Neighbors question Urban Government Center plans

The former Urban Government Center site on Barret Avenue

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Neighbors of the abandoned Urban Government Center on Barret Avenue pressed city officials Thursday night for updated plans about a redevelopment project already behind schedule.

Metro government owns the roughly 10-acre tract and is seeking to rezone it for commercial uses. It has an agreement with the Marian Group, which would develop commercial and retail space along with housing, a parking garage and possibly a boutique hotel, according to a deal signed last summer.

That agreement called for construction to be underway by now. Instead, the city is pursuing the first step -- rezoning.

Meanwhile, at least one key part of the project has been scrapped.

Plans once called for a Family Scholar House affording housing campus for single mothers. But in response to neighbors’ questions, Allison Smith of the Develop Louisville agency confirmed that’s no longer part of the Marian Group’s proposal.

In an interview Thursday night, Marian Group principal Justin Brown said the Urban Government Center site didn't qualify for the low-income tax credits his company envisioned using to finance the Family Scholar House units.

Brown said Marian Group would share other aspects of its plans for the site once the city has rezoned the land. Metro government expects to take the zoning request to the Louisville Metro Planning Commission in late September.

Some who attended Thursday’s meeting expressed dismay that the city plans to rezone the property without neighbors knowing exactly what is planned for the site. Others who live in the Paristown Pointe neighborhood said they still don’t trust Metro government’s selection of Marian Group, which was made by a committee of city officials and private citizens.

“It’s still very vague about what they want to put there. And their plans – there are no answers,” Cindy Pablo, a board member of the Paristown Pointe Neighborhood Association, told WDRB News after the meeting.

A competing developer, Underhill Associates, was the most popular proposal endorsed by residents who gave input during a series of meetings in 2017. But the selection committee chose Marian, giving it 725 points based on seven criteria that included “sustainability” and “connectivity,” among others. Underhill finished second with 705 points.

Joann Robinson, a neighborhood resident and longtime critic of the selection, echoed some neighbors’ concerns at Thursday’s meeting.

“Everybody that wants Marian Group works for the city,” she said. Referring to neighbors, she said: “We don’t have a chance.”

Some who spoke questioned recent settlements by Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration meant to solve a dispute over two nearby acres on Vine Street where Marian planned to build up to 24 houses.

When the city signed a development deal with Marian last year, the site was being leased to the Paristown Preservation Trust, which in turn planned to use it for parking for the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts’ Old Forester Paristown Hall nearby.

The lease had a clause letting the city terminate it if “similar parking” were provided. But when the city moved to break the lease in February, the trust and the Kentucky Center indicated they would sue Metro government because the proposed parking wasn’t acceptable, according to the city.

That led to settlement agreements reached in July under which the trust would pay $500,000 for the option to buy the Vine Street land for $1 and continue to use it for parking. The money would go to the Marian Group, which already had done pre-construction work on the site.

In addition, the city has agreed to pay $150,000 to Marian Group under the settlements.

The deals are contingent on the Metro Council approving the land as surplus property. That hasn’t yet happened.

The money would come from the Louisville Forward economic development agency’s “carryover” funds, but council member Brent Ackerson noted that it’s still public money that could be used to offset the city’s revenue needs.

At a meeting of the council’s labor and economic development committee last week, council member Ackerson called the public expenditure to the Marian Group “a large rock we’re forced to swallow.”

“Hopefully it will serve as a guidepost that this sort of pathetic waste of government resources and money does not happen again,” he said.

Reach reporter Marcus Green at 502-585-0825, mgreen@wdrb.com, on Twitter or on Facebook. Copyright 2019 WDRB Media. All rights reserved.

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Marcus Green joined WDRB News in 2013 after 12 years as a staff writer at the Louisville Courier-Journal. He reports on transportation, development and local and state government.