who represents the Frankfort Avenue district and neighborhoods adjacent to the park.
“It seems to me that this compromise has support from the community certainly that live near the park, also from people in the community, speaking more broadly, that utilize this park,” Chambers Armstrong argued.
But at a Parks Committee meeting on Tuesday, her colleagues pushed back.
Council President David James isn’t on the committee, but he attended the meeting to speak out against the ordinance. He echoed the concerns of the proponents for reopening vehicle access, saying he’s concerned about the park being accessible to all types of users.
“I don’t know how we would vote to limit people’s access to the park for all of our citizens,” he said. “They pay taxes to maintain those roads to be able to use those roads, and we’re going to say, ‘Sorry about your luck?’”
In a 4-3 vote, the Parks Committee decided to send the ordinance to the full Metro Council with a recommendation to vote it down.
If Metro Council takes their advice at Thursday night’s meeting, Cherokee Park’s Scenic Loop would fully reopen to cars on September 1st.