Iron Quarter rendering

(Editor’s note: This post was updated at 12:15 p.m. on February 16. The original version misstated the projected cost of the Louisville-Southern Indiana Ohio River Bridges Project.)

This whole Todd Blue/Iron Quarter brouhaha has us thinking that if nothing else, Louisville is a place where people can dream big.

Really big.

In fact, ever since the Vencor Tower in the mid-1990s, announcing projects on a massive scale has become something of a growth industry, in lieu of actual growth industries.

Iron Quarter was supposed to be $48 million project with offices, hotels and restaurants. Now, it’s looking more and more like it will be a parking lot.

We’ve lost count of how many transformative projects – new bridges! new research center! new entertainment complex! – have been announced, only to fade as years (or decades) passed and economic crises waxed and waned.

Of course, a lot of epochal projects no one really though would happen, happened. Louisville now has the best college basketball arena/events space in the United States in the KFC Yum Arena.

And let’s not forget the ambitious projects that caused the first round of investors a lot of pain, such as the 1400 Willow high-rise condominium development in the Cherokee Triangle. Now, at 30 years old, 1400 Willow is the most expensive residential real estate in Louisville, according to insiders.

Louisville has two of the most architecturally interesting buildings in the South, the Humana headquarters and the Aegon Center, though Aegon NV is mostly gone.

Louisville has linear parks that go for miles along the Ohio River. Three of the niftiest buildings in town – Preston Pointe, ZirMed Towers and Waterfront Park Place – were completed in the last decade. Fourth Street Live, love it or hate it, helps bring conventions to Louisville.

But, we also have a lot of holes in the ground and surface parking lots where impressive projects are supposed to be.

Louisville is a town full of optimistic people. The problem is, the media rah-rahs the transformative proposals uncritically because everyone here want them to happen, and because of access.

If CJ reporters wrote, “Project X has been announced, which is nice. But here’s what had to happen for other cities to get similar projects,” the news releases would all go exclusively to Business First. No developer, CEO or government official wants to have their deal scrutinized.

Is Insider Louisville guilty of rah-rah journalism? Of course. But we – and everyone else, to be fair – try to balance the happy news with follow-up posts. Readers have a duty to themselves to summons their skepticism each time the read the words “project” and “millions of dollars” in the same story.

Center City rendering

Center City District

Year it was proposed: 2007

What they said would happen: The Cordish Cos., the Baltimore-based firm that created Fourth Street Live, was going to invest $250 million to redevelop several blocks along Muhammad Ali – from Second to Sixth streets – into stores, restaurants condos, movie theaters and a hotel. Eyesores such as the vacant former Louisville Water Co. headquarters would be swept away, replaced by hundreds of thousands of square feet of new construction. Cordish VP Zed Smith told Business First in 2008, “Center City is more than a project but rather is about the transformation of an entire district of the downtown. We are committed to maintaining the highest standards in terms of architecture, planning and tenancy with guiding principles of creating a world-class development.”

How it was covered by the local press: Can’t miss. “Further evidence that Louisville is on the road to a dynamic future was introduced earlier this week with the announcement of the Center City District …” from Business First.

What really happened: Nothing. City officials say the project isn’t dead, but in limbo because of the economy. But in 2008, after it was revealed the deal with the city only required Cordish to put up $12 million of the supposedly hundreds of millions that would be invested, Cordish executives said they were going to look at other markets. And they did. Cordish officials announced this week they’re building a $114 million shopping center and entertainment district in Omaha, Neb.

The chances that anything will happen: The Magic 8-ball says, “Reply hazy; try again.”

RiverPark Place model

RiverPark Place

Year proposed: 2005

What they said would happen: Developer Steve Poe announced he was building a $200 million project with 600 condos, office space, a marina, and recreational areas modeled on waterfront projects in cities such as Boston.

How the local media reported: Sold out. From Business First in 2006: “At the close of the sales sessions, 63 units, valued at nearly $30 million, had been reserved. Most popular were units in the two 16-story towers, which range in price from $199,000 to more than $1.5 million.”

What really happened: Not much, though there was a temporary sales building with walk-through mock-ups of the condos, complete with high-floor “views” of the river. Unfortunately, the Great Recession set in, housing demand collapsed, financing disappeared and someone noticed the view from RiverPark Place was of a Newark, NJ-like Jeffboat dockyard across the river. Poe told the Courier-Journal last fall he now has financing and plans to complete the project this year.

The chances of anything happening: Don’t hold your breath until the housing market revives.

Museum Plaza

Museum Plaza rendering

Year proposed: 2005

What they said would happen: A $490 million, 62-floor, cutting edge building on Main Street with Class-A office space, condos, art galleries and other stuff.

How the local media reported it: A sure thing. From the Courier-Journal story written by Chris Poynter, now spokesman for Mayor Greg Fischer: It will thrust 61 stories into the sky, a trio of towers that will dominate Louisville’s skyline. It will feature an acre-sized “island,” open to the public, that will hover 22 stories in the air. It will contain a contemporary art museum, restaurants and retail stores, 85 luxury condominiums, 150 lofts, a 300-room hotel, office space and a 1,100-car underground parking garage. The $380 million Museum Plaza, a radical skyscraper whose design is being introduced to the public today, will add a contemporary landmark to downtown Louisville when it’s completed in 2010.

What really has happened: Not much, a victim of the recession and construction problems.

The chances of anything happening: Well, that depends. If a large corporation – a PharMerica or a newly expanded Kindred Healthcare –  wanted to be in a signature building and was willing to pay $50 per square foot in Louisville, Kentucky, to make it happen, a version of Museum Plaza could be a good fit. (That’s putting aside the fact there’s a lot of Class A office apace downtown after Aegon slashed its presence here.)

The chances of anything happening: Actually, pretty good. The main investors have a track record. Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson have become the darlings of the high-end travel world with 21C Museum Hotel, which is constantly in the glossy magazines such as Conde Nast Traveler. Brown, a Brown-Forman Corp. heir, could finance the building herself, theoretically. According to Brown-Forman’s latest proxy statement, Brown owns about 9.2 percent of BF stock, worth more than $300 million in its current price range of about $70 per share. Obviously, the SEC frowns on Reg D shareholders cashing out, but there’s nothing to stop her from putting cash into the hopper along with institutional investor money.

Major complications: No auction-rate bond market if the city wanted to help out.

East End bridge rendering

The Louisville-Southern Indiana Ohio River Bridges Project

Year proposed: 1856. No, wait, that’s wrong. 1956.

What they said would happen: Two bridges across the Ohio River linking Kentucky and Indiana – one at the end of Interstate-265 and the other in downtown Louisville. The original cost estimate – Native American beads and trinkets equal to about $24  – now is $4 billion. However, cost reduction plans have off $500 million under some scheme no one can follow.

How the local media reported it: Well, Pony Express riders carried messages of optimism early on. With the advent of the telegraph, that optimism only grew. What could go wrong?

What really has happened: Nothing. Though yet another environmental study was announced this week.

The chances of anything happening: Not in our lifetimes.

Nucleus, Phase 1 rendering

Nucleus (Louisville Medical Center Development Corp)

Year proposed: 2007

What they said would happen: The old Haymarket property at Floyd and Market streets would be transformed into the Haymarket Business and Research Park life-sciences campus, part of a 30-square block area that would become a medical research plaza with a million square feet – that’s 23 acres down on the farm – of research space. Total price tag? A cool $2.3 billion.

How the local media reported it: What’s not to like? High-tech jobs and lots of new buildings.

What really happened: Not much. In 2008. negotiations ended with Baltimore-based Wexford Science & Technology to develop the project. U of L officials issued an request for proposal last September, but have never announced a new development firm. Oddly, they did announce they have an architect, and that construction will start this spring on the first building, which has mystery tenants. The old Haymarket is – you guessed it – now a swell surface parking lot.

The chances of anything happening: Nucleus probably has the best shot of all the big projects announced. Even during the recession, university officials completed a number of gee-whiz projects including The Clinical and Translational Research Building, a $143 million, seven-story building full of biomedical research labs at 505 S. Hancock St. in the downtown hospital complex.