The Buchanan garage problem

Robideaux the parish president tried to sell Robideaux the city mayor a lemon. The only thing that stopped the sale of the Buchanan garage was the council not wanting the city to keep bailing out the parish’s financial failings. Photo by Allison DeHart

When the lights officially went down on the Buchanan Street garage on Oct. 12, most people didn’t notice. Its official closure was at once sudden and a long time coming. The 37-year-old structure is falling apart in plainview of anyone who ventures Downtown or braves the garage’s dark and dank interior. It’s a microcosm of the state of our current affairs — a parish asset, that’s really a liability, decaying from neglect with no solution in sight. And of course it torches the parish budget.

The sudden decision to shutter the garage followed two years of dire engineering reports dating to the early days of Mayor-President Joel Robideaux’s administration. It’s hard to pin its current state on the current administration; the garage has been in disrepair for years predating Robideaux’s election. Indeed, Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Louis Perret says he’s watched three successive administrations ignore it. Still, whether luck of the draw, the albatross landed on Robideaux, and his administration took no action — even after first receiving reports from contract engineers in 2016 that the garage urgently needed repairs.

As late as August 2018, a report from engineering firm Huval & Associates recommend that the administration, absent a plan in place, shut the garage down within a month. The administration’s only known solution, selling the parish-owned garage to the city, failed by council vote in early October. During council discussions, Robideaux floated the idea of expanding the structure and redeveloping it with leasable retail space on the bottom floor. That’s as close to a solution that we’ve seen. It’s been two years, longer if you’re Perret.

“I don’t care who owns it, but the parish is being treated as a second class citizen,” Perret tells me. “It’s prima facie evidence that this form of government, consolidation, ain’t working.”

Clerk of court employees had to find other parking spaces on short notice.  The garage parked 300 government employees. 

The garage primarily served 300 some-odd clerk of court, sheriff’s department, district attorney and district court employees through lease agreements. In an Oct. 12 release announcing the closure, the administration suggested that long-term parking solutions are in the works, but directed affected drivers to use an overflow lot a few blocks away. The release was the first anyone really heard about it. It was a Friday afternoon, the weekend of Festivals Acadiens et Créoles.

“It was quite a surprise. When I notified my staff shortly thereafter, it sent many of them racing into my office with questions and no answers,” District Attorney Keith Stutes says in an email.

This is the same parish owned garage that Robideaux proposed to sell to the city for $770,000, a concept that was voted down by the City-Parish Council Oct. 2. Opposed council members said at the time the transaction would amount to a bailout for the parish, which reportedly cannot afford to run the garage any longer.

Indeed, the administration writes in an email that internal estimates peg demolition of the building between $750,000 and $1 million. And right now, officials are scrambling to make cuts to the parish budget.

“The parish doesn’t have the money to repair it,” says Councilman Bruce Conque, one of the council members opposed to the sale. “They don’t have the money to destroy it.”

Robideaux positioned the sale as a short-term budget fix. The budget for the current fiscal year, which ends on Oct. 31, was balanced assuming the $770,000 sale had gone through. The administration first brought a measure to transfer the funds for the purchase to the council in July of this year but pulled the ordinance upon realizing that a second ordinance, one calling for the sale itself, was needed. The administration did not return with the needed legislation until September, despite some urging from council members during budget review.

“It’s prima facie evidence that this form of government, consolidation, ain’t working.” 

Louis Perret, Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court

Robideaux’s proposal met a familiar wall of resistance: a council block tired of letting parish budget issues rot and patching the girders over with city dollars.

“Too many times we’ve gone to the rescue of the parish with city dollars,” Conque said at the time.

This is a slow-rolling crime for which nature is the culprit. Water leaking through the structure’s facade has soaked the building floor by floor over the last decade and a half, according to engineering reports prepared by Huval & Associates in 2005, 2016 and 2018. The water damage corroded the steel beams in the garage, a problem common to steel buildings of the garage’s vintage, according to Reid Romero, a Huval engineer who worked on the assessments.

The culmination of that neglect is what a gathering of engineers, architects and LCG staff faced the Friday the garage was closed.

“The design of the repairs will require selective demolition of exterior panels, sandblasting, etc. (which will incur significant costs in and of itself),” Communications Director Cydra Wingerter says in an email.

That menu of fixes is the same as the one proposed in 2016. Huval’s assessments describe extensive damage that accelerated between the issuance of the 2016 and 2018 reports, causing Huval to advise that the garage close within a month of the publication of the 2018 report in early August. Huval estimated at the tail end of 2015, before Robideaux took office, that the garage would have 12 to 18 months of operable life and recommended that LCG contract inspections of the facility annually. No record of such inspection for 2017 exists, save an appraisal commissioned that year to generate a market price for the sale Robideaux proposed this year.

Inside, the garage was dark and smothering. 

Robideaux warned council members in an Aug. 24 email that “immediate action” was needed on the garage, in an apparent reference to the 2018 Huval assessment, which was stamped earlier that month. During discussion with council members at the Oct. 2 meeting, Robideaux walked back the urgency, saying the garage could remain open so long as a plan of action was in place, echoing phraseology from the report. The only plan evidently in the works at the time was the transaction itself, which unraveled. I asked Robideaux via email shortly thereafter to clarify the urgency of the garage’s condition but received no reply.

It’s unclear whether any of the garage’s deterioration could have been avoided in recent years at a cost the parish budget could afford. The Huval assessments contemplate repairs that lowballed at $505,000 — a stop-gap option offered in 2016 that was not available in the 2018 report — and escalated to $1.75 million.   

The administration has not indicated what the next steps are, whether to demolish or repair. All we know is the parish doesn’t have the money.

“The full repair option is necessary,” Wingerter says. “And the parish does not have funds available.”

These days, you can’t talk about the parish budget without talking about consolidation. Review for a second that the mayor-president effectively negotiated with himself when arriving at a $770,000 price tag to buy the garage. In fairness, Robideaux told the council he was handcuffed to market prices, and that figure was the lowest appraised value. But step back and consider that a lack of attention to the perennial dumpster fire that is the parish operating budget has LCG’s chief executive officer pursuing a fire sale to himself to make ends meet. Remember, consolidation was promulgated in the early 1990s as means to fix the parish budget.

More to the point, it was Robideaux’s job as parish president to fix this problem, and the record and the timeline of his sale proposition implies he put it off. Whether he’s to blame for the garage’s problem, it was nevertheless his job to produce a solution.

There’s documented frustration with Robideaux’s failure to communicate with his elected peers (particularly on the council): on LUS, on taxes, on the garage and now on the federal courthouse. Right alongside that anxiety is an idea bubbling that while Robideaux chases big picture projects like cryptocurrency, the creative economy or monetizing LUS, the day-to-day stuff has been ignored. Think of it this way: Robideaux waited until July 2018 to implement a solution to a problem he knew about in 2016.

That episode is now coming to a head. The council put Robideaux on blast about the NextGEN/LUS kerfuffle, demanding via unanimous resolution that the normally reticent mayor-president state his intentions on privatizing management of LUS. A few days later, Robideaux announced publicly his opposition to a slew of parish taxes authored by council members Kenneth Boudreaux, Jay Castille, Bruce Conque and Kevin Naquin. The move, which hit the news cycle days before early voting begins, caught a swift and spicy rebuke from Naquin.

“If it gets killed, then whatever consequences come from that is going to fall on the administration,” Naquin told The Advocate. “They are going to have to figure out how to make that courthouse, the judges and all of that work.”

Relations between the council and the administration may be sliding fast now, but both the parish budget and the parking garage have been in steady decline all along. There’s a universe where Robideaux delivers a version of the sale concept that actually persuades votes from city council members. Instead, he slow-rolled producing an ordinance and offered a blank check of an idea with no details fleshed. Similar inattention to detail and poor communication may have cost him a signature victory on the old federal courthouse, too.

It’s unfair to place this all on Robideaux’s shoulders. The Buchanan garage didn’t decay in a day. Some will put it on consolidation (“Fix the Charter!”). Others will put it on government (“It’s terrible!”). But it points to a bigger, more disturbing problem: We can’t fix the small stuff, the brick and mortar infrastructure that makes cities work.

The realized cost of this dysfunction is big: The parking garage is not any closer to getting fixed, the parish budget is about to cave. If we’re not careful, it won’t just be garages collapsing.