PRAIRIEVILLE — For the first time since late 2006, Ascension Parish is poised for construction of two large-scale apartment complexes that will total more than 550 units once built, a shift for a parish that has prioritized single-family homes over rental properties.
Manchac Lake Apartments and the Silver Oaks development — new high-end apartment complex projects along Airline Highway — recently have received or are close to obtaining key approvals that will allow construction to kick off, parish officials said.
Real estate watchers, developers and apartment complex managers say the units will be the first luxury apartments built anywhere in Ascension since the mid-2000s, as tough development rules, they claimed, have essentially created a moratorium on complexes such as these.
They said demand is high for rentals in Ascension due to a mix of factors: the wave of industrial construction along the Mississippi River, the attractiveness of Ascension public schools, historically low interest rates on construction financing and a national trend of decreasing rates of home ownership.
Alexis Papizan, property manager for the 252-unit Lakeside Oaks at Old Dutchtown, said her complex off La. 74 has remained at full occupancy since it opened shortly after Hurricane Katrina because it is the only luxury complex in the Dutchtown schools attendance zone.
“Ascension Parish is booming, and everybody wants to be here because of the schools,” Papizan said.
Besides Lakeside Oaks, the only other complexes in the Class A category — the designation for high-end apartments — in Ascension are Mansions at Ivy Lake outside Gonzales and Village at Fountain Lake in Gonzales. Both were built in the years right after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, complex managers and others said.
New large-scale apartment construction has proven to be a lightning rod issue in unincorporated Ascension. The parish’s attempts to craft a master plan in 2009 and 2010 were defeated, in part, over concerns the parish was pushing high-density apartments with federally subsidized housing. Parish officials disputed the claims as spurious, but the label stuck.
The tide now appears to be turning, at least a bit. On Jan. 14, the parish Zoning Commission granted a key approval for the 272-unit Manchac Lake Apartments when the body unanimously backed a contract between the parish and the developers. The agreement, which was required under the complex’s zoning, spells out building layout, traffic and drainage improvements, as well as other details.
The complex will be built on 23.3 acres along Airline Highway at Bayou Manchac, which is at the East Baton Rouge Parish line. Though on the parish’s far north end, the complex, according to plans, is in the Dutchtown school attendance zone.
One of the developers said they are eying long-term financing through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for market-rate projects.
The zoning and the concept plan for the 280-unit Silver Oaks development, which is farther southeast along Airline at Germany Road, was approved Thursday by the Parish Council with an 8-0 vote.
The 28-acre project, which also includes 36 single-family homes, already has backing from the Planning and Zoning Commission.
Longtime Ascension developer Chris Ingram, who wants to build Silver Oaks, will need to go back before the Planning Commission and Parish Council for approval on final plans, but Planning Director Ricky Compton said the positive vote gives Ingram vested rights to the concept of the mixed-used apartments and houses.
Compton said the Zoning Commission vote on Manchac Lake allows the developers to pull standard permits and undergo more typical plan review that does not require a public hearing. Construction on Manchac Lake is expected to start in the late spring or summer.
David Treppendahl, a commercial real estate broker with Latter and Blum, said parish government has set fairly high barriers to new apartments, leading to a dearth of construction.
He pointed out that Ascension’s zoning rules limit apartment complexes to no more than 48 units. On the other hand, a Class A complex needs at least 200 units for economies of scale.
“It’s just kind of a rule of thumb,” Treppendahl said.
He said to build larger, luxury complexes in Ascension, developers need variances or other workarounds to get to the necessary numbers of units.
“So the ones that got built, they were real special arrangements that people had to know a lot of people and had to go through a lot rigmarole to get them,” said Treppendahl, an investor in Mansions at Ivy Lake.
The proposed Manchac Lake Apartments complex twice received density or height variances from the parish Board of Adjustments in 2003 and 2013 and had authorization to build as many as 318 units, according to building plans.
The Silver Oaks complex, as a planned unit development, will have a kind of zoning that allows more flexible, negotiated building terms.
The investors behind Manchac Lake are All-Star Automotive Group founders John Noland Sr. and Matt McKay, as well as John Noland Jr. and apartment developer and manager Robert Peek, state business records say. An All-Star dealership is just down Airline from the future complex.
Peek said the investors have been working on the Ascension complex for several years but only recently had it in position to be built. Peek is chief executive officer of Baton Rouge-based Amesbury Companies, which operates Mansions at Ivy Lake and other complexes in Texas and Tennessee, the company website says.
He said his company’s experience at Mansions at Ivy Lake helped lead to the decision to build Manchac Lake.
“We saw all the demand,” Peek said.
With apartment occupancy averaging 95 percent in Ascension, Treppendahl said, the parish has room for possibly one more major complex and an overall total of 1,000 new units.
Gonzales City Clerk Clay Stafford said the city has areas zoned for apartments, including the Edenborne development and the large M.P. Evans tract, which are both near the Interstate 10/Burnside interchange, but the city’s limit of 10 units per acre makes the economics of that kind of development difficult.
Stafford said an ongoing master plan effort, which won’t be finished until the summer, is expected to consider an increase in apartment density along with new guidelines on apartment construction. He said a large group of developers is watching.
“They are waiting to see what we end up with,” Stafford said.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.