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How to build a destination out of urban decay

In most instances of gentrification, a new influx of residents—typically more affluent, and often white—displaces existing dwellers in tandem with rising home prices. Things aren’t so cut-and-dry in cities where a hollowed-out industrial core yields an influx of bourgeois amenities.

Once the seat of the manufacturing revolution, Pittsburgh is undergoing a renaissance as a hotspot for first-time homebuyers. Meanwhile, Denver is creating a new destination neighborhood with the help of sports and beer, and Louisville’s art and architecture may have finally hit the tipping point as a locus of regional pride.


map of pittsburgh

The sandwich board reads “Roses,” in rough hand lettering, “Only $6 a bunch!” The sign stands in front of a long row of parked cars, pulled perpendicular to the street, nosing up to the elevated platform of a low-slung building known as the produce terminal.

The pink brick building stretches for five city blocks, from the 16th Street Bridge on one side, with downtown’s skyscrapers rising behind, to the 125-year-old Romanesque St. Stanislaus Church at 21st Street.

Sign for a rose vendor in the produce terminal building in Pittsburgh.
A rose vendor occupies the only active bay at the Pennsylvania Railroad Fruit Auction and Sales Building in Pittsburgh’s Strip District.

Opened in 1926, the building was once the epicenter of Pittsburgh’s wholesale produce industry, which helped turn the Strip District into the retail destination that is today. Soon, redevelopment of this building will shape the Strip’s future.

The roughly four-by-20 block neighborhood is neatly contained by Pittsburgh’s geography: The Allegheny River flows along the north edge, while a wooded hill rises above railroad tracks on the south side. It sounds like the area, sandwiched by nature, should be connected to the land, but it’s not.

Low-rise rowhouses and sprawling parking lots—or rather, empty lots used for parking—dominate the landscape, with aging industrial warehouses and turn-of-the-century factory buildings showcasing the Strip’s industrial roots.

A two story, brick, single family row house in the Strip District in Pittsburgh.
For decades, the housing stock in the Strip District consisted largely of single-family homes, like this one on Penn Avenue.

Its three main thoroughfares—Liberty Avenue, Penn Avenue, and Smallman Street—divide the neighborhood into literal strips, with Smallman Street slicing down the center. On the north side of Smallman Street, the produce terminal acts like a big wall, separating the commercial heart of the lower Strip along Penn from a huge soon-to-be-developed parcel along the river.

The produce terminal has sat largely empty for decades. Its two-story auction house found new life as a nonprofit arts center 30 years ago, but of the building’s 64 loading bays, only one remains active on a daily basis.

Left: Jared Bajoras, whose family has roots in the strip district going back to the 1800's, standing in an empty lot that his family will soon be developing into a new residential building. Right: Construction on a new building.
Jared Bajoras (left) stands in the empty lot that his family will soon be developing into a new residential building. The Bajoras family has roots in the Strip dating back to the 1800s. Jared’s father John, now 70, grew up in the Strip and remembers a bustling residential neighborhood in the late 1950s; construction progresses on the newest building at 3 Crossings, a megaproject along Railroad Street (right).

“There were virtually no residents” when Society for Contemporary Craft moved in, says Executive Director Janet McCall. “When we started our programming [in 1986], we wanted to reach out to the neighbors, but we began to realize that there really weren’t residents. The people who inhabited the Strip District during the daytime were all coming from elsewhere.”

The number of residents in the Strip hit its peak in the early 20th century, when immigrant workers crowded into the neighborhood’s rowhouses to be close to their jobs in the factories and wholesale warehouses. In 1915, about 18,000 people called the Strip home, but as heavy industry declined, so did the population. By 1940, the population dropped to 3,500, and by 1974, only 285 people were still living there.

The modern facade of an unfinished condo building in the strip district.
The facade of the unfinished condo building at 2500 Smallman as seen from the central parking area on the interior of the building. Developed by Pitt Ohio’s Chuck Hammel, the 11 townhome-style units range in price $971,250 to $3.4 million.

The population hovered around 270 until a slowly building wave of construction around 2000 started to move the needle with the residential conversion of two industrial buildings, including the former Westinghouse Air Brake warehouse.

But it was the rehabilitation of the old Armstrong Cork Factory, a behemoth of a building along the river abandoned for 30 years, that really changed the atmosphere in the neighborhood. When it opened in 2009, it more than doubled the number of residents in the vicinity.

The project highlights how important adaptive reuse is for maintaining the neighborhood’s character. A 2002 study by students at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs detailed the many reasons why adaptive reuse should be the way forward for housing in the Strip, and since the study was released, more than 400 housing units have been created in formerly industrial buildings, with more than 250 more in development.

“The inherent benefit of this neighborhood is the architecture that exists here,” says architect Ryan Indovina. “The old factory buildings have great opportunity to be re-utilized in a more interesting fashion that just tearing them down and building new.”

A pile of construction materials outside of a condo building that is in progress.
Construction materials outside of Smallman Place, a 38-unit condo building designed by Indovina Architects. It’s located in a converted paper and cigar warehouse.
A brand new condo building, with two identical towers on either side of a lobby entrance with a large lawn in front.
The Yards, a new 300-unit building at 3 Crossings, is one of the newest residential projects in the Strip. Rents start at $1,049 for a studio and top out at $2,620 for a two-bedroom.

Indovina Architects converted the ground floor of a former brass factory into their office, with 14 rentals on the floors above, and they worked with Philadelphia-based Solara Ventures to convert the old Phoenix Brewery-turned-Otto Milk Factory into 58 condos. Their third project, Smallman Place, is across the street from Otto. It will create 38 condos in a warehouse where cigars and paper were once manufactured.

“People are really enamored with the grittiness,” says Lauren Uhl, a curator at the Heinz History Center, which moved into a converted warehouse on Smallman between 12th and 13th streets 20 years ago. “For all the new construction that’s going on, I think people are careful about not trying to lose its perceived vibe.”

And there is a lot of new construction: A 10-block, 55-acre stretch behind the produce terminal will become Riverfront Landing, a megaproject with 750 apartments and offices, while Oxford Development is remaking 16 acres in the Strip, with six from-the-ground-up buildings.

Much of the new commercial space is geared toward tech companies. Bosch has taken more than 51,000 square feet in Oxford’s development, while Apple signed on for 26,000 square feet.

Left: Bikes lined up at a Healthy Ride bike share station. Right: Alexis Shaffer, the owner of 21st St. Coffee and Tea, at the counter of her shop.
A Healthy Ride bike share station on 21st Street (left). The bike share launched in April 2015; Alexis Shaffer (right) and her husband Luke own 21st St. Coffee and Tea on Smallman. The business celebrated its 10th anniversary earlier this year.

Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center is also on Smallman Street between 30th and 31st streets—months before their self-driving cars hit the streets, you could spot them making endless test drives in the Strip—and they recently filed plans to expand on a riverfront parcel.

Tech workers will likely play a key part in the Strip’s future as a residential neighborhood—at the very least, they will be part of the population that can afford the new apartments. Condos at Smallman Place are selling for an average of $600,000, while prices for the townhouse-style units in a new development across the street range from around $1 million to more than $3.4 million.

A look down on part of the Strip District from a loft in the Cork Factory. Behind the buildings in the Strip District is a hill full of trees.
Looking south over the Strip District from a loft in the Cork Factory. Pittsburgh’s geography defines the neighborhood limits, with the Hill District rising to the south and the Allegheny River flowing along the north.

Now consider that Pittsburgh is consistently ranked as one of the most affordable cities to buy a home. According to Zillow, the median price for a home in Pittsburgh, city-wide, is about $116,000. Numbers pulled by the produce terminal developer for marketing materials put the median home value in the Strip at $395,833.

When you crunch the numbers for the median home price in the Strip’s zip code, (which includes Downtown), you get . Compare that to your own , calculated for .

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It’s clear that the Strip is attracting a more affluent crowd; and none of the housing that’s being developed is classified as affordable. In any other city, you’d call this gentrification, but is it gentrification if there is no one here to displace?

At the produce terminal’s only active bay, buckets of cellophane-wrapped bouquets stand between two open garage doors on the loading dock platform. Inside, petals and plant parts litter the floor while two young men cut flowers.

Left: Portrait of Kevin Coen on the sidewalk in front of his brothers sports apparel store where he works. Right: Portrait of jewelry vendor Alice Abiya on the sidewalk in front of her table of goods.
Kevin Coen (left) works at his brother’s shop Yinzers in da Burgh, a sports apparel store, on Penn Avenue; jewelry vendor Alice Abiya (right) sells her wares on 21st Street and Penn Avenue.

The air is thick on this summer morning, and sunlight filters through skylights caked with decades of dirt. When asked how long he’s been here, the salesman, a gruff fellow with a wariness for reporters, says, “Too long.”

The flower stall seems stuck in time, but then again, so does a lot of the Strip District. If you’re looking for the “rust belt” version of Pittsburgh, you’ll probably find it here. The south side is lined with hulking brick warehouses marked with faded painted signs announcing various wholesalers. Pictures of the street from 1906 look strikingly similar to today.

A few blocks farther east and you’ll hit the the Strip’s deep ties to Pittsburgh’s industrial roots. Andrew Carnegie got his start with an iron mill in the upper Strip at 33rd Street; ALCOA grew out of an aluminum operation on Smallman and 32nd streets; and George Westinghouse started manufacturing his revolutionary air brakes at 24th Street and Liberty Avenue.

An overall view of the former Armstrong Cork Factory which is now apartments.
In 2009, the former Armstrong Cork Factory was converted into 300 apartments, a major catalyst for the Strip’s development boom.
A police officer on his motorcycle in front of the produce terminal.
Lt. Joe Tersak of the Pittsburgh Police Motorcycle Unit stops in front of the rose vendor at the produce terminal.

In 2014, a large swath of the Strip was designated a National Historic District by the National Park Service. “No one owns it, but everybody feels like they own it,” says Uhl of the Strip.

In other words, there’s a lot of pride for this place. It’s collectively owned by the city’s consciousness, and no one wants to see it be wiped clean.

Which brings us back to the produce terminal. The Pennsylvania Railroad Fruit Auction and Sales Building, as the terminal is officially called, saw its peak in the 1940s, when some 40 wholesale businesses sold out of the 1,500-foot-long terminal. By 2006, the demand for wholesale had radically declined, and only five vendors remained.

The exterior of DeLuca's Diner on Penn Avenue.
DeLuca’s Diner on Penn Avenue has been a Strip District mainstay since 1950.

Around this time, the community started talking about the building’s redevelopment. A public market successfully operated in the terminal for three years, thanks to help from Neighbors in the Strip, now known as Strip District Neighbors, but bigger plans were laid out by the Buncher Company as part of Riverfront Landing, which called for tearing down a third of the building.

Buncher’s initial plan was approved by one mayor, delayed over a legal battle with the railroad, then curtailed by current mayor Bill Peduto. In late 2014, the city of Pittsburgh paid Buncher $640,000 to drop the produce terminal from its masterplan, clearing the way for McCaffery Interests, the development group responsible for the conversion of the Cork Factory.

Left: The backyard of a new condo building, where you can see the Cork Factory in the distance. Right: Young man Mike Lee in front of a window in his condo at the Cork Factory.
From the backyard of The Yards, the Cork Factory is visible in the distance (left); Mike Lee (right) at his home in the Cork Factory, where he was one of the first residents in 2009.

Mike Lee was among the first wave of residents in the Cork Factory’s 300 units, drawn to the neighborhood by its prime location, and to the building by its downright stunning apartments. I ask if affordable housing is a concern for the area, but he dismisses the idea, saying, “Gentrification is not the biggest issue. There’s no one here to displace.”

Smallman Galley is across the street from the produce terminal, and it is exactly the kind of new commercial development everyone seems to want in the Strip. Described as “a launch pad for the best new restaurant concepts in Pittsburgh,” Smallman Galley features four restaurants, a coffee counter, and a full service bar.

A pile of heavy equipment tires next to train tracks near Smallman Street.
Used heavy equipment tires behind Pittsburgh Tire, located on Smallman Street between 33rd and 34th Streets.

In a city like New York or Los Angeles, where newfangled “food halls” are commonplace, a place like this would hardly be a blip on the food industry’s radar. But in Pittsburgh, it reflects the attention that has been showered on the city the last few years, and reinforces the notion of Pittsburgh as an affordable yet bourgeois place, primed for growth and the perfect testing ground for firsts: your first restaurant, your first home, your first job.

McCaffery unveiled a new plan for the terminal in December, putting the focus on food and not apartments. Pamela Austin, Senior Project Manager at McCaffery, stressed that they’re applying for historic tax credits, so the building will remain largely as it is.

A view down Smallman Street towards downtown Pittsburgh. The produce terminal is on the right and there are cars parked along the street.
Looking down Smallman Street toward Downtown from the St. Stanislaus Church. The redevelopment of the produce terminal, seen at right, will drastically change this view.

There will be no major construction on top of it, but the look and feel of Smallman Street will be drastically altered. Pedestrian walkways will be cut through the building, and the sidewalks will be extended, with landscaping and seating, though exact plans are still in the works. (Adding to the Smallman Street changes will be another project by McCaffery: The firm recently announced plans to redevelopment a four-story, block-long warehouse opposite the produce terminal).

“We’re not thinking about how we can or should radically change this area,” says Andrea Lavin-Kossis, Riverfront Coordinator for the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh and the point person for the city in regards to the produce terminal and Smallman Street. “Rather, what are some ways we can make it more beautiful and easier to navigate?”

Lavin-Kossis echoes what I’ve heard other residents admit: “People like Pittsburgh for its authenticity.”

Jessica Dailey is the managing editor of Curbed. She is a Pittsburgh native and University of Pittsburgh graduate who now lives in Brooklyn.


map of denver

On a Sunday afternoon, the patio of Denver’s Wynkoop Brewery is jam-packed. Locals decked out in purple and black chug the last sips of their beers and glance at their watches, eager to catch the first pitch of the Colorado Rockies game two blocks away.

Across the street, 6-year-olds screech as they run through a newly built play fountain, 20-somethings sample pretzels at a just-opened beer garden, and valets park SUVs, luxury sedans, and a Tesla. Above it all, red and orange cranes frame a picturesque blue sky.

Welcome to Denver 2.0. From the perspective of Wynkoop Street in Lower Downtown, Denver is the stuff of PR dreams. From its beginnings as an out-of-the-way cow town covered in snow, a recent survey of headlines touts Denver not only as the best place to live in the U.S., but one of our country’s fastest-growing economies with the hottest real estate market in America.

This Denver isn’t the city I grew up in. In the 1980s, I walked—quickly—down Wynkoop Street clutching my mother’s hand on the way to eat sandwiches at the Wazee Supper Club or to buy new cowboy boots at Rockmount Ranch Wear.

Pedestrians crossing the street on 16th St. across Wynkoop Street.
Looking southwest on Wynkoop Street towards the Cherry Creek. The intersection of Wynkoop and 16th is especially busy thanks to bike lanes, a pedestrian area, and a free bus shuttle that runs down 16th Street.

You didn’t linger in what we’d call LoDo, not with the abandoned warehouses, reputation for crime, and constant panhandling. But the Wynkoop Street of my childhood has long since disappeared, eclipsed by pedestrian plazas, bourgeois brunch restaurants, and a new transit center that allows Denver to claim its place as a real urban destination.

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a series of watershed moments for Denver. State leaders launched an aggressive air-quality improvement campaign to reclaim the view of snow-capped Rockies from pollution, and started preserving old buildings instead of demolishing them.

From its heyday in the late 19th century to its rejuvenation over the past 30 years, Wynkoop Street’s story is also Denver’s. No other street as fully encapsulates the city’s meandering path through boom and bust, recovery, and gentrification.

Before LoDo was hip enough to need an abbreviated name, it was the city’s “warehouse row,” characterized by red brick and timber buildings built after the arrival of the railroad in 1870. But Wynkoop’s most important structure—Union Station—looks nothing like its red-hued neighbors.

First constructed in 1881, the massive pink lava and sandstone building—built using rock from quarries around Colorado—suffered from an 1894 fire and several renovations before emerging in the Beaux-Arts style in 1914. In the 1920s and 1930s, a million passengers each year walked Union Station’s towering halls, and 60 to 80 passenger trains filled the tracks each day.

Looking down at the dramatic SOM-designed open-air Train Hall at Union Station.
The SOM-designed open-air Train Hall is one of the focal points of the renovation of Union Station. The canopy protects passengers on the platforms below as they step onto Amtrak’s Zephyr trains and other commuter trains, including the 22.8-mile University of Colorado A Line that connects downtown with the airport.

But following World War II, Union Station traffic fell to only one or two passenger trains each day as Denverites embraced cars and airplanes. Until 1958, Denver Union Station had more travelers than the state’s biggest airport, Stapleton. With fewer travelers and businesses relying on trains, Wynkoop Street and Lower Downtown began a long decline.

Wynkoop’s historic buildings now attract hoards of architecture-loving residents. Katie Lavins, an 18-year owner of a loft in the Icehouse building (built in 1903), toured a number of different lofts in downtown Denver in 1998, but was drawn to Wynkoop Street. “I really liked the authenticity of it,” she recalls.

Similarly, Jim Graebner—a public transportation expert who jokes, “I wasn’t born here [Colorado] but I got here as quick as I could,”—loved Wynkoop Street’s old buildings.

Remembering his 1992 move into the Streetcar Stables Lofts, he says, “I’ve always had a great interest in history … and we were looking throughout downtown and I hadn’t been in LoDo in quite a few years. We saw this building that was being converted to lofts. Went in, took a look and loved the location, loved the building. Our building was built in 1882 so it’s wood frame with a brick facade. It’s just gorgeous.”

But no one wanted to live in LoDo in the 1960s and 1970s, when the middle class fled the city, opting for cheaper and “safer” housing in the suburbs. Businesses also left the urban core, choosing Cherry Creek or the new Tech Center southeast of downtown.

In response to Denver’s aging and blighted downtown infrastructure, the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA) created the Skyline Project in 1968, a plan to remake the city into a “modern” urban core. Proponents credit the controversial Skyline Project with the development of more than 1,700 residential units, 6.3 million square feet of new or rehabilitated office space, and 800 new hotel rooms.

The exterior of a new building, the 280-unit Alta City House apartments.
The $62 million, 280-unit Alta City House apartments are located west of Wynkoop Street in the Union Station neighborhood. Rents for a one-bedroom apartment start at $1,580 per month.

But the new buildings came at a heavy price; while Wynkoop Street was spared, city planners leveled 27 square blocks of 19th-century brick buildings to make way for high-rises and parking lots.

The city was in such dire straights that when the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce recruited Tom Clark in 1985 to move from Fort Collins to Denver, he turned down the job three times.

The future CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation wasn’t keen on the city. “Why in god’s name do I want to go to that dump?” he remembers asking. “It [was] the second-most polluted city in the country behind Los Angeles. The downtown was just barren.”

This was thanks to the second recession of the decade, from 1984 to 1987, when Colorado’s oil and gas economy bottomed out, over-speculation pushed up prices, and almost 29,000 people lost their jobs.

Commuters on the sidewalk leaving the new canopy at the train station.
Train commuters walk out of the new canopy, towards Wynkoop Street.

Future Wynkoop Street resident and Colorado native Kelly Pires—who now lives in the Mercantile Square Lofts with her teenage son—remembers using a fake ID to get into downtown’s somewhat unsavory clubs. “People didn’t go to LoDo when I was growing up,” she says. “It was a totally different scene.”

It was into this mix that now-Governor John Hickenlooper and three friends decided to open a brewery on Wynkoop Street in the J.S. Brown Mercantile Building, right across from Union Station.

Today, Wynkoop Brewery likes to claim that they are “a brewery that brewed a neighborhood.” And while the sentiment smacks of PR gloss, it’s also partly true. Given Denver’s current reputation as the “Napa Valley of Craft Beer,” it seems almost unthinkable that the city lacked a single microbrewery in 1987.

The opening of the brewery coincided with the efforts of preservation-oriented developers like Dana Crawford—developer of the city’s first converted lofts—who were trying to revitalize LoDo. Only 127 historic structures remained in downtown after the DURA policies of the 1970s, but the creation of the Lower Downtown Historic District in 1988 now sought to preserve the buildings.

When Stephanie Ziegler bought in the Dana Crawford-developed Edbrooke Lofts in 1990, she paid $150,000 for 2,000 square feet. “At that point in time, it was just us and the homeless,” she says.

Jim Graeber notes that when he moved in two years later into his own loft down the street, “Union Station was a beautiful building, but it wasn’t used much. Two Amtrak trains a day and the ski train, but that was it.”

Loft conversions in the early 1990s spurred further development downtown. Joyce Meskis, owner of the independent bookstore the Tattered Cover, had dreamed of expanding her Cherry Creek-based operation with a satellite store, but couldn’t afford the expensive real estate on the eastern side of town.

Wynkoop Street was less expensive, and offered her, she says, “the chance to be a part of the future of Denver.” But even though the neighborhood showed promise, “in the early stage when we moved there [they first opened a warehouse in 1990 and then a store in 1994], there were more pigeon occupants than people occupants.”

Now, so many people walk the streets of Wynkoop it’s hard for the pigeons to find a place to land. From Union Station’s recent 2014 renovation—there’s now an underground bus facility, a light rail station, a 112-room hotel, and new restaurants—to the tight-knit neighborhood’s monthly happy hour socials, few have a negative word about LoDo’s transformation from Skid Row to city hot spot.

But it’s clear that Wynkoop’s gentrification from neglected warehouses into trendy lofts has left out a significant portion of the population. On a street with no fewer than three valet stands and a median home price—$690,835—of more than double the overall city figure, Wynkoop shows the other side of Denver’s success: the increasing stratification between rich and poor, lack of diversity, and battles over where and how Denver’s homeless should live.

Marcus Hyde, an organizer with Denver Homeless Out Loud, understands why everyone likes the new, shinier version of Denver, but believes recent development hasn’t served all Denver residents equally well. While the financially secure enjoy all that Union Station has to offer, the impoverished are left out.

The newly renovated Terminal Bar inside of Union Station.
The nearly $500 million redesign of Union Station included a complete overhaul of the building’s interior. The Terminal Bar is housed in the historic ticketing office, while the Cooper Lounge offers views of downtown from the mezzanine.

“If you’re a homeless person and you walk into Union Station,” he says, “a security guard is going to kick you out. It’s not truly a public space.”

If there’s any blemish on Denver’s new picture-perfect reputation as America’s golden city, it’s that gentrification has pushed the poor out of the urban core. Rents in Denver hit an all-time high in summer 2016, and wages just aren’t keeping pace. As a result, the problem of homelessness is growing, with homeless activists reporting at least a 10 percent increase over the past couple of years.

Sometimes, the clash of poor and wealth comes to a head. In Wynkoop’s Icehouse lofts—where units sell for well over $1 million—tenants recently grew so frustrated with homeless people using the building’s bathrooms that they added secure keypads on the bathroom doors. And on the nearby 16th Street Mall, locals have clashed with so-called “urban travelers” allegedly attracted to Denver for the legal marijuana.

On a recent walk down Wynkoop Street, few homeless were visible among the bustling well-off crowds. But that doesn’t mean that LoDo’s renaissance comes without a price.

Three pedestrians walking on the sidewalk in front of the Tattered Cover Bookstore.
The entrance to Tattered Cover Bookstore, Denver’s most celebrated independent bookstore, which opened in 1994.

As Hyde remarks, “The litmus test should be: are more people in Denver better off?” he asks. “Are they better housed? Do they get paid better? Do they have better access to food? I don’t think that’s happening. I think what’s happening is we are attracting new money from out of state and we are not taking care of our own.”

Meanwhile, the residents of Wynkoop Street continue to proclaim their undying devotion to one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. As Pires notes, “I am so lucky to be living on Wynkoop. I know it pretty much every morning I wake up.”

Megan Barber is a contributing writer at Curbed. A Colorado native, she lives in Denver and loves to explore the Mile High City by bike.


map of louisville

Walk down West Main Street in Louisville and you’ll notice a strange vibrancy along the uniform five-story height of the corridor’s 19th-century industrial buildings. Suited-up workers dash to a quick lunch at a local cafe, and three generations of men walk together carrying miniature baseball bats, souvenirs from the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory.

A group of women take selfies in front of a double-size replica of Michelangelo’s naked David spray painted gold. And children, lots of them, mill about on the sidewalk, no doubt bussed in for a field trip to the history or science museum.

“Main Street is absolutely core to Louisville’s identity,” Rebecca Matheny, director of the Louisville Downtown Partnership attests. And while it’s been Louisville’s most important street for nearly the city’s entire history, its modern incarnation isn’t an accident.

A view down Main Street, with a large golden replica of Michelangelo’s David on the sidewalk in front of the 21c Museum Hotel.
A golden replica of Michelangelo’s David, created by Turkish artist Serkan Özkaya, stands outside the 21c Museum Hotel on Main Street.

It has been carefully designed and programmed as a museum district and cultural hub—as a destination for the entire city and a major draw for tourists.

Main Street was Louisville’s first street, built in the late 18th century on the banks paralleling the Ohio River. It’s said one could hear the roar of the Falls of the Ohio off in the distance and the toot of steamboats a block north at the wharf. The falls and its 25-foot drop were the reason the city was built in the first place—riverboats had to unload and portage around the rapids to continue on their journey.

“Main Street was always right at the front door of the community,” says Tom Owen, an archivist and local historian at the University of Louisville. “We were a river town.”

By the end of the Civil War, Louisville had already emerged from a frontier outpost to a major city, and Main Street was lined with fashionable hotels, grand banks, manufacturing, retail, and even housing.

But rail supplanted river traffic as the dominant form of transportation and pushed the center of Louisville inland, dispersing Main Street’s activity throughout a larger area. By the early 20th century, most believed Main Street was ready for an overhaul.

Plans to raze the waterfront first emerged in the 1930s, when a St. Louis planner, Bartholomew & Associates, drew up an expanse of parks and Art Deco skyscrapers with underground parking beneath. But not much happened, and by the 1940s, a gritty West Main Street covered in coal soot was home to cheap wholesalers.

A sign that still exists from the Snead Company Iron Works, which was Louisville’s largest cast iron manufacturer.
The Snead Company Iron Works was Louisville’s largest cast iron manufacturer. Its decorative products can still be spotted along Main Street.

In the late 1950s, while in town to explore a waterfront redevelopment deal, New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf succinctly appraised Louisville’s Main Street: “No one is going to put up something new beside a dung hill.”

Zeckendorf ended up passing on Louisville, and widespread clearance didn’t happen until the Louisville Urban Renewal Commission was formed in the early 1960s.

After more than a decade of budget cuts and changing players, a park over a parking garage finally opened in 1973, thanks to noted Greek planner Constantinos Doxiadis. The so-called Riverfront Plaza/Belvedere extends over an elevated expressway to bring people to the edge of the Ohio River.

Revered International Style architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed the six-story office building sitting atop the plaza for the American Life & Accident Insurance Company.

“Mies van der Rohe knew Doxiadis well,” says Nana Lampton, chair and CEO of Hardscuffle, Inc. and American Life and Accident Insurance Company of Kentucky. “He wanted it to be, in his words, a ‘sculpture’ rising out of Doxiadis’s 7-acre park.”

“It is clearly contemporary, a startling contrast to the old commercial-warehouse neighborhood which surrounds it,” urban affairs reporter Grady Clay wrote at the time of the waterfront scheme—and that was exactly the point. City leaders gripped with anxiety over a dying downtown wanted a bold plan to draw people—and their automobiles—back.

After it opened, however, it was clear that the city’s grandiose tabula rasa approach was no match for the growing suburbs—office space was left vacant and the city’s population continued to decline.

The inside of a lot looking at the back of four masonry facades that are still intact.
Four masonry facades along the 600 block of West Main Street conceal a missing tooth in an otherwise intact streetscape. Demolished for the failed Museum Plaza skyscraper a decade ago, many in Louisville see this parcel as a key site in a larger development of vacant land north of Main Street along the Ohio River.

From 1960 to 1975, Louisville’s population declined from 390,639 to 327,419. Downtown dropped from 20,000 residents in 1960 to fewer than 9,000 a decade later. Doxiadis’s plaza, devoid of shops and housing, lacked an organic urban vitality.

There was a growing sense of buyer’s remorse for the quarter billion dollars unleashed for the project. Urban Renewal sought something radically different than old Louisville, and the city was left wondering, is this Louisville at all?

On the other side of the Urban Renewal line, a cultural shift toward preservation was underway. By 1974, the remaining three blocks of West Main Street were listed on the National Register for Historic Places and declared a local preservation district.

In quick order, the Junior League opened its new headquarters in one old cast-iron and stone warehouse; the street’s most impressive cast-iron structure, the circa-1884 Hart Block, was converted to offices; and West Main’s first cultural anchor, the Louisville Museum of Natural History & Science (now the Kentucky Science Center), opened in 1977.

Left: The outside of the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, with a massive baseball bat leaning on the side of the building. Right: A building that is being turned into a new hotel.
The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory on Main Street is a tourist favorite (left); a boutique hotel is planned for 601 West Main Street, located on the corner of North 6th (right).

A few years later, a third of the buildings in the area had been renovated and rents had increased tenfold since the 1960s, according to a July 1979 report in the city’s Courier-Journal.

Taking stock of a changing Louisville in 1982, critic Jayne Merkel yearned for a more fine-grained cityscape lacking in Urban Renewal Louisville. “It is all the nooks and crannies, flower boxes, street lights, entryways, signs, corners, shop windows and corner details that you pass on the street that make one place memorable, another bland. Louisville could go either way.”

Louisville took the appraisal to heart. For the next three decades, the city focused itself the historic district’s context, small-scale development, placemaking, and blue-chip architecture.

Mies van der Rohe was a harbinger of high-profile commissions to come: Since 1973, West Main Street has seen a staggering number of of top-shelf projects from the likes of Michael Graves, Harrison & Abramowitz, Robert A.M. Stern, Deborah Berke, Christoff:Finio, Harry Weese, and Caudill Rowlett Scott. (Rem Koolhaas’s OMA, REX, West 8, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, and Pei Cobb Freed also drafted proposals that were never realized.)

There was a growing sense that West Main Street had “made it.” Building facades had been scrubbed and painted and the new streetscape was spotless. Suburbanites flocked to museums and restaurants, reacquainting themselves with their newly spiffed-up urban surroundings. The street itself had created a real place in a way that Urban Renewal’s plazas and setback skyscrapers never could.

The street’s status was secured in 2006 with the opening of the first 21c Museum Hotel, a boutique chain with its own collection of contemporary art, founded by bourbon heir Laura Lee Brown and her husband Steve Wilson, both of whom are avid art collectors.

The duo asked New York architect Deborah Berke to combine a series of former bourbon and tobacco warehouses for a hotel that keeps its galleries open to the public 24 hours a day.

“There was some skepticism whether it would be successful,” says Alice Gray Stites, chief curator at 21c. “Whether it would attract enough people to come downtown, to stay downtown, to eat downtown. Whether it would really become a cultural hub. But it certainly has become that.”

A limosine covered in thousands of red gems is parked on the street outside of the 21c Museum Hotel.
Art pieces from the 21c Museum can be see around Main Street. A limousine covered with thousands of red gems is the creation of local artist Monica Mahoney.

Watching the daily comings and goings on West Main, it becomes apparent that while the street is paramount to how Louisville sees—and brands—itself, it’s still primarily a destination for suburban and out-of-town tourists and the daily exodus of office workers.

“If you want to look at the city as a house, West Main would be the living room that has the nice furniture that no one ever sits on,” says Pat Smith, a data scientist and Louisville resident. “Honestly, I don’t go down there that much. I’ve never been to the Louisville Slugger Museum—it’s not what interests me. I don’t want to go look at baseball bats being made. When the average Louisvillian gets down here, it’s very much an event-based thing. I’ll come down for a talk or a music event.”

Downtown resident Pip Pullen—an advertising executive who’s lived in a condo overlooking West Main for the last three years after working downtown two decades—bookends that thought: “As an urban resident, it just feels like traffic coming in from the East End.”

It’s statistically true that there aren’t many residents. Counts released in August by Matheny’s Louisville Downtown Partnership show that the entire population of the city’s Central Business District hovers just over 4,600 people, half what it was in 1960.

And fewer than 500 new residents are expected to move downtown by 2018. Currently there are less than 40 residential units available in the neighborhood—fewer than the number of rooms at the 21c.

By comparison, the city is undergoing a hotel boom, with its current 4,790 rooms expected to rise to over 6,300 in 2018. One major hotel is under construction a block south of West Main, another opened this year, and a new boutique hotel was just announced for a 19th-century structure on the corner of Sixth and Main.

It may sound curious that a city of 600,000 could sustain such an influx, until one considers what the city of Louisville calls “bourbonism.” Main Street will soon be home to a remarkable number of distilleries, from the corporate (Evan Williams “Bourbon Experience,” currently open) to indie (Michter’s, Old Forester, and Angel’s Envy have locations in the works).

“Now we have a burgeoning bourbon district on Main Street,” says Matheny. “That is incredibly unique, when you think about there’s no other place that has an urban character where you can experience something like that.”

While West Main is currently inhabited by a transient population of workers and conventioneers, the street is serving a crucial role in shaping the identity and aspirations of future generations in Louisville. Its rows of converted warehouses, cast-iron facades, and neighboring plazas and skyscrapers are teaching the city how to be urban again—how to build and how to inhabit a city.

But while we wait for West Main Street to become a full-fledged urban neighborhood, would you like your bourbon neat or on the rocks?

Branden Klayko is founder and editor of Broken Sidewalk, a digital publication covering urbanism in Louisville. He studied architecture at Washington University in St. Louis and was most recently the Senior Web Editor at The Architect’s Newspaper in New York.

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