A City Where Good Things Are Beginning to Happen Again

NEAL R. PEIRCE

August 09, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY. — Louisville, Kentucky.

The lively city renewal stories of the late '70s and '80s have been in short supply of late, fallen victim to recession and tight urban budgets.

But take heart. In Louisville, just eight blocks apart, are two projects that reflect glimmers of hope for what America's cities could be in the '90s.

First, there's the remarkably user-friendly office tower just built for Louisville-based Capital Holdings, an insurance and financial service organization with $20 billion in assets.

Second there's a block of hardscrabble urban renewal by spirited entrepreneurs. Both leave a visitor smiling.

The office tower, at 35 stories, is Kentucky's highest structure. But it tries hard to be a good neighbor.

Instead of cold reflective glass, it's sheathed in Italian gray-white marble with clear windows. Rather than one of the spiky tops that big-name architects go for so often these days, architect John Burgee topped it with a graceful Romanesque dome, reflective of Louisville's quiet Southernness.

Instead of one big cold lobby, this skyscraper has two smaller ones, decorated in warm-toned marbles and woods. And, floor by floor, there's an eye-catching assemblage of painting and sculpture, some serious, some fanciful, by contemporary Kentucky-based artists.

The biggest surprise, though, is Capital Holdings' office layout. Gone is the old hierarchical setup, top brass ensconced in stadium-sized offices with sweeping views while front-line workers get relegated to cramped working space beside the elevators.

Instead, Capital Holdings gives all its executives, from the CEO down, amazingly modest offices.

On the operational floors, the managers are in offices close to the core of the building. They can look through to the outside but only through commodious work areas where the front-line employees, the worker bees of Capital Holdings, are organized into teams and get the sunshine and dazzling views.

The same front-line workers are given authority to plan their work methods and get cross-training so that they can fill in for each other.

The organizational buzzword for all this is ''total quality management.'' You can argue that corporations trying it aren't so much humanitarians as smart competitors that have grasped important truths about human motivation.

But people-oriented workplaces are important for cities' survival. So is the thinking that Capital Holdings insists went into its decision to build in Louisville instead of moving its 1,500 workers to suburban sites.

For one thing, officials say, the firm has had a long-term commitment to the downtown. And, they argue, going suburban would have telegraphed a ''get-lost'' message to many of the firm's inner-city, transit-dependent workers.

I asked if telecommuting would work with Capital Holdings' approach? Yes, they replied, if the worker still came in regularly to be with co-workers.

A few blocks away on East Main St., an economic redevelopment and local enterprise zone area of two- and three-story century-old buildings, Barbara Smith runs Spectrum Anesthesia, a small firm selling new medical equipment to hospitals and doctors in surrounding states.

Ms. Smith greets one with her granddaughter on her arm and provides a tour of her own handsome offices and then the five other buildings she began acquiring in 1989. One plan led to another so that she will soon have a totally renovated complex, including a conference center for training anesthesia technologists.

We walk into the buildings' courtyard. The part not still cluttered with construction materials has become a luxuriant garden filled with intriguing outdoor sculpture. Ms. Smith's next door neighbor is Galerie Hertz. Billy Hertz emerges to explain how he acquires and sells Louisville's most avant-garde artworks.

The candy factory down the block is adding a story. Ms. Smith and Mr. Hertz are urging a caterer to open a restaurant.

They say that crime is low because of community policing and social services, even though Louisville's largest public housing project is just down the street. They credit aggressive neighborhood renewal efforts of Mayor Jerry Abramson and his predecessor, Harvey Sloan.

Standing on the top floor of the shell of one of Ms. Smith's buildings undergoing ''gut rehab,'' I asked her if it wouldn't have been simpler to move to a suburban industrial park.

''Over my dead body,'' she answered. ''Places like that are unbelievably boring. Here, we have lots of interesting neighbors.''

Towers and low-rises where it's fun to work: Maybe such personalism could be the cities' cachet for the '90s.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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