July 11, 2006

Some days you’re the doughnut, some days the hole: Butchertown residents raise a stink about new Swift traffic flows

Photo by Cary Stemle: Under a recent agreement between the city and Swift Co., the meatpacking company will move its refrigeration trucks from this lot on Story Avenue to an old MSD lot a couple blocks away on Cabel Street. That move has prompted two lawsuits.The writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr., no stranger to scatological metaphors, has often had a character implore another to “take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut.” Or, better, “Why don’t you take a flying fuck at the moon?”The coarse literary device is meant to imply that the character speaking it doesn’t care for another character, nor what he or she does, is doing, or cares about doing.Some who live in Butchertown might be forgiven for wondering if that’s not the message they’re getting from the City of Louisville.By way of an agreement signed Dec. 1, 2005, between the city (via the Mayor) and Swift & Co., the tenant of Butchertown since 1880 (the current site opened in 1968) that practices the age-old, miasmic art of meatpacking, an estimated 35 refrigeration trucks, twice-a-day (70 trips), will pass through the middle of the neighborhood’s historic district, 20 hours a day, seven days a week, according to a lawsuit filed in April by the Butchertown Neighborhood Association and three residents. As it has often done in the past, the neighborhood association and various concerned citizens have complained up the political and bureaucratic totem pole about the increased noise and traffic, to no avail. This time they have filed a lawsuit to stop it, one arguing on admittedly shaky legal ground.Simply put, they feel like the Vonnegut characters on the receiving end of the aforementioned phrase. Why wouldn’t they? When you observe the animal blood that seeps onto the sidewalk at the corner of Cabel and Washington streets from one of the four lots the trucks currently occupy — running at all hours to keep the meat cold — you might start to despair. Catch a whiff of that stink on a hot day, which most people in Louisville have done as they passed through the area or walked out of their downtown offices for a breath of fresh air, and it’s enough to make you taste an old lunch foaming in the back of your throat.But the company does provide roughly 1,200 good-paying jobs to hard-working Louisvillians — $11 an hour on average, according to Swift rep Sean McHugh, who’s based at the company’s Greeley, Colo., headquarters.  It’s been here for what feels like forever, in Butchertown, which is called Butchertown for a reason. It needs to function at an optimal and economically viable level. And for just such reasons, the city obviously does what it can to keep Swift happy.These are the two sides of an argument with much larger arcs than the moving of trucks and wafting of stench. It’s a discourse about a neighborhood trying to grow and change, and in some ways gentrify, on the wing of a hyper-developing downtown. It’s also a discussion about an industry that, given the exigencies of modern urban life, arguably has outgrown a small neighborhood, an operation now so large and complex as to no longer responsibly belong.The situation — rife with talk of necessary evils — really is Kafkaesque.The facts of the matter are these: The city has come to an agreement to lease a large abandoned lot on Cabel Street to Swift for consolidated storage of refrigeration trucks. The lot was once operated by the Metropolitan Sewer District; it’s populated by several stodgy white buildings in various states of disrepair, and has recently been fitted with a new entrance on Cabel. The terms of the agreement have Swift paying $4,000 a year for the lot — an agreement that lasts a decade with options to renew for up to another one — and also paying an estimated $50,000 for general aesthetic repairs to the lots it currently owns and uses, starting with one on Story Avenue.This deal has been in the works for three years. Jim Segrest, a longtime neighborhood activist and president of the Butchertown Neighborhood Association, has along with the association lobbied against the plan for as long, mainly through the Metro Development Authority and its director David Morris, and more recently through 4th District Metro Councilman David Tandy. Adding this sort of traffic burden to the heart of the neighborhood’s historic district, the association contends, will not only provoke general human unrest, it will also drive down property values, grind growth and gentrification to a halt, and turn people away.Segrest said a simple question posed at a November 2005 meeting of the neighborhood association — should Swift be allowed to park its trucks on the MSD lot? — produced a predictable 48-2 response. The two in favor were Swift Louisville plant vice chair John Cliff and Andy Blieden. Blieden owns the Butchertown Market, an office and retail complex that is sandwiched by Swift truck lots on Story Avenue.Blieden said he has no hidden agenda, although Segrest believes he’s largely behind the decision. Blieden was forthright in acknowledging the benefits to his own business, and said Segrest overestimates his power.“I think it helps the whole neighborhood,” he said. “But I won’t have refrigerator trucks running all the time right next to my building.”Morris, whose office helped engineer the deal, said Tuesday that Segrest and the neighborhood association are not fully representative of the neighborhood. He called them a guerilla group that regularly phones in stench complaints to the Air Pollution Control District and the Metro Health Department, and generally tries to stir trouble for Swift.“Frankly, I think there is a small group in Butchertown that just wants Swift gone,” he said.Morris also said he regularly hears from neighborhood residents who     support the change in the truck traffic patterns.“The issue was to help the neighborhood, because the neighborhood has complained about the Photo by Cary Stemle: Under a recent agreement between the city and Swift Co., the meatpacking company will move its refrigeration trucks from this lot on Story Avenue to an old MSD lot a couple blocks away on Cabel Street. That move has prompted two lawsuits. employees parking on the streets, and they’ve complained about the trucks being parked in the middle of the neighborhood,” he said.Currently, Swift’s trucks primarily use Story and Mellwood avenues, each of which is a one-way street running in opposite directions, to access the Swift plant at 1200 Story Ave. Segrest said he and the neighborhood group don’t have a problem with the current traffic flow, and he said the idea that employee parking is a problem is mischaracterized. Swift currently has an employee lot on its main property that, during a mid-afternoon visit last week, was about two-thirds full. Segrest said that’s common.This month, the neighborhood association approved a boycott of all Swift products.Swift spokesman McHugh said the company met with the neighborhood association three years ago, at the start of this process, seeking neighborhood input. He said they received none.“We’re trying to be a good partner here with the neighborhood,” he said Tuesday. Tandy couldn’t be reached directly for comment on this story. Rob Haynes, his Metro Council aide, said Monday that Tandy is awaiting an opinion from the County Attorney regarding the extent to which he can participate, considering his day job is practicing law and there is an active lawsuit at hand. Haynes said Tandy has met with both sides, and has asked the Mayor’s office on numerous occasions to pursue a more suitable location, based on some concerns of the neighborhood association. He plans to meet with the BNA executive committee next Wednesday.According to city ordinance, city contracts worth $10,000 or more must gain Council approval. The Council does not have direct oversight in this case, another reason Tandy may not be able to do much.Rebecca Fleischaker, a spokeswoman for Mayor Abramson, who ultimately approved the lease, said she would “totally disagree” with the conclusion — by Segrest and BNA attorney Ken Plotnik — that the $4,000 price tag is a way to bypass Council oversight. She and Morris both said the figure comes from the price LG&E, which actually owns the site, previously charged MSD.There is now the matter of the lawsuit, which in its current form is a common law nuisance suit based on the alleged effect the new traffic flow will have on the neighborhood.“The city is doing an economic development aid to Swift,” Plotnik said. “Everything else is a ruse. It’s all about saving Swift money.”McHugh said it’s company policy to avoid comment on pending litigation. Plotnik said $4,000 is under market value for the lot, although the tax structure is different for government-owned property, according to Fleischaker, thus making an apples-to-apples comparison difficult. Plotnik argued that consolidating trucks will also save money.Plotnik said common law nuisance suits have not proven strong in court, and he’s considering modifying the pleadings in the near future. However, the group and some residents — William Tourin, Cora Hardin and Debbie Rosenstein, all of whom live quite close to the new truck route — are seeking a temporary injunction simply to make sure things don’t change from how they are now.“My probem is, if it’s this way now, what’s it going to be like after they have trucks whizzing up and down the streets?” said Rosenstein, who lives one house from the corner of Washington and Cabel streets. “Of course, it’s better for the neighborhood (to consolidate the trucks), but not for my street. I’m taking one for the whole neighborhood.”In retaliation to the lawsuit, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 227, filed a SLAPP suit against Segrest personally, accusing him and the neighborhood association of sabotage. The SLAPP suit — Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation — is ironic, Plotnik said, in that management commonly uses them in battles with unions. He is not representing Segrest in that matter, but said the tactic has worked in shutting some people up in the neighborhood. He called the maneuver “beneath contempt.” Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com