SUNDAY EDITION: Historic, beleaguered Louisville Gardens waits f - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SUNDAY EDITION: Historic, beleaguered Louisville Gardens waits for future

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It has hosted college and professional basketball games, high school graduations and roller derby clashes. Louis Armstrong played there, as did musicians from Elvis Presley to My Morning Jacket.

But the Louisville Gardens -- the hulking structure at Sixth Street and Muhammad Ali Blvd. that was Kentucky's largest building when it opened in 1905 -- has sat mostly vacant since 2007 and its future remains murky despite city leaders' pledges to revitalize it.

Once part of a four-block redevelopment plan headed by the Baltimore-based Cordish Co., the Gardens languished as the project stalled, then dropped the auditorium.

The Metro Council last year asked the city's Economic Growth and Innovation Department to issue a request for proposals, before July 1, that would "explore utilization proposals" for the Gardens.

But that no longer appears likely. Innovation department chief Ted Smith said the city is holding off on the RFP until it completes the deal with Omni Hotels and Cordish announced last month to bring a hotel, grocery store and apartments to the old Louisville Water Company block downtown.

Once the approvals for that $261 million project are complete, "it's really going to turn the attention of everyone to the Gardens," Smith said.

Until then, the Gardens waits -- while Metro government pays about $19,000 a year in utility costs.

The building where civil rights icon Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke?

It's a city storage facility.

The building that sheltered Louisville residents forced from their homes during the 1937 flood?

Its entrance is cluttered with chairs. 

The building that held a public memorial after the Titanic sank in 1912?

Two windows on the main Muhammad Ali side are boarded.

"It's old and a lot of great things happened there," said Louisville architect and historian Steve Wiser. But, he added: "It's kind of been passed by."

Wiser believes the Gardens faces two major problems.  The building is isolated from other clusters of development closer to Fourth Street and is in a "less visible location."  And it would compete against new music venues such as the Mercury Ballroom, which opened nearby earlier this month, and other apartment, hotel and mixed-use projects.

Cordish, which also developed Fourth Street Live and is a partner in the Omni/retail project, announced in 2007 that it hoped to transform the Gardens into a minor-league hockey arena. But that plan eventually fizzled.

Nick Benjamin, Cordish's development director, said in an emailed statement that the company remains "keenly interested in the redevelopment of the Gardens and we are still actively pursuing same. We believe it has tremendous potential and should be revitalized as a 6,000 capacity entertainment and sports venue."

A Cordish spokeswoman didn't respond to several requests to clarify Benjamin's statement.

But Chris Poynter, spokesman for Mayor Greg Fischer, said Cordish has insisted it is no longer interested in the Gardens and called the building "off the table."

Poynter said the Gardens needs as much as $20 million in upgrades, but Smith declined to estimate how much work is required.

The original Cordish plan called for a tax-increment financing district that included the Gardens, allowing developers to recoup a portion of the increase in tax revenues. The Gardens is not part of a TIF district proposed for the Omni project, but Smith said he anticipates a similar incentive would be part of any redevelopment of the Gardens site.

For his part, Smith said he's optimistic about the building's future. He described the location, which is bounded by parking lots and garages, a park, and office buildings, as a "frontier" part of downtown that will benefit from investment to the west.

Smith cited developers' plans to add loft apartments in the Distillery Commons building as a possible example for the Gardens.

Smith said the Gardens was discussed as a possible home for a Central Hockey League expansion franchise, although the league's commissioner told Business First that any team in Louisville would likely play at Broadbent Arena at the Kentucky Exposition Center.

But there are other options as well. The city is working with Harvard-based OpportunitySpace, which has compiled all government-owned land and buildings in Louisville in an online database that Metro government officials hope will promote buildings like the Gardens to a larger audience.

"It's been a helpful megaphone to market and raise awareness for it," Smith said.

OpportunitySpace co-founder Alex Kapur said his group wants to raise the profile of properties like the Gardens -- "It has almost become invisible, even to people who have spent a lot of time in the city," he said – and introduce them to investors across the country.  

For example, Kapur noted that an Atlanta investor bought a complex of warehouse-style buildings in Chattanooga, Tenn., that now includes offices, retail space and restaurants.

Poynter said the last major event at the Gardens was the installation ceremony of Joseph E. Kurtz as archbishop of Louisville's Roman Catholic Archdiocese in August 2007.

While the building has been mostly off-limits to the public since then, a group of students from Sullivan College of Technology and Design are working on architectural drawings of the Gardens. Once finished, the drawings will be given to OpportunitySpace, said Randy George, chair of the college's Computer Aided Design Drafting department.

George said he and the students toured the Gardens and spent time measuring the building's rooms closest to Muhammad Ali Blvd. They plan to return to do similar work in the arena section and basement, he said.

George said that in visiting the arena – once home to both the University of Louisville and the old American Basketball Association's Kentucky Colonels basketball teams – he wore a hardhat because the Gardens' roof has leaked and some of the ceiling tiles are damaged.

"My first impression was that it obviously hasn't been used in a while," George said.

Fischer said the Gardens is a "great piece of real estate," but he warned not to expect it to change any time soon.

"We need Louisville Gardens to have a really exciting use for it. It's a great central location. … We need a little more time on it, but something good will happen there."

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