Redevelopment of the old federal courthouse hits the skids

Photo by Allison DeHart

The gist: For a couple of months, it seemed Lafayette’s “monument to indecision” was finally about to come unstuck. A deal to sell the old federal courthouse Downtown for private redevelopment was presented to the City-Parish Council Tuesday night, and the council tabled it until Nov. 20, sending the deal back to the administration for wholesale revision. The proposition now seems in jeopardy.

Some background: While we usually single out the old federal courthouse, the 2-acre site along Jefferson Street is really three structures owned by the city — a former library, a police substation and the old AOC facility. The property is generally considered a blight on Downtown’s main drag and has sat unused for the past decade while leaders argued whether to put it into private commerce or use it to site a new parish courthouse. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux moved the ball farther than any previous effort, negotiating a deal to sell the property for $1.4 million to a group fronted by Downtown developer Jim Poche and financially backed by E.J. Krampe. The group, selected unilaterally by Robideaux from five respondents, proposes a 68-unit mixed residential and commercial development. The deal came before the council for final vote and was expected to pass at long and laborious last. Then things went awry. Now you’re caught up.

Council members have three basic problems with the contract:

  • Asbestos cleanup and some electrical work would be paid by the city out of the $1.4 million it earned on the deal
  • Those costs could go up unchecked, and the council won’t have any say in it
  • The city would pay for sewer upgrades, guesstimated at $400,000, to accommodate the development while other developers are often required to pay for their own upgrades.

I’ve heard a lot about those dreams over the past 11 years,” Councilman Jay Castille said of the vision for the redevelopment. “I don’t see any of that in these documents.”

CARLEE. IF YOU’RE WATCHING. PLEASE ANSWER. Seemingly no one, save Assistant City-Parish Attorney Steve Oats, was there to speak for the deal or offer definitive answers to the council’s inquisition. Oats summoned former LCG Planning Director Carlee Alm-LaBar, not in attendance, to answer some questions from the council, at one point asking aloud, as if to the heavens, “Carlee, if you’re watching, please answer.” Robideaux was conspicuously absent from the proceeding, leaving the measure without a real champion. Council members were clearly concerned that the contract offered power to the mayor-president to approve cost overages without their input, yet Robideaux was not there to settle their stomachs on the issue. Communication between the council and administration is a festering problem.

If you can’t flush a toilet you can’t do development. That’s the way a local architect explained the Downtown sewer problem to me. “The Romans figured that out over 2,000 years ago,” he added. The urban core’s lack of sewer capacity is a key variable in this deal, and Robideaux has sought to leverage a public asset to address what’s become a sticky problem for Downtown development. As I’ve reported previously, 100-year-old sewer lines are nearly maxed out and unable to accommodate more residential development in the urban core. Developers have walked away from projects after LUS sewer officials told them the lines can’t handle the stress. Robideaux’s idea here is to flip the old federal courthouse and use the proceeds to invest in badly needed sewer infrastructure. Oats told the council the improvements tentatively planned would expand capacity beyond Downtown. In principle, that seems to make a lot of sense. Council members said that was unfair.

The vote count was always going to be tight. In hindsight, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that discussion didn’t go smoothly. Clearly, council members felt unequipped to move forward with information presented to them, and more or less the same block that has always opposed redevelopment of the site remains, led by Jay Castille and Kenneth Boudreaux. But even members most likely to support the deal in principle raised eyebrows. “I love the idea of this, but I have some concerns about how it’s written now,” Liz Hebert said. That’s a communication problem — and it appears to be on Robideaux.

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