A vision for the neighborhood center at 18th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard. Rendering by UDA.

Mixed-use center is next step for revitalization

CNU Legacy project in Russell neighborhood in West Louisville listens to residents, drawing their dreams.

A mixed-use center focused on locally owned, food-oriented businesses, renewed streetscapes, community uses, and new housing opportunities is a key to revitalizing Russell, a  neighborhood in West Louisville that has experienced decades of disinvestment. A CNU Legacy Project, sponsored by community development organization OneWest, drew up a blueprint for the eight-block 18th Street corridor—to boost prosperity for residents and draw visitors from the rest of the city.

“18th Street is uniquely positioned with the realignment of Dixie Highway, the two future BRT (bus rapid transit) routes intersecting at 18th Street, and the termination of ‘The Blvd,’ a cultural and innovation corridor to become a center for activation in the Russell neighborhood,” notes Megan O’Hara, who led the design team for Urban Design Associates. 

Legacy Projects take place in advance of CNU’s annual Congress, to be held in Louisville June 12-15 this year. They offer a way for the Congress to leave an enduring mark on the host city and region. The designs are led by nationally recognized urban design firms and sponsored by local organizations. The 18th Street Corridor project is one of four Legacy Projects in Louisville that leveraged $400,000 in donated design expertise for the city.

The corridor garnered public attention as Passport Health, a major health provider, announced that it was putting plans on hold for a $100 million headquarters in the wake of financial difficulties. The complex “has been hailed by city officials as an anchor development of the planned revitalization of west Louisville,” notes WFPL, a public radio station. But many other positive things are happening, such as a YMCA opening near 18th Street. “We think they will be economic and lifestyle generators in this corridor,” O’Hara says.

The team identified four clusters of activity along 18th Street, which cuts across the Russell neighborhood from north to south. The team analyzed strengths along the corridor, labeled as green dots, and opportunities for positive change, identified with blue dots. The biggest cluster of green and blue dots is around the intersection with Muhammad Ali Boulevard (The Blvd), and that is the place to begin revitalization, planners and residents determined. The plan also calls for the reuse of two shotgun houses as restaurants, a new mixed-use apartment building, and incubator space for new food-oriented businesses. Several of the ideas are already moving toward implementation. 

Another important cluster of activity is four blocks south of Muhammad Ali, at the intersection of Broadway and 18th Street. This is where two future BRT lines intersect, and the site is viewed as a “Gateway” to Russell and the 18th Street corridor. The new YMCA, set to open this year, is a block away from this intersection.

The largely African-American neighborhood suffers from economic poverty, but enjoys a wealth of history and culture. “This is not just a collaboration between rich people and poor people,” says Evon Smith, president and CEO of OneWest. “We are not poor in the West End. We are rich in many ways. We have to see ourselves that way and operate that way.” Russell has experienced revitalization recently, in part driven by a $30 million federal Choice Neighborhoods grant. More investment is already responding to that grant.

The project was focused on ideas likely to be built in the near term. Eight “next steps” were identified—the first five listed below deal with the area around Muhammad Ali Boulevard and 18th Street. Numbers 6 and 7 pertain to the Gateway at the southern tip of the corridor, at Broadway. 

  1. Prioritize public funding for one-two blocks of new streetscape along 18th Street from Muhammad Ali to Madison Street.
  2. Fund and develop the two incubator restaurants (renovate the shotgun houses) on 18th Street.
  3. Focus on supporting and growing locally-owned and food-focused businesses.
  4. Pursue family-friendly and community uses for ground floor spaces.
  5. Build the New Directions mixed-income, mixed-use building with engaging street frontage and community-based businesses.
  6. Create a green portal with safe pedestrian crossing at Broadway and 18th Street, where the two BRT lines will intersect.
  7. Renovate the historic buildings at 18th and Broadway; Build 3-story buildings with efficient floor plates in place of single-story buildings that are less historic.
  8. Infill the corridor with housing for all income and age groups, including rental apartments, for-sale townhouses, and for-sale single family houses.
Gateway intersection with streetscape redesigned as boulevard.

A market research firm on the team found good news in the form of likely demand for living in Russell. Laurie Volk of ZVA found “substantial market potential for new mixed-income housing along 18th Street for all income groups” includes potential absorption of 130 to 170 units per year. Development is moving west, from downtown, into Russell and other West Louisville neighborhoods. 

The federal Choice Neighborhoods grant has already has completed a dozen individual projects throughout the neighborhood. There are also five ongoing projects and 15 future projects. The biggest transformation is to redevelop the Beecher Terrace public housing development, five blocks to the east of 18th Street. This massive public housing project formed something of a barrier between downtown and the rest of the Russell neighborhood. 

A top priority for UDA was to run a design charrette that “authentically listened to and involved stakeholders,” O’Hara says. “This was not about coming in and teaching about New Urbanism, but the primary driver was listening to what residents want and hearing what they are saying. Trust that they know best. What they wanted aligned well with what we know promotes healthy lifestyles. It was a clean process of listening and the design resulting from that input.” The charrette had an “amazing turnout,” notes O’Hara. As many as 75-80 people attended multiple public events, a strong response for a neighborhood in danger of planning burnout due to scores of meeting for the Choice Neighborhoods project and other efforts. 

West Louisville benefits from good bones, and 18th Street has a human scale. Streetscape recommendations include on-street parking that will benefit businesses, and reduced width of 18th Street travel lanes to calm traffic. More trees are needed. A new streetscape was also designed for Broadway on the southern end of corridor. The idea is to create a boulevard with central median and dedicated bus lane.

Current and proposed streetscape for 18th Street

As the community development organization, OneWest focuses on capacity building and technical support, especially for small businesses owned by resident of West Louisville. Part of that is to avoid purchasing properties that individuals can purchase themselves. At the same time, OneWest plays the role of community developer that tackles larger-scale investments.

Every neighborhood needs a heart that provides identity, and that’s immediate priority on 18th Street. “When you have a central place that is successful, everything else falls into place—so we are recommending that you concentrate your energy on that central node,” Ray Gindroz, principal emeritus of Urban Design Associates (UDA), told an energized crowd of stakeholders at the final presentation.

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