LAFAYETTE — Clerk of Court Louis Perret has long bemoaned the condition of the nearly 50-year-old parish courthouse in downtown Lafayette.
He and others have held out hope for years that a new courthouse might be built just a block away at the site of the abandoned old federal courthouse on Jefferson Street, a large tract along Jefferson Street owned by city-parish government.
So Perret is just a bit uneasy when he hears talk of City-Parish President Joey Durel’s plan to sell the property for a new mixed-used residential and commercial development downtown.
“I can’t in good conscience just stand by and see this train roll out of town,” Perret said.
So far, it seems some members of the City-Parish Council are with him.
The council voted 5-3 on Nov. 18 against signing off on the rough outlines of a plan to redevelop the old federal courthouse site. However, Durel said he plans to tweak the proposal and bring it back to the council as early as January.
“I can’t imagine that most of the council doesn’t realize what a strong residential component would do for downtown,” Durel said. “It’s what we are lacking right now to bring downtown to a whole new level.”
Some councilmen with questions about Durel’s proposal have said they aren’t opposed to the redevelopment plan but do have concerns about giving up a large chunk of government-owned real estate downtown with no alternative site for a new parish courthouse.
“To me, that’s the only place to put it until they have something else in place,” said Councilman Jay Castille, who voted against Durel’s proposal earlier this month.
City-parish government bought the old federal courthouse in 2001 for $800,000 after federal officials moved out when the new federal courthouse opened nearby on Lafayette Street.
The building has sat largely empty ever since.
There have been a handful of proposals over the past decade to renovate the site of the old federal courthouse for government offices — all have died for want of funding — and voters in 2006 rejected a proposed property tax to pay for building a new parish courthouse on the site.
In 2009, a prior proposal to transform the old federal courthouse site into a mixed-used residential and commercial development went nowhere, with some councilmen raising the same concerns they are today about reserving the spot for a new parish courthouse.
Durel acknowledges the need, but argues talk of a new parish courthouse is fantasy when there is no prospect for securing the tens of millions of dollars needed to build it.
“I know we are not going to build a $65 million courthouse,” Castille said, “but we have to have something in place.”
One solution offered by Durel is to build a parish courthouse annex next door to the existing parish courthouse. The current city-parish budget includes money to study the idea.
Regardless of whether the annex idea works out, Durel said, downtown development should not be held “hostage” by what he characterized as an unrealistic expectation a new parish courthouse will be built anytime in the near future.
Perret and Castille both are hoping for a workable parish courthouse plan detailing what city-parish government plans to build, where it will be built and how the government plans to pay for it.
Perret said the existing parish courthouse is plagued with problems. He said it’s too small, the windows leak and maintenance costs keep rising year after year.
The courthouse also lacks holding cells and has no separate elevators and no separate entrance for the scores of inmates who are brought in and out of the facility each week.
“The one we are in is a security nightmare,” Perret said.
He said plans to renovate the current courthouse and add a new annex might be a solution, but he said it’s not a viable one if city-parish government has no idea how to pay for it.
“Until a funding source is identified, I think it is not realistic,” Perret said.
Without any other plan in place, Perret said he is wary of proposals that take the old federal courthouse site out of play.
“We have paid repeatedly to study the needs down here and all arrows point to that land,” he said. “I am for progressing downtown. I am just not for doing it in a vacuum.”
The redevelopment of the old federal courthouse for residential and commercial space is a key objective for the Downtown Development Authority, a project DDA CEO Nathan Norris said could be a catalyst to spur similar redevelopment initiatives and be a major step in turning Main Street into a vibrant downtown corridor.
Norris said he said he is not discouraged by the City-Parish Council’s initial reluctance and the concerns of Perret and others.
“Ultimately, we want to end up with a consensus to move forward. We need a plan that has all the various parties at the table buying into it,” Norris said.