L AFAYETTE — The old federal courthouse downtown has sat largely vacant for more than a decade as various plans for redevelopment have been proposed then abandoned over the years because of expense or disagreements about the future of the site.
The courthouse and two adjacent buildings, all owned by the city, sit on nearly 2 acres of prime real estate along Jefferson Street, and City-Parish President Joey Durel said he hopes there is now enough political momentum for a plan to hand off the site to the private market to create a showpiece development for downtown.
“Our goal is to get that property sold as soon as possible,” he said.
The general idea is to create a development mixing commercial and residential space on the site, which is bounded by Lee Avenue, Jefferson Street and Main Street.
A rough plan from the Downtown Development Authority envisions a series of three- and five-story buildings, with restaurants, shops and live-work spaces at ground level and upper stories occupied by residential space and possibly offices, said DDA CEO Nathan Norris.
City-parish government obtained a grant to buy the building from the federal government in 2001 for $800,000 after the completion of the new federal courthouse a few blocks away on Lafayette Street, and early plans to renovate the courthouse for office space fell through because of the cost.
A redevelopment plan similar to the current proposal was considered in 2009 when city-parish government and the Lafayette Economic Development Authority discussed an agreement in which LEDA would take ownership of the property, demolish the buildings and then redevelop the 1.8-acre site.
The idea didn’t gain much traction with the City-Parish Council, some of whom said the site should be reserved for a new parish courthouse, and the Durel administration had not revisited the issue until now.
“We have just never felt we had the votes,” he said.
Councilman Jay Castille was vocal in questioning the deal five years ago and said he still has concerns.
Castille said he is not opposed to redeveloping the site but wants to make sure the administration has a plan for additional courthouse space and that city-parish government gets a fair return when selling the property.
“I’m not against the development they are talking about. I think it’s a good idea, but there is a lot at play here,” Castille said.
Durel said he believes a major change from when the redevelopment project was proposed five years ago is that talk of a new parish courthouse has quieted, in part because it seems inconceivable city-parish government could come up with tens of millions of dollars needed for a new public building.
“I don’t think anyone realistically believes that will become a brand new Taj Mahal courthouse,” Durel said. “I do believe some reality has set in.”
He said the administration also has set aside money in next year’s budget to study a new courthouse annex at a different site.
The council discussed the courthouse redevelopment plan at Tuesday’s meeting but took no action on it.
The proposal initially had linked the courthouse project with a plan to replace a troubled motel in the Four Corners area with a police substation.
As proposed, the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority would have torn down the Lesspay Motel at the intersection of University Avenue and Cameron Street and built a police substation in its place.
In return, city-parish government would have given LPTFA the old federal courthouse and two adjacent city-owned buildings, allowing the group to recoup the money spent at Four Corners by redeveloping the courthouse site.
The LPTFA is a self-supporting public agency that makes money through investments and financing and uses the proceeds to support public projects.
The LPTFA has been a key player in several downtown developments, including the Rosa Parks Transportation Center, Uptown Lofts and the Acadiana Center for the Arts, and the group gave city-parish government the $800,000 needed to buy the old federal courthouse in 2001.
The council voted unanimously to move forward with negotiations to buy the Lesspay Motel as a standalone project, effectively nixing the trade involving the LPTFA.
But no council member expressed any strong objection to the general idea of redeveloping the courthouse site, only to the idea of having an outside agency do it.
Durel said LPTFA had been considered because the group already has experience in working with private developers.
But the city-parish president said he will follow the council’s wishes and bring a new proposal back within a few weeks calling for city-parish government to handle the courthouse deal on its own.
The legal nuts and bolts of how a deal would be structured likely will take a few months more if the council gives its preliminary approval, Durel said.
Norris, with DDA, said the proposal should include a mechanism to ensure any new development is in line with the long-term vision for the downtown area.
He said a “you-buy-it-and-do-whatever-you-want” deal should be avoided.
In general, DDA would like to see building heights limited so as not to block out sunlight, parking surrounded by buildings and hidden from street view and a certain percentage of first-floor street frontage be covered with windows.
“If you can’t see inside, that decreases the vibrancy of the street just as a blank wall does,” Norris said.
Norris also said he would rather see the site built out by a group of smaller developers rather than one big developer, a strategy that ensures a certain amount of variety and results in smaller commercial spaces, which are easier to fill if a business fails or moves out.
Breaking the redevelopment project up into smaller chunks also makes it more inviting to local developers, some of whom might not have the working capital to take on redevelopment of the entire block, Norris said.
“We expect to involve more local folks,” he said.