On the corner of Breckenridge and Logan streets, at the edge of Smoketown, there’s a giant hole in the ground. It’s an active construction site, with trucks and heavy machinery working behind a barbed-wire fence.
This hole is part of the city’s solution to a long-term problem: a combined sewer system that can’t handle heavy rain.
Jessica Bellamy sees something else.
“We’re looking at a big hole in the ground that’s causing a lot of problems for people in the community,” she said.
This is the future site of the Logan Street Basin, the focus of criticism from Smoketown residents of the Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District and its outreach efforts.
When it rains, diluted sewage pours into waterways through channels called Combined Sewer Overflows, or CSOs. As part of an $850 million federal consent decree to reduce these overflows, MSD is building 12 large CSO basins in the city. The basins will hold the overflow sewage until the rain stops, and will then pump it to the treatment plant.
When the Logan Street project is complete, the hole will be a gigantic underground basin that can hold 12.5 million gallons of sewage.
The basin’s location doesn’t bother residents.
“I’ve never heard anyone say the project is unnecessary, or that it shouldn’t go on at its current location,” Randy Webber said.
Bellamy is the secretary of the Smoketown Neighborhood Association and Webber is the president.
They said construction of the basin hasn’t been good for Smoketown; it’s noisy, and people have reported property damage from the blasting.
But the biggest issue is one of inequity.
The Logan Street basin is one of 12 similar projects planned across the city. It’s the only basin that will be covered by a large, windowless building.
“They asked every other neighborhood that’s getting a basin, ‘Hey, do you want this above ground, or do you want this below ground and have a park on top?’ And they said ‘Oh, we’d rather have a park on top.’ But we didn’t even get asked, we didn’t get that courtesy,” Bellamy said.
It’s true that MSD made more effort to gather community input for the basins in other parts of Louisville.
The Logan Street Basin was the first to move forward in planning, about eight years ago, said John Loechle, director of engineering for MSD. There were a number of factors that led to the decision to build a large structure above the basin, he said.
“We like to leave things the way they are,” Loechle said. “So if it’s a green field, when we’re done we’d like it to be a green field. When we were planning this project, the area was full of industrial-type warehouse buildings.”
The lot is also bordered on two sides by single-family homes.
MSD figured that a large brick, warehouse-style structure would be an improvement for the site, which was previously a parking lot and junkyard. Complicating matters is that the basin is right next to Beargrass Creek, in a floodplain, which Loechle said would have made it more expensive to construct a basin covered with green space.
Still, the process for formulating the Logan Street Basin plan was different than the others. MSD was required to do public outreach for the project, which Loechle said they did.
“Although we didn’t do anything wrong, we followed typical planning and zoning meetings and all that kind of stuff, that it wouldn’t hurt for us to be a little more proactive and get out there, and we didn’t for Logan,” he said.
For the other 11 basins that came after, MSD held a series of four meetings. MSD has an active informational survey on their website about another basin — this one at the intersection of Lexington and Payne streets. The information from the public will help the agency get more community input about the project, even from people who couldn’t make it to a public meeting.
“Logan did not get this opportunity,” Loechle acknowledged.
Now, MSD is trying to appease the basin’s neighbors. They’re designating $700,000 for an architectural firm to work with the community to design the building’s façade and landscaping.
But residents are still furious at what they perceive as another example of a low-income neighborhood getting short shrift.
“We’re not going to stop feeling the way we feel,” Bellamy said. “This Band-Aid treatment of $700,000, it’s not going to change anything other than a façade and maybe the surroundings, literally. This would not happen in any other neighborhood. Especially in the East End, Crescent Hill, any of those places.”
Webber said now that residents have spoken out against the project, they’re waiting to see what solutions the architects suggest.
“Whichever way things break, it’s not going to be our last struggle over how we want our community to develop,” he said.