Issue August 20, 2013

Colonial Gardens redux

Residents get behind a concept to revive a decaying South End landmark

Edith Hatfield is as Southern as sweet tea. The 94-year-old widow has been slowed by cancer in recent years, but on her good days, she still sounds like the country girl she once was. Born in Glasgow, Ky., in 1918, Hatfield moved to Louisville in 1936 to study nursing at the old City Hospital. In those days, it was easy for a girl to get a date if she could dance, and the 18-year-old Hatfield had many suitors among the young medical students at the hospital. On weekends, they would take her to 818 W. Kenwood Drive. It was called Senning’s Park, but most people today know it as Colonial Gardens.

“I used to dance the night away,” Hatfield remembers. “They had Ted Lewis and all the big shots there. All the big bands played there. You had to pay a cover to get in. It was a marvelous place.”

Hatfield grins at the memory. She sits on the porch of her home on Esplanade Avenue, just a few blocks from Colonial Gardens, talking with a couple of neighbors. The defunct beer garden has been on the minds of a lot of people these days. In June, by a vote of 16 to 3, the Louisville Metro Council agreed to purchase the 1.4-acre property for $430,000 from the Schmid family, which has owned it for several decades.

A Request for Proposals (RFP) was issued, but only one developer, Underhill Associates, presented a proposal before the July deadline. Earlier this week, the council’s Planning, Zoning and Land Design Committee approved a rezoning plan to make economic development easier along Taylor Boulevard/New Cut Road. Colonial Gardens was identified as one of the plan’s anchors.

Underhill Associates, the redevelopment and management company responsible for Westport Village, began negotiations with the city this month. Managing partner Jeff Underhill says the potential redevelopment still has a few hurdles to overcome, but if it happens, the new Colonial Gardens will honor the property’s history.

“We were not trying to create what we want, we were trying to create what we thought the community wanted and would utilize over here,” he explains. “Since it has gotten out that we are involved with Colonial Gardens, people I didn’t even know were from the South End have shared memories with me. I started to realize whether people lived in the immediate area or not, there was a real attachment. I don’t think it’s particular to that corner or that building. There is an attachment to this part of town, and there is history here. People want to see something recreated here as a meeting spot.”

 

Colonial Gardens played a critical role in the development of the South End and Iroquois Park. Six governors are believed to have accepted their nominations there. German immigrant Carl Frederick Senning opened the beer garden and restaurant with his wife Minnie in 1902. In 1920, Carl and Minnie’s son William took over the business. He added the city’s first zoo to the establishment as a way to counter the impact of Prohibition. In 1939, the property was sold to B.A. Watson for $15,000 and renamed the Colonial Bar and Grill.

Because she remembers its Senning’s Park heyday, Hatfield says it was especially hard for her to watch Colonial Gardens’ sad, slow decline. After graduating from City Hospital, Hatfield attended the University of Kentucky on scholarship. She was completing post-graduate work in public health when she met her future husband, Herbert Hatfield, who was a longtime principal at Butler High School. The couple returned to Louisville in 1950 when they bought their home on Esplanade Avenue. At the time, Colonial Gardens was a teen bar hosting jitterbug contests.

Things started going downhill around 1968, when psychedelic rock made the old-style dance hall obsolete. There was what seemed like an endless string of businesses opening and closing at the location over the next few decades. Hatfield says a particular low point came in the late ’70s when Colonial Gardens housed a bar that boasted a mechanical bull and line dancing.

“They were trying all different things,” she says. “All that crazy stuff, it didn’t work.”

Colonial Gardens closed for good in 2003. At some point, the property was split into three parcels of land. The original structure, a decaying white behemoth sitting across from the entrance to Iroquois Park, takes up one. It also has a concrete block addition that for the last few years has been home to a biker bar called Jody Mack’s. A Little Caesar’s Pizza sits on the parcel on the east side of the original structure. And there is a used tire shop on the third parcel to the south.

For more than a decade, every motorist passing the intersection of New Cut Road and Kenwood Drive seemed to have an opinion about what should be done with Colonial Gardens. During the property’s heyday, it was surrounded by similar beer gardens: Simm’s Corner, Summer’s Park, Iroquois Gardens, the Calico Club and Gordon’s Corner. The loss of these establishments is still keenly felt in this proud South End neighborhood. If Iroquois residents want a sit-down meal, their choices are limited to Vietnamese restaurants, the chain restaurants that litter Dixie Highway or a trip downtown or to the Highlands. A 2008 study done by the Abramson administration found that more than $1 billion leaves the South End and West End annually due to the lack of culinary and retail options in those areas. The South End hasn’t even had a department store since Dillard’s closed its Dixie Highway location in 2007. And Iroquois is in a community where the median household income is $49,796.

There have been several private efforts to reopen Colonial Gardens over the last decade, but they have been fruitless. Some of these projects have even turned neighbors against one another. In 2008, businessmen David Jones, Rusty Gailor, Tim McDonogh and Charles West joined forces as the South End Investment Group to buy Colonial Gardens and raze it to make way for a new complex. But some area residents feared that the group would flip the property to make way for a Walgreens or a gas station. With the help of the Iroquois Neighborhood Association, they waged a successful campaign to have the original two-story structure designated as a local landmark. This halted the demolition of the building, but it also made it harder to develop. There are still sour feelings on both sides of the fight. One of the leaders of the landmarking campaign refused an interview because she didn’t want to reopen old wounds. She said after the landmarking fight, people would come up to her at the grocery store and blame her for the lack of activity at Colonial Gardens. (In the spirit of full disclosure, this writer is a member of the Iroquois Neighborhood Association but did not live in the area at the time of the landmark designation.)

 

Revitalizing Colonial Gardens has been a longtime priority for the Southwest Dream Team, an economic development group composed of business owners, elected officials and concerned citizens from various parts of the South End. In 2012, the group funded the “Colonial Gardens Site Feasibility Study,” which was conducted by the Houston Group with Underhill Associates serving as a consultant. The study concluded that a Southern-style restaurant would be the best use for the property because it would appeal not only to the immediate community but also to the additional 150,000 people who visit Iroquois Park each year.

In January, Underhill Associates took out an option to buy Colonial Gardens. The owners were asking $850,000 for the property. Underhill was able to negotiate them down to $430,000, the price eventually paid by the city. Even at the reduced price, it was not financially feasible for Underhill to redevelop. Part of the problem is that the owners, the Schmid family — which includes up to 10 people spread across the country — collected rent from the property over the years but didn’t spend much on upkeep. David Morris, the city’s assistant director of economic growth and innovation, says the property is in mediocre condition. The original structure has not even had electricity and water for nearly a decade. The landmarked structure is in better shape than the additions because it was reinforced after a fire some years back.

Jeff Underhill says the bigger problem for him is the tenants. The used tire company and the biker bar were on month-to-month leases, but Little Caesar’s has a different situation. Last year, the restaurant exercised an option to extend its lease for five more years. Underhill and Tommy Lee Gailor, who managed the property for the Schmid family, spent months trying to negotiate a settlement with no success.

“I can’t believe the previous concepts got as far as they did,” Underhill says. “I don’t know how they ever thought they were going to build a Walgreens on the corner or anything else.”

Concerns over construction costs and the outstanding lease led Underhill Associates to walk away from Colonial Gardens when its option was up in May. Then Vince Jarboe, president of the Southwest Dream Team, convinced the city to get involved. The Southwest Dream Team has a good relationship with Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration. It got the mayor to fund the new Southwest Branch Library in last year’s budget. Apparently, the mayor liked the idea so much he issued a press release before anyone bothered contacting the property’s owners. Realtor Tommy Lee Gailor, whose brother Rusty happens to be a member of the Southwest Investment Group, says he found out the city wanted the property from the news.

Jarboe, who owns a State Farm Insurance Agency on New Cut Road, says Colonial Gardens could become an economic engine for the whole Taylor Boulevard-New Cut Road corridor. “(Colonial Gardens) reaches into a large portion of the South End, in my opinion. If something good goes in there, you can attract people from the Dixie corridor. We want to try to make it a meeting place for South Central. That’s what it was in the past.”

The purchase of Colonial Gardens also received widespread support on the Metro Council, especially from those who represent South Louisville. Councilwoman Marianne Butler, D-15, chairs the council’s Budget Committee. She was one of the first sponsors of the bill. Butler says a successful redevelopment would benefit all of South Louisville and complement the investment the city has already made in the Iroquois Amphitheater.

“Moving quickly to get the RFP on the street gets developers talking and thinking about the possibilities,” she says. “With the revitalization of the amphitheater, we need a place people can enjoy a meal and go across the street for entertainment.”

Of course, not everyone feels that way. Metro Councilman Jerry Miller, R-19, was one of the three councilmembers who voted against the purchase. His main objection is that he believes the purchase was only necessary because of a misuse of the landmarking statute.

“There have been several occasions where landmarking was used as a weapon to block development that a relatively small group of people in five zip codes did not want,” Miller says. “The effect of it is a taking by an entity of government. In my mind, it is an unlawful taking by government that violates both the Kentucky and U.S. constitutions … Colonial Gardens, the $430,000 is half the assessed value of that property previous to landmarking. The landmarking process cost the property owners $400,000.”

In 2012, Metro Council amended the landmarks ordinance, giving itself the authority to review decisions made by the Landmarks Commission. Miller says the situation at Colonial Gardens is a perfect example of why the Council overrode Mayor Fischer’s veto to gain these new powers. If not for the landmark designation, he says, Colonial Gardens would have been developed years ago. He contrasts Colonial Gardens with an acquisition he supports, the city’s purchase of a 30-acre tract of land in western Louisville. Unlike that property, Miller says, Colonial Gardens is not in a blighted area. Iroquois residents sought the landmark designation for Colonial Gardens to stop it from becoming a gas station or drugstore. Miller does not think that is the role of government. He also knows that Colonial Gardens is going to cost the city more than its purchase price.

“We are doing an RFP to find a developer that will accept the property and provide a development there,” he explains. “But they are going to be looking for other inducements. The $430,000 we’ve already invested is not the end of it. That’s simply the end of the beginning.”

 

Jeff Underhill says he will be asking the city for a forgivable loan. This is the first project where he has sought public money, but he says there is no other way for a developer to get a reasonable return on this project. The 1.4-acre property is too small for a retailer, so the only concept that will work is a restaurant. Underhill would like to do a multi-restaurant design with four establishments sharing a common food court. He says it would rival anything in the Highlands or East End, but unfortunately, he won’t be able to command the same rents.

“You have to realize that your cost for shingles is the same (in the South End) as it is on Westport Road, but you get less in rent on it,” he says. “That’s the problem. The numbers don’t work when you get into having cobblestone, a gazebo and bike racks … Asking the city for money is not what I do. This is one where if we do it, we are asking the city for money.”

Underhill’s proposal has been endorsed by Preservation Louisville, the Iroquois Neighborhood Association and the Southwest Dream Team. Jarboe feels the potential benefits for the community justify the use of public money. However, Jarboe admits he did not support the landmark designation, which made public involvement necessary. He does not believe Colonial Gardens has architectural integrity because there is no preserved mahogany bar or intricate woodwork. But he also understands the need for residents to have a voice in the direction their neighborhood is going.

“The main reason for landmarking was to make sure it was not purchased by someone who would just flip it to Thornton’s for a gas station,” he says. “I would like to have a multi-restaurant facility that has outdoor seating and other amenities such as a kid’s playground, etc. — a place that everyone can be proud of and become a place to go for the entire city.”

Negotiations between Underhill and the city are underway. Morris says he would like to have a deal by the end of the month, but it would have to work financially for the city. Any agreement would go back to Metro Council for final approval.

Edith Hatfield, who is a member of the neighborhood association and a former president of the Beechmont Women’s Club, is one of the people who believe that Colonial Gardens probably should have been torn down a long time ago. But since it is still here, she is hoping the South End can speak with one voice on the subject. She’d really like to see Underhill return the property to its past glory.

“I like historic things,” she says. “I have been to every president’s home. I’ve been to every battlefield in Virginia. I’m a walking history book. My house is full of old stuff. But I think it has to be old stuff that is worth keeping. I hope they put something in Colonial Gardens that we want to keep around for another 100 years.”