A long-awaited development first announced in 2007 on the corner of Main and Jackson streets is set to be delayed another three years. Jefferson Development Group (JDG) had planned to build a pair of towers on top of a parking garage at 418 East Main Street, also known as the old D&W Silks site and demolished the D&W Silks property and another 19th century structure in 2009. JDG built a surface level parking lot in exchange for a series of binding elements with the city, one of which was a timetable to begin construction of the first phase of the project—the parking garage—by December 31, 2011. Now the developer is seeking an extension to begin phase one construction until December 31, 2014.
Robert Webber, president of JDG, did not return calls for this article, but had previously told Broken Sidewalk in January 2010 that his company would move forward with the twin towers once 50 to 60 percent of the planned 680,000 square feet of office space is leased. He described the design as offering flexible construction options including phased construction where the parking garage base and each of the towers could be built sequentially. It’s uncertain at this time why JDG decided to pursue the deadline extension.
While a developer seeking a construction extension is nothing new or sinister, the process that Metro Louisville has in place to deal with these binding elements is absurdly tipped away from the public interest. Planner Latondra Yates, who is handling the JDG case for Metro Louisville, said a number of binding elements were issued when demolition of the historic properties moved forward and the parking lot was built. “If you are going to tear down a historic building in Downtown, we would like to see a new building built there,” she said.
At the time, there was concern over the lack of demolition review process for two 19th century structures located in a historic district and the absence of “Intent to Demolish” signs posted on the buildings. It turned out that Metro Louisville declared the two buildings “non-contributing,” a designation typically awarded to modern intrusions like sheds or additions of poor quality, making their historic status meaningless.
With the buildings gone, binding elements helped to guide various components of the project from the design of the parking lot to the construction timetable. Because new parking lots are discouraged under the Downtown Development Review Overlay (DDRO) district, a “plaza” was incorporated into the plan, which is shown as the gravel area in the photos. For all the aesthetic beauty and functional space this plaza contributes to Downtown, it might as well have been added to the parking lot.
The real problem with this case, however, is that the binding element at stake is unenforceable under current Metro Louisville policy. Yates said there are no fines or penalties that can be issued to developers breaking or extending their binding construction deadlines. “They can’t be forced to build something if they don’t have the money,” she said. In fact, a developer could potentially be granted any number of extensions as long as they go through the review process. Yates said that if the extension were declined, the project may have to begin the development process over again, but that seems unlikely as the DDRO committee has already approved the extension.
In other cities, a binding element is just that, binding; and it can carry real consequences for breaking the schedule. The original agreement could have been structured to include fines, the developer could have been required to put capital up in advance that could then be surrendered, or the property itself could be in jeopardy. Instead in Louisville, we’re left with an ugly, non-functioning “plaza,” a massive surface level parking lot, and we’re out two historic buildings that contributed to the street wall and could have been renovated if the project falls through.
Hopefully Jefferson Development Group will find the tenants it needs to begin construction ahead of the new 2015 deadline, but this example should be a cautionary tale for other projects with similar binding elements. The impending parking lot at Whiskey Row where two historic buildings will soon be torn down comes to mind.
A public meeting of the Development Review Committee regarding the construction deadline extension will be held on Wednesday, April 18 at 1:00 p.m. at 514 West Liberty Street.