Big Four Bridge the source of fun and expectations

For years, while driving by that lopped-off end of the Big Four Bridge, 53 feet off the ground, it was hard to imagine how that rusting “bridge to nowhere” could become a recreational treasure.

Yet “good things come to those who wait, and wait, and wait,” David Karem, president of the Louisville Waterfront Development Corp., said when the completed pedestrian walkway across the Ohio River finally opened in May 2014.

The $41 million project was part of the 13-acre Phase III of Louisville’s waterfront redevelopment plan. Though the half-mile circular ramp to the bridge on the Louisville side opened in February 2014, there was no way down on the Indiana side until more than a year later.

Bridge-ramp-walkers-650Since then, more than 1 million people have hoofed it from one state to another across the bridge.

Now, like Cincinnati’s “Purple People Bridge,” which allows people to park in the northern Kentucky side and walk to games at its riverfront stadiums, Louisville’s Big Four offers a similar function.

To many people though, walking the bridge is the destination itself. On warm summer evenings, it can be packed with gawkers at the boats along the river and the changing colors as the sun dips from the sky.

“It’s very egalitarian,” says Joan Ross, who lives at the RiverPark Place apartments. “You see old people, you see teenagers, you kind of see everybody. You can walk there and watch the sun set.”

Going to dinner across the bridge – the half-mile span has a quarter-mile ramp on each end, making crossing the bridge a two-mile walk by itself – involves about 8,000 steps on her Fitbit step counter. And it’s right in their back yard.

They like to take their bikes across and connect up with the Ohio River Greenway on the Indiana side.

“That’s one of the great things about it,” says Joan’s husband, Ralph. “You don’t have to put your bikes on the car to go there, then afterward put the bikes back on the car.”

Like many dog lovers, though, they lament that a few irresponsible pet owners led the city to ban dogs from the bridge. And new signs aim to help bicyclists and pedestrians better co-exist.

Bridge-lights-650The bridge has been a boon to existing businesses on the Jeffersonville side, such as Ann’s by the River and Schimpff’s Confectionery, but also bring in new ones such as Red Yeti Brewing Co. and Flat 12 Bierwerks. Jeff’s $3 million marina project, expected to be completed by next October, could bring in more day-trippers.

Though the bridge has been a boon to local businesses, Jeffersonville has been dealing with issues of its own since the bridge opened, including concerns about pedestrian safety, accessibility for residents and businesses and a perceived lack of parking.

With Tumbleweed closed on the Lousiville side and the restaurant planned at RiverPark Place yet to be built, there are fewer dining options for foot traffic coming from Indiana.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t seen that [positive effect] on this side of the river because of the Bridges Project effectively cutting Nulu off from Waterfront Park and the walking traffic that the bridge has generated,” says Rick Murphy, vice president of the Nulu Business Association, the East Market Street business district.

The association hopes that will change with completion of the Bridges Project, which should coincide with the completion of the Nulu streetscape improvement project.

“In anticipation of that, we have discussed ways to encourage people to include Nulu in visits to Waterfront Park and the Big Four Bridge,” he said.

There have been discussions about possible shuttles operating on weekends and the new bike-share program planned for next year that will place racks at the bridge, in Nulu and downtown.


An urban lifestyle perk – the ability to walk for fun, health, purpose

Beyond its more apparent attractions, RiverPark Place offers residents a walk in the park.

“I think this is one of the best places in the Midwest to live,” developer Steve Poe told those attending one of its recent meetups. “People want to live in a park or on the water. This is a park on the water.”

Site of Waterfront Botanical Garden

It’s also one of Louisville’s most walkable neighborhoods. With plans for a botanical gardennearby, the options for walking will only increase. And improved access by foot to the restaurants and shops of Frankfort Avenue from the waterfront remains on the city’s agenda, Poe said.

The health benefits of walking have been well-documented, but research from the University of Kansas linked walking not only with health benefits such as lower body mass and blood pressure, but also decreased cognitive decline as we age.

John Gilderbloom, director of the University of Louisville’s Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods, also has published research linking neighborhood walkability with increased home values, less crime, fewer foreclosures and even longevity.

“Even during the economic downturn, housing values in The Highlands were not really affected because people value walkability,” Gilderbloom said.

“Walkable neighborhoods translate into more ‘eyes on the street,’ which lead to less crime. Demand is shifting from unwalkable suburbs to neighborhoods with characteristics such as safety, walkability, gentrification, environmental ethos, mixed uses and the proximity to jobs and school,” his paper states. “Relocating to a sustainable neighborhood means a better return on the initial investment, the option of being less dependent on automobiles, and the opportunity to live in denser neighborhoods with greater diversity.”

Waterfront ParkThe website rates the RiverPark Place area as the eighth most walkable area in the metro area, outdone by Old Louisville, The Highlands and similar areas.

“Walk scores aren’t really on the radar here,” Gilderbloom says, but more attention to walkability will help revitalize neighborhoods.

So, with brains in your head and feet in your shoes (apologies to Dr. Suess), here are some of the destinations you could choose (via Google Maps):

  • Slugger Field for a Bats game – 1.5 miles. (That was too obvious, but you can catch thetrolley there and go to 4th Street Live or even the downtown library. The trollies, by the way, are to be replaced with electric buses.)
  • Skateboard at Louisville Extreme Park – 1.3 miles
  • For a concert or to eat at the Chow Wagons during Thunder – 1.3 miles (For Thunder, watch from your balcony!)
  • Dinner at one of the NuLu restaurants – 1.5 miles
  • To appease a sweet tooth – 1.5 miles
  • Ride the Belle of Louisville – 1.7 miles
  • Yum Center for a Cards game—1.8 miles. Fleetwood Mac, Nickelback and Maroon 5 concerts are slated for the coming months.
  • Frazier Museum, Kentucky Science Center, Louisville Slugger Museum —2.2 miles
  • At 2 miles across, The Big Four Bridge opens up a whole ’nother range of walking options for frozen yogurt, craft breweries, restaurants and handmade candy.

While a grocery store isn’t too far away – the closest is the Crescent Hill Kroger – you’ll need a car for that. However, a planned Omni Hotel development that would include an upscale grocery store downtown reportedly is “on track.” That would put a grocery store roughly 2.2 miles away on more walkable streets.


The keys to creating a vibrant downtown include trees, transportation


For the seventh year in a row, Nashville’s downtown residents cited the “urban experience” as the primary draw for living downtown. Many cities, like Louisville, are trying to hone in on that experience as they work to revitalize their downtowns.

The Nashville Downtown Partnership organization hasn’t really defined “urban experience,” but it’s been on its annual survey for several years, according to Andrea Champion, its communications director.

“I think it’s just that people like to be in the thick of things, being able to walk everywhere,” Champion said.

“Urban experience” outpaced “central location/convenience,” “nightlife,” being “close to work” and “arts and cultural events” in the survey.

The report asserts that baby boomers and millennials, the two age groups most likely to live downtown, are looking for cities that offer jobs, affordable housing options, walkability, and desired amenities such as alternative modes of transportation.

Survey respondents said they’d most like to see more grocery store options, chef-owned local restaurants, movie theaters and clothing stores.

For cities looking to revitalize their downtowns, a Brookings Institution report presents a 12-step plan, including developing a strategic plan and public-private partnerships. It calls for creating an urban entertainment district, including arenas, restaurants, specialty retail and festivals; building a rental housing market; and later, creating “for sale housing.

“Having an established for-sale housing market is the ultimate test of whether the downtown has achieved critical mass,” the report states.

While Louisville hasn’t always kept up with a growing rental market, there are plans recently announced for a $48 million, seven-story apartment building near Slugger Field, and the second phase of apartments are nearly done at RiverPark Place.

That leaves the planned 16-story condo tower at RiverPark Place among the few luxury high-rise developments in the works.

John Gilderbloom, director of the University of Louisville’s Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods, predicts the RiverPark Place project will be “a huge success.”

“What they need is more walkability – to more businesses down there,” he said.

According to his team’s analysis, investment in the project will create 1,549 jobs – directly and indirectly related to the project – over one year, with 155 permanent jobs created through operation of the building as well as commercial activities such as the restaurant and other nearby businesses.

Louisville presents a difficult environment to gain funding and develop projects downtown, says Gilderbloom, who says he’s worked as a consultant for companies that have decided to focus on cities such as Cincinnati and Indianapolis instead.

Site_View_East_Elev-650In his “Ten Commandments of Green Planning,” Gilderbloom cites factors that Louisville and other cities can play up to make downtown more appealing, such as restoring the tree canopy and promoting walkability, bicycling and other alternate modes of transportation such as light rail.

“If you look at the 10 cities with the best public transportation, they’re also the hottest real-estate markets,” he says.

While he praises the mayor’s bike lane initiative, he goes on a rant against one-way streets as a hindrance to creating attractive neighborhoods. (Actually, it’s not his only rant: He also claims the city relies on outside planners rather than consulting its own academic experts right down the street.)

“There’s a lot of conflict here between old-school suburban thinking, which is, ‘Let’s get people out of the city as fast as possible versus the new green look,’” he says. “Market Street and Main Street just feel like freeway on-ramps … Nobody wants to build on a fast street. … One-way streets are designed to get you out of downtown and into the suburbs.”

A multi-year U of L study of two downtown Louisville streets — Brook and First — that were converted to two-way streets in 2011 found fewer accidents, increased property values, and reduced crime.

As for planting more trees, he says, “We know that when there’s lots of tree canopy, people are happier, home values are stronger.

“One great asset Louisville has is its historic properties. Just the fact that people are organizing [to preserve them] is a great thing,” he says. The most viable, appealing places have strong community groups advocating for them.


Young professionals key to downtown residential development

Cities are wooing young, educated professionals as a key to their downtown redevelopment plans.

The young and the restless” is what a new report from think tank City Observatory calls these 25- to 34-year-olds with at least a bachelor’s degree.

The nation’s 51 biggest metro areas — all except Detroit — have gained young talent, either from net migration in or from new college graduates who stay, the report says.


“It’s a type of growth that feeds on itself — the more young workers you have, the more companies are interested in locating their operations in that area and the more young people are going to move there,” Enrico Moretti, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of “The New Geography of Jobs,” told The New York Times.

These young professionals, who tend to be unsettled in their jobs and relationships, are more likely than previous generations to choose to live in close-in urban neighborhoods.

They’re “looking for places that were interesting, diverse, dense, walkable, bikeable and well-served by transit,” the report states.

It’s a big demographic at the RiverPark Place apartments.

“We’re some of the only people here who don’t come home in scrubs,” renter Ralph Ross said, noting that many of his neighbors work in the downtown hospitals.

At the same time, developer Steve Poe said he’d been surprised by the 50-plus crowd’s interest in living downtown as well.

That’s a key demographic for the planned 13-story luxury condo tower at RiverPark Place.“They want to be down here where there’s energy and excitement,” he said. “One thing we know is that they don’t want to feel old.”

There’s a robust high-end rental market as well as the lower end, according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. It noted in its 2014 report that the highest-income households accounted for nearly as large a share (23 percent) in rental growth as lowest-income households.

In Nashville, considered one of the most successful cities in downtown revitalization, 32 percent of its downtown residents are age 33 and under; 29 percent 34-39; and 35 percent age 50-67, according to the Nashville Downtown Partnership’s annual survey.

Fifty-two percent of downtown residents polled have a college education and an additional 36 percent hold postgraduate degrees.

Seventy-eight percent of downtown households earn more than $60,000 a year; 47 percent earn more than $100,000, and 25 percent earn more $150,000. Three percent earn less than $20,000 annually.

At the same time, Greater Louisville Inc.’s economic strategy report Advantage Louisville, noted Louisville’s gains, but also its challenges. It noted that 25.5 percent of Louisville residents overall hold at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with the national average of 28.5 percent.

“Greater Louisville is at a significant disadvantage in terms of educational attainment relative to its competitors, but it is gaining ground and improving faster than the competition,” the report states.

“Without a strategic combination of more in-migration of educated adults and an amplified number of post-secondary graduates retained in the region, Greater Louisville will become increasingly less attractive for quality, skilled technical and professional jobs.”

And it noted comments such as this one from its survey respondents:

“I recently moved back home from Chicago and was unable to find any decent apartments for rent near downtown that weren’t either a studio or a penthouse. Options in between are needed for young professionals.”