November 12, 2008

Get to know your developer

Hey Louisville, do you know your downtown developer, the Cordish Cos. of Baltimore, Md.?

Here’s some background.

The Metro Council just dropped $12 million to secure the most prime downtown real estate there is so it may lease the plot — the old Water Company block — to the developer for $1 a year for the next 99 of ’em. Other parts of the agreement, for a $250 million development that was railroaded by the Abramson administration and leaves much to be desired in terms of goodies for the city, included a commitment by Cordish to develop 200,000 square feet of the plot and, um, not a whole lot else.

Sure, Cordish and the mayor’s office say the development — an extension of Fourth Street Live, the developer’s other major holding here — will include retail shops, restaurants, bars, perhaps a hotel and cinema. If Cordish invests what it’ll probably cost to do all that, the company could be in for some good state tax incentives.

They’ve also agreed to renovate The Gardens, that shabby hunk of brick and steel being used for a whole bunch of nothing at the moment.

Naturally, none of this made its way into the 138-page agreement between Cordish and Mayor Abramson.

Huh?

The basic logic of the mayor’s office on this one, provided to me by Chad Carlton, his top spokesman and adviser, is that Cordish is looking at a return on investment so monstrous they’d be crazy to not execute these plans. Thusly, why hold them to it when you know they’ll do it?

I can think of a number of reasons, given Cordish’s recent history in other cities (we’ll get there in a moment). First, it is important to understand Abramson’s position.

Cordish is already a major player in downtown Louisville, but Fourth Street Live only partially realizes the cash they could make off us. They’re contractually bound to build out 200,000 square feet of Center City, which is a fairly substantial investment they probably wouldn’t want to abandon, lest they build a one-story office park and bail out of pure spite, which would be quite terrible.

Here is the crucial detail: Carlton recalled a meeting he had with Abramson when the Marriott Downtown was under construction. He and the mayor were standing atop the hotel’s skeleton, surveying the city. Abramson glanced at the arena site (now a huge hole), looked at Fourth Street Live, and finally settled his gaze on the Water Company block. He told Carlton it was the key to making downtown redevelopment work. Period.

Cheesy, right?

But you see a little clearer why Abramson has forced this deal upon the council, leaving the disagreeable members — at first most of them, until the Democrats caved (more on that later, too) — with no option but to scuttle the whole thing, in which case they could ostensibly be blamed (by a mayor who believes this is the key to downtown development) for obliterating the very future of our city.

Back to the first question: Do you know your developer?

A scan of recent news clippings from other cities where the Cordish Cos. is a downtown alpha reveals a rather interesting pattern of bullying, intimidation and the odorous sense of entitlement we’ve learned to cherish and support with our tax dollars here.

Let’s begin in Kansas City, where Cordish’s downtown development — the Power and Light District — has a similar dress code as Fourth Street Live’s, one clearly aimed at excluding those who dress in a youthful, urban style, a euphemism for young black males.

Last summer, after several black males were refused entry to the chain-heavy KC development, including the son of a council member, the Kansas City Council asked a Cordish rep to address them about the strict, weird dress code. Rather than do so, the rep read a statement that was, in essence, a list of demands from Cordish to the city, none having a thing to do with clothing. As a result, the council vowed to block any further development by Cordish.

That’s one shot in a nasty battle that has included hostile e-mails from big-daddy David Cordish — apparently a fan of ALL CAPS to make his most IMPORTANT points — to the KC mayor, as well as Cordish’s threat last spring to sue the city because it supported a state initiative to offer festival-style licenses to sell booze, thus momentarily interrupting Cordish’s sweetheart liquor deal/monopoly.

Two months after the dress code incident, Cordish threw a fit when the Kansas City Council passed an initiative to put a plan for downtown light-rail on the ballot in November. Cordish was upset that the rail might run through or near its development, which is on a major thoroughfare. No one from the company explained how or why bringing more people near its development might be a hindrance.

Oh, and one more thing that might be relevant: In one of those NASTY e-mails, David Cordish wrote that The Sprint Center, a new downtown arena in Kansas City, “is a disaster because it has virtually no events and no professional basketball or ice hockey team.”

Sound familiar?

Cordish also has sunk some cash into St. Louis, in the form of Ballpark Village, a proposed $650 million joint venture with the St. Louis Cardinals that looks like Center City on steroids. Before signing a contract on that one, Cordish demanded that a provision requiring the company to build condos on site be removed — saying it would still build condos, you know, “if market conditions warrant” — then threatened a construction delay if there was any pushback. As well, a provision was added allowing Cordish to shrink the amount of retail it had committed to include.

The city’s Board of Alderman was given three days to review the proposal, complained about not having enough time, then passed an agreement with hearty support.

Sound familiar?

Council Democrats put on a tough face when they helped table the arrangement between Abramson and Cordish a few weeks ago for further review. Some — like Rick Blackwell, D-12, Tina Ward-Pugh, D-9, and Mary Woolridge, D-3 — said publicly they wouldn’t vote for the measure as it was then, which is as it is now.

But Cordish gave an ultimatum, refusing to change anything and threatening to take their toys and go home if not given their way. The company would not agree to pay a prevailing wage on any construction other than The Gardens and public infrastructure, like sidewalks.

And in the end, all 15 Democrats caved, ensuring that when it comes to big showdowns that pit the interests of the citizenry against that of a single powerful developer, they’re not up to the challenge.

After all, if Center City really is the key to downtown development, and I happen to agree that it is one among several, why wouldn’t another developer rush to take the deal?

Tagged: Editor’s Note |