By  Kevin Eigelbach • The Courier Journal • December 2, 2011

The long-delayed RiverPark Place development has come to life in recent weeks, with developer Poe Companies LLC starting work on a 149-slip marina just south of Towhead Island on the Ohio River.

On Dec. 5, the company plans to break ground on a 166-unit apartment complex adjacent to the marina, a project that will include elevators and under-building parking, president and CEO Steve Poe said.

The marina and apartment complex represent $25 million in new investment, not including the $16 million the company already has spent on the project for permits, plans and site development, Poe said.

“The timing is perfect for new upscale apartments in the city, especially at this location,” he said.

As Business First reported in its Nov. 25 issue, occupancy rates for Louisville apartments are as high as they have been in years, and the market for sales of apartment complexes is more active than it has been since the 1980s.

Poe Cos. is acting as general contractor for the RiverPark Place project and is developing the property with local and out-of-town partners. Funding is being provided by Chicago-based BMO Harris Bank, Poe said.

Part of master plan created years ago

The RiverPark project is part of a master development plan originally created in the 1980s for the property’s owner, the non-profit Waterfront Development Corp.

The site struck city officials as a natural place for a residential marina development close to downtown, said Waterfront Development Corp. executive director David Karem.

With Towhead Island forming a natural breakwater, the site had served for many years as the home of Louisville Municipal Harbor, a low-tech marina for pleasure boats, he said.

Preparations for site development began in the early days of former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson’s administration, Karem said. Abramson secured almost $4 million in funds to move a railroad line that ran through the property, he said.

In 2004, when Poe Cos. won the bid to develop the 40 acres just west of Eva Bandman Park along River Road, Poe agreed to spend a year studying similar waterfront developments across the country.

The research culminated in a design for a mixed-use community by Boston-based Goody, Clancy & Associates Inc. that called for more than 600 condominiums, including units in two, 16-story towers that would sell for $199,000 to $1.5 million apiece.

The community also would include 30,000 square feet of commercial space and 65 loft apartments.

After spending about 18 months securing approval for the plan from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Poe began pre-selling condominiums and marina slips. With the market for condominiums on fire, by August 2007 he had accumulated deposits on 38 condominiums.

Credit crunch halts project

But as Poe prepared to start construction in October 2007, the credit markets froze and Poe Cos. couldn’t get a construction loan, he said.

He had assumed the development of the 40-acre site would take as long as a decade, including a lull in construction, he said, but he didn’t expect the lull to happen right at the start.

The delay prompted a revision in the plan. With no banks willing to lend money for condominium construction, but with banks more than willing to lend money for apartment complex construction, Poe decided to build apartments instead.

The new plan’s initial phase calls for the construction of the marina; two four-story apartment buildings that together will have about 300 units; and two eight-story towers that will have about 200 condominiums and about 30,000 square feet of retail space.

The 16-story high-rises would be built in a future phase of the development on a different site from the original plan, Poe said.

He plans to complete the marina by April 1 and the first apartment building by the first quarter of 2013.

Poe said he plans to start building the second apartment building near the end of 2012. He plans to build the two condominium towers based on demand.

He believes the demand for condominiums from potential owners is strong, but he’s not sure about the availability of credit.

First phase is investment of up to $120 million

The first phase, which includes the marina, the apartments and the two towers, involves an investment of as much as $120 million.

But plans call for the 40-acre site to eventually have as many as 2,000 housing units, up to 100,000 square feet of retail space and 150,000 square feet of office space, he said.

Waterfront Development Corp. officials like that the planned wide sidewalks of the Poe development will link with those in Waterfront Park. They also are glad to see the project finally get off the ground.

“We knew it would have to be done in stages,” said deputy director Mike Kimmel. “Getting the marina and some substantial residential (housing) in there is a huge kickoff. We’re getting the bang we had hoped to get.”

From zero to $45 million

Louisville-based Poe Companies LLC went from starting $75 million in projects in 2008 to starting none in 2009 or 2010.

But this year, the developer plans to start construction on about $45 million worth of projects, president and CEO Steve Poe said.

The projects include a marina and an apartment building as part of the RiverPark Place development on River Road. But they also include apartment complexes in Bullitt County and in the Highlands neighborhood of Louisville.

The Buillitt County project, The Reserve at Thomas Glen Apartments, is a 192-unit complex planned for property owned by attorney Tom Givhan in Shepherdsville. The project is a partnership that includes Givhan, Poe Cos. and the project contractor, Abel Construction Co. Inc.

It’s expected to cost $14 million and is being funded with a loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Poe said.

He expects construction to be complete in 15 months.

Also this year, Poe Cos. started and completed a 28-unit apartment complex, Grinstead Place, on Grinstead Drive next to Louisville Collegiate School, a $3.5 million project. Poe expected tenants to start moving in this month.

Poe also was a partner in the Museum Plaza project, along with husband-and-wife investors Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown and attorney Craig Greenberg. It was scrapped earlier this year.

Project partners

Louisville-based Poe Companies LLC’s partners in RiverPark Place are Indianapolis-based REI Real Estate Services LLC and three Louisville families: the Mike Ehrler family, the Nolen Allen family and the family of the late Clyde Ensor. The Ehrler, Allen and Ensor families will become passive partners as the project is developed, Poe Cos. president and CEO Steve Poe said.

Poe Cos. has partnered with REI on other projects, including the development of the Louisville Downtown Marriott.