Lafayette Mayor-President Joel Robideaux will negotiate with a group that already has extensive downtown holdings to redevelop the old federal courthouse, which has been vacant for nearly two decades.
The partnership of Lafayette-based Place de Lafayette and Weinstein Nelson Developers of Baton Rouge was selected over four others who responded to a “request for qualifications” in February.
Negotiations, which include ownership of the property, will proceed over the next several weeks, with a final contract expected to be ready for City-Parish Council consideration some time this summer.
Each group underwent an interview with a smattering of city-parish officials, Robideaux said Thursday, but the mayor-president ultimately selected the winning proposal based on his own judgment. The selection process, including the interviews, was carried out entirely behind closed doors.
Robideaux said this was necessary to speed things along, given that the building has been vacant for nearly two decades.
“I didn’t think there was any need to make it a public spectacle,” Robideaux said. “Certainly the public has had chances to weigh in over the course of the last couple decades, and will again whenever we bring it to the Council for approval.”
What exactly gets built on the site, which consists of three buildings totaling about 97,000 square feet on two acres, won’t be known for some time. Downtown boosters see the redevelopment as a prime opportunity for new housing, and the winning submission generally calls for a residential-commercial mix.
But a detailed development plan isn’t likely until after a contract is signed.
“There really haven’t been any specifics outlined on what’s going to be included,” said Jim Poche, a managing member and chief executive of Place de Lafayette. “I’m sure there could be some discussion prior to going into contract, which would probably be a little bit general in nature.”
There are a variety of ways to solicit redevelopment proposals for municipally owned commercial property such as the courthouse, and the process in Lafayette was different than, for example, the way New Orleans chose a developer for the former World Trade Center.
That city asked for concrete proposals, which developers presented in a public meeting before a selection committee. The committee then scored the proposals according to weighted criteria. The project has stalled over five years, however, first with failed negotiations and then with litigation by a losing bidder. Developers finally broke ground on a Four Seasons Hotel on May 2.
Poche’s group controls nine downtown Lafayette properties, including the Buchanan Lofts and the old Billeaud Motor building on Vermilion Street, according to the proposal. Robideaux said he has been friends with one of Poche’s partners, Edward Krampe, since high school. The proposal lists Robideaux as a reference.
One of the other four submissions was from the Community Foundation of Acadiana, which offered to serve as “an honest broker” in finding a developer on its own. The other three groups — HRI Properties, Wisznia Architecture and Development, and JCH Properties-KCT Real Estate Ventures — are from New Orleans, with locally known architects and contractors on their development teams.
Robideaux said his decision was based on two factors, neither involving personal familiarity: the Poche group’s commitment to market-rate residential rents and a financing structure that doesn’t include city-parish contributions.
“If HRI or Wisznia or any of those guys came in and said ‘we are doing market based, and we have financing in place, and we are ready to go as soon as you sign on the dotted line,’ well that would have certainly changed the conversation,” Robideaux said.
The Poche group’s submission, however, makes no such commitments, and Poche said it’s too early to do so.
“We are not very much further than turning in the proposal,” Poche said.
Robideaux said he tried to assure the other developers that his decision was based solely on the merits of the submissions, and representatives of HRI and Wisznia characterized the process as professional and fair in interviews Thursday. Calls to the other two groups were not returned.
In their meeting with Wisznia, administration officials asked questions that were “intelligent and right on target,” said Marcel Wisznia, his company’s president and founder.
“We certainly put a lot of time into expressing our interest,” Wisznia said. “If I didn’t feel we were given a fair shot, we’d voice that in a heartbeat.”
The submission does commit to a $15 million developer investment, including cash, tax credit equity and bank loans. Poche characterized that amount as a reasonable range for the total cost, depending on specifics to be worked out later.
Poche's estimate is about half the amount previously suggested by the Downtown Development Authority, as stated last year in an Urban Land Institute report. Poche said he wasn’t sure why his estimate was so much lower, but that anything significantly more than $15 million would likely include new construction.
“There are different levels of density that you can put into a project and still have a project that’s feasible," Poche said. “Our approach is to do something that has the minimum amount of variables."