see: downtown development, housing, the arena, the Bridges Project and 8664 — with Mayor Jerry Abramson
Most of Mayor Jerry Abramson’s speeches, no matter the subject, are laden with a resounding sense of optimism. To his detractors, this may be his greatest and most annoying fault: If everything in Jerry’s World is always hopeful and sanguine, then he’s cheerleading, ignoring reality to make his impact seem more profound. Similarly, the speeches are easy rallying cries for his supporters, of which there are many: He cruised in the November election with nearly 70 percent of the vote.
Stepping into his second term as Metro mayor and his 16th overall year at Louisville’s helm, Abramson gave a speech at his inauguration last Thursday that peered forward, hitting on the major themes of his first term without divulging much detail: downtown development, making Louisville a regional destination and business partner, workforce development and education, and some of the major infrastructure projects on the horizon, like the downtown arena and the Bridges Project.
The speech’s lack of detail is understandable and forgivable — it’s a verifiable reality that Louisville is on the precipice of some kind of big change, or perhaps even in its midst. That list is long.
Mayor Abramson gave LEO some phone time last Friday afternoon, getting candid as the New Year loomed. As his time was limited, the discussion necessarily remained focused on his core issues.
LEO: What are some of the businesses you’d like to see, or the types of businesses, come to downtown?
Jerry Abramson: Well, the success of the entertainment and restaurant venues, I think the next expansion of that type of development will probably be retail, maybe a different type of entertainment, the entertainment might be focused on a little older crowd than the initial development of Fourth Street Live. I think you’ll see retail — we’re finally getting return calls from big-box stores interested in downtown because they’re now beginning to see enough residential rooftops. You’re going to see some niche marketing retail coming in for men’s and women’s. That’s our focus, at least.
LEO: What do you think needs to happen to bring this critical mass downtown?
JA: Not what needs to happen, what’s happening is the rooftops are becoming more residential in nature, joining with the existing office rooftops. As the downtown picks up another 17-, 1,800 units of housing (Editor’s note: There are currently 1,800 residential units downtown; the Abramson administration expects that to double by the end of 2008.), as the lofts and the affordable housing, along with the gleaming glass condos come online, then all of a sudden you have opportunities for neighborhood retail, just as you would have on Bardstown Road or Preston or Brownsboro Road or Frankfort Avenue or Dixie Highway.
LEO: I think that’s been one of the biggest questions in conversations I’ve had with people all over the city: Which comes first?
JA: I’ll give you the answer based on what retailers tell me: Residential rooftops come first. Retail never leads.
LEO: It’s also been my experience that one of the perceptions about the redevelopment of downtown is that a lot of the residential is for high-income.
JA: I don’t think that’s true. I think the residential that’s more visible is obviously the more expensive high-rise condominiums. But depending on where you begin the downtown, and Steve Poe and his investment group would tell you
you begin it at the municipal harbor on River Road, all the way up through the older buildings that are being made into four-plexes and six-plexes, I think you’ll find — and of course joined with Liberty Green, which has mixed income both in terms of rental as well as in terms of home ownership — I think so far it looks to me, based on feedback I’m getting from folks who are interested in moving downtown, that the options are there for individuals across the entire socioeconomic grouping. Now, the reason why the high-rise condos at expensive price points are always the ones discussed is because it’s been a long time since this community has been able to attract individuals from that socioeconomic group to be interested in living in the downtown. That’s the baby boomers. Those are the folks with four bedrooms whose kids are gone and they’re looking for the kind of juice, the kind of energy, the kind of buzz that’s going on in a downtown, different from a suburban, four-bedroom home. As they sell those homes for nice prices they’re able to invest in nice condos.
LEO: Is it an inevitable thing, when you’re looking at these kinds of transformations, that a lot of it is available to a certain income level?
JA: The higher you construct a building, the more it costs. And the more it costs, the more you’ve got to get per square foot if you sell it or if you rent it. So the high-rises, by definition, will always be more expensive.
LEO: What is your concept of affordable market-based housing?
JA: I think you’ll find condos in the downtown will probably be around, I think the Mercantile building, top are coming in around 140, 160
. It’s different in terms of where you’re going to build that house or build that unit. … Location, location, location. Right now, downtown’s hot.
LEO: Do you worry there could be some negative effects here, like more stratification?
JA: I don’t see that. The concern I have is making sure we can provide the appropriate public services in a geographic area that for decades has not had any significant housing. That’s my issue as mayor of this community. All the seeds that we have planted over the last 20, 25 years are now coming up to make downtown a more attractive place to live. The confluence of that with the baby boomers aging creates an opportunity for demand. It’s not only happening here — it’s happening in major cities like Louisville all around the country.
LEO: What about the Affordable Housing Trust Fund — the
task force just delivered its report. I’m curious where you are with that.
JA: I’m very supportive of the concept and trying as best we can to figure out the best way to create a revenue stream. I was most hopeful that the state would’ve allowed the extra fee
put on filings with county clerks around the state, the funds to be designated to the county where the fees were paid. The overwhelming majority of those funds were paid by our citizens because the overwhelming majority of transactions happen in Jefferson County. That didn’t happen. So the money goes into a pool, and we get a tiny bit. So we’re looking at options that are doable, many of which require state statutory change, some of which require Council members’ action.
LEO: What do you expect to see on the arena front?
JA: I expect to see Humana’s building come down. I see this year being the year when the LG&E stuff, because I’m not sure what it is
, is relocated. I also see this year being the one where we pick the design.
LEO: What do you expect to see in ’07 on the Bridges Project?
JA: I hope we’ll be able to clearly understand that the sooner we build them the cheaper they are, and that we have a financing mechanism to build the two bridges plus the reconstruct of Spaghetti Junction. That’s nailed down with everybody signing on on both sides of the river, and at the state and federal level.
LEO: LEO has come down on a different side of this issue than your administration —
JA: Oh, yeah? Where is LEO?
LEO: LEO has supported 8664.
JA: Oh, well that’s great. OK, go ahead.
LEO: I’ll let you finish if you’d like.
JA: I appreciate the idealism of the leadership of the initiative, and I appreciate the aesthetic aspect of what the beauty of connecting the city to the water’s edge would be without 64. But unfortunately, aesthetics can’t be the basis for my decision, and when you look at the models that were done in the late ’90s, before a billion dollars of investment was going on downtown; when you look at the Southern Indiana legislative folks and congressional folks saying no way are you going to put all the traffic going across the East End bridge to require us to expand 269
over there; when you read the letter from the Federal Highway Department saying we have never — never’s a long time — torn down an expressway going from here to there, we tear down spurs, we tear down on-ramps, we tear down off-ramps; I mean, we’ve just got to get on with it. Right now, all
is doing is giving those who don’t want either bridge — that being some of our colleagues in Frankfort — an opportunity to question and ask whether this and that. It’s a wonderful idea, and it’s probably something that could have been discussed back in the ’50s when 64 was placed there.
We’ve just got to move on. At some point, as I’ve told the
leadership — we have sat with them for hours and hours, and listened and responded and explained and gotten them appropriate information on all of the aspects from the officials who have reviewed and analyzed and shown clearly that gridlock occurs in the downtown with the traffic being pushed onto the downtown streets and the widening of the streets up to the front doors of the buildings instead of having sidewalks in front of the front doors. It’s a great idea, it’s a wonderful idea, it’s a beautiful idea — doesn’t work, isn’t going to happen, and we’ve just got to get on with it and not give the naysayers about the two bridges and reconstruct of Spaghetti Junction additional fodder, because if we don’t get the two bridges and reconstruct done in the very, very near future, it’s going to have a significant negative effect on the economic vibrancy of the Greater Louisville region.
LEO: One of the things I’ve been told, when I’ve asked officials with the Bridges Project about it, is — I’ve been told two things: It’s already been studied and it’s off the table, or that
not presenting a study of it and therefore it’s off the table, which seem to be in conflict.
JA: I’d go with the first one, and I’d add to it the Southern Indiana legislators, congressmen and the state reps, because they’re not for it, and United States senators as well as congressmen, they’re not for it in terms of the effect it’s going to have on their communities. With them not for it, with the Federal Highway Department saying in black and white it’s not going to happen, we need to get about ensuring we get these two bridges and the reconstruct done in a time period that will not have a negative effect on economic growth in the region. The Waterfront Development Corporation, David
and myself have spent an enormous amount of time with the state, we’ve gotten them to the position where we feel like we can enhance the waterfront experience with very little negative effect as a result of the
LEO: What would be a more acceptable timetable for you?
JA: Tomorrow. Twenty-five years is unacceptable.
LEO: Where do you think the city stands with Ford?
worked with the Dearborn
group as recently as 10 days ago. Our goal is to attract investment by Ford to ensure that both the truck plant and the assembly plant have the type of re-engineering that provides opportunities for crossover vehicles and future hybrid vehicles to be made in Louisville. We’re involved with them on a weekly basis. I say we — it’s the state and the city, and GLI, so it’s not just me. I’m just a small cog in this big wheel of our hometown. Are you from Louisville, Steve?
LEO: Yes, sir, born and raised.
JA: How old are you?
LEO: I’m 25.
JA: If I were your age, I’d have an 8664 sign, too — what the hell? I really love idealism and I was there. My problem is I’ve got to deal with reality.
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