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    Chanelle Helm buries her chin and nose beneath her black scarf, a rather weak defense against the sting of a 20-degree morning. Her black boots crunch across the lawn of a house in the Shawnee neighborhood. She keeps expecting the ground to give a little, but — oh, yeah, everything’s frozen. No matter. She and four other Black Lives Matter volunteers go knocking on doors throughout west Louisville on this recent Saturday morning. They hope to gauge the needs and concerns of west Louisville residents. “I don’t understand how people are not doing this,” Helm says before sliding some BLM fliers in a storm door. “We need to.”

    About $870 million in investment is currently planned for west Louisville. (Mayor Greg Fischer likes to round that figure up to $1 billion.) In Russell, a new $81-million Passport Health Plan headquarters at 18th Street and Broadway is one of the most expensive projects. However, in late February Passport announces that it is halting construction as the organization tangles with the state over Medicaid rate cuts, which Passport claims could leave the nonprofit insolvent. Should the matter resolve and construction resume, the headquarters will stand across from a new branch of the YMCA scheduled to open this fall. Also underway in Russell: a $187-million transformation of the Beecher Terrace public-housing complex into mixed-income housing, slated for completion in 2023. The list of other projects goes on, stretching from Portland to Shawnee to California to Russell, which is a rectangular neighborhood bounded by Broadway and 32nd, Ninth and Market streets. Russell is an appealing spot because it’s the last area to touch downtown and as of yet not experience a rush of development.

    In the world of city government and business, this windfall is cited as long-overdue progress, something to cheer for. Helm is worried, cautious. As lead organizer of Louisville BLM, she sees what’s happening west of Ninth as mostly outsiders (as in, people who are not from west Louisville) finally seeing value in a long-neglected part of town and gripping the controls, orchestrating the renaissance as they see fit.

    For years, city leaders cradled downtown, nurturing its revival. Now, more polished and popular than it has been in decades, sights are swiveling west, Helm observes, into areas that shoulder significant struggle. In Russell, for instance, about 60 percent of the population lives in poverty, including about 3,000 children. Median household income is $14,500. And in the north-central section of Russell, one in four households had an eviction filed against it in 2016. A recent report commissioned by the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development states that areas west of downtown have household incomes about half the city’s area median income of $71,500 for a family of four. That same report mentions that, as a result of investment, the risk for displacement in Russell — a neighborhood of 10,000 that’s 90 percent African-American — is high.

    Multiple efforts to fight gentrification in west Louisville exist. It’s not uncommon to hear about initiatives that will “empower” local residents. “It’s nice on paper. It’s got to work,” says Helm, adding. “The residents will be empowered if they choose to be empowered. People from other places can’t come in and empower people. It’s just the next step toward revitalization, and what revitalization means is replacement of black and brown people.”


    What west Louisville will look like 20 years from now, that’s unknown. And so speculation fills the void. “It’s OK to be skeptical,” says Joshua Poe, an urban planner and community organizer. “There’s no neighborhood in the country that I can find that’s receiving the amount of investment that Russell is getting. Maybe I’m missing something, but just looking at cities undergoing major redevelopment, they’re not getting the amount of dollars Russell is getting.” (Russell alone is slated to receive about $300 million in investment.)

    Property values will likely rise, and rents could creep up. The Jefferson County Property Valuation Administrator’s office is reassessing west Louisville neighborhoods this year, and the Louisville Urban League is working to educate property owners on the appeal process should appraisals balloon. Janet Kelly, a professor of urban and public affairs at the University of Louisville and executive director of the Urban Studies Institute, says, “When Germantown became all the rage, is that good or bad? If we see economic activity increasing values of property, then that is going to create winners and losers just like it did in Germantown.”

    It’s worth noting that low-income housing, like what’s in much of west Louisville, is scarce. Poor families often scramble to make rent in a place that’s priced beyond their means. The recent OHCD assessment shows about 31,000 units are needed in Louisville for families living at 30 percent of the city’s median income (of $71,500 for a family of four) or $21,450. To adequately serve families making a slightly higher income (about $36,000 for a family of four), Louisville needs an additional 22,500 units.

    Kellie Watson, the city’s first chief equity officer, hears trepidation from some west Louisvillians. “It is very legitimate,” she says. “We are really having sincere efforts to try to make sure that we protect this investment without displacement.” Policies can help. And Watson says the city is evaluating ideas like rent control, a renter-equity program or a community land trust. A renter-equity program offers tenants affordable rent and, essentially, cash bonuses for following lease agreements, challenging the idea that only homeowners can earn some wealth while staying put under one roof. With a community land trust, a nonprofit buys land, holding it in a trust for the neighborhood. The nonprofit then enters into a land lease with homebuyers. Homes maintain affordability because the land trust caps appreciation value, making it affordable for the next buyer who may come around. Lexington has a community land trust that typically prices its homes at about 25 percent below the appraised value. A land trust can be expensive because the nonprofit needs a ton of cash to absorb land. It also requires the property valuation administrator to get on board and maintain a tax rate that’s reasonable, even if the land trust sits in the center of a real estate hotspot.

    A property-tax moratorium is often proposed at community meetings in west Louisville. Mary Ellen Wiederwohl is chief of the city’s economic-development agency, Louisville Forward, and she says creating a moratorium that would help homeowners ward off rising property values over a long period of time requires legislative action. “Property taxation is very specifically governed by the state constitution,” she explains. “So tools used by other cities enacted by local ordinance may require a constitutional change in Kentucky.” In other words: Don’t expect speedy policy solutions.

    Theresa Zawacki co-leads Russell: A Place of Promise, an initiative funded by a $5-million grant from the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust. Its goal: Create ways for Russell residents to get in on the boon and carve out their own asset or wealth-building opportunities. One project includes possibly turning a 200,000-square-foot former cigar factory at 30th and Madison streets into a commercial and residential space that functions as a cooperative.

    Russell: A Place of Promise is still new, having launched last fall. Zawacki says hiring outreach workers this spring is a critical next step to collecting concerns and hopes from residents. Zawacki does say it would be “probably disingenuous” to imply that her program or any other program will guarantee that all who want to stay in Russell will get to. “Because of the history of this neighborhood and, I hate to say it this way, but the lack of policy decisions that are immediately accessible, Russell residents, and other residents of neighborhoods that are experiencing significant investment, may find themselves in a position where they have tough choices to make because they can’t afford to stay,” she says. “Or they don’t feel like they have the option to stay.”


    A few years ago, Joshua Poe’s independently researched project, titled “Redlining Louisville: The History of Race, Class, and Real Estate,” helped spur a community-wide reckoning with the racist practices that left Louisville and most other cities segregated by race and class. Redlining — the discriminatory practice of denying loans in certain neighborhoods, based largely on racial makeup — dates to the early ’30s, but the repercussions of such disinvestment exist today. Robbing neighborhoods of value made it difficult for black families to build assets, to create savings that could be passed down through generations. According to the New York Times, for every $100 in white family wealth, black families hold $5.04. And the Institute for Policy Studies reported that between 1983 and 2013, the median wealth of black households declined 75 percent, while the median wealth for white households increased 14 percent. (Redlining is not the single cause but is a contributor.)

    In the ’60s and ’70s, urban renewal, then touted as a way of clearing blighted city blocks, decimated black neighborhoods, including a once-vibrant district of Russell dubbed “Louisville’s Harlem,” known for its popular nightlife and black-owned businesses. Poe showed slides during a presentation at a forum in early February at St. Stephen Baptist Church, in west Louisville’s California neighborhood. The event focused on “philanthropic redlining,” a practice in which the super-wealthy overlook black-led foundations and nonprofits embedded in minority communities in favor of more widely known, white-led organizations.

    The topic of the $870-million overall investment wasn’t debated at the forum, though St. Stephen’s pastor, the Rev. Kevin Cosby, did question the YMCA’s decision to construct a new $28-million building rather than investing in the Chestnut Street location — aka “the black Y” — and expand into neighboring Quinn Chapel, a historic building the YMCA owns. (Quinn Chapel currently sits empty, guarded by fencing and yellow caution tape. Russell: A Place of Promise and the city are working to renovate it and find possible reuse options.) YMCA of Greater Louisville CEO Steve Tarver says a survey of 900 people in west Louisville indicated the majority strongly wanted a new branch. Furthermore, he says, the Chestnut Street layout wouldn’t have worked for a large, wellness-focused facility. “We’re not an outsider coming in,” Tarver says. “We’ve been here since the late 1800s.” Tarver says the Republic Bank Foundation YMCA, as it will be called, will help improve the overall health of west Louisville, offer financial classes and give preference to qualified west Louisville residents for jobs. (Most of the 30 to 50 jobs will be part-time.)

    Still, Cosby hedges his optimism when asked to reflect on investment plans for west Louisville. “As to the merits of particular initiatives in Russell and whether (they) will result in wealth-building capacity among residents — which means actual dollars placed in pockets of black people — I do not know,” he says. “I can say that any development in west Louisville that doesn’t result in wealth-building, it’s displacement and not development.”


    Ask Evon Smith about west Louisville investment and doubts do not surface. She’s president and CEO of One West, a nonprofit committed to commercial development in west Louisville. “Folks are really concerned because it’s more of a fear-based discussion rather than strategies — intentional, smart development and responsible development that takes the needs of the community and makes them a priority,” Smith says. “What I bring is 20 years of having done that without forced displacement.” She’s referring to her 20-year history as a real estate developer in North Carolina. She says the projects she led improved low-to-moderate-income areas without dispensing of culture and population.

    Formed in 2014 by a class of Leadership Louisville’s Bingham Fellows, One West will first focus on the 18th Street and Broadway corridor. In late February, the organization announced it had purchased nine buildings and adjacent properties at that intersection. “We believe this location will be the epicenter of West End’s economic renaissance,” Smith said in a press release. Originally a theater in the early 1900s, the 29,000-square-foot Goldsmith Centre is now a cluster of businesses, including a barbershop, pawnshop and dental office. One West plans to honor current leases but will start holding community meetings to figure out what residents envision for this stretch of Broadway. During outreach efforts, Smith has heard neighbors advocating for “more lighting, more restaurants, dry cleaners, optometrists, pharmacies” and other medical services.

    One West also recently helped fund the Housing Partnership Inc.’s purchase of an abandoned warehouse at 14th Street and Broadway. She says the property will be used for commercial and residential space. Smith often reiterates that, every year, west Louisville residents leave their neighborhoods and spend $217 million in other parts of the city. That has to end, she says. Bring that money back to west Louisville. She says that, under One West’s umbrella, small-business owners will be mentored so that they can “own real estate” and avoid displacement.

    That term again — displacement. Smith wants to expand on that. Yes, forced displacement should be avoided, she says. But in her past work, she has helped relocate households into better situations, like seniors residing in dilapidated homes or families longing to live closer to work. Revitalization isn’t all scary, she says. “When you don’t approach this work from a fear-based mentality and polarize people, you can come up with strategy that serves everyone’s needs and goals,” she says. “Families cannot continue to live in areas where they are cut off, shut off from resources and everyday necessities. We do not want to be known as that city. It’s time for us to tip toward the positive for west Louisville.”


    Kevin Fields takes that sentiment one step further. The president and CEO of Louisville Central Community Centers hopes investment turns the tide to the point that people who left Russell feel drawn to return. “I have a 50-year history in this neighborhood. I grew up in this neighborhood,” Fields says. “We are trying to get conditions so that people come back.” He envisions the future Russell as it once was — a mix of incomes, families and singles and elderly, nearby stores and businesses that make city living easy, desirable.

    But Fields has a nonprofit to run that’s been rooted in Russell for 70 years. “We’re concerned about institutional gentrification,” he says. LCCC provides early-childhood education, arts and after-school programming, employment services and much more. It’s a lot like the old Presbyterian Community Center in Smoketown, just south of Broadway. In 2013, PCC closed after 100 years in the neighborhood. In the wake of a $22-million federal HOPE VI grant that helped renovate the Sheppard Square housing projects, participation in PCC’s programming dwindled. “There wasn’t the intentionality of making sure they could weather the development,” Fields says.

    Last year, excavators started tearing down Beecher Terrace’s 758 apartments. As families relocated and walls crumbled, enrollment in LCCC’s Mini-Versity Early Childhood Development Center shrank. Fields says his center normally has 90 to 95 children. That number is now down to 41. According to the Louisville Metro Housing Authority, Beecher Terrace residents will be given priority to return to the new housing once it is built. But they will have to qualify. Of the 640 new units built on Beecher’s footprint, 316 will be reserved for very low-income households. Rents starting at $680 for a one-bedroom and $820 for a two-bedroom will comprise 132 apartments, and 172 units will offer market rate rents. (Beecher Terrace will also have some affordable and market-rate homes.)

    LCCC and other neighborhood groups pushed for the federal Choice Neighborhoods Initiative grant, which is partially funding Beecher’s renovation. Fields saw it as the spark that could revive the historic neighborhood he loves. His organization is working toward creating a 1.5-mile arts and cultural district called the BLVD. It would stretch along Muhammad Ali Boulevard and, to complete it, would require $200 million in privately raised funds.

    Currently, LCCC is in negotiations with McCormack Baron Salazar, the St. Louis-based company that’s the master developer of the Beecher Terrace renovation. LCCC wants to focus the first phase of the BVLD’s development between Ninth and 14th streets, right where McCormack Baron Salazar has plans to place several new housing units, per requirements from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency overseeing the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative project. There’s been some tension over the matter, as LCCC and other community leaders believed the BLVD was accepted and incorporated into designs. Fields calls the relationship “cordial” and feels confident they’ll work it out. LCCC and McCormack Baron Salazar are now considered co-developers, a title that, Fields says, only came after stubborn persistence. “It didn’t come because they invited us to take that role,” he says.


    Keeping tabs on all the projects west of Ninth is a challenge. A steel skeleton of the new Passport Health Plan headquarters stands on a 20-acre site at 18th and Broadway. Passport has filed a lawsuit against the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services over cuts affecting Passport’s Medicaid business. As of late February, construction had paused. Passport manages care for 300,000 Kentuckians, most in the Louisville region.

    Park Community Credit Union is offering micro-loans to help west Louisville business owners and has dedicated $7.5 million to homeownership in Russell, offering low-interest loans and closing costs. (In Louisville, 70 percent of white residents own their homes compared with only 41 percent of black residents, according to the OHCD assessment.)

    There’s a $7.4-million project being developed by the Molo Village Community Development Corp., a nonprofit with ties to the St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Russell. The Villages @ West Jefferson will be a two-story building at 12th and Jefferson streets that will house retail, counseling services, a minority-owned health clinic and a cafeteria run by New Legacy, a nonprofit that assists men transitioning out of prison or jail.

    The Louisville Urban League’s REBOUND program has been working for the last two years to “adopt” two blocks along Dr. W.J. Hodge Boulevard. This year, REBOUND will spend $1.7 million renovating vacant and abandoned properties along this street, then offer them to potential homeowners who go through the Louisville Urban League’s homeownership training.

    The Louisville Urban League is also behind one of the largest west Louisville projects — a $35-million track-and-field facility in the Shawnee neighborhood called the Louisville Urban League Sports and Learning Complex. It still needs about $17 million in funding to begin construction. The site at 30th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard sits vacant, weeds thriving through cracked earth. Christina Shadle, director of investment at the Louisville Urban League, says what makes this project different is that the community chose it. Last year, when applications were submitted to the city to compete for the so-called Heritage West site, the Louisville Urban League had 12 teams, about 10 people per, and they submitted ideas for what they’d like to see. “Every single group picked a sports complex in the top two,” she says. “Folks asked for it.”

    Sadiqa Reynolds, president and CEO of the Louisville Urban League, is vocal about wanting the track to not only attract top-tier competitions and tourists, but to uplift those who live nearby, perhaps through business ownership surrounding the facility or affordable housing. In February, Reynolds posted on Twitter: “I want people in the West End to have what others have had — the right to acquire and pass down wealth. I want every developer in the West End to be intentional about Black ownership. I am as committed to this cause as a kamikaze soldier . . . We don’t want to rent space in buildings you own . . . Lots of good orgs doing good work but their mission hasn’t been focused on uplifting black people . . . This doesn’t mean others can’t own or build but we must have goals set and commitment captured.”

    No crystal ball, so no saying how all the investment will reshape west Louisville. History presents patterns, though. Harlem; East Nashville; Treme in New Orleans — just a few of the historically black neighborhoods reshuffling to serve a wealthier, whiter crowd. Evon Smith of One West says, “There’s a caveat to coming behind the rest. We can pick and choose best practices. We can pick what works well in one city and watch for what didn’t work well in another.”


    On this 20-degree Saturday morning, Helm loops around Shawnee as other volunteers target the California neighborhood. Helm sees signs of life in a few homes — smoke from a chimney, the floral scent of laundry — but not a lot of people answer their doors. “It’s too cold,” she determines. Oftentimes when a resident does answer and is feeling talkative, they don’t bring up the nearly billion-dollar investment. Instead, it’s more immediate needs. “Multi-complex” issues, Helms calls them — the cost of medication, landlord problems, the threat of eviction, police confrontations. A few neighbors mention a plan to possibly close two west Louisville elementary schools (Wheatley and Roosevelt-Perry) and create a new one at 18th Street and Broadway, possibly attached to the new YMCA, similar to the setup at Norton Commons Elementary.

    Helm and another volunteer start discussing the potential school closures while taking a break, defrosting fingers and toes in a car. JCPS sees the consolidation as a way to construct a new, innovative school while replacing old, unfit buildings. But, Helm wonders: What about families who feel connected to the people and programs at those two schools?

    “Are they going to leave Coleridge-Taylor?” a young brunette volunteer asks Helm, referring to an elementary school that neighbors Beecher Terrace.

    “You know they will,” Helm says, a deep sarcasm to her voice. “It will look cute next to the condominiums.” No condos yet planned, but the joke lands.

    Helm and the volunteer share a brief laugh. Then Helm lets out a long, heavy sigh.

    This originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "The Billion-Dollar Question." To read more from our 2019 West End Issue, click here.

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    Cover photo: by Terrence Humphrey

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