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Community Questions City Plan To Take New Bids On Urban Government Center

Urban Government Center

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.

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.

Amina Elahi is LPM's City Editor. Email Amina at aelahi@lpm.org.