LAFAYETTE — The Lesspay Motel has become central in a new vision for an area called “Four Corners” as Lafayette inches forward with negotiations to purchase the motel, bulldoze it and build a police substation and commercial center in its place.
For the past few decades, though, Four Corners has had a reputation with local residents as being a place where prostitutes ply their trade.
City-Parish Councilman Brandon Shelvin called the Lesspay Motel “an eyesore,” City-Parish President Joey Durel called it a “joke” and generations of Lafayette residents have considered it seedy, at best.
But De Hui “Mike” Chen, who’s been with the business since it was purchased in 2006, described the motel as would most property managers.
“Troublemakers here — we don’t want it,” he said. “We just want a quiet place for the regular person that wants to live and work.”
Greg and Stephanie Dugan share that sentiment. The couple owns the old Coca-Cola bottling plant, which is behind the Lesspay Motel, and ASCO Window Coverings, a business on Cameron Street that has been open since 1934.
For the Dugans, Four Corners — which is the University Avenue and Cameron Street intersection — conjures memories of a one-time Lafayette hot spot, where half a century ago, a movie theater stood near a few restaurants, and Snacks was the popular 24-hour eatery in town before there was a Mel’s Diner.
As implementation of Lafayette’s comprehensive plan gets underway, the Dugans are part of a group supporting redevelopment at Four Corners, envisioning the area as a walkable center with more dining and retail spaces, public parks that foster community connectivity and no budget motel scarring the street corner.
“My community is ready to embrace this,” Dugan said. “They feel that this is going to be such a positive change. All of a sudden, the Four Corners experience becomes something old that’s new again.”
Included in that community is Rachel Decuir, who chairs the 11-member Laplace Coterie, a neighborhood association representing those within the boundaries east of University Avenue, north of Congress Street and bordered by the train tracks.
“We want this to be an area where criminal activity is not welcome,” she said. “Improvements to Four Corners doesn’t just improve Four Corners. They improve Lafayette as a whole.”
And less than half a mile north of the motel is Bridge Ministry of Acadiana Inc., where Executive Director Jennifer Reynaud has worked for 11 years with residents within 16 blocks, spanning an area northeast from Cameron Street and North University Avenue to Edison and North Washington streets.
Along with the Dugans, the two women have taken active roles with the Four Corners improvement initiatives, such as the Coterie’s pending efforts to install shelters at all bus stops in the neighborhood, and the ministry’s neighborhood association and after-school programs for neighborhood kids.
“We get to be a part of seeing these kids do new things,” Reynaud said of the ministry’s garden where adults and children grow fruits and vegetables and harvest eggs from three hens living on the property. “That’s what’s going to change this neighborhood.”
While Decuir and Reynaud are hesitant to agree that building a police substation at the site of the motel is what is needed to kick-start the Four Corners’ redevelopment effort, Stephanie Dugan said such a station is vital.
“The police substation is absolutely key,” Dugan said. “And the reason is because we have to change the perception.”
Four Corners has had a reputation for prostitution for at least as long as the 25 years he’s been on the police force, said Cpl. Paul Mouton, spokesman for the Lafayette Police Department.
Greg Dugan said he’s familiar with “pimps on bikes” in the neighborhood, and Stephanie Dugan said she and other area business owners have offered food and work to the streetwalkers they have come to know by face, some by name.
“Maybe that perpetuates the problem, but I’m not going to sit there and watch them starve or dig in a trash can, which has happened,” Dugan said.
The area was one of a few near Lafayette’s major highways targeted during a four-day prostitution sting in October. Of seven arrests, two were the same woman and three were men soliciting prostitution — but only one arrest was made in the Four Corners area.
In that instance, a man dressed in women’s clothing was soliciting on Delord Street, bringing a glimpse into the criminal element alive in the neighborhood.
Mouton said the department tries to rid the area of prostitution through the targeted operations, but business continues.
“When we run operations, it removes those individuals from the area, but new individuals will go there and, for whatever reason, commit prostitution,” Mouton said.
Meanwhile, at the Lesspay Motel, where at least one registered sex offender lists a room as his home address, Chen said he works hard to run his business according to the law.
“We’re working so hard to clean up everything,” Chen said, pointing toward a bright coat of red paint adorning the motel’s rooftop.
Chen said the motel’s owner, Xiao Jun Lei, is willing to sell, “if the price is right,” even though they’ve invested about $10,000 recently toward improving the property.
Dural says Lafayette Consolidated Government is waiting for the motel to be appraised.
The parish government can’t pay higher than the property’s appraised value, Durel said, so he’s hoping that amount comes out to as much or more than Lei incurred as debt when he purchased the motel in 2006.
In the middle of the motel’s empty parking lot, a billboard juts out from behind the office building, and seven satellites in various sizes sit caged in an inaccessible area of the motel. A sign in the motel office reads, “NO VISITORS” — an effort, Chen said, that is meant to curb criminal activity.
“We just make a living,” Chen said. “Business is not easy.”
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook