A new development

Lisa Dettlinger lives in a Victorian-style shotgun house on Lexington Road, the last in a row of similarly sized bungalows that line the north side of the stretch of road connecting Baxter Avenue to Payne Street and, eventually, Grinstead Drive.

At the end opposite Dettlinger’s house is a swathe of overgrown post-industrial land surrounded by a haphazard fence and tattooed with a blown-out warehouse. The land was supposed to house a bright new strip mall, something on the Breckinridge Lane scale, anchored by a pair of “right-sized” big-box stores but achieving its full urban essence with a series of to-be-determined eateries, coffeehouses, perhaps the occasional pub, and the modern offices that are omnipresent in every gentrification project.

But for now it will remain an ideal spot for a teenager to tuck away and try his first joint.

That’s Lisa Dettlinger’s fault.

If you think that, you must’ve believed what you read in the note developer Steve Poe sent to neighbors last year blaming Dettlinger and Lisa Santos, both board members of the Irish Hill Neighborhood Association, for his withdrawal of the suburban chimera. You may have also heard about the public relations firm the developer hired to, among other things, foster discord among neighbors over the Lisas’ opposition. Poe threw a fit after Dettlinger and Santos won a legal battle having to do with Poe’s plan to reroute Beargrass Creek to make the double-big-box-fantasy work.

While Poe’s arrogance and petulance in the face of adversity are admirable in a Pat Buchanan sort of way, members of the neighborhood association have blown past him where creativity and forward-thinking are concerned.

Dettlinger, Santos and Nathan Smith have created Meditative Urbanisms (irishhillneighbors.wordpress.com), an urban design competition to fill the 30-plus acres with something both innovative and sensitive to the brownfield environment around it. The idea originated with Smith, an architect and fellow board member.

“Now there’s kind of this gap in the consideration of that site, so this was a good time to insert some other way of looking at it into the process,” he says.

The competition is open to an international audience, and the group has gotten buy-ins from Kentucky Waterways Alliance, 9th District Metro Councilwoman Tina Ward-Pugh, and even some city officials. Smith says he’s hopeful they’ll get a healthy drip of local entries.

The idea to open the development process to the public counters the typical pattern: A developer comes up with a concept, holds public meetings to gauge interest, then begins work — sometimes running up against neighborhood opponents.

There are three basic rules: The development should be a mixed-use zone friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists, include a major bus hub, and ensure bicycle traffic a straight shot from the south side to the north.

Over the railway to the north sits Butchertown, an urban infill neighborhood whose primary industrial tenant is JBS Swift, the international meatpacking company. Swift’s negative reputation is based mostly on the hideous smells that waft from what is essentially a farm operation planted in the middle of the city. It hasn’t gained much sympathy from neighbors, with whom it maintains a contentious legal and regulatory history.

For years, neighbors have tried — and failed — to compel the company to move to a location more suitable for harvesting swine. Officials in Mayor Jerry Abramson’s office have been working with Swift to find a place where its Louisville workforce — there are some 1,300 — can stay employed without the fruits of their labor offending the noseways of the home- and business-owners who occupy the surrounding areas.

A couple years ago, I had a private conversation with someone who worked in the mayor’s office. What came up, after rapping both about Irish Hill and Swift, was intriguing: a development at the River Metals site that connects the eastern portion of bohemian real estate — where the Highlands meets Irish Hill and eventually the Frankfort Avenue corridor — with a post-Swift Butchertown and its east downtown antecedents.

Think of a bike- and pedestrian-dedicated corridor that moves from the “Weird” bars and restaurants of Baxter, past Headliners Music Hall and through a reformed Irish Hill flecked with local enterprise, and deposits into a refurbished Butchertown that also happens to sit right next to the bona fide NuLu arts district of East Market Street.

Talk about possibility city.