Urban Government Center redevelopment deal still moving forward, city says
Louisville officials had hoped to finalize an agreement with the Marian Group by mid-February, but that didn't happen.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- On Dec. 20, Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration announced its favored plan for the Urban Government Center campus on Barret Avenue: Replace vacant city office buildings with a mix of housing, office and commercial space and possibly a “boutique” hotel.
The Marian Group’s proposal was recommended by an evaluation committee of city staff and citizens that also reviewed four other ideas for nearly 12 acres in the Paristown Pointe neighborhood that abuts Germantown and the Highlands.
At the time, just days before Christmas, city officials hoped to finalize the selection within 45 days, or by mid-February. That hasn’t happened.
But negotiations are continuing, said Jessica Wethington, spokeswoman for the Louisville Forward economic development agency.
“When working on multi-faceted, complex projects such as this, it takes a significant amount of due diligence,” she said in an email. “We are still working on the project and expect to be moving forward with a development agreement soon.”
She did not respond to a question asking about a timeline.
Marian Group principal Justin Brown referred questions to Louisville Metro government, saying he was bound by a nondisclosure agreement and could not comment.
The project is one of two recent redevelopment efforts by Louisville Metro government that target tracts of vacant or underused city-owned land. Last September, Fischer named the Louisville Urban League to oversee a proposed $30 million, mixed-use development on 24 acres in the Russell neighborhood that would include a track-and-field complex and possibly restaurants, retail space and a hotel.
In both cases, the mayor’s administration held community meetings and sought public input in an attempt to reflect neighbors’ wishes. City officials have declined to reveal the members of the evaluation committees, which ultimately recommended the developers that were chosen.
The Marian Group’s preliminary plan calls for a row of shotgun houses, townhomes and senior housing, a parking garage, a farmer’s market and a “center green” space, among other features. A pedestrian path would bisect the property.
The buildings on the site have been plagued with mold concerns for years. By late 2016, all Metro government employees who once worked at the 810 Barret building had moved elsewhere, including to the Edison Center in Old Louisville.
With the exception of a smokestack on Vine Street near E. Breckenridge Street, the plan appears to raze the existing buildings, including the seven-story, old Kentucky Baptist Hospital that opened in 1924.
A feasibility study produced for Metro government in early 2017 described the building’s style as “historically important.” It also indicated that the Kentucky State Historic Preservation Office would support efforts to nominate the hospital building for the National Register of Historic Places, which could help preserve it.
Diane Comer, a spokeswoman for the state preservation office, said no one has nominated the building for the register.
Preservation Louisville, a group that advocated for endangered historic buildings, no longer exists. It was absorbed by Vital Sites, a nonprofit organization that manages a revolving-loan fund for work on older buildings.
The developers for the Barret Avenue property largely preferred to tear down the existing buildings and believed it was not practical to reuse them, said Charles Cash, board chairman of Vital Sites and a former city planning director.
As a result, he said, his group did not take a stance on whether the structures ought to be saved.
Asked whether Marian Group executive Kimberly Stephenson, a member of the Vital Sites board, played any role in that process, Cash reiterated that his organization didn't even formally talk about weighing in on the structures.
“We did not discuss taking a position on that question (of the buildings) one way or the other,” he said.
John Mahorney, who can see the rear of the old hospital from his house on Vine Street, said he supports historic preservation, but the old hospital is “seven different histories all wrapped into one building.”
“I think money could be better spent on creating something that’s newer, a little more modern and more energy efficient, definitely more attractive,” he said.
More than anything, Mahorney said he wants to see the property redeveloped. And the Marian Group plan is his favorite.
“I like the openness of it,” he said. “I like the way that they create a path through the middle of that area.”
Another neighbor, Justin Mog, said he was surprised when the city selected the Marian Group plan. From his perspective, the public comments and other input seemed to point toward preserving as much of the existing buildings and trees as possible.
Using that criteria, he said, the best choice was a plan proposed by Underhill Associates that would have preserved at least three of the buildings. (In public comments reviewed by WDRB News, Underhill was easily the most popular proposal endorsed.)
Mog, assistant to the University of Louisville’s provost for sustainability initiatives, was awarded the city’s top environmental leadership award by Fischer last year. He said the choice for the Urban Government Center site appears to be a “scorched earth” plan that also will remove mature trees.
“If we’re not going to do historic preservation, we’re losing a lot especially from a sustainability perspective -- but also the historic and cultural value,” he said.
Bellarmine University had hoped the site would house graduate students in its two-year doctor of physical therapy program under the Underhill proposal, said Bob Zimlich, the university’s vice president for administration and finance.
“We don’t have apartment-style living on campus,” he said. “So they’re scattered all over the city.”
Zimlich said the opportunity to have dozens of reasonably-priced apartments not far from the school’s Newburg Road campus was a “one shot deal.” Bellarmine will likely continue to use a word-of-mouth network to find housing for those students in houses and apartments around Louisville, he said.
He called the city’s choice “surprising,” especially because it includes a parking garage and the demolition of existing buildings.
Metro Council member Brandon Coan, whose 8th District borders the site, said he’s unsure whether he would support a city-funded garage there. He also expressed hope that the old hospital building could still be salvaged.
“I would have loved to have seen that preserved. … I don’t think that it’s too late for people to consider that,” he said.
Ethics experts have questioned the Fischer administration’s decision to identify who made up the committees that recommended the development plans from the Marian Group and Louisville Urban League. (City officials have pledged to reveal those names once the deals are finalized.)
Meanwhile, WDRB News has asked Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear’s office to decide if the committee meetings violated the state’s open meetings law.
For his part, Coan said the names of government employees and other city officials who served on the committee ought to be disclosed. Coan and 4th District Council member Barbara Sexton Smith have said they appointed citizens to the panel.
But Coan said he understands the rationale for keeping private the names of the citizen members, whom he and 4th District Council member Barbara Sexton Smith say they appointed to the Paristown Pointe panel.
Fischer administration officials have said they didn’t want citizens to face pressure from developers or others trying to influence their decisions.
“I do think that the economic development department and the people that were the decision makers really bent over backwards to get public input and to arrive at the chosen proposal through a process that was inclusive and that worked,” Coan said.
This story has been updated to clarify comments by Charles Cash.