March 14, 2006

Lofty challenge

Clifton Lofts were controversial, but they need love nowBy MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGERAfter nearly four years of bitching about the Clifton Lofts condo project on Frankfort Avenue, it’s time for its neighbors to welcome the 42-unit development with open arms.The first residents are expected to move in later this month, but with only 24 units sold, the project’s success is uncertain. If it fails, all of Louisville, and not just developer John Clark, will be the losers.To understand what’s at stake, take a drive east toward Shelbyville Road, past the recently redeveloped site of the Vogue Theatre, where the cleaned-up marquee still hangs like a lonely reminder of a time not so long ago when life was much less homogenous.Fight through the St. Matthews traffic, past the malls, past the second-tier retail strips out near Hurstbourne Lane, and you’ll get to a Middletown that looked pretty bucolic just a dozen years ago, sitting on the edge of the farmland that would stretch out past Valhalla Country Club and into sleepy Shelby County.What you’ll see today on your way out past Middletown, are rows and rows of giant rooftops and naked lawns on either side of U.S. 60, racing east like a California wildfire.The Clifton Lofts, like other projects in older, established neighborhoods, was pitched in 2002 as an antidote to the mindless and endless rush to suburbanize the hinterlands. A Courier-Journal editorial hailed the project as evidence that Louisville has “re-embraced urbanity and is recycling urban land as a way of luring people and energy back into older communities.”But neighbors objected strongly and quickly. Too big, too ugly, too dense for Clifton. Thus began a fight that culminated with about 1,000 petitioners in opposition. They didn’t like the project’s four stories and thought it should be set back from the street. They decried the demolition of two historic homes on the property, in the 2000 block of Frankfort Avenue, and the felling of trees there.“We didn’t want it to look like it just dropped from outer space. And that’s what it looks like,” antiques dealer Scott Nussbaum, who owns the building across the street from the Lofts, said last week. “It’s almost an eyesore.”Other critics — including John Gilderbloom, a U of L professor who’s written about urban in-fill developments — said the city should have insisted that the project be smaller, with more open space and more setback.But we should all be glad critics didn’t get everything they wanted. A smaller, less dense project would have spoiled its symbolic aspect and watered it down. It would have precluded a set of housing options that appeals to Louisvillians who are tired of all the sameness.Here’s the deal: People don’t like change, particularly when it’s right next door. I understand that. But four years down the road, it’s time to focus on the good that the project can bring.Clark did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment for this piece, but Metro Council member Tina Ward-Pugh, whose district includes Clifton, said Clark worked hard to appease neighbors and the city. Ward-Pugh said Clark made more than 20 changes to the project to gain approval for the zoning change required, including reducing the size from 60 units to 42.Chuck Kavanaugh, executive vice president of the Homebuilders’ Association of Louisville, said fights like Clark had with neighbors are a prime reason why more developers don’t build closer to the city, in areas like Clifton.“There is a mixed bag of messages sent to the builders,” Kavanaugh said. “The city says it wants urban development and in-fill projects to reduce sprawl. But you can’t build in urban neighborhoods without forcing some change in the neighborhood. In a way, we are all NIMBYs — we move to a particular area because we like it the way it is, and we don’t want to see it change.”Available land in older, established neighborhoods is already more expensive — and more difficult to find — than in the suburbs, Kavanaugh said. Also, opposition from neighbors prolongs the approval process and adds further hassles to in-fill development.More than 100 condo projects are under way in Louisville, Kavanaugh noted, but most are in the suburbs rather than older neighborhoods. Still, he said, demand for urban housing is rising, and if projects like Clifton Lofts succeed, more developers will seek urban land.Clifton Lofts listing agent Joann Rankin said it should fill up once the first residents are in. She calls it “big-city living” and says there is a growing market for such condos in Louisville.“There is just not anything else in Louisville that is like living in Chicago, or New York,” she said. That may be overly chipper; living without a motorized vehicle in Louisville remains about as practical as going without air conditioning in Orlando. But it’s a start, and provides a viable alternative for homebuyers who prefer the older neighborhoods and don’t want to live so far out.And that is why it’s important for Clifton residents who opposed the project to welcome the new residents. Billy Fox is one of them. He paid $298,000 for a two-bedroom unit in the complex, and can’t wait to move in, possibly by the end of the month. Fox, a jockey, also owns Gumbo-A-Go-Go, one block from his new home.He predicts the furor will become a distant memory.“Six months from now, a year from now, nobody will even remember all this controversy,” he said.Maybe, maybe not. But already some of staunchest opponents are signaling a willingness to welcome their new neighbors and make the most out of a project they fought for so long.“We’re just happy it’s done,” said Nussbaum, who said he still wishes the project was smaller but has accepted it as a reality. “We just want it finally finished.”Jan Bowling, who owns Sister Dragonfly Gallery next door to the Lofts, said she misses the trees and the old homes, but she’s ready to put aside those grievances.“You’ve got to come to a state of acceptance, and not be acting like you can go back and change everything,” she said. “It is what it is. … Now that it is up, I am just hoping everyone comes and buys all the units.”And that’s something everyone should agree on. Michael Lindenberger wrote the Tear Sheet column for LEO from June 1996 to December 1999, and during that period he also served as the paper’s chief political writer. He rejoins LEO as a contributing writer after reporting stints at The Dallas Morning News and, most recently, The Courier-Journal, where he was a state correspondent and bureau chief. Michael is in his final year of law school at the University of Louisville. Send him story ideas — the newsier the better — at michael.lindenberger@gmail.com.

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