For years, the Old Federal Courthouse has been a tough scab to pick in Downtown revitalization efforts. While reportedly attractive to developers, a political quagmire and administrative dithering have kept the two-acre property vacant — a totem of festering urban blight.
Last year, a consultant team identified the cracked and crumbling vacancy as a symbol of the city's inability to build collective momentum in inner-city development efforts despite a robust comprehensive plan directing precisely that. The team hung the lack of action on the courthouse around Lafayette's neck, calling it a "monument of indecision." To his credit, Mayor Joel Robideaux decided to do something about it.
Now, not long after consolidated government received and released ideas and qualifications from five interested developers, it surfaces that the site may not have the sewer capacity to handle their ambitions.
In March, plans for a new lift pump in connection with the Old Federal Courthouse were brought to the Professional Services Committee, the council agency responsible for approving contracts to third party engineers and contractors for municipal projects. That was after the administration solicited applications in February.
Ostensibly, a new lift pump is needed to move the extra wastewater produced by more apartments and townhomes. New toilets, new showers, new faucets will put stress on an aging and constrained sewer pipes in Downtown. LUS Director Terry Huval says the proposition was deferred because by the Professional Services Committee because it's unknown what exactly will happen there.
"Once a definitive proposal is made, LUS will assess what is necessary to provide services," Huval says.
Each of the five applications suggest multi-use, multi-family development on the site. The scales range, but it's unknown whether any of them are possible without improvements. Huval declined to specify what those requirements might be.
Indeed, Downtown as a whole is frightfully tight on necessary infrastructure to house much more residential development. It's just unclear how tight until a developer trips a warning wire hidden in a bureaucratic fog.
Stephen Ortego, an architect and developer based in Downtown, says LUS representatives were "concerned" about a development he and a business partner have planned near the corner of Johnston and Vermilion streets. That development is only 24 apartments.
Ortego's firm SO Architects is also part of a team that proposed a 160-bed redevelopment on the Old Federal Courthouse site. He says the experience with his 24-unit development has him concerned over how the city and LUS could handle a much larger scale proposal.
That just 24 units elicited a watchful anxiety from LUS demonstrates the tightrope that development has to walk in Downtown. And this problem isn't just restricted to that district: It appears to affect most of Lafayette's urban core neighborhoods. If you're a developer, and you want to build in the urban core, it's a crapshoot if they've got the sewer to handle it. No one has yet quantified the issue, although LUS has budgeted for an evaluation of the entire sewer system next year.
"It doesn't seem like they know until you ask," says architect Eric Crozier, who's been a part of two projects outside of Downtown that ran aground of sewer issues.
He says one mixed-used, multi-family development on University Avenue near campus went into limbo after LUS capped the number of apartments at 15, a 70 percent reduction. A plan for 15 apartments overlooking the park on Girard Park drive was killed by a lack of sewer capacity.
Crozier says these types of stories aren't uncommon.
In a sense, this isn't a new problem. PlanLafayette, Lafayette's master plan adopted in 2014, contemplates this issue explicitly, laying out a roadmap of denser development enabled by upgrading aging sewers that, in some cases, are pushing 100 years old.
That Lafayette's sewer infrastructure is on the brink is an open secret. The city grew away from itself in greener, flood-prone pastures and left old infrastructure and higher ground behind. The problem has literally lurked underground for decades.
"Depending on the area of the inner city, not just the Downtown, they've got certain limitations that they're aware of," says Geoff Dyer, CEO of the Downtown Development Authority, of LUS's watchfulness on inner-city developments.
What Mayor Robideaux's push on the courthouse has bubbled up, then, is an administrative conflict: On the one hand, the city's plans to develop its interior; on the other, LUS policy.
LUS won't build new utility infrastructure without a demonstrated need — what Huval characterizes as "speculative" building. In other words, LUS doesn't want to build pipes and electric lines to nowhere. Such an approach is wasteful, the thinking goes, unless you know a customer base of ratepayers are in the offing to cover the cost of new pipes, power lines, etc. If new apartment complexes are on the way, all systems go. We can lay out pipe in green fields till kingdom come.
If you're a developer, and you want to build in the urban core, it's a crapshoot if they've got the sewer to handle it.
Dyer argues LUS policy encourages developers to make their money on Lafayette's expanding borderlands with ballooning long-term costs.
"We build very expensive infrastructure on the edge of town that we can't afford to replace down the line in the future. But that is where the developers' spreadsheets are working and they're making profit," Dyer says.
This is well in keeping with Huval's basic administrative philosophy: Go where the customers are; keep rates low and service reliable. For instance, LUS is installing a $4.25 million in sewer collection lines to service planned developments along Ambassador Caffery South Extension. A $1.25 million lift station is in the works to serve developments along Kaliste Saloom Road between Republic Avenue and Camellia Boulevard. On a customer by customer basis, that's worked out. LUS rates are low, and service is quite reliable.
"To keep sewer rates as reasonable as possible, we have long-standing policies in place," Huval says. "Making speculative studies and/or upgrades in our system to accommodate potential developments, whether in the core of the city or in rural areas, would significantly increase rates to all our customers."
But that leaves projects like the Old Federal Courthouse in a kind of limbo. Without new development, the facility puts no strain on the systems below. New housing, however, would require new infrastructure that LUS won't pay for upfront, and that triggers an impasse: Developers are often reluctant to shoulder the burden of upgrades beyond their immediate need. A new lift pump, for instance, could cost upwards of $6.5 million. On a $25 million project, like Ortego's proposal for 160 residential units at the Old Federal Courthouse, that can be too much of a bite.
"You can't expect a developer who's building a project to upgrade half of our entire city's infrastructure," says Crozier. "I don't think that's reasonable."
In some cases, LUS reimburses developers for the costs of additional sewer lines or pumps that can service future development in excess of what is required for the developer's immediate needs. These deals are called "betterment agreements," but they're not necessarily the rule.
Indeed, there are other ways of going about it. Baton Rouge charges impact fees to cover the cost of increased stress on traffic and sewer systems across city. And Downtown Baton Rouge can lure developers with waivers to those same fees. The district has seen an enviable renaissance in the last decade. That's not to say that impact fees are the solution. The point is there are other ways of funding infrastructure improvements that don't ward off inner-city development.
You want to change that, change LUS policy, Huval says.
"It is up to the administration and council to adjust these policies if they feel there is a need to do so," Huval says.
That puts the ball in his boss' court. Mayor Robideaux has made explicit his desire to see action on the courthouse, framing it as a catalyst project for a Downtown boom. He told television reporters that the project could spur $300 million of growth in the district. But it could take millions of dollars sunk underground to get there.