A plan to redevelop the site of the abandoned old federal courthouse downtown into a mix of residential and commercial space seems no closer to reality than when it was first floated six years ago.
City-Parish President Joey Durel’s proposed budget for next year calls for spending $1.5 million to demolish the hulking eyesore on Jefferson Street and then selling the cleared site to the Downtown Development Authority, which would work with the private sector to redevelop the property.
There are few objections to tearing down the building, which largely has sat vacant for more than a decade, but some council members and Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Louis Perret oppose giving up the parcel, saying it is a prime spot for a new parish courthouse.
“They’ve been holding everybody hostage to get a new courthouse,” Durel said. “The only people who are talking about keeping it are the politicians.”
The issue comes to a head Thursday, when the council votes on next year’s proposed budget, including a proposed amendment by City-Parish Councilman Jay Castille to delete all line items tied to selling the old federal courthouse site.
Castille said he is not necessarily opposed to private development of the site but only if another location is secured for a new parish courthouse.
“I think we first tear it down, get it cleared,” he said.
No other members of the nine-member council have objected to Castille’s proposed amendment so far.
Durel promised a veto of the changes to ensure “there is plenty of discussion.”
The council could override a veto with six votes, but Durel said he is working to line up the four votes he needs to keep that from happening.
“We all know downtown needs this,” he said.
The proposal also has the support of the DDA, which sees a prime opportunity for badly needed living options downtown and to jump-start the revitalization of the area around the intersection of Jefferson and Main streets.
Perret, the clerk of court, said he supports those goals but feels the old courthouse site is the only viable option at this time for a facility he hopes will one day replace the parish’s 50-year-old courthouse that sits a block away.
The aging building is too small, too outdated and too difficult to secure, he said.
“As much as we need housing downtown, it is wrong to sell taxpayer-owned land with the knowledge that we need a new courthouse,” Perret said.
City-parish government purchased the old federal courthouse in 2001 for $800,000 after completion of the new federal courthouse a few blocks away on Lafayette street.
There have been various ideas for redevelopment over the years.
City-parish officials initially planned to use the old building for government offices but abandoned the idea, in part because of the renovation cost.
Voters in 2006 rejected a proposed property tax to pay for a new parish courthouse on the site.
Since then, there have been two prior proposals to transform the site into a mixed-use development of housing, offices and commercial space, the first in 2009 and the second last year.
The City-Parish Council expressed little interest in either one.
While Perret, Castille and others talk of the need to preserve the land, Durel argues it makes no sense to stall its redevelopment when prospects are dim for finding the more than $75 million needed to build a new courthouse.
Durel’s current budget proposal would set aside the anticipated $1.5 million from the sale of the old federal courthouse site for purchasing a different parcel for a new parish courthouse.
“There is not a better alternative,” Perret said.