Louisville embracing the old and the new

The New York TimesJune 9, 2014 

LOUISVILLE — William Weyland is well known here for a string of offbeat projects recycling old buildings.

Reared in this Ohio River city, where he has spent much of his career as an architect and developer, Weyland was behind the 10-story baseball bat outside the 200,000-square-foot Louisville Slugger factory and museum on West Main Street.

Weyland is managing director of the City Properties Group, which in 1996 completed the Louisville Slugger project that now attracts over 250,000 visitors annually.

The company's projects include renovation of the Whiskey Row warehouses on West Main Street, which was completed three years ago and cost $17 million. The project has ground-floor space for five restaurants, and 36 residential lofts on the upper floors.

Now, for the first time, Weyland is undertaking major new construction — a Hilton Garden Inn, with 163 rooms, at Fourth and Chestnut streets. The 121,700-square-foot hotel, scheduled to open in October, is expected to cost $20 million.

It is one of three hotels under construction downtown. Another is the $80 million renovation of a seven-story building on Fourth Street that at various times in the last 80-plus years served as a department store and professional offices. It is being turned into an Embassy Suites hotel with 270 rooms, restaurants, stores and office space.

The third is the smallest, a $3 million Vu hotel, set to open this year in a renovated tobacco warehouse in the Smoketown neighborhood. The developer, George Stinson, is marketing the hotel's 55 rooms to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities.

"When I returned here in the mid-1970s after college, Main Street had 650,000 square feet of vacant space," said Weyland, 61. "It's been fun to watch downtown come back."

Three more hotels are planned in the next 12 months, according to the Louisville Downtown Partnership, a business development group. They include the $261 million Center City Omni Hotel, with 600 rooms, 200 apartments, retail space and an 850-car garage. It is scheduled to open in 2017.

In all, over the next two years, developers here are building or planning 1,416 new hotel rooms, as well as office and retail space and rental apartments, all at a cost of $418 million, according to the city's planning department.

In ways big and small, Weyland's marketing strategy mirrors Louisville's own plan for reviving its central business district. Both Weyland and the city have joined historic renovations and new construction in an effort to attract more residents. As momentum accelerated over the last five years, the plans resulted in thousands more visitors downtown, more than 1,000 more units of housing and the resuscitation of a downtown that until 2005 or so seemed to be asleep most of the day.

As in other U.S. cities that set and achieved similar goals, Louisville's revival has been accompanied by strong public investments that leverage private spending. In 2000, Louisville opened the $40 million, 13,000-seat Louisville Slugger Field to host the Louisville Bats, a Class AAA farm team of the Cincinnati Reds.

Four years later, it added Fourth Street Live, a $68.5 million entertainment district and pedestrian mall between Liberty Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard. Fourth Street Live, which hosts concerts and other events, including annual civic runs, replaced the $144 million Galleria, an unsuccessful enclosed downtown mall.

In 2010, the city opened the $238 million, 22,000-seat KFC Yum Center, a multipurpose sports arena on West Main that regularly hosts NCAA basketball tournaments and other major events.

Even before the recession, marketing assessments consistently showed that Louisville, with its 750,000 residents, was capable of supporting at least a thousand more hotel rooms, according to city planning studies. It took until last year for creditors to make sufficient capital available to undertake the projects now underway in the city, developers say.

"There was demand all that time," said Rebecca Matheny, a coordinator at Louisville Downtown Partnership. "We're seeing projects that respond to the demand. We've anticipated this for some time."

From 2008 to 2014, Louisville added an unexpected dimension to its entertainment portfolio that has helped attract visitors and new residents: the blossoming of fine restaurants that devote their menus to locally grown food.

"There are so many good restaurants here now that you could eat at a different one every day and not get to all of them in a year," said Mary Moseley, president of the Al J. Schneider Co., which owns the 1,300-room Galt House, Louisville's largest hotel, and is a partner in developing the new Embassy Suites hotel .

The city also is taking advantage of the American thirst for bourbon, which has been distilled and distributed here since Evan Williams opened his distillery in 1783, five years after the city was founded. The company opened a craft distillery in November on West Main Street, and two more by other distillers — Angel's Envy and Michter's — are under construction.

Developers here say that a good deal of the credit for helping to catalyze Louisville's new formula for development goes to Jerry Abramson, who for 21 years was Louisville's longest-serving mayor until he became lieutenant governor at the end of 2011, and to Abramson's successor, Mayor Greg Fischer. The city is investing $110 million in the new hotel construction, according to Fischer, almost all of it for parking decks.

"Jobs follow where people are," Fischer said. "To attract high-talented people, you have to have a high-quality place. So we're focused on place. We're competing with the best midsize cities in the world.

"The convergence of what we're doing to make this city interesting is what's leading to this hotel boom."

The construction is occurring across the downtown business core. The $30 million Hotel NuLu, planned for the city's fast-growing boutique-and-restaurant neighborhood, known as NuLu, will have 154 rooms when it opens next year, according to the city officials.

And Aloft, a $22 million, 100,000-square-foot hotel with 175 rooms, is scheduled to open next year along with the collection of 19th-century warehouses that encompass Weyland's Whiskey Row Lofts.

"We had the right ingredients and a good plan for Louisville," Weyland said. "The strategy is to stay focused. Keep going. Make the dirt precious."

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