Community Questions City Plan To Take New Bids On Urban Government Center Thursday, Jan 30 2020 

Louisville Metro officials said they’re taking another shot at finding a developer for the defunct Urban Government Center site near Paristown Pointe. After a lengthy process a few years ago, the city selected a proposal from the Marian Group to turn the vacant site into mixed-use, multi-income housing and commercial properties. But the deal ran into problems and fell apart in December.

At a busy public meeting on Tuesday, officials with the city’s economic development arm Louisville Forward said they would be initiating a fresh public solicitation of interest in the next month or two. Director Jeff O’Brien said it’s because the city’s learned more about the buildings in the last two years. But some community members said they don’t see the point.

Justin Mog, who lives near the Urban Government Center in Paristown Pointe, said he doesn’t understand why the project needs to be dragged out. Like several other community members, he said he supports the runner-up proposal from the first time the city sought bids in 2017.

“I’ve seen the rankings, and the second choice, called Paristown Green, from Jeff Underhill has everything this community asked for,” he said. “Can’t we proceed with them? Why do we have to go through another solicitation and another public process to gather the same information? It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Developer Jeff Underhill said his firm is still interested in redeveloping the site. And he said  original partners for his proposal, including Bellarmine University and Highland Community Ministries, are still interested, too. Theirs was the only pitch that involved saving any of the historic buildings, including the old Baptist Hospital that dates back to 1924.

But, reflecting on Tuesday’s community meeting, Underhill said the public process was too opaque the first time around. And he isn’t sure it’ll be too different now.

“I’m afraid that a lot of things were done in the dark the first time, and in secret, and I just, sadly, I don’t know why we should trust the process this time,” he said.

Amina Elahi | wfpl.org

Gretchen Milliken, center right, talks with community members at a public meeting about the Urban Government Center.

Gretchen Milliken, who runs the city’s advanced planning department, told the assembled community members at the meeting that the city learned lessons from the first go-around.

“We are definitely reevaluating what we did the first time. Transparency is going to be incredibly important,” she said. “We are going to make this process as transparent as possible.”

Caitlin Bowling, a spokeswoman for Louisville Forward said details regarding how the bid process would become more transparent were not yet set, and therefore not available.

The issue of transparency transcends neighborhood boundaries, reaching people across Louisville concerned about this and other deals involving city-owned property.

Shaun Spencer, president of the community organization the West Louisville Dream Team, said city officials haven’t answered her questions. She said she wants to know whether the new evaluation will be done in private, who will serve on the evaluation committee and whether they would be bound by nondisclosure agreements again. She said she doesn’t necessarily think meetings like this will make a difference.

“Oh, no, I don’t have any faith. These meetings are for show,” Spencer said. “These meetings are so that they can say that they dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s in case any federal money’s involved, or in case of community outrage. They can say, ‘Oh, no, we had this meeting.'”

Spencer said she’s concerned by how Louisville Forward operates, not just in Paristown Pointe, but across the city.

“There’s some development to be done, and they’re looking for how it’s going to benefit them,” she said. “And by ‘them,’ I mean, Louisville Forward, not ‘them,’ meaning the citizens of Metro Louisville.”

Some Metro Council members have also taken issue with the deal and Louisville Forward’s handling of city-owned surplus properties. They say the city sells them for too little, and with too few protections in place. In the case of the Urban Government Center, Louisville Metro paid a $150,000 settlement last summer to The Marian Group because the same parcel had been promised to it and another group that was leasing it from the city.

Bowling, with Louisville Forward, says the agency could release its transparency plan as soon as a few weeks from now.

Urban Government Center Developer Backs Out Of Deal, Citing City’s Inaction Monday, Dec 23 2019 

Two years after Louisville Metro selected the Marian Group to redevelop the former Urban Government Center, the deal appears to be dead.

An executive with the Marian Group announced Monday that it is withdrawing from its agreement with the city. Justin Brown said in a statement that issues included Louisville Metro’s decision not to extend a contingency period and its failure to secure land use approvals.

“Ultimately, we are disappointed to have to step away. This is an important project for Louisville, and we remain optimistic for the future of the Paristown Pointe neighborhood,” Brown said.

The plan was to transform the 12-acre site, which has government buildings that now sit empty. The development was to include townhomes, shotgun houses, offices and commercial space. The site is near the ongoing development of the Paristown Pointe Arts District.

The Marian Group’s mixed-use proposal was selected from a group of five finalists. The other ideas also included combinations of residential and commercial properties.

Earlier this month, a lawyer for the Marian Group asked Louisville Forward, the city’s economic development agency, to extend the contingency period on the project, which was set to expire on Dec. 31, 2019. That came ahead of a Metro Council decision to table a vote on rezoning the property in question, which took place at the body’s last meeting of the year.

In a letter on Monday explaining the withdrawal, the Marian Group’s lawyer Cliff Ashburner said Louisville Forward Chief Mary Ellen Wiederwohl told him last week there was no decision or timeframe for extending the contingency period.

“Marian can only take that statement as a position that Metro will not extend the Contingency Period,” he wrote.

He said the failure to pass the rezoning makes it impossible for Metro to acquire the needed land use approvals for the project.

In an emailed statement, Louisville Forward spokeswoman Caitlin Bowling said the agency respect’s the Marian Group’s decision.

“We remain committed to working with the residents of the Paristown Pointe neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods to revitalize this important property,” she said.

She said the next step is to work with the Metro Council to rezone the property.

Metro Council Members Call For More Protections In City-Owned Surplus Property Sales Sunday, Aug 18 2019 

Take three seemingly-disparate projects: the Louisville Urban League’s track and field complex, the Urban Government Center redevelopment and two historic buildings on Bardstown Road. All of them share a key detail: the land or buildings were owned by the city, but city officials say they aren’t needed for government use.

Declaring the properties “surplus” allows Louisville Metro to sell them cheap. That could mean pricing them below their assessed value, or selling them for a dollar. Often that low price is considered a subsidy for potential developments seen as worthwhile to the city and community.

But with Louisville’s budget shrinking, some Metro Council members are scrutinizing how the city sells these surplus properties. They say some deals have cost the city — either because they’re over-discounted, or because promised developments haven’t panned out.

Some have called for Louisville Forward and the Jefferson County Attorney’s office — which negotiate and write the deals — to write in more or different protections for the city. And one council member says the deal-making process should be overhauled.

Brent Ackerson (D-26) is critical of the expectation that Metro Council should simply rubber-stamp deals made by the mayor’s office.

“These are assets that belong to the city, these are assets that can affect our budgets,” he said. “The more we give away things, the question is, what are we getting in return for that? Because we’re not Daddy Warbucks, you know. The city runs on a tight budget.”

City services and staff were hit hard this fiscal year, as growing pension and employee healthcare costs forced officials to pass a budget that was more than $25 million below what the city needed to maintain last year’s levels.

Ackerson said council members should be involved in surplus sales earlier in the process. At present, Metro Council has the power to deny a deal by declining to approve the surplus status for a property. But it cannot as a body influence the sale price of a property, nor what is written in the contract. The only place the council can make changes is to the resolution authorizing a property to be designated as surplus.

And Ackerson said he isn’t satisfied with how little input the council has in the current deal-making process. He would like representatives from the Mayor’s office or Louisville Forward to formally discuss potential sales with council members before committing to the projects.

“They might need to come to us in advance and say, ‘Here’s what we’re talking about. Can you support this if we strike this deal? If not, what is it that you’re looking for?'” he said.

That way, he said council may have the ability to tweak terms of an agreement to make it acceptable, rather than having to vote to pass or kill it after the details are already decided.

Knowing about potential sales earlier in the process could help prevent costly mistakes, in Ackerson’s view. He offered the example of 814 Vine Street, which has been held up in committee because the city promised the land to two groups.

Now, if council approves the surplus designation for the property, which is part of the Urban Government center, Louisville Metro will pay a $150,000 settlement to The Marian Group. That developer planned to build shotgun homes on the vacant lot. At the same time, the Paristown Preservation Trust, which leased the land for parking in 2017, will pay $500,000 to The Marian Group and purchase the land from Metro for a dollar.

“I’m not accusing anyone of doing something wrong. But there’s the potential that wrong can be done,” Ackerson said. “In order to avoid the potential, we need mechanisms in place that allow the branch of this government being the Metro Council to question things.”

‘Evolving’ Economic Development Processes

Caitlin Bowling, a spokeswoman for economic development agency Louisville Forward, said her team works regularly with Metro Council members to apprise them of their work and to hear their feedback and concerns.

“We’re continuing to communicate with Metro Council about their expectations, because that’s something that has been evolving, as have our processes with developments and any surplus resolutions,” she said.

The biggest procedural change is some deals now contain provisions that would give Louisville Metro the first right of refusal to purchase a property if it isn’t developed as planned, she said. The Urban League deal, which the city is backing with a $10 million bond, includes this disclaimer:

If the Project is not developed within five (5) years from the date of title transfer of the Property from Metro to Developer, Developer agrees that the Property will revert back to Metro.

James Peden (R-23) said at a recent Metro Council meeting that development agreements for surplus property sales should include a standard line to give Louisville the right of first refusal for repurchasing a property at the price it sold it for under certain conditions.

“If whatever you’re doing doesn’t work out, if you try to flip it, whatever it is, we have the right to buy back for whatever it is you bought it from us — whether it’s that dollar, that symbolic dollar that we sometimes charge, or a few thousand dollars more,” he said.

The much-criticized sale of two Bardstown Road buildings included no such protection. Those properties were sold for a second time last month, for $1.12 million. The city sold them at a discount for $425,000 in late 2016 with the hope they would be turned into a Sterling Beer brewery.

Councilman Brandon Coan (D-8), who represents the district where the historic properties are located, said council members learned from that experience. He said they want the city to have the opportunity to repurchase properties for the original price so that “someone else doesn’t promise us something, fail to deliver and they get to keep the property.”

This Bardstown Road project didn’t include a development agreement; Louisville Forward only writes these agreements for sales in which the city is investing in the project, such as the Louisville Urban League’s planned track and field complex in the Russell neighborhood. A development agreement is a type of contract that dictates the terms of certain city property sales, and includes details including how the property would be developed and what might happen if that fails.

Bowling, with Louisville Forward, could not say whether right of refusal clauses would become standard in surplus sales. She said each deal is different.

Delegates from Latin America visit Louisville, discuss pressing trade and immigration issues Friday, Jul 19 2019 

Trade wars and immigration issues were hot topics among delegates from South and Central America as they discussed the state of trade and connections with the United States at a forum Thursday at the University Club at University of Louisville.  Hosted by the World Affairs Council of Kentucky and Southern Indiana and Greater Louisville Inc., […]