Many people have opinions on the best way to use city/parish property, and the parking garage on Buchanan is no different. We all enjoy exploring possibilities and imagining a better tomorrow. But what we really need is a vision for its “best use” that does not require much government involvement. In many ways this “problem” exemplifies the need to have separate city and parish councils. Our inability to work together to turn a problem into a huge win for Downtown speaks to a much larger problem, one that has slowed and stymied progress in the city of Lafayette, while spurring much more expensive growth in the outskirts of our parish.
Government does a lot of very important things extremely well; innovation at the speed of business is not really one of them. In many ways, government is just not set up for rapid change, as it is saddled with exhaustive engagement processes that take years and often have mixed results that produce more questions than solutions (including funding mechanisms).
The parking garage “problem” is a great example of what private developers see as an amazing opportunity to accelerate change and opportunities in Downtown Lafayette. Growth by leaps and bounds equals large increases in property values, and in a downtown area, this upward spiral accelerates and fuels growth via access to capital. In this example, the parking garage is owned by the parish, which has no money for maintenance, much less development. The garage is strategically located adjacent to a large city-owned parcel that abuts Jefferson Street right across the street from an emerging redevelopment project. This project, the old federal courthouse, requires a large investment in sewage capacity. If we could develop adjacent properties at the same time and add a larger sewage lift facility to accommodate the new developments, taxpayers would get a huge bang for their buck. The federal courthouse project is finally coming to fruition, despite a plethora of hurdles. And let us not forget that this key parcel sat idle and almost entirely unused for nearly 20 years. Every year it cost taxpayer money ($150,000 each year), but more importantly the cost of doing nothing was most damaging to Downtown and the city of Lafayette.
The city and parish need to join their properties (the garage and the adjacent surface lot) and solicit neighboring property owners to do the same to attract a major developer who inevitably will need a large footprint to build a game-changing six-plus-story catalyst project. This project type is clearly identified in Lafayette’s comprehensive plan and Downtown’s action plan. What is not clear is how it will be accomplished.
Government owns a lot of land Downtown. So much so that we can’t have a conversation about changing Downtown without acknowledging this conundrum. We must all agree that large tracts of public property must be sold to developers who will invest tens of millions of dollars to accelerate change Downtown. Their projects should accomplish the things we have laid out in our Downtown action plan while addressing existing needs. For example, by merging city, parish and private properties, we can achieve a very large footprint that will result in plenty of parking for the courthouse, the residential component and additional parking to supplement the old federal courthouse development across Jefferson Street.
If we don’t take a leap of faith and work to make this happen, we will continue to fall short of the goals set forth in the comprehensive plan. And it is this cost that we must all fear more than any other by far. The opportunity cost, or the cost of doing nothing, is a much greater risk.
We are all so concerned with who will benefit most that we forget that oftentimes nobody is the answer. Instead, we all lose due to inaction. Business almost never does this; stagnation is anathema to entrepreneurs. And investment money rarely sits idle. It is not going to simply “wait around” for us to get our ducks in a row; it will just move on to another city where a sense of urgency leads to swift decisions. We need to accept that government cannot take up this type of development risk. It should give up short-term gains for long-term stability and an increase in property/sales taxes from development plus the increase in value of publicly owned property that addresses immediate needs without expense to the taxpayer.
While many will argue that creating any incentive for the development of these properties is unfair, they clearly do not understand that a more egregious example of government overreach is the expenditure of city taxes (over decades) to the benefit of costly parish infrastructure. It is time we think outside the box and leverage our public assets to stimulate growth in Downtown. This paradigm shift and these two adjacent projects have the ability to add housing and jobs in a way that no other location in our parish can accomplish. And in many ways they will fuel the larger growth of the city and the parish while creating lasting financial stability and economic diversification.
Lafayette is called the Hub City for a good reason. It’s time we learn from our own history and emulate this success while applying the plans and codes to development we have worked so hard to develop.