<i>Live</i>, from Louisville!

The makeover of a defunct mall sparks controversy over what is good for the city.

Fourth Street Live! (FSL), in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, attracts or repels people like a magnet. Those who have a positive response to this dead urban mall turned entertainment district are attracted to the development’s manufactured vibrancy: flashing lights, streaming crowds, live and canned music—usually played at considerable volume—and bar on top of bar set in the historic city center. People who like it would call it “exciting,” while those who don’t might prefer “alienating.” Though downtown Louisville—which has been struggling for decades—is experiencing a tangible economic rebound thanks to this and other improvements, many city residents question whether the development’s repackaged suburbanism is good for downtown.

Architecturally FSL combines the handsome Chicago School Kaufman Strauss building and remnants of the Louisville Galleria—a shopping center designed by SOM that opened in 1982—with new neon trim, handsome pavers, landscaping, and street furniture. Once a fully enclosed mall, the Galleria included a gabled glass-and-steel atrium that extended over Fourth Street connecting the Kaufman Strauss building with other more modest buildings to create an interior courtyard of shopping and food courts. In its last years the mall was largely vacant.

“We de-malled it,” says Blake Cordish, the partner in charge of the Baltimore-based Cordish Company, which developed and owns FSL. “We wanted the development to be external, rather than internal, to embrace the sidewalk.” To transform the site into an entertainment district, Beyer Blinder Belle, along with local firm Bravura Architects, sheared the ends off the Galleria’s atrium and painted the steel trusses bright orange. Selbert-Perkins Design Collaborative designed the blinking, twirling 3-D signage that dominates the development. The facility has been reopened to vehicular traffic, which the Cordish Company can close off at will for events such as concerts, which happen every Wednesday and Thursday night (except in winter).

“For a long time there was a trend away from cities,” Cordish says. “But as cities become more and more spread out, downtowns are becoming more convenient again.” He doesn’t believe that cities should try to compete with suburbs, as they did with the urban malls of the 1970s and ’80s, but should play to their strengths: the excitement of street life, local history, and there-ness. “These are transformative projects,” he says. “They create a sense of excitement and pique broad interest in downtowns.” The Cordish Company has a remarkable success rate in turning around ailing downtowns—most famously with Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. The company is a sort of one-stop shop for downtown redevelopment, building everything from office towers and grocery stores to retail and entertainment districts in cities like Baltimore, Atlantic City, Houston, and Kansas City, Missouri.

The Louisville complex has a pool hall, bowling alley, comedy club, restaurants, and bars, as well as some shopping and a post office. National chains—including Lucky Strike Lanes, Subway, Borders, Hard Rock Café, and T.G.I. Fridays—dominate. The one local vendor, a bourbon-themed lounge built around the Kentucky-made Maker’s Mark brand, is intended to be the first in a chain that will go in the company’s other projects. While Cordish talks a lot about making each development unique, it would be more accurate to say that each one includes a different combination of elements drawn from a palette of familiar chains, albeit in jazzier neon packaging.

Even with diverse entertainment offerings and handsome interiors in many of the venues, the huge bars paired with massive flat-screen TVs tuned to ESPN lend a dressed-up sports bar feel to most of the establishments. The development was granted an arena license by the state, which allows for open containers between venues. Accordingly this boozy nighttime atmosphere requires extra private security. Movable barriers, or “pinch points,” are hauled out at night so that guards can check IDs and issue bracelets to those of drinking age. Pedestrians just wishing to walk down Fourth Street are usually allowed through—after some negotiation. According to Cordish, the visible presence of security helps visitors who might not come downtown very often feel more comfortable in the complex. However, this kind of hired surveillance is the opposite of the eyes-on-the-street community quality of real urbanism that Jane Jacobs celebrated.

Still, there’s no denying the economic success of the project. Sales and visitor numbers for the development have exceeded expectations since it opened in May of last year. Cordish initially projected approximately three million visitors a year, and the developer now expects more than four million. “We are very pleased,” says Barry Alberts, executive director of the Downtown Development Corporation. “It has done more faster than we ever could have expected.” Alberts also believes the development will lead to other investments downtown, such as housing and more retail. Several new businesses have opened nearby, and a historic hotel is being converted into offices and condominiums a couple of blocks away, on Third Street, lending weight to Alberts’s claim.

But not everyone is so happy. A group of local independent businesses have created a coalition called Keep Louisville Weird, which according to its Web site is aimed at countering “the current civic notion that excitement for our town should come from courting the establishment and promotion of chain stores and restaurants that can be found in many other cities across America.” Project coordinator Leslie Stewart says, “We don’t want to see Louisville homogenized.” Regular patron David Flores echoes Stewart’s concerns: “You go down there to be a part of this collective experience, but after fifteen minutes all I feel is disconnection, like I’m not in Louisville anymore.” The group, which touts the economic benefits of locally owned businesses versus chains, faults the city government for giving the dying Galleria mall to Cordish for a dollar. (But it was on the condition that the company invest a minimum of $70 million.) “We’re just hoping to get equal treatment,” Stewart says.

“I understand their perspective, and in many ways I share it,” says Tom Owen, a local historian and Louisville councilman, “but on balance this is good for the city. Something had to be done. Fourth Street Live! is just one piece in a larger puzzle of downtown redevelopment.” Owen and Alberts argue that creating more activity in the central city will benefit all businesses. “It’s not about splitting the pie. It’s about growing it,” Alberts says.

Downtown Louisville includes a significant amount of office, government, and cultural facilities, but the area was largely dead after five until FSL. The Cordish Company deserves credit for investing $72 million to reinvigorate this failed urban mall and put life back into the ailing central city. Yet the critics have a point: as much as the developers talk about wanting to “de-mall” downtown, overreliance on chains and manufactured vibrancy runs the risk of turning the city into a kind of drunken Disneyland. Greater collaboration between the city and local entities could help to foster more organic, lasting revitalization. As Cordish admits, “Great cities help to expedite change. How does the community foster that? You need broader retail, more housing, more amenities. At some point it snowballs, and government has to do less and less.”

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