Jessica Jones used to drive by the property at 1311 South Shelby every day on her way from her home in Germantown to her job downtown throughout the early 2000s: First, it was some type of industrial site. Then it became a grocery store. The neighborhood changed, too — going from homes, a few factories and small businesses that people were rarely seen going in and out of, to the burgeoning commercial area it is now, with independent restaurants and Logan Street Market.
In 2018, the Save A Lot closed, and the property at the corner of Shelby Park, Germantown and Schnitzelburg has sat empty since. Now, a popular, local vegan jerky company wants to buy it and rezone it, from what is solely a commercial property to a plant-based food manufacturing zone.
Some observers, such as Rob Monsma, an urban planner, think that this new Louisville Vegan Jerky Co. factory would be a step back in time for the neighborhood and the city — welcoming the cogs of industry, however sustainable, back to the urban core when manufacturers are more often scattering to the industrial parks at Louisville’s edges.
Jones, who now lives on the cusp of Schnitzelburg and Camp Taylor, thinks that the proposal is following the current trajectory of the area closer than is obvious at first, because LVJC, which plans to eventually open a gift shop and offer tours at the factory, is a local company joining the other new businesses trickling into the area: restaurants, bars and retail businesses.
Jones said that she realizes that the factory isn’t going to be a traditional storefront, “But I think it’s one more layer of people coming to Germantown and reinvesting in the area,” said the 43-year-old.
That’s not necessarily what Ann Ames sees, a resident of Shelby Park since 1966, who said the days of factories employing many residents of the area was “a different time.” She wants to see another grocery store take the prized spot, something that will serve everyone in the neighborhood: the lower-middle class long-timers she has lived around for decades and the new homeowners following the businesses like Logan Street Market.
“Those are things that are wonderful for this community, and I think that’ll keep going only if we have some foundations,” said Ames, who is 76. “A grocery store would be a wonderful foundation.”
Maria Gurren, the president of the Shelby Park Neighborhood Association, said she is personally conflicted about the factory plan, and she has heard residents express concern over the future of the site should LVJC ever leave. The property would remain zoned for commercial and industrial use, and even though LVJC CEO Stanley Chase told LEO he wants to include a binding element in the proposal that would restrict future manufacturing uses to plant-based foods, it is not official.
Chase, who prides himself on owning a brand that was started and is based in Louisville, is also willing to add something completely new to Louisville’s planning process to appease neighbors: a Community Benefits Agreement that would contain perks for Shelby Park residents.
But, questions remain, like how would it be enforced?
COMMUNITY BRAND, COMMUNITY OUTREACH
Chase started the Louisville Vegan Jerky Co. in 2012, working a small operation out of the Clifton Center off Frankfort Avenue, where businesses abut single-family homes and apartments. Then, he moved to a bakery in Old Louisville, working near stately mansions before finally settling into an industrial zone in Newburg.
Now, with Louisville Vegan Jerky in grocery
stores across the U.S., Chase and his crew of 35 need a larger, more long-term location to keep up with orders. And, Chase said he wants to get back to neighborhood living, because that’s what his brand is about.
“My whole thing is I started this company to be about Louisville,” said Chase, hence his business’ name. “Since we’ve been over in Bishop Lane-area, it’s Louisville, too, but I’ve felt so much more a part of Louisville when I was in Old Louisville, when I was off Frankfort Avenue.”
Shelby Park has a similar “feel” to those locations, Chase said. And, it’s why he’d rather open his factory in the former Save A Lot than a site off Blankenbaker Parkway that he also found viable.
Plus, the proposed factory would be close to where many of his employees live in Germantown and Schnitzelburg. Since his current factory already attracts random tourists, including members of the band Arcade Fire, he’d like to open it to tours. And, he anticipates those jerky fans taking a walk around Shelby Park and visiting its business after checking out LVJC’s operations.
He also wants to create that Community Benefits Agreement. He wants it to contain commitments including to: hire from within the community for his $12-$13 an hour factory jobs (which also come with benefits); create a bag of jerky with all profits funding a community project of Shelby Park residents’ choice; respond to community complaints within 24 hours; and start holding pop-up events on weekends in the factory’s parking lot, including farmers markers.
“Louisville is in our brand name,” he said. “We want to be part of the neighborhood. We want to have things that will brighten the neighborhood up.”
But, the detractors say, no matter how good LVJC’s intentions are, an industrial use for the property is just not ideal.
MOVING AWAY FROM MANUFACTURING
There’s a reason why factories aren’t desirable for residential areas. They have a history of deleterious environmental effects.
Monsma, an urban planner who sat in on LVJC’s recent virtual meeting with the city’s Land Development and Transportation Committee, says look to Rubbertown as the worst example, a neighborhood with a collection of factories in The West End. A recent study found that Rubbertown could be responsible for as much as 75% of the reason why residents in Louisville’s poor and mostly Black neighborhoods have a life expectancy that’s 10 to 12 years shorter than those living in richer, whiter neighborhoods.
In Shelby Park, as late as 2019, residents were dealing with some of those negative environmental effects of living next to a factory: an intermittent smell of cat urine. The odor was eventually tracked down to a company called Forth Technologies, which MSD said was inadvertently creating acetone with one of its processes, which was then being flushed out into the sewer system. This, combined with chemicals already in the sewer system and relatively high pH levels, caused the odor. Forth Technologies responded by investing in a holding tank and adjusting the pH of their wastewater, and MSD hasn’t recorded an odor complaint since August of 2019.
LVJC is a lighter manufacturing use than the pollutant-belching plants of Rubbertown or the chemical-producing Forth Technologies. The factory receives dry soy protein, marinates it, and then dehydrates and packages it.
Chase said that odors emitted by LVJC’s factory should mostly shoot up, rising above most of the buildings in Shelby Park, according to an analysis by a company called Blue Energy. By the time the odor reaches the site’s property line, the amount of odor in the air should be less than 0.4%, Chase said.
As for noise and traffic concerns, LVJC’s operations can’t be heard from outside of the building. And, after LVJC ramps up its production, it will receive two semi-trucks a day, Monday through Friday. Chase said that LVJC usually receives the same drivers each day, and he plans on telling them to enter the property through a preferred route provided by the neighborhood.
Monsma says he likes many of the people who work at LVJC, but, in general, he doesn’t think industrial uses in residential neighborhoods is a good idea.
“I mean, trying to sort of co-locate industrial uses together where the infrastructure needs are the same, the distance from residential communities is the same, I just think that’s good practice,” he said. “I think it’s a smart precedent to make. I just think that that’s the better idea. That’s why we build industrial parks and highways and all of those things.”
When the Germantown/Schnitzelburg area was populated by immigrants, factories were a conveniently-close place to work, said Monsma. And when Ames first moved to Shelby Park, she remembers many of her neighbors working at the factory that used to be where the Save A Lot is.
“At that time, for this community, we were a lower middle class community,” she said, “and if we were going to have a place that was going to keep people a job, you weren’t going to complain about it.”
But now, many people in the neighborhood work downtown and other places outside of the neighborhood, said Ames.
Several of the old factory buildings in the area have taken on other uses. The old Germantown mill, across the train tracks from the Save A Lot, is now a high-end apartment building. Also, on the other side is the Hope Mills building, now home to artist studios.
Monsma, who also lives in the same council district as Shelby Park, said a fitting replacement for the Save A Lot would be a mixed- use residential building with retail on the ground floor. If not a grocery store, Ames would like to see a community center or a hardware store.Gurren said that she would prefer to see the site become a place that all of Shelby Park residents could enjoy.
“I think I just, with it being one of the largest if not the largest commercial space in our neighborhood, I would like it to be something that, you know, provides a service or a good for the public and something that’s accessible for folks at all income ranges that live here,” she said.
In her mind, that would be a commercial space with multiple uses, such as a laundromat or a dog grooming business.
But, Chase cautions, if he walks away from the project, the alternative might not be desirable to detractors, either.
The former Save A Lot has sat empty for over two years, collecting graffiti. People in the neighborhood have reached out to grocery store chains, asking them to consider moving to the spot, according to Gurren. But they have not been successful.
The Save A Lot was valuable to Shelby Park residents because it was easier to walk to than the Germantown Kroger a little over a mile away, said Gurren and Ames.
But, it might not be feasible to attract a grocery tenant to the space again. Chase said that one challenge to the location is it only has one access point.
And since the Save A Lot property is zoned commercial (C-1), many commercial businesses would not have to go through a public engagement process if they wanted to move into the building. Approved uses include art galleries, bookstores and florist shops but also funeral homes, liquor stores and pawn shops.
“What could currently go there at its current zoning, there’s a lot of stuff that would probably be undesirable for that neighborhood,” Chase said. “The chance of something going in there and everyone being stoked about it is very small.”
Because LJVC has to go through the city’s approval process, neighbors have the opportunity to make demands and ask questions about the project before the council makes the decision to approve it or not.
Gurren and other members of the Shelby Park Neighborhood Association met with Chase and representatives from LVJC two weeks ago for the first time one-on-one before the Land Development and Transportation meeting.
Perturbed at first by LVJC not reaching out to the association after its first city-required neighborhood meeting in November, the Neighborhood Association voted in opposition of the development at its last official gathering in January.
After last week’s masked tête-à-tête at the Shelby Park Community Center and hearing the binding elements being considered at the LD&C meeting limiting the site’s future uses, Gurren said she feels “a little bit” encouraged.
But, that binding element still has to be added to the rezoning application and approved by the planning commission and the city council. And, Gurren s
till worries about how the promises of hiring within the community and donating to a neighborhood project will be enforced. LVJC has floated the idea of the Community Benefits Agreement, which is “a contract signed by community groups and a real estate developer that requires the developer to provide specific amenities and/or mitigations to the local community or neighborhood,” according to the Partnership for Working Families.
But, this isn’t common practice in cities across the U.S. and is particularly new to Louisville. It’s not clear if it would be baked into rezoning approval, which the city has never done, or created separately. All this makes Gurren cautious.
“As much as I appreciate that effort, I’ve been really open with one of the owners of the jerky company about the fact that, you know, unless there’s an accountability component built into this agreement, then it’s just kind of a nice note,” she said. “So, I don’t want people to have kind of a false sense of security because we have something off-writing and think that that means that there’s accountability behind it when there might not be. And not because they don’t want to be accountable, just because the city hasn’t done this before.”
But, Chase said that he is not afraid to start something new in the city. He opened a food truck in 2010 when there weren’t specific food truck laws in Louisville and helped write them.
“I would love to be a part of this,” he said. “To set this kind of template, standard, for how developers communicate with neighborhoods for Louisville. I just think it would be so awesome if that were to come from this.”
The rezoning will be discussed next at a virtual Planning Commission meeting, Feb. 18 at 6 p.m.