He’s dubbed the Godfather of NuLu because he’s made offers that can’t be refused, such as free rent, to those looking to host an event in Louisville, Kentucky.
But, he’s much more than that—a Davidson native, eco-friendly developer, producer of Sundance-winning films and documentaries.
Now, Gill Holland is returning to the Queen City to keynote the N.C. chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Green Gala and Sustainable Business Awards at the Ritz Carlton, Charlotte on Sept. 18. North Carolina ranks seventh nationally for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) activity, the council says, and Holland will be on hand to share how he nudged and pushed for smart neighborhood renewal in his adopted city.
Holland, who attended UNC Chapel Hill for both undergraduate work and law school, spent 13 years in Manhattan working on films and records. With more than 100 credits under his belt, his more recent works include “An Honest Liar,” a documentary about retired magician James “The Amazing” Randi’s lifelong quest to debunk paranormal claims, and “Maiden Voyage,” a film chronicling 14-year-old Dutch sailor Laura Dekker’s two-year solo voyage around the world.
Several years ago, Holland and his wife, a native of Kentucky, decided to move to her hometown of Louisville after she became pregnant with their first child. It was there that the couple purchased a vacant 18,000-square-foot, 115-year-old building in the economically depressed East Market District, also known as NuLu, less than a mile from downtown. Renovations began in 2007, with the building eventually becoming the state’s first adaptive reuse project to gain LEED platinum certification. It also is Louisville’s only commercial building with that status.
Holland, who has just collaborated with actress Susan Sarandon on the filming of “Deep Run,” a verité portrait of a transgender man in rural North Carolina, spoke recently with The Mecklenburg Times about his green-building endeavor, the resulting changes to Louisville, and his hopes to revitalize the Portland district of that city.
“Louisville is a big town with lots of culture but small enough for one person to have a big impact,” Holland said of his decision to exit the Big Apple.
One thing led to another, and the need for an office led to the purchase of the decaying structure. After living in high-priced Manhattan, the “thought that someone could buy an entire building for $400,000” floored him, he said.
His Scotch-Irish ancestral propensity for saving money and being self-sufficient led him to an eco-friendly rehab of the former dry-goods store.
“I thought, ‘How much are the energy costs going to be if my child inherits the building?’” Holland said. “Buildings aren’t like cars that come with an estimated miles per gallon.”
That’s not to say that the idea of tearing down the shell and building anew never occurred to him. But, he says he found “a link between preservation and sustainability” that caused him to renew the existing bricks and wood in favor of replacing them with plastic and vinyl.
Taking that route meant, in part, redoing the masonry shell, shoring up a wall that almost collapsed, replacing fire-damaged basement beams and adding a modern core that features a 40-foot-tall lobby. Holland installed expansive natural lighting, 12 geothermal wells, 81 solar panels and insulation made from recycled denim. He used salvaged wood for the atrium’s floor, and planted sedum on the roof to mitigate water runoff. A 1,100-gallon “ice chest” freezes liquid-filled plastic balls each night, allowing cool air to circulate through the building each day. The project was completed a year and a half after construction began.
The result: The Green Building, a 73 percent self-sufficient property featuring offices, a café, and an art gallery.
“We were in a neighborhood where most people never stopped,” Holland says. But that changed, Holland said, adding that the “quickest way to start fixing up a depressed area is to put a beautiful building in the middle of it.”
Private and public investors followed Holland’s lead, expending more than $90 million since 2008, according to the Louisville Downtown Partnership development agency.
The heart of the district, Holland says, is now jampacked with mom-and-pop stores and recently landmarked buildings.
“We were the impact investor,” said Holland, who likens himself more to a community builder than a developer. “That gave people a comfort level for others to invest and for existing property owners to invest.”
NuLu, which is east of the central business district, now boasts 11 restaurants, some 15 locally owned shops and boutiques, and several art galleries. In total, Holland said he and his wife renovated 16 buildings, with other developers revitalizing double that number. The side streets surrounding The Green Building on East Market Street are picking up, too, he said.
But Holland’s not resting on his laurels. Less than two miles to the northwest sits Portland, an area devastated by Ohio River floods in 1937 and 1945 that forced many to permanently abandon their inundated middle-class homes.
With some 18,000 residents, the low-income area retains a large number of pre-Civil War buildings and is dotted with abandoned properties. Nearly 50 percent of those living in the area subsist at the poverty level, Holland said.
So Holland purchased a former Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club to headquarter the Portland Investment Initiative. The organization has bought some 30 area properties, including some from the city and rental management companies. It’s partnering with affordable-housing advocates to renovate the shotgun homes that dot the district, and developing existing warehouses into cultural, residential and dining destinations. Goals include job creation, historic restoration and the establishment of new businesses.
Holland says so far the initiative has raised about 10 percent of the $24 million he estimates is needed to revamp Portland.
But he’s not discouraged. Louisville, he says, is a perfect place to capture the people who are priced out of New York City or Los Angeles.
“It seems doable,” he says about the Portland revitalization. “If I want my kids to take care of me after college, I’ve got to make Louisville a cool place to be.”
The 2015 Green Gala and Sustainable Business Awards runs from 5:30-10:30 p.m. Sept. 18. For details, call Sandra Doherty at 704-996-5877 or email Sdoherty@usgbcnc.org.