Panel delays vote on demolition request for W. Main Street hotel project | In depth

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — A city panel agreed Wednesday night to delay action on a request to raze six downtown buildings for a hotel proposal, a move meant to give developers more time to address preservation concerns.

The 6-0 vote by the West Main Street Architectural Review Committee came after more than three hours of wide-ranging discussion, debate and questions about the Dream Hotel slated for the 800 block of West Main Street.

Plans for the 169-room hotel call for tearing down nearly all of the existing buildings between 811 and 823 W. Main St. but saving and incorporating the 19th-century front facades. The site is within the West Main Street Historic Preservation District and the West Main Street National Register District.

A Metro government report recommended against the demolition last month because it wouldn’t meet the city’s guidelines and goals for the preservation district. It urged a modified plan that reused more of the buildings.

Project officials argued at Wednesday’s meeting that their approach was the most effective way to create a modern hotel with adequate windows and other amenities. And they claimed the bulk of the buildings, which have been largely vacant for years, are dilapidated and aren’t worth saving.

Using the existing structures amounts to “trying to stitch together seven bowling lanes and trying to create an auditorium,” said Robert Mallia, vice president of architecture and construction for the New York-based Dream Hotel Group.

“Unless we have the footprint and unless we have the programming that a modern property needs, a modern hotel needs, we are far less likely to be a success and far less likely that this hotel will be standing as a successful project a year down the line,” he said.

But others called for a compromise that could potentially keep more of the existing buildings intact. Architect Charles Cash, a former city planning leader, said framing the choice as “preservation or progress is a false dichotomy.”

Cash, the board president of the Vital Sites historic preservation fund, said he and other preservationists spoke with Alex Marks, the hotel’s lead developer, on Tuesday.

“We believe there can be a solution that will address all the issues, a meeting of the minds somewhere in the middle,” Cash told the committee during a public comment period. “Dream Hotels has a distinguished record of innovative solutions for their properties–many of them historic.”

The buildings date from the mid-19th century and are known for their distinctive cast-iron storefronts. C & P Real Estate has owned the four easternmost buildings since the early 2010s, according to online property records.

The Owsley Brown Frazier Historic Arms Museum Foundation has owned the two parcels on the western side since 2011 and 2012, respectively, records show. Those are next to the Frazier History Museum, which is not part of the development plan.

Joseph & Joseph of Louisville is the local architect on the project. Cash Moter, a partner in the firm, said he’s worked over the past 12 years with the buildings’ owners to explore development options, but a “significant amount of work” is needed to make that happen.

He also expressed concern about the condition of interior stairwells in some of the structures. Moter said he won’t let his employees use them because he believes their condition is similar to the stairwell in the nearby Fort Nelson building that collapsed in 2009, seriously injuring several city employees.

“These buildings have not had a good history. Time has not been kind to them as far as tenants have been concerned,” he said. “And this has not been a very good asset to our city in recent past. And I think that’s what this new project is going to bring to this area of ​​downtown.”

It was unclear from the meeting if a structural analysis has been performed on the buildings. Committee member Jeana Dunlap said she believes a “definitive structural report” would be useful to determine any threat to public safety.

Greg Buccola, principal of KPFF Consulting Engineers, said he was asked by the development team to provide an opinion of the buildings’ structural condition. He said there are some “sound and intact” parts of the easternmost buildings, but moisture damage has “taken its toll in many areas.”

Elsewhere, he said, parapets at 819 W. Main collapsed several years ago during heavy winds.

“I would venture to guess that in the next one to three years, if left unaddressed, there will be some sort of partial collapse probably at the roof level,” Buccola said.

The project has echoes of the failed Museum Plaza skyscraper plan, which was proposed in the mid-2000s as a signature building that would transform Louisville’s skyline. But the developers abandoned it in 2011 after they were unable to secure financing.

As part of Museum Plaza’s pre-construction work, buildings at 615-621 W. Main were torn down. Their facades, which were left standing, were to be incorporated into the development.

When the project dissolved, the facades remained. They are still standing – with no buildings behind them.

Steve Wiser, a Louisville architect and preservationist, told the committee that Louisville needs to avoid any chance of a similar result. He suggested that the city require a performance bond, possibly up to $10 million.

The development proposal says demolition wouldn’t start until final permits are secured and financing is in place.

Wiser also said he prefers that more of the buildings front portions are salvaged and included in the hotel.

“This is an exciting, wonderful project. I do want it to happen,” Wiser said. “But we need to put some guidance on this to avoid what happened down the street.”

The committee ultimately agreed to hold off on a vote on the demolition request, giving city officials more time to explore more preservation options for the buildings.

Marks said his team will need to do additional studies and cost estimates.

“We’re taking five steps back. So we’re going to need time, and I don’t want to come to you and say, ‘Great, we can do it,’ and then now the price is doubled.”

But, he noted, there’s “a lot of passion” surrounding the proposal.

“This passion will make this project even more successful,” he said.

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