LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Ben Curl was walking on Vine Street this spring when he noticed an open second-floor window in an abandoned building at the old Urban Government Center. Inside, he recalled, thieves were tossing out spools of wire and loading them into a trailer.
Curl said one man rapelled out the window using a canvas water hose, then sped off with his partner in reverse so that a crowd of bystanders from the nearby Seidenfaden Cafe couldn’t take a picture of their truck’s license plate.
For Curl, who lives on East Breckinridge Street, the incident sums up the plight of the vacant 10-acre site in the Paristown Pointe neighborhood that city officials have promised to redevelop for years.
“It's kind of just a picture of what the thing has been,” he said. “It's been left vacant, let it dilapidate and it's now worse than it was five years ago.”
Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration has tried since 2017 to transform the city-owned property into a mixed-use project that would replace a collection of aging buildings. The concepts put forth by various real estate companies have included senior housing, a parking garage, a boutique hotel, a farmer’s market, a grocery store and a restaurant.
So far, none of that has happened. The city’s chosen developer backed out in late 2019, and a second firm tapped late last year is now at odds with Fischer’s economic development agency over how to close a funding gap that’s existed since the selection.
The city-funded costs are mounting while Metro government officials continue negotiations with its preferred group, Underhill Associates. Meanwhile, a stretched-thin Louisville Metro Police Department must patrol and respond to reports of theft and other suspicious activity at the 10-acre complex.
The city spent $356,207.10 from its general fund over the past four fiscal years to provide security, mow grass and do other upkeep there, according to spending reports obtained under Kentucky’s open records law. Taken together, the public costs are more than 30 percent above the amounts originally budgeted.
Security-related work accounts for the largest share of the spending, or about 70 percent. The bulk of those monies -- $124,690 – was spent in 2018.
Since then, the security costs declined each year and bottomed out during the 12 months ending in June 2020. For that year, the city spent $3,272; so far this year it’s paid out $29,925.
Louisville Forward, the Metro agency overseeing the redevelopment effort, declined an interview request for this story. In written responses to questions, spokeswoman Caitlin Bowling said Allied Universal, a private security firm, conducts regular patrols and monitoring of the property, which also is on the police department’s patrol route.
“Although we do not want to comment on the specifics of their schedule, when there is an increase in activity at the site, we ensure that there is a dedicated team onsite at all times,” she said.
Bowling also said the city has erected a fence at the site, boarded the first-floor windows and added “jersey barriers.”
“We also are working on a plan for additional security measures and reviewing it with our public safety team,” she said.
LMPD did not respond to email and phone messages seeking more information about its response to the site.
The most recently available records from the department, provided through an open records request, show that officers made 21 “calls for service” to the Urban Government Center buildings between May 6 and June 2.
There does not appear to be a police report for the incident Curl, the neighborhood resident, says he witnessed. But other reports from LMPD shed light on what’s happening inside the abandoned buildings.
On April 15, officers were called to 810 Barret – the seven-story, former Kentucky Baptist Hospital building – after two security guards noticed two people go inside. Police found that people were in the “process of stripping the building of a very large amount of copper,” according to the report.
One person fled into a crawl space and refused orders to come out. He was later arrested after he called for help.
The prior year, in January 2020, the building’s security officer caught a man leaving 810 Barret with a gym bag of suspected stolen property. Weeks later officers found three backpacks with tools, a circular saw, cords and light at the building.
“I see people going in and out of the building that have no business being there, and I see what they steal from the building—and it concerns me,” said Frank Ford, a Paristown Pointe resident.
Ford said the security at the site is “irregular.”
“They react to people going into the building, and then it comes on strong, and then it goes away,” he said. “And then the cycle repeats itself.”
Bounded by Barret Avenue, Breckinridge Street and Vine Street, the site is one of Louisville’s largest pieces of vacant real estate in an area not far from downtown, the Original Highlands and Germantown, among other neighborhoods. It’s also close to the $12 million Old Forester’s Paristown Hall on Brent Street.
The property once housed government offices, including a police substation, coroner’s office and the Louisville Metro Housing Authority building.
Following neighborhood meetings and input, the Fischer administration announced in December 2017 that it had selected the Marian Group to redevelop about 12 acres there. A development agreement followed in July 2018.
But Marian wasn’t able to qualify the site for tax credits for low-income units for Family Scholar House, which had been an anchor tenant. Marian also had to abandoned plans for two dozen “21st century shotgun homes” off Vine Street because Metro government had pledged land there for the Marian project while also leasing it to the Paristown Preservation Trust for parking at Paristown Hall.
After a legal threat, the city ultimately agreed to an out-of-court settlement and let the trust buy the lot for $1 and keep it for parking. Marian was paid $500,000 to help cover its pre-construction work.
Metro government also agreed to pay Marian $150,000 from the budget of Louisville Forward, the agency overseeing the Urban Government Center site. In the end, the settlement shaved about 2 acres from the tracts available for redevelopment.
In the end, Marian backed out of the deal in late 2019, claiming the city failed to get land-use and other approvals it agreed to obtain.
That led to a second round of proposals that culminated in November 2020 with a city selection committee giving Underhill the highest score among two finalists. But the committee also said it had “serious concerns” about $12 million of the project cost that wasn’t funded.
"If the entire development hinges on that funding, there is concern that it will not come to fruition," Stephanie Kertis, assistant director of Louisville Forward, wrote in the committee's recommendation.
That gap now has grown to $13.7 million, or about 23 percent of the project’s $58.9 million cost. Underhill proposed using city budget or American Rescue Plan Act funds, but the Fischer administration rebuked that idea in a May letter that gave the company until mid-June to put forth other ideas or it would end negotiations.
But Underhill insisted on June 14 that it would be “premature” and “shortsighted” to dismiss using the federal funds approved by Congress in March for coronavirus relief for cities and local governments across the U.S.
Louisville Forward Co-Chief Jeff O’Brien told a reporter this week that there was no update on the negotiations or a timeframe for a resolution.
Back in Paristown Pointe, Curl said his frustration goes beyond concerns over break-ins in the buildings. The site is a “nuisance” that could be producing tax revenue for Louisville, he said.
“That could be money-making land, instead of it sitting there,” he said. “It's been money-draining land.”
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