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June 25, 2014

GONDER: Let’s open the box on 922 Culbertson

— As reporter Daniel Suddeath reported in the June 20 News and Tribune, the building at 922 Culbertson Ave., is in the sights of the demolition crew. This is a shame, and it didn’t, and still doesn’t, have to happen.

The worn-out phrase from some distant management guru applies in this case; it is the requirement to think outside the box.

I’ve heard that in place of the old tavern will be several newly designed versions of Habitat for Humanity houses. This laudable group does good and meaningful work, and is worthy of support. However, the houses they have designed for New Albany leave much to be desired.

The placement and design of the houses does nothing to help the city escape the stigmatizing of certain parts of town as underprivileged, less desirable neighborhoods, and, therefore, does not break the cycle of exclusion and poverty for the residents of those neighborhoods. Inside the Culbertson Avenue box, if the Habitat solution is chosen, we seem intent on making sure that this depressed neighborhood stays depressed and looks the part.

Does New Albany have money to fund the preservation and reuse of the building at 922 Culbertson? Not if you listen to the noise inside the box.

Outside the box, there’s plenty of money to salvage this building and help this neighborhood, as Suddeath reported June 19. The sewer bond restructuring will pipe more than a million dollars into city coffers.

 The rehabilitation of the building at 922 Culbertson has been estimated at between $150,000 and $300,000. Since the available funds to save this building could come from this rewrite of the bonds, perhaps it is fitting that the sewage department share in the benefits of its salvation. Since the city’s exhaustive search for willing parties to take on the rejuvenation process of the building has produced no results, why not use some of the savings from the sewer bonds to invest in a first class renovation of the property and move the sewer billing offices there?

The structure is large enough to allow for the operations of that office to be housed on the main floor, with additional space on the upper floor for private offices for sewer employees or a field office for code enforcement, a police substation or many other public uses. Even with the sewer offices there, the large main room of the tavern would be an ideal setting for a neighborhood assembly room where, from time to time, governmental meetings could be held, including some city council meetings. This would be an opportunity to deliver government services where people live. A police substation may be nothing more than a couple of desks, some phones and a place to use the restroom. Importantly, though, it would be a presence in the neighborhood.

If the city’s use of the property has the effect I believe it would, as a catalyst of stability and vitality for that neighborhood, it need not be a permanent part of the neighborhood. The city’s tenancy could be ended when revitalization of the neighborhood is on a solid footing, then the structure could be sold to private users. But, those private users would be buying into a part of town that has been greatly improved, and more inviting of private investment.

This city cannot demolish its way to revitalization; that is attacking the symptoms without curing the disease. If the old tavern project were taken on by the City, it would be a strong endorsement to the neighborhood, which could help bring new prosperity and stability to that part of town.

The motivation to have the city involved in this building is first to save the structure, and thereby preserve not simply a building, but the important elements that build a neighborhood’s identity — and to capitalize on the previous significant investment through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program.

Inside the box rests a wrecking ball. Outside the box lies an open-ended list of possibilities. One choice requires no imagination, and returns very little to the citizens of that neighborhood, or the city at large.

The other choice requires a hopeful vision for the city and all of its neighborhoods, a commitment to work toward an environmentally sustainable future, a city of walkable, safe, prosperous and interesting neighborhoods.

Such neighborhoods can help New Albany rebuild, and bring vitality back to the city, as young people starting new families are given what many of their contemporaries are currently seeking in the older neighborhoods of Louisville, such as Germantown and the Highlands.

It is not an overnight fix. It is, rather, a long slow process, and one which is immensely helped by a focal point such as the 922 building. If we don’t seize some opportunity with this building, it will be a mistake: a mistake which we didn’t need to make if we just looked outside the box.

The lid’s open. All we need to do is step out.

— John Gonder is a New Albany city councilman.

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