Museum Plaza Failure Highlights Council’s Taxpayer Protections

by Gabe Bullard on August 1, 2011

Early Monday morning, the developers behind the Museum Plaza project in downtown Louisville called it quits. Craig Greenberg, Steve Wilson, Laura Lee Brown and Steve Poe sent a letter to Governor Steve Beshear and Mayor Greg Fischer saying they couldn’t build the tower. Several years, millions of dollars and hundreds of headlines had been dedicated to the project.

The Museum Plaza groundbreaking in 2007 was a big deal. Then-Mayor Jerry Abramson and other civic and business leaders were on hand to watch a giant shovel drop onto the ground at 6th and Main streets. The 62-story tower was supposed to bring in jobs and businesses and send a message that Louisville was a city on the rise.

Audio MP3

“By combining the arts, commerce and residential purpose in this one, spectacular venue, Museum Plaza, and by extension Louisville will become a model for other cities across the country,” said Senator Mitch McConnell in a video played at the ceremony.

But others were skeptical the building could be paid for.

“I didn’t think it was ever going to get started,” says Metro Councilman Kelly Downard, who wasn’t surprised to hear that the $450 million tower couldn’t be financed.

“It’s a wonderful project on the face of it, but in order to finance a project of that size and of that type, you’re going to have to have significant presales of office space and significant presales of condominiums,” he says.

Now, the few who pre-leased offices and condos will be contacted. And the University of Louisville will have to find a new home for its Master of Fine Arts program, which was to be based in the tower. College of Arts and Sciences Dean Blaine Hudson says the program hasn’t yet been launched because it doesn’t have a home. Now he says the school will seek final approval for the program, and a headquarters shouldn’t be hard to find, considering U of L was planning to spend up to $15 million for a space in Museum Plaza.

“The amount of money that it would have cost us to have space in Museum Plaza could, if we could still raise that amount of money, buy us a very, very imposing facility of some kind anyway,” says Hudson.

Downard says more modest projects shouldn’t be as difficult to pay for as Museum Plaza. Mayor Greg Fischer echoed that sentiment in a conference call. The mayor also lamented the loss of the 4,000 construction jobs Museum Plaza was expected to bring in.

While the city may miss out on jobs and prestige with the project’s collapse, it won’t lose money. When the development deal first came to former Mayor Jerry Abramson, he agreed to approve bonds for the project without the condition that the developers secure the rest of the financing. Downard and then-Councilman Hal Heiner fought Abramson on it.

“When the council got involved, we saw the city was at considerable risk,” says Heiner. “One of the most important aspects added to the agreement was that the city would put forward no money until the developer’s financing was in place.”

The deal isn’t entirely settled. The developers have sunk millions of dollars into moving an electrical tower, preserving historic facades and further preparing the site for construction. Fischer says the city owns most of the land and the developers will have to accept their loss. But developer Craig Greenberg says there are still details to work out.

“We’re going to be working with the city on the transition in the coming days. We will re-open Seventh Street,” he says. “We do own one parcel of property that was going to be part of the site that we do privately own.”

It’s not clear what will happen at the site, but the developers are moving on. The team behind Museum Plaza is the same group that built the 21C Museum/Hotel. Their next project is to renovate the historic buildings that make up Whiskey Row a few blocks east of the Museum Plaza site. That’s another project that’s been years in planning.

Additional Museum Plaza discussion:

  • Gabe Bullard with Todd Mundt on Here and Now 8/1/11
    Audio MP3

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