A state courthouse where security conditions do not fulfill legal standards versus a parish budget in such tatters that it can barely provide for basic services, including the criminal justice system that operates out of the courthouse.
That’s one way to frame the conflict facing Lafayette officials who must decide what to do with the vacant, 70,000-square-foot former federal courthouse that has been a stain on prime downtown real estate for nearly two decades.
Another is a courthouse crowd that for nearly two decades has endured inadequate conditions while a viable alternative next door sits unused versus a development-minded mayor-president eager to juice the depressed local economy.
Judges and others working out of the nearby 15th Judicial District Court want to move their operations to the old federal building. Unlike most modern courthouses, they say, the state courthouse in Lafayette lacks holding cells and separate elevators and hallways for incarcerated defendants, who brush up against their accusers, witnesses, judges, jurors and the general public.
But the old federal building is also where mayor-president, Joel Robideaux, wants private developers to build something new that will generate additional revenue and help spark downtown revitalization.
Robideaux’s predecessor, Joey Durel, tried to turn it into a mixed-use development near the end of his last term, but failed to gain enough support from the City-Parish Council. So the question of what to do with the courthouse was passed to Robideaux, who took office in 2016.
Robideaux is now preparing to make his move. His administration is putting the finishing touches on a “request for qualifications,” which is a formal invitation to developers to submit ideas with broad parameters. The administration can unilaterally issue the solicitation, but any proposal must receive the council’s blessing to move forward.
Development cost could exceed $30 million, and the city-parish might need to contribute about $4 million, according to an Urban Land Institute report last year. That contribution could come in a variety of forms, including selling the property for $1, according to the report.
Returning the property to commerce could bolster the parish revenues, which for the last three years have not kept up with expenses. City-parish budget officials project the fund balance to fall from $1.1 million to about $300,000 over the next three years. The parish budget covers judge salaries, the district attorney’s office and some public works and some drainage service.
“We are sitting on a huge piece of property on Jefferson Street that we have been paying insurance on, that we have been having to maintain,” Robideaux said, noting that the site has been nicknamed the "Monument of Indecision.”
Neither judges nor the administration want to be pitted against the other, but they are clearly at odds. One side wants a new courthouse, if not at their favored site then another one. The other side says that won’t happen, at the old federal courthouse or anywhere else.
Judges such as David Blanchet and Marilyn Castle, Clerk of Court Louis Perret and others have for years sounded alarms about compromised security resulting from cramped conditions.
“We have people who come here every week with protective orders because they have been abused or beaten by someone,” Castle said. “They have to sit in the same hallway across from each other because we have no way to separate them.”
Blanchet noted that state law requires secure waiting areas, whenever possible, that segregate defendants from victims and witnesses.
“We can’t do that in this courthouse. We can’t honor that statute,” he said.
Durel had assured judges that plans for a new courthouse would accompany any plan to redevelop the old federal building, according to Blanchet and Castle. They have yet to receive such explicit assurance from Robideaux, they said, adding that discussions on the issue are in early stages.
“We put our faith and trust in that promise,” Blanchet said, referring to his understanding with the previous administration.
Robideaux, however, said “a wakeup call” came in April when Lafayette Parish voters declined to renew property taxes for operation of the state courthouse and the parish jail. Voters reversed course and renewed the taxes on a second ballot in November, but Robideaux said the first vote illustrated a lack of appetite for a new state courthouse that could cost as much as $80 million.
A plan to redevelop the site of the abandoned old federal courthouse downtown into a mix of residential and commercial space seems no closer t…
“To go and ask for new money for a new courthouse, I just don’t think is really in the cards,” Robideaux said. “We can all want one, but the reality is we are not going to get one.”
The current state courthouse is in the middle of a $15 million renovation, and Robideaux said an annex is possible in the future. Lafayette city-parish government is kicking in $6 million for the renovations, and the state is contributing the rest. A little more than half the total has been spent, mostly on asbestos remediation and new elevators.
The middle three floors, where the court operates, have not been touched, and plans for what to do with the remaining money are not settled. Meanwhile, there are many outstanding building problems, including a fifth-floor heating and cooling system that is not working, Perret said.
“We can’t get the courthouse pressure washed to get the mold off the outside of the building because the windowsills are dry rotted and the windows will fall out,” he said.
In any case, renovations don’t solve the underlying security challenge, which is the site dimensions, Castle said. Not even a full-scale demolition and rebuild would suffice, she said, and so a move is necessary. The old federal courthouse is the only known, viable alternative, she said, although she and her colleagues are willing to consider other options as well.
“It’s not like somebody wants marble floors or anything like that,” Castle said. “We just want safety.”
What happens on the council once the administration puts forth a redevelopment proposal is an open question. Three of nine council members responded to individual queries by The Advocate, with two — Bruce Conque and Nanette Cook — generally supporting redevelopment.
Conque, a strong redevelopment advocate, noted that his predecessor held the opposing position on a closely divided council. Conque took office in 2016 after defeating District 6 incumbent Andy Naquin.
Conque’s support is “a significant change in political positioning,” he said in an email, describing himself as “a swing vote.”
“Having said that, my vote does not assure Council support,” Conque added.
A third council member, Liz Hebert, said she is remaining neutral until someone proposes a specific plan, with funding included.
“Nothing has been brought to me other than two different groups saying we have a need for this one building,” she said.