On most mornings you can stand on the forked corners of Preston or Shelby streets to watch cars and enormous trucks scorch past on Olmsted’s Eastern Expressway, routinely breaking the speed limit at rates many states consider reckless and punishable by jail time. You will see people sitting or milling about at bus stops near the corners, recently alighted from, or waiting to board the 28 Preston, one of only two routes in the River City indicated as “Frequent”, operating every 10–15 minutes on weekdays 7am to 6pm. And as you look around the area today, you will see a neighborhood commercial district in disrepair. A collection of shops and strip malls spanning 100 years from the 1919 storefront of Nord’s Bakery, to the 1954 Dahlem Center (where Louisville’s first Howard Johnson is now a Walgreens), to early 1990’s fast food additions Rally’s, Pizza Hut, and the “new” KFC near Clarks Lane where Preston Street becomes Preston Highway (not to be confused with John Y Brown’s Porky Pig House/original Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, which is an entirely different story).
I moved to the south corner of the Schnitzelburg neighborhood a little over two years ago, and I’ve been spending much more time lately observing this Preston commercial strip and environs, but really, in the course of my 17 years in Louisville I have always found this dilapidated area curious, charming, and entirely not living up to it’s potential as a place, as node of urban activity, and as focal point of community and commerce for the surrounding neighborhoods.
First of all, no one calls it anything. It doesn’t even bear the generalized name of one neighborhood, as it’s at the intersection of several, Schnitzelburg, Parkway Village, and St Joseph. In recent times people have informally called it “the White Castle intersection”, “where the Radio Shack used to be”, or “over by Nord’s”. In the more distant past, different corners may have been called the Dahlem Center (Walgreens strip mall) or the Dahlem Building (Post Office and vacant PicPac) that at one point had a Woolworth and a Kroger. Someone that grew up in the area made the comment “it didn’t need a name… it wasn’t odd to have little commercial areas like that all around the city — and unless they were all built together, they generally didn’t have names.” But I can’t help but wonder if the general namelessness and lack of identity of this place, with such a high amount of activity, has helped lead to its current state of, dare I say, blight?
Even with the high number of pre-pandemic commercial vacancies, it remains a somewhat vital district, albeit a bit run down, but with some old favorites like Nord’s Bakery and the Dairy Castle a little ways west on Bradley Ave, and relatively newer favorites like the flagship El Nopal and the refurbished Zanzabar with an “a”, on the site of the original Zanzibar club that opened in 1938. And no one can deny the majesty of the world’s possibly only nail salon with faux Jeffersonian architecture. But something about the commercial district just hasn’t cohered in recent generations. How can an area with some great storefronts and perfectly usable strip development, surrounded by thriving residential neighborhoods, have become sort of run down and half vacant?
Does it need more multifamily housing? More apartment buildings and multi-plexes? There’s a number of multiplex units up and down Eastern Parkway. In terms of apartment buildings there is a fantastic dichotomy in apartment design northwest on the intersection, where the Green Field building is opposite the University Park Apartments. Even with its mild shabbiness and window AC units hanging, it is my ideal of the kind of housing Louisville needs more of. What looks to be at least 16 units in beautiful old brick, with sadly vacant storefronts on the first floor, which at one time were home to Louisville’s reportedly only lesbian bar, Tink’s Pub. Across the street is the less inspiring and sprawling University Park Apartments. Built in 1988 with “well-maintained grounds” and 224 units on 16 acres, it is not very dense when considering urban apartments (higher densities can be achieved with two or three story row houses).
The area is also a bit disconnected thanks to Interstate 65 and its ramps at Eastern/Crittenden, and at Preston before Burnett Ave. The whole north side of the commercial strip and surrounding St. Joseph neighborhood is cut off from UofL’s campus, and not really helped by making Brandeis a one way street at Bradley. On the topic of one way streets, configuring Preston and Shelby Streets as sort of a counter clockwise one way loop between Lynn St and Eastern Parkway, has also not served this commercial district, creating faster automobile speeds and making the whole area less walkable. I can image the residents of the soon-to-be completed Swiss Village complaining about the endless parade of cars speeding down Lynn to eventually get on the I-65 Preston ramp. This proximity to the big interstate ramps also gives the area something of the feel of a highway rest area, where motorists refuel at the many drive-throughs including Heine Brothers’ Coffee and the always open White Castle with its moat of idling vehicles. But possibly the largest urban planning crime against the district happened in 1956 when Preston St was permanently closed at the rail road crossing at Burnett. This move considerably shut off the commercial corridor from direct access to Shelby Park, Old Louisville, Smoketown and downtown, in affect, making the streets north of Eastern into an elongated interstate highway ramp from Shelby to Lynn to Preston.
Parts of the surrounding neighborhoods are not only physically cut off, but also organizationally fragmented. The commercial area at Eastern and Preston is sliced across at least three neighborhoods, four counting the Bradley neighborhood, the residential area beyond the southwest corner of Eastern and Preston. It is divided at Preston St by two council districts, Kevin Triplett to the west (D-15) and Pat Mulvihill to the east (D-10). Back in the days before the 2003 city-county merger and local redistricting, the commercial district was entirely under Aldermanic Ward 4, most recently represented by the late Cyril Allgeier, who in 1983 came into office after he primaried the incumbent, the late Mary Margaret Mulvihill, current D-10 council person Pat Mulvihill’s mother.
There are likely even more reasons than I have briefly described here that help illuminate why this area isn’t working as well as it could, in terms of the large amount of vacancies, unsafe conditions for pedestrians, and sort of general disrepair everywhere. And again, even in the face of these issues, I still find it a little surprising it continues in a slow moving decline despite being encircled by healthy and robust residential neighborhoods. One possible opportunity is the soon to be launched Preston Corridor Master Plan, led by Develop Louisville (Metro planning) and their consultant, the St. Louis office of WSP.
“Louisville Metro Government is seeking proposals for a Preston Corridor Master Plan that re-envisions this vital connective roadway as a vibrant, multi-modal complete street, designed to enable safe, convenient, efficient access for all users that emphasizes premium transit and sustainable land uses.”
I hope in this planning process the massive potential of this somewhat forgotten intersection is given proper attention, and that realistic solutions are proposed for alleviating some of it’s problems. I will update this post when the consultant’s launch the website for the planning process and local input.
This article was originally pubished on Medium. For more articles by Pat Smith on Medium check out his page.