David Karem is the President Executive Director of the Waterfront Development Corporation. He tells Louisville’s luxury real estate brokerage, Lenihan Sotheby’s International Realty, the history of the Louisville waterfront and what’s currently in the works.
His roots in the project go way back. “My family had a little cabin, believe it or not, on this place called Transylvania Beach,” explains Karem, “and as kids, we would go out for the summer. Literally the day after school was over, we went out and stayed in this cabin, and we were little river rats, and so I just always had an affection for the river, so that plus an interest in urban issues were sort of two of the big impetuses for getting involved in this project.”
In the past, the image of the Louisville waterfront was “horrific,” says Karem. It was viewed as 85 acres of sand and gravel, scrapyards, asphalt terminals, concrete plants and abandoned warehouses – what Karem calls an “uninviting front door to the city.”
Many people had tried to revitalize the area, but term limits -- two years for an Alderman and four years for a Mayor – limited the scope of what could be done. Harvey Sloane was one mayor with a deep interest in the city’s waterfront, but it was determined that a private corporation was needed to oversee the long-term vision for the land. Thus, the Louisville Waterfront Development Corporation was born in 1986. Ultimately, they would set out on a path that would include a 20-year multi-phase plan and over $115 million.
The first phase of the project started in the First Street / Brook Street area, closest to downtown. The Great Lawn children’s play area and festival plaza event space were aimed at boosting public interest in the project. “Right out of the box, that first phase was able to engage concerts, things like the Derby Festival; we’d bring Chow Wagon down here,” Karem elaborates. “Literally, from day one, it was exciting because people did want to come down here. We started seeing people come to events immediately.” This was one of the things other cities with huge waterfront projects were doing – a lesson learned, so to speak. They determined that what people wanted was greenspace downtown – so that’s just what they did.
The second phase included Adventure Playground, Doc’s Cantina, the Brown-Forman Amphitheater, and the Rowing Center. “It was a strategic decision to leave a hole in the middle,” Karem explains. “We made a linkage along River Road with paved blacktop from phase one to phase two, but you had to walk by the hole in the middle – an eyesore that had to be cleaned up.”
“We knew from the beginning The Big Four Bridge was going to be very popular,” adds Karem, but they feared the Board would want to end the project on a big win, rather than continue with the other planned developments. Indeed, over a million people walked the new bridge in the first 18 months, exceeding their wildest expectations.
This brings us to phase four, which is in the works now – and basically encompasses 22 acres from 9th to 14th Street. All the details are still being worked out, with exciting announcements to follow.
Overall, the 150+ annual park events – including the Ironman Triathlon and the Forecastle Music Festival -- resulted in a $12.5 million direct tax impact. But as predicted, the ramifications of the waterfront’s revitalization have rippled out well beyond the work being done by the Council itself. Thanks to the waterfront development projects, places like the Bats Stadium and Yum Arena, which border the project, wouldn’t have been so wildly successful. High rise condos are going in at Waterfront Park Place. The Whiskey Row Block features over $60 million in construction going up, including Brown-Forman’s full turnkey distillery and two new hotels.
“It is the one park that’s seen as everybody’s park in the community,” says Karem. “It draws a diversity of people from all over the region, all over the county; people from every walk of life come here. There are so many images that are coming out of this park that are really seen as part of the fabric of Louisville now.”