Cassia Herron lives about three miles away from the vacant plot of land on 18th and Broadway that, until a couple weeks ago, was expected to become a Walmart superstore.
She and thousands of others were looking forward to a place to shop for everyday items in West Louisville. The location was convenient to residents — drivers and bus riders alike.
But Herron was upset by what she calls the lack of transparency of the megachain’s plans to build in the area. And as a planner and community organizer, she says she didn’t like the suburban-style design in an urban locale. So she, and eight others, sued Walmart, arguing it didn’t confirm to city zoning standards.
“As a group, we supported the Walmart,” Herron says. “We supported the Walmart because we believe that West Louisville residents deserve access to retail options as everyone else does.”
Walmart ended up backing out of the plan, of course. It cited delays associated with the lawsuit as a reason.
The West End Walmart was the second development in the area to be halted in three months. Plans for the West Louisville FoodPort were canceled in August.
So, what’s next for 18th and Broadway?
With the promise of a mega-retailer derailed, Herron says she’d like to see another option for the land.
Back to the Start
Another development tried to get footing in the area before Walmart: a mixed-use space called NewBridge Crossing Towne Center. The plan included restaurants, hotels, entertainment venues and housing.
Herron says she wants this type of space for the area in the future.
“The same way this community made sure the Yum Center was built or made sure the Omni was built,” Herron says. “We should have the same sense of urgency for 18th and Broadway to help developers do what’s right at that property.”
But when it comes to polished mixed-use spaces coming to the West End and places like it, it’s complicated.
Mariah Gratz is CEO of the real estate development firm Weyland Ventures, which has remade historic downtown buildings — such as Glassworks and the Henry Clay — into mixed-used spaces. Gratz says mixed-use spaces are more difficult to design and more complicated when it comes to building codes.
“It usually makes them more difficult from a financing perspective,” she says. “Everything about them is a little bit harder.”
That, combined with risk-averse banks, makes it difficult for mixed-use developments to places with relatively little economic activity. Those developments tend to go to neighborhoods that are already booming, partly because banks appraise based on comparable assets in an area.
In a neighborhood with little development, then, appraisers don’t have comparable developments to estimate value.
“It creates a waterfall, so you have to bring more resources to the table to show that this is something that makes sense,” Gratz says.
Those resources include money from developers, investors and incentives, like tax credits.
“What you really need to do is more of an effort around bringing federal, state and local funds to the table in order to minimize that risk taken on by the local bank,” Gratz says.
Finances Not the Only Issue
For some, race and poverty are also primary factors for why new developments don’t get traction in distressed parts of Louisville.
District 1 Metro Councilwoman Jessica Green is a lifelong resident of the West End. She says she was also looking forward to a retail option in the area and agrees there needs to be a sense of urgency for economic development in the West End.
“We really need to put our money when our mouth is,” Green says about investing in struggling areas of the city in our neighborhood. “There’s a tax on being poor and a tax on being black.”
That includes traveling outside the area to shop where money doesn’t start or stay in the West End.
“Until we are willing to stretch ourselves and go out on a limb like we are for other projects in the city to get those done, and incentives are provided and TIFs [Tax Increment Financing] are created,” she says. “This is the kind of thing that happens every day, and we gotta do the same thing for our more urban neighborhoods.”
With little development happening in West Louisville, banks unwilling to take a chance and new tax credits few, a mixed-use development may not be in the immediate future for 18th and Broadway. But there’s hope.
In 2015, the city was awarded $425,000 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to create a plan to revive Russell. This year, HUD granted Louisville Metro Housing Authority $1 million to continue that effort. And Russell is also a finalist for federal a Choice Neighborhood grant eligible for up to $30 million. That could go a long way in bringing new economic development to Russell and other West End neighborhoods.
“There’s a lot of movement in that area now,” Gratz says, adding that Portland is also seeing new investment.
Herron says she looks forward to West Louisville’s future. In an area slowly going through transition, simple assets such as a convenient place to shop are still lacking. But she identifies a much bigger resource missing from the area.
“I think one of the biggest things that’s lacking,” she says, “is identifying the people and the land of West Louisville as assets.”