Business

How company restoring Lexington courthouse changed downtown Louisville

City Properties Group's best-known project is the Louisville Slugger factory and museum, which has become a major tourist attraction. The project helped spark the revival of Louisville's West Main Street historic district.
City Properties Group's best-known project is the Louisville Slugger factory and museum, which has become a major tourist attraction. The project helped spark the revival of Louisville's West Main Street historic district. teblen@herald-leader.com

The project managers overseeing restoration of the old Fayette County Courthouse have decades of experience turning abused and neglected old buildings into useful, productive community assets.

Over the past 25 years, Holly Wiedmann’s Lexington-based AU Associates has redone more than 25 buildings, mainly turning former schools throughout Kentucky and West Virginia into affordable housing.

But people in Lexington may be less familiar with City Visions Associates, a part of Louisville-based City Properties Group. Unless, that is, they have watched the renaissance of historic downtown Louisville over the past two decades.

Architect Bill Weyland started City Properties in the early 1990s. He wanted to become a developer, but suburban projects didn’t interest him. He liked old buildings and the energy and diversity of urban life. He saw a need and a possible market in Louisville.

Weyland worked closely with Barry Alberts, who ran the city’s Downtown Development Corp. and was project manager for the Muhammad Ali Center. In 2008, Alberts joined Weyland’s company to create a consulting arm, City Visions Associates.

Weyland’s first big project is his most famous: the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory. It opened in 1996 and helped spark the revitalization of long-neglected West Main Street. That neighborhood of 19th century commercial buildings with cast-iron façades is now a popular place with locals and tourists.

To make the baseball bat factory work, Weyland needed a privately owned alley behind it. The owner insisted that Weyland also buy a vacant concrete building beside the alley that opened in 1910 as a manufacturing center.

Now called Glassworks, that building is the anchor of other renovations and new development along West Market and West Jefferson streets. Glassworks houses hot art glass studios, galleries and offices, some of the city’s first downtown loft apartments, a fitness center, and the offices of City Properties the Jefferson County Property Valuation Administrator.

“This was supposed to be a building that would never be filled up, ever,” Weyland said. “But it's been filled since it was open two months.”

Other City Properties projects include two restaurant and loft buildings on Main Street’s Whiskey Row and The Henry Clay, a former Elks lodge, hotel and YMCA now restored as event space and apartments with a newly built hotel next door.

The company also is developing in Dayton, Ohio, and Minneapolis. City Visions is managing other people’s developments across the country. Alberts’ biggest project makes the Lexington courthouse look easy: A 600,000-square-foot former mental hospital in Buffalo, N.Y. Built in the 1870s, it sat vacant more than 30 years. It is being transformed into a hotel, conference center and other facilities.

On a recent visit, I asked Alberts and Weyland to talk about how they have made a successful business out of projects many developers would run from. Their strategies offer a window into how difficult urban revitalization projects can work.

We plan big and implement small. It’s all about right-scale development.

Bill Weyland, City Properties Group

City Properties buys buildings and land cheaply by focusing on underappreciated urban areas they think could become places people will want to live, work and play in the future. The idea is not just to rehab a building, but create an exciting district.

An important part of that is good branding. For example, Glassworks showcases the city’s art and architectural glass industries, creating a local identity for the district.

The company applies for federal and state historic tax credits to help pay for restorations. That strategy helps lower costs, so they can lower initial rents and have more flexibility to make projects work over time.

Rather than trying to build the biggest possible development all at once, City Properties likes to start small and add to it incrementally. That way, the company is building on success and adjusting to changing market conditions.

“We plan big and implement small,” Weyland said. “We’re always thinking: what’s the smallest thing we can do that will have impact. It’s all about right-scale development.”

That requires vision, capital — and patience.

“In real estate there’s not an understanding that you can move a market if you can build the right product,” Weyland said. “We try to think how we can create something that goes beyond that market and pulls it, without being silly from an investment standpoint.”

Old buildings are good for that strategy, because they come with character and community memories that attracts. Plus they have irreplaceable style and craftsmanship that will stand the test of time.

“If you're just going to replicate the suburbs,” Alberts said, “why is anyone going to want to come downtown?”

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