Louisville is one of America’s great food towns. Gastronomically speaking, it’s Southern but with a liberal (and highly caloric) dash of the Midwest sprinkled on top. While you’ll find your typical pan-fried comfort fare (catfish, okra, green tomatoes and, of course, chicken) in abundance, Derby City is best known for its local and regional specialties: The Hot Brown, Benedictine spread, beer cheese, burgoo and bourbon-infused anything. For first-time visitors to the Bluegrass region, chocolate and walnut pie for dessert is the compulsory dessert item — just be sure to save room after that absolutely scrumptious first course of lamb fries.

Still, Louisville, a vibrant riverfront burg with a celebrated culinary culture that's located in an agricultural-rich state, is not immune to the food-related issues that plague other major cities including hunger, obesity and the spread of food deserts — largely low-income areas where easy access to fresh, nutritious and affordable comestibles is nil.

In West Louisville, a part of town ravaged by high unemployment rates and where a fast-food cheeseburger is infinity easier to secure than a head of broccoli, plans have just been unveiled for an ambitious new project that jubilates and promotes regional agriculture while also tackling serious issues such as food insecurity in the surrounding community.

Dubbed West Louisville FoodPort, the project is the brainchild of Seed Capital KY, a nonprofit with the mission to “catalyze the success and resilience of Kentucky’s regional agriculture and regional food economy.” To be erected on a vacant 24-acre parcel along West Muhammad Ali Boulevard that was once home to the National Tobacco Co., the West Louisville FoodPort is one part razzle-dazzle adaptive reuse project, one part farmers market on steroids — a regional ag theme park (edible gardens! Urban farms! Food trucks galore!) with heavy emphasis on education, commerce and environmental sustainability. 

In other words, it's a not-so-little slice of heaven for Modern Farmer-subscribing foodies.

sketched out plans for West Louisville FoodPort

architectural drawing of West Louisville FoodPort

And in addition to serving residents of the surrounding neighborhoods of Russell, Portland and Shawnee, West Louisville FoodPort also aims to lure epicurean out-of-towners to a largely neglected section of Kentucky’s largest city.

Explains Seed Capital KY:

The FoodPort project is a food-centric economic and community development engine that will create jobs for West Louisville residents, enhance the built environment and green space of surrounding disinvested neighborhoods, enable existing small businesses to grow, increase farmers’ income as they increase their market channels, enable new food businesses to take their first steps, and provide educational opportunities around eating and agriculture.

The FoodPort concept is unique, and incorporates co-locating existing businesses along the local food supply chain in a collaborative model, leveraging the assets of each to gain scale and efficiency in aggregating and distributing local food, while also allowing each of the businesses to focus on its individual operations, goals and objectives. This model offers the potential to realize significant growth in the local food economy by providing infrastructure support to businesses that are poised for growth, and already have relationships with regional farmers.

Seed Capital KY goes on to clarify that the project is much different — and larger — than the standard USDA-defined food hub — it’s more “a sort of food business park” that allows “ the co-location of local food-sourcing businesses to create synergies, the ability to scale their businesses larger, and new opportunities for other businesses — including an actual hub — to join the efforts at this site.” Sustainable agriculture blog Seedstock notes that Seed Capital KY looked toward a handful of smaller, successful food hubs including the Baltimore Food Hub and Grow Food Carolina in Charleston, South Carolina, during the early planning stages.

As Seed Capital KY project director Caroline Heine explains to Louisville Business First, Kentucky's farm are largely small-scale and family owned (163 acres on average compared to the national average of 434 acres). This makes a venue like West Louisville FoodPort all the more vital, as it gives regional farmers that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle a central place in which to interact with customers.  

The project is expected to stimulate the local economy by generating over 200 permanent jobs along with hundreds of temporary construction jobs.

View from above of FoodPort acreage

West Louisville FoodPort is a hugely commendable and important project as is — certainly enough for any serious Louisville foodie to set aside their Ale-8-One for a moment and pay close attention. And then you add in the involvement of OMA, the Rotterdam-based firm founded by Pritzker Prize-winning Dutch architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas, and things get real exciting.

As American cities such as Seattle (Seattle Central Library), Dallas (the Wyly Theatre) or Ithaca (Milstein Hall at Cornell University) can attest, it’s a big deal when OMA comes to town. The firm’s zig-zagging, brownfield site-transforming master plan for West Louisville FoodPort is already turning heads. (To be clear, OMA's NYC-based offshot REX had previously visited Louisville, but that's a whole other story).

OMA packs a lot of programming into the project site. In addition to the aforementioned food truck plaza, edible gardens and indoor urban farm, the plan includes a demonstration farm operated by the Jefferson County University of Kentucky Extension, classrooms/educational space, a dedicated retail area, a market plaza, kitchen incubator, processing facilities for local purveyors, administrative offices, a coffee roastery, a cold-pressed juice processing facility and much more.

Judging from the design renderings, repurposed shipping containers play heavily into the complex as do public recreation spaces including playgrounds and a rooftop amphitheatre for al fresco concerts and events. As for that curious-looking structure in the middle of it all that looks like a clown nose speared by a cocktail pick, that would be the West Louisville FoodPort’s recaptured stormwater-storing water tower.

Remarks Shoehei Shigematsu, OMA partner-in-charge, of the master plan:

The diversity of program reflects the full food chain, as well as a new foodscape of public spaces and plazas where producers and consumers meet. The Food Port acts as a catalyst to activate the surrounding neighborhoods, exemplifying one of the complex urban relationships between architecture and food that our studio is investigating.
West Louisville FoodPort also includes an on-site power plant that, through the magic of anaerobic digestion, will transform food scraps and other forms of organic waste into methane gas. Built and operated by Star Distributed Energy, the waste-to-energy plant wouldn’t just produce enough energy to power the complex — it’s anticipated that enough juice will be generated to power over 3,000 Louisville homes. It will also, of course, generate a handful of full-time jobs.

“If we as a country are able to anchor anaerobic digesters to urban food hubs, this would create jobs in urban areas. Plus there would be more access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” Star Distributed Energy president Steven Estes tells Seedstock.

With an estimated price tag of $30 million, construction on the first phase of West Louisville FoodPort is expected to commence later this year. The first phase of the complex is expected to be fully operational and open for business by the end of 2016. Funding is in the process of being secured through a variety of sources including state, local and federal grants, tax credits, corporate and private foundation grants, partner equity and others.

Head on over to Seed Capital KY to learn more about Louisville's newest — and most vital — food-centric destination.

Via [Designboom], [Louisville Business First]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.