A drawing board of big ideas about Lafayette's future beyond 2020.

VISION 2020: Let’s prove our faith in Downtown by investing in it

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

My dad is a preacher. A good one. His sermons, whether delivered from the pulpit, at home or as a prelude to my being grounded, taught me a lot about life. And because we went to church whenever the lights were on — and because I’ve been grounded often and for a variety of reasons that seemed like good ideas at the time — I’ve picked up a lot of tough lessons from my old man.

One of those lessons was front of mind during a recent trip to Greenville, S.C. I was there as part of a canvass trip organized by One Acadiana. This is the fourth such trip I have taken over the years — Oklahoma City, Charleston, and Lexington, Ky., were the other destinations.

They are a little like revivals, these canvass trips. For the unchurched, a revival usually involves a deliberate break from the routine, like a special service, or time away from the church building, or a guest preacher. It’s like a spiritual pep rally. Much more exciting than the usual routine. And the best revivals spark a rededication to the faith — believers are inspired to pray more, give more, love more, and so on.  

And that’s how these canvass trips can feel. You spend several days learning how a great city went from rags to riches — in Greenville, the economy suffered a big hit in the ’70s with the collapse of the textile industry; today it’s the fourth-fastest growing area in the country, anchored by a super-cool downtown and fueled by its growing foothold in the global automobile industry.

More than 11,000 residents there work for BMW, which established a U.S. presence in the Greenville area back in 1992 with just 500 employees. It’s one of today’s most inspiring city success stories. So inspiring actually that they host a canvass trip just about every week in Greenville — in fact, our Lafayette delegation was there at the same time as a Tallahassee delegation (our new Greenville friends assured us we were a lot cooler than the Tallahassee group).

So, for the fourth time in seven years, I left a great American city fired up and ready to go to work. And so are the other 70 folks who attended the Greenville trip. We are full of great ideas and the best of intentions.

But here’s the thing with revivals — they don’t always stick. You may intend to go to church every Sunday or tithe that full 10 percent, but the fire dies down a bit, life gets in the way, things get complicated — it just gets easier and easier to sleep in on Sundays or splurge a little on the budget.

One of my dad’s favorite sermon topics is money. And one of the themes of a great money sermon is that money is a reflection of your priorities. The same is true for cities.

Speaker after speaker in Greenville made a connection between the high quality of life offered in their downtown — countless parks and plazas, public art, a performing arts center, thousands of residential units, a dozen hotels — and the economic growth of the region as a whole. That BMW presence grew as more and more BMW executives had the ability to live in what has increasingly become a world-class downtown. That was not an accident; it was purposeful.

And by purposeful, I mean Greenville paid for it. When a developer would approach the city with an offer to build a mixed-use development, the city footed the bill for the associated infrastructure. Over the years, the city built 12 parking garages, most in concert with a private developer. And all these public-private partnerships were formed to implement the city’s long-term plans. The city’s economic developers, in fact, work inside the city’s planning department. The commitment to quality urban design — to build walkable, people-friendly public spaces — permeates all the way up to Mayor Knox White, who is as comfortable talking about place-making, streetscapes and historic tax credits as he is shaking hands and kissing babies.

Take this year’s capital improvement budget as evidence of Greenville’s commitment to its priorities. This year, the city of Greenville’s roads and bridges budget is $4.5 million. Half of that will fund sidewalks. There is $8 million for economic development projects, which includes improved public safety downtown and public art. And the city will spend another $8 million this year on parks, most in the downtown area. And this is a down year, city officials told us. The Falls Park project — where the city tore down a state highway to build a pedestrian-only bridge across the country’s only downtown waterfall — cost $13 million when it was built in 2004. The city is planning its next major downtown park development soon, a 60-acre extension of the Falls Park project that will cost about $40 million. The city’s investments are paying dividends in blocks and blocks of new development in the areas surrounding these parks.

None of these projects were built in a vacuum. The city has partnered in each instance with private developers who follow the city infrastructure infusion with hundreds of millions in private investment. But the important thing to note is that in each instance, the city made the first investment.

Let’s contrast this with Lafayette. We have made halting progress in downtown as of late. The old federal courthouse project reflects almost no investment by the city. The developers of that project are footing most of the bill themselves. In fact, the nature of the entire debate at the council over the deal was that the city shouldn’t be putting any money into the deal.  

The project is an achievement to be sure, but it is also a missed opportunity. We patted ourselves on the back for “saving” taxpayers money, with little reflection on whether the lack of a true public-private partnership would pay long-term dividends for the taxpayers the way Greenville’s investments have. The project will add no new net parking spots to support other residential development downtown. And any sewer improvements will not only be limited to this project alone, but the developer may end up being on the hook for those improvements.

The city supporting downtown development by ensuring the proper infrastructure is in place is not showing favoritism

If the budget is a reflection of our priorities, we have to understand that the city supporting downtown development by ensuring the proper infrastructure is in place is not showing favoritism — it’s how we drive investment. That has not been our approach in Lafayette. Every budget year is a struggle for downtown funding. We have known for several years now that a lack of sewer capacity downtown could effectively prevent large-scale future residential development in our urban core, but the recent discussion on how to finally fund those sewer improvements has centered mostly on making developers foot the bill.

If you want to make sure the next CGI or Waitr will one day grow from 300 well-paying jobs to 10,000 well-paying jobs, we have to supply those companies with the type of quality of life they are able to provide to their employees in a city like Greenville. Aggressively pursuing the development of downtown residential growth is the best chance our region has to hit the next economic development homerun. It’s a competition with all the other cities in America, and we are trying to compete with our shoelaces tied together, woefully out of shape, and stepping up to bat holding a broomstick.

And so Lafayette, if we are serious, here is our next chance to prove it. This is the altar call. Lafayette Consolidated Government has released a request for proposals on a new redevelopment opportunity, the Buchanan Street Parking Garage. The deal structure apparently contemplated by the RFP, however, represents that broomstick, not a bat.

The RFP requires that the developer “provide a lucrative financial return to LCG.” It also makes clear that a successful RFP would not require any expenditures by city-parish government.

So what type of investment does the RFP require of the developer? The RFP requires the developer to provide at least 265 parking spaces exclusively for LCG’s use. Building a new garage that size would cost at least $5 million, but the cost to simply repair the old garage is lower — an estimated $2.2 million. So, to do some napkin math on the cost, let’s go with the lower number. There’s some additional cost to modify the repaired garage to better serve the new mixed-use buildings the developer would construct, so let’s peg the garage renovation price at a total of $2.5 million. That’s still a generously low figure.

Because there are only 29,000 square feet of property for the developer to build on, the effective “price” of that land (in the event that LCG would not require the developer to purchase the land) would be $2.5 million spread out over 29,000 square feet. That equates to $86 per square foot — an astronomical price for land downtown.

So the developer is already operating against a pretty stiff headwind on the garage before he has to reimburse Lafayette Utilities System for the required sewer upgrades on the other new buildings in the proposed catalyzing development. Depending on the number of residential units the developer would like to offer, that cost could easily reach hundreds of thousands of dollars. All of these costs come before the developer can actually start spending money on new buildings, shouldering the risk that he will be able to get the kind of rents necessary for the long-term success of the project.   

Is this the type of development environment we want to encourage downtown? It’s essentially the opposite approach that has been taken in Greenville and other cities serious about downtown residential development.

Let’s encourage developers who are willing and able to deliver a quality project by producing a reciprocal investment from the city.

Issuing the RFP and encouraging downtown development is a step in the right direction, to be sure. But let’s not let another opportunity pass us by. Let’s take this as an opportunity to dedicate ourselves to downtown development. Let’s encourage developers who are willing and able to deliver a quality project by producing a reciprocal investment from the city.

Are we ready to take the necessary steps to build a downtown that will drive economic development for the entire region? Are we ready to invest our tax dollars in building the types of places that will attract a BMW-level investment? Or are we OK with effectively sitting on the sidelines while other cities — including those in our own state like Lake Charles, Alexandria, Shreveport and Baton Rouge — continue to lap us on downtown investments?