Revealing the secrets of 
Beargrass Creek: New plan will get national attention

Squint hard at the concrete chute that makes up one stretch of Beargrass Creek, and maybe you can imagine dense green borders, rich with native grasses and trees filtering poisons from water trickling to the stream below.

Or perhaps a boardwalk, leading to a cantilevered platform overlooking a kayak ramp, with a sign noting how to tune into an educational podcast. And there, across a freshly painted, calmly-trafficked intersection, a throng of school kids watching a turtle make its easy way down a ramp to the water.

Ideas like these sprang from the minds of planning and landscape mavens from architecture and design firm Gresham Smith earlier this month, during a three-day exploration and brainstorming workshop. For free, they are looking for ways to entice residents to rediscover the South Fork of Beargrass Creek and to see it as a natural setting and a place to visit, use and enjoy.

The goals of the project are to connect neighborhoods to the creek, improve the health of the waterway and the life it supports and develop destination spots for people to learn about and enjoy the stream.

Right now, “it’s kind of an eyesore,” said Scott Shreffler, a co-founder of Mile Wide Beer Co. on Barret Avenue, near a concrete portion of Beargrass. “It shouldn’t be that way. It should be something that connects so much of the city together,” he said, adding a revival of the waterway could help spur development of neglected industrial parts of town.

Whether any of the ideas from the workshop get paid for and completed is an open question. One thing is clear: The proposal will be presented in Louisville in June to some 1,500 design professionals at The Congress of the New Urbanism, or CNU. Most of these so-called legacy projects in other cities have led to action and involvement from local residents, the group says.

This is far from the first stab at reviving Beargrass. The CNU effort follows a string of plans, studies, task forces and initiatives dating back to the ‘80s to clean and open up stretches of the creek system, which drains more than 60 square miles of Jefferson County. Several of these plans have languished, unfunded and undone.

But this project also comes as the creek draws fresh attention from several corners, including Metro lawmakers, MSD, environmental groups and the federal government.

Right now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is raising the hopes of Beargrass advocates by offering millions of dollars in long-sought funding for a separate restoration of the creek’s ecosystem. The problem: The city has to find the means to commit to matching some funding in cash and in-kind work, just as Metro leaders race to close a yawning budget gap.

“If we ever want to really work on Beargrass and do some really big-scale stuff ecologically, then this is our chance,” said Ward Wilson, executive director of the nonprofit Kentucky Waterways Alliance, or KWA.

Waterway advocates, city officials and designers discussed ideas for Beargrass Creek during a brainstorming session earlier this month. | Photo by Mark R. Long.

WHY NOW?

Late last summer, local conference boosters approached KWA’s Wilson about championing a Beargrass-focused legacy project. Gresham Smith, which is based in Nashville but has an office here, was earlier this year brought in to provide design work for the project. The MSD and the Owsley Brown II Family Foundation are sponsoring that work.

After a back-and-forth over the scope and aims of the Beargrass project, the team decided to focus on a roughly five-mile stretch of the South Fork running from Joe Creason Park to the intersection of Baxter Avenue and East Liberty Street. Most attention would go to the concrete channel starting at Eastern Parkway.

Fast forward to a chilly, gray March morning when around 20 people from Gresham Smith, KWA, the Beargrass Creek Alliance, Army Corps, MSD and other organizations gathered around a table at the Olmsted Parks Conservancy near the Louisville Zoo.

Their task for this seven-hour “Creek Crawl”: visit a series of potential “nodes” along the South Fork, see what’s there and the problems to solve and brainstorm ways to fix them.

“We want to think broadly, but also think about action and getting things done,” said Louis Johnson, a Gresham Smith landscape architect, who’s leading the project with KWA’s Wilson. “Where can we create those moments to elevate the creek’s visibility?”

The workshop is one of four “legacy projects” tackled ahead of the CNU’s annual gathering of city designers, architects and related professionals. The idea is to use the event to help host cities solve some long-standing problems.

Elsewhere in Louisville, teams led a community workshop exploring ways to improve the 18th Street corridor in Russell; looked at improving Portland’s connections to downtown and the riverfront, and worked on developing a vision for the Woodlawn Ave. commercial corridor in Beechmont.

“It’s a way to really focus on your city and show it off to the world,” said David Tomes, a founder of the Norton Commons development and a cochair of the CNU local host committee. It’s also a chance to get input from national experts on areas that need improvement. “That’s one of the greatest benefits from hosting this.”

THE CURSE OF PAVEMENT

Beargrass runs out of sight for much of the area the team studied, popping into view briefly as it streams along or under major roads. The stretch from Eastern Parkway was encased in concrete in the early 20th century, when the city’s goal was to quickly flush disease-causing effluent away from burgeoning neighborhoods, and ease development.

Over the years this channelization has made the stream more prone to flash flooding, wiped out habitat for native plants and animals and presented an uninspiring trench for Louisvillians to abuse.

“Nobody really thought about Beargrass as a creek; it was viewed as a ditch,”said Kurt Mason, who is a natural resource specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and has worked on Beargrass Creek watershed issues since 1980.

One of the biggest problems the stream suffers is the sheer amount of impervious pavement, say Johnson and Wilson. A study in 1998 showed 42 percent of the South Fork’s 27 square-mile watershed area was impervious. Johnson said data from Metro Louisville’s LOJIC system indicate that’s risen to around 60 percent. All this paved surface speeds stormwater tainted with oil, chemicals and dog poo into the stream, often with little or no greenery to filter it.

“Things are improving incrementally in Beargrass Creek,” said Erin Wagoner, who oversees key water-quality programs for MSD. However, “a major, major problem is still bacteria, and it’s because it’s an incredibly urban watershed.”

Johnson said having just 5 percent to 10 percent of a watershed paved can cause stream-health problems, with great impacts at 25 percent — less than half the impervious area of the South Fork area. Other challenges include combined storm and sewer flows during big rainstorms, invasive plants and animals, no shade, poor signage, limited access and dangerous nearby intersections.

A diagram of potential access points from the Beargrass Creek legacy project. | Image by Gresham Smith

WHAT THEY PROPOSE

After the Thursday field trip, the team gathered at the headquarters of New Directions Housing Corp., in the old Casa Grisanti building on Liberty Street, for a brainstorming session. On Friday, they spent 15 hours refining the ideas and getting them on paper, followed by a Saturday dash to get a 40-page presentation done in time to show off the work to sponsors, participants and Beargrass Creek advocates at a party at Mile Wide Beer Co. A final report will be presented at the CNU event on Saturday, June 15.

Here’s a boil-down of a few of the ideas they came up with for each “node” along the stretch they studied.

—Joe Creason Park: Lower creek banks; realign stream in places to allow flooding and the growth of a native wetland habitat; build overlook with educational resources at the site of a big combined sewer overflow gate.

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—Eastern Parkway: Retrofit expanses of pavement with more-permeable materials; add beneficial plants and “green infrastructure” along top of channel walls to block and filter runoff water; add overlook at bridge and kayak launch at site of existing ramp.

— Rufer Avenue Dead End: Remake current concrete slab and open storm inlet into a parklet, with a stream overlook, native-plant buffer to filter runoff from street.

— East Oak and Schiller streets: Retrofit intersection to better use space, slow traffic and increase safety for pedestrians and cyclists; reorient German-Paristown Park to incorporate creek views and eliminate disused asphalt court; add native buffer plants.

— The alley behind Kentucky Street: Create multi-use path on creek side of alley and “bioswale interceptor” to filter runoff into creek; add native plants to understory of border atop the channel.

— Logan Street Basin: Add sports field and replace muddy plain of fescue with native grasses, with a trail; plant native buffer along creek channel; add educational resource to a rain garden.

— Mile Wide Beer Co.: Create stormwater beer garden; plant more native buffer along channel; remove excess pavement and add restorative plantings to soak up stormwater.

— Baxter Station: Retrofit intersection, including a corner plaza, to improve safety and ease pedestrian and bicycle access to Irish Hill Park; create overlook and public space near disused station.

Yet, even if everything goes perfectly and all the disparate federal, state, city and private projects can be funded, coordinated and moved forward, nature sets a limit on some of the CNU designers’ ambitions.

For one thing, most of the time you can forget paddling a kayak through the concrete channel, said David Wicks, a retired environmental educator and chairman of the River City Paddlesports board of directors.

The longtime Beargrass advocate said that stretch is only passable for small boats when the Ohio River rises to back up the creek. While this would allow paddling, it’s also the same time that sewer and stormwater flows combine and make the water unhealthy.

“There is no reasonable way of paddling that section on a regular basis,” said Wicks, who added he supports the CNU’s work and fresh thinking about improving recreational access to the creek. “Any additional study and creative brainstorming about connecting communities to the creek is valuable and very important.”

MANY BOATS IN THE WATER

The CNU’s Beargrass effort may be coming at the right time, with other projects and possibilities drawing attention to the creek’s health and accessibility.

The biggest currently is the almost-$1 billion, federally-mandated job to nearly eliminate waste and stormwater flow into the Ohio River and Beargrass Creek by 2024.

“It won’t eliminate all overflows to Beargrass Creek, but it’s going to eliminate a whole lot of them,” said David Johnson, MSD’s development and stormwater services director.

This work, which includes the digging of a tunnel deep under the city, has temporarily closed the Beargrass Creek Greenway that runs between Grinstead Drive and Payne Street. A study partially funded a few years ago by the Army Corps yielded a range of expensive designs for a multiuse path linking this greenway to the one in Butchertown, but lack of funding put that project on ice.

One supporter of the multiuse path, Metro Councilman Brandon Coan, whose district includes The Highlands, has been working over the past year with property owners and others on a separate concept for a trail along a section of the South Fork between Joe Creason Park and Eastern Parkway.

Coan said he is interested to see the CNU crew’s plan for the channelized portion of the creek and how their ideas might be incorporated with others in the long-term revitalization of the creek. “If we don’t get people down there using it and loving it and enjoying it, they’re never going to care about the ecological health of it,” Coan said.

The confluence of the South Fork and Muddy Fork of Beargrass Creek near the Home of the Innocents in Butchertown. |  Photo by Mark R. Long.

BIG MONEY, BIG CATCH

Meanwhile, Congress last fall approved a project costing up to $3 million over as many as three years for the Army Corps and a local partner to study how to repair the watershed’s flow and increase habitat for threatened animals and plants. That study could lead to a project costing $15 million or more to get the work done.

“If we carry this through — the feasibility study — the intent is to build,” said Andrew Reed, an Army Corps biologist, project manager and planner.The catch for Louisville is that the city has to commit to funding half the study cost, with cash and in-kind work. Completing the study would lead to an even sweeter deal to get the work done, with the Army Corps picking up 65 percent of the cost.

“If you’re wanting to do improvements along Beargrass Creek, any of the three forks, then this is the way to do it right here,” said MSD’s Johnson. “If you don’t do it, you’re giving up free dollars, basically.”

As good a deal as it may be, it’s a tough ask right now as Metro officials are fighting over the right mix of cost cuts and tax hikes to close a looming $65 million budget shortfall over the next four years. The city needs to commit within the next couple of weeks or risk losing the shot at the Army Corps money, people close to the discussions say. Officials at MSD and Metro government say they are trying to figure out a way to commit to the funding match, but it may not happen. “We don’t want to lose out on this opportunity,” said Mary Ellen Wiederwohl, chief of Louisville Forward, Metro government’s economic development arm. “We are just in very difficult times right now, and making difficult decisions about what to fund.”

THINKING SMALL, TOO

Organizers of the CNU project said they were aware of the possible Army Corps effort and the many projects that came before. They said they made sure to come up with cheap, quick improvements to make while funding for bigger projects is hashed out. Those include adding markers so people know they’re near the creek, or using paint, poles and planters to calm traffic at intersections and make walking and cycling safer.

“That’s an intervention that is affordable, that can be done tomorrow,” Gresham Smith Landscape Architect Patrick Henry told partygoers at Mile Wide.

The design team also hopes their work will inspire creekside businesses and other property owners to take steps of their own, especially depaving. Gresham Smith’s Johnson said he hoped to set up a small demonstration project ahead of the CNU gathering, and that he and Wilson would soon start talking ideas with creek neighbors.

Mayor Greg Fischer said he looks forward to seeing CNU’s proposals, and working with residents on near-term projects and longer-range plans.

“Louisville has a wonderful and often hidden asset in Beargrass Creek,” Fischer said in an emailed statement.

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