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Preserving Power
Louisville putting politics before place-making.
Colonial Gardens.
Courtesy Louisville Public Library

Louisville, Kentucky is home to seven historic landmark districts, including the nation’s largest Victorian neighborhood, but recent changes to the city’s 40-year-old historic preservation laws by the Metro Council have preservationists seeing an uncertain future. Citing concerns over accountability, public participation, oversight, and property rights, the council passed new rules giving the legislative body final say over all landmarks decisions and added restrictions to the petitioning process that initiates the landmarks review process. Now some fear that politics and potential corruption could erode the intent of the law and preservation groups are mulling legal action to reverse the changes.

The contentious six-month fight was spurred by the four-year-old landmark designation of Colonial Gardens, a former beer garden built in 1902 alongside one of the city’s Olmsted parks. The designation stopped a proposed strip mall planned for the site, but the building remains vacant and deteriorating, splitting the neighborhood over its historic merits. “If Colonial Gardens didn’t happen, this ordinance wouldn’t have happened,” said Stephen Porter, an attorney representing preservation groups.

Preservationists maintain that giving a political body the final say over the landmarks process unduly politicizes the process and could lead to illicit campaign contributions from developers. It also removes the lucrative negotiating power the ordinance previously possessed, where compromises could be worked out about saving historic buildings without officially invoking the landmarks process. Fundamentally, Porter is disturbed that the authority of the Historic Landmarks and Preservation Districts Commission, an appointed panel of volunteer experts, can be overturned by a political body untrained in historic preservation practices. He noted the ordinance included some compromises, including extending a 30-day stay of demolition of historic properties to allow more time for the Landmarks Commission to prepare reports and hold public meetings.

The final bill was passed on July 26 and subsequently vetoed by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer. In a letter explaining his decision, the mayor said, “Landmarking is a standards-based process and is rarely used—averaging twice a year for the last 40 years. Our landmarking process has served us well for more than a generation—and preserved our sense of place for generations to come.” Despite the mayor’s veto and outcry from concerned preservationists at two public hearings, the council voted 18 to seven to override the veto on August 9.

Porter said preservation groups are considering the best time to bring a challenge. “There’s no reason for a big rush,” Porter said. “It’s possible that Metro Council will never even review a case, but if some case were to arise where they did overturn the Landmarks Commission’s decision, we’d likely challenge the ordinance with a lawsuit.”

Branden Klayko