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Louisville officials advance Urban Government Center tax incentive amid controversy

Louisville Metro Government left the Urban Government Center in 2016. Eight years later, it's working with a developer to finance a $249 million project on the site.
Jacob Munoz
Louisville Metro Government left the Urban Government Center in 2016. Eight years later, it's working with a developer to finance a $249 million project on the site.

A Metro Council committee voted Tuesday to advance a financing tool for development on the old Urban Government Center site. They also stripped influence from nearby neighborhood associations that have opposed the project.

Chain link fencing surrounds a nearly 12-acre site in Louisville’s small Paristown Pointe neighborhood near downtown. The city government vacated offices on the property in 2016, leaving behind the now boarded-up buildings.

Louisville Metro Government is now on its third attempt at working with a developer to transform the site. Since 2021, it’s had a development agreement with the Paristown Preservation Trust, a group that’s worked on neighborhood developments and is eyeing an estimated $249 million mixed-use project for the property. The developer plans to build housing units and commercial and office space on the site.

But the project has also sparked tension among neighborhood associations, who’ve looked to influence the site’s future, and have expressed frustrations with both the city and the developer.

Tempers peaked Tuesday at City Hall when a developer and a resident who opposes public funding for the project got in a physical altercation shortly after Metro Council members narrowly pushed a controversial plan forward.

As part of the agreement, the city’s cabinet for economic development has worked on a tax-increment financing (TIF) plan allowing the developer to regain up to $20.3 million in the site’s property taxes over 20 years if it can increase the property value.

Louisville Metro Council members on the labor, economic development and appropriations committee voted to advance the TIF through an ordinance on Tuesday. But it came in a split 2-2-2 decision, tying “yes”, “no” and “present” votes.

Committee members debated whether the TIF was necessary and if more time should be added for discussion. Jeff O’Brien, executive director of the economic development cabinet, said the Paristown Preservation Trust had shown the city that the incentive was necessary.

“The developer is required to demonstrate that there is a financial gap [such] that this project cannot be achieved without the incentive from Metro Government,” O’Brien said.

Brian Forrest, a member of the development team, told the committee that there isn’t a hard deadline for the project’s completion, but that he wants to finish within five years. He also stressed that the tax incentives won’t be earned until they begin work on the site.

“We want it if we build it,” Forrest said.

Committee chair Phillip Baker represents Paristown Pointe in District 6 and opposed a motion to table the ordinance, saying a decision was needed after several years of waiting on the site and multiple project meetings.

The full Metro Council could vote on approving the TIF as early as next week, alongside the upcoming city budget.

A boiling point

Just minutes after the committee meeting, Forrest got into an altercation with a resident in the hallway outside Metro Council chambers.

Steve Wiser, a local architect and historian, began using his phone to record Forrest. According to the video, Wiser asks him repeatedly if he has previously worked on projects using a TIF, causing Forrest to grow frustrated. The video cuts as Forrest raises his arm, which Wiser claims was because the developer slapped his hand.

Wiser declined to say if he would press charges but said he hoped Forrest would apologize. He also disputed the need for a TIF.

“Why are we taking taxpayer money to fund private development?” Wiser asked.

Outside City Hall, Forrest said he got frustrated and slammed Wiser’s phone down, but that he would call to apologize if Wiser wanted him to.

“When somebody keeps antagonizing you, you just, you react,” Forrest said.

The incident underscored the emotions surrounding the Urban Government Center site.

The Paristown Preservation Trust wants to take over the site of long-vacant government buildings and is asking for a tax incentive to make its plans possible.
Jacob Munoz
The Paristown Preservation Trust wants to take over the site of long-vacant government buildings and is asking for a tax incentive to make its plans possible.

Late in Tuesday’s committee meeting, O’Brien introduced an amendment to a document needed for the city’s development agreement with the Paristown Preservation Trust.

The move, backed by the council members, took control away from neighborhood associations opposed to the project details.

The development agreement states the city will transfer the Urban Government Center land to the Paristown Preservation Trust for a dollar. To make up for it, one of the developer’s obligations was to “enter into a Community Benefits Agreement with surrounding neighborhood associations.”

The developer has to meet several commitments listed in the CBA, such as creating traffic studies and attempting to reuse materials from the demolished buildings. A project advisory group, made up of one resident each from five surrounding neighborhoods, was created to negotiate details with the Paristown Preservation Trust.

While the five neighborhood associations from those communities were named on the agreement, only the Paristown Pointe Neighborhood Association has signed it.

O’Brien said at the meeting that while the developer had agreed to some recent changes, he didn’t expect other associations to sign on. The amended CBA now includes the Bates Community Development Corporation and the Highlands Community Ministries, replacing the other four neighborhood associations.

Asked after the meeting if the change would reduce confidence in similar future agreements, O’Brien said the CBA still represents the neighborhoods.

“We're producing a community benefits agreement that is largely the work of the neighborhood advisory group, it's really just who is going to sign off,” O’Brien said.

Forrest also said he didn’t think the amendment would diminish community trust in the project.

“These documents change all the time, and I don't see the change in that,” Forrest said.

John Gonder, president of the German-Paristown Neighborhood Association, said he was caught off guard by his group being cut from the CBA.

He said most of the neighborhood association’s board members oppose the project, and that they had wanted to see a public use for the site before the city entered its deal with the Paristown Preservation Trust.

“We talked about a park or an urban forest. That was a long reach for us to come up with that. But we wanted something that would be beneficial to the whole community, not just a private developer,” Gonder said.

Along with housing and commercial space, the Paristown Preservation Trust is looking to build a hotel, a parking garage and playground on the Urban Government Center property.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that the Louisville Metro Council advanced the TIF ordinance in a split vote.

Jacob is LPM's Business and Development Reporter. Email Jacob at jmunoz@lpm.org.

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