A Look At The Center City Controversy

by Gabe Bullard on October 9, 2008


On Thursday, the Louisville Metro Council will vote on the final phase of land purchases for the proposed Center City entertainment district. The issue has generated some contentious exchanges among members of the Metro Council and the mayor’s office.

Most of the fighting is over the Mayor’s development deal with the Baltimore-based Cordish Company. The city has agreed to purchase the so-called water company block between 2nd and 3rd Street and lease it to Cordish. Cordish would then extend its 4th Street Live development eastward into the block, creating a new entertainment district.

The city has already spent over $3 million on land for the project, and it’s up to the Metro Council to approve an additional $12.2 million to buy the final three acres. The measure is also the final piece of leverage the council has to ask for changes to the deal.

“It’s a one-sided, poorly-negotiated agreement,” says Republican Councilman Hal Heiner. “And that agreement needs to be scrapped and completely redone.”

Heiner and the rest of the 11 member minority caucus say they’ll vote against the purchase. Cordish has promised to invest $200 to $450 million in Center City, but the company hasn’t signed an agreement to that effect. Heiner and his fellow Republicans say the city is giving too much and getting too little.

“It’s one of the biggest giveaways in the history of our city,” says.

“That’s a whole lot of smoke and mirrors by a certain councilman,” says Louisville’s economic development director Bruce Traughber.

Traughber says in addition to the Water Company block, the city will lease the crumbling Louisville Gardens to Cordish, spend $2.5 million to help plan the Center City project and give the developer millions more for improvements to buildings and other renovations.

Traughber estimates the whole deal will cost about $25 million, all of it necessary.

Developing in an urban setting in the Central Business District is a very difficult and a very risky proposition and will continue to be,” he says. “And these incentives, as much as we’d not like to use them, are absolutely essential for this development to occur.”

Traughber says the Center City agreement is just like other deals in larger cities…And Cordish’s reputation is riding on its promise to meet development timetables.

If it doesn’t, the city keeps the land and loses the $2 and a half million it put into planning and design. Traughber says the city can give those plans to a new developer, which would also need incentives.

“Absent financial support from the city, that block will never be developed by a single developer,” he says.

That’s not to say smaller developers wouldn’t build up parts of the block if Center City fails. Meanwhile, Hal Heiner and his fellow Repulicans aren’t the only council members wary of the deal with Cordish.

“My primary issue continues to be a document that relies upon trust rather than on a set of recommendations or guidelines or promises or commitments,” says Democratic Councilwoman Tina Ward-Pugh.

Ward-Pugh plans to vote against the measure if Cordish isn’t held to tighter expectations. She says council President Jim King is seeking an additional written agreement from the mayor’s office and Cordish that could ease tensions and push the purchase through the council.

“I’m confident he can do that,” she says. “But barring that, no, I cannot support it.”

With Ward-Pugh and the minority caucus all planning nay votes, it would only take just one more vote to kill the measure and force the Mayor to seek a new development deal.

But Ward-Pugh says there’s another option.

“I’ve gotten a sense that if there weren’t 14 votes to pass it, they would probably table it so it would remain tabled at the council level until there are the sufficient votes,” she says.

That’s what the budget committee did to the same legislation twice before. However, both times nothing changed and the deal…along party lines…months later.

The council will take up the Center City matter at its regular meeting Thursday at 6:00 PM.

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