For years, Downtown’s Buchanan garage was an eyesore, but it wasn’t overnight that it became a hazard to human life. Barricades went up in 2018, a closure that sprung suddenly on the courthouse visitors and employees it served, causing tremors of frustration from the legal community. Years of neglect put the structure in a bad way. And then it just got worse.
Earlier this week, the Parish Council and the administration agreed to divert $400,000 to remove literal tons of concrete panels, currently hanging on by rusted threads, so-to-speak, of decaying steel brackets. The emergency step was a waypoint on whatever path will be taken from here, be it repairing, demolishing or reimagining it all together. They had to come down anyway.
What happens next is unclear, but the options are limited. Meanwhile, the courthouse crowd is happy Mayor-President Josh Guillory has kept them in the conversation, albeit a little last minute.
“He’s at least communicating, which is a 100% improvement from the last administration,” Clerk of Court Louis Perret says. Many parish government officials groused behind the scenes about their relationship with former Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, which is to say there wasn’t much of one.
And beyond a new start for kinship among parish leadership, it’s possible this reboot on the Buchanan garage could mend frayed connections between the new administration and Downtowners over the special taxing district lobbied for by the Downtown Development Authority and its allies. At a breakfast hosted by DDA Wednesday, Guillory continued to barb at the way the district — estimated to generate $700,000 annually for the next 25 years — was set up, namely without a public referendum of any kind. Grinning along the way, he couldn’t let the affront to democratic principles go, characterizing the district’s passage as an impediment to Downtown’s prosperity. On that he faced vehement, if polite, disagreement even as he was relentless in bringing it up.
“The way I see it, the government has its hands around our throats,” DDA Chairman Miles Matt said, defending the economic development district, a hard-fought funding stream on his reckoning.
“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” Guillory replied, dressing down in absentia what he called the “elitists in Baton Rouge” who developed the statutes enabling EDDs.
Whatever bygones can be bygones, Downtown and the administration face a long-decaying problem with limited resources to solve it. For two years, the dead parking albatross across from the parish courthouse has had something of a domino effect on nearby parking. Some 300 courthouse employees, on top of the crush of visitors on jury selection days, have fanned out around Downtown, creating a temporary run on the supply of parking spaces.
The short of it is, there’s general agreement that the garage ought to “return to commerce” and continue to serve its essential function: parking spots for parish employees and courthouse visitors. But funding that could be tricky.
The $400,000 in emergency funding was pulled from a property tax fund that pays jointly for the maintenance of the parish correctional center and the courthouse itself. In practice, most of that money has historically gone to prop up the jail, at an unsustainable rate, a point of consternation for Perret and others in his camp. Getting the garage back in shape is a top priority for those who came to rely on it. And if parish government comes back to the courthouse complex fund for repairs, he’s on board.
“It’s certainly better and more realistic than sucking out 120% of the money and sending it to the jail,” Perret says.
The reality is, there isn’t really anywhere else to go for repairs. Legally, the courthouse complex fund is the only source of revenue, besides the parish general fund, that can be tapped to pay for major repairs that could cost as much as $1.75 million if a 2018 estimate proves true — that price includes the cost to remove panels. (For its part, the administration doesn’t want to get ahead of cost estimates.) There’s room in the courthouse fund to absorb the cost, assuming some capital projects, and their strained cash flow, don’t finish this year, LCG Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups noted at Monday’s emergency meeting. Beyond that, she said, there won’t be enough to fund an “overhaul” of the garage.
At this point, the administration isn’t ready to think beyond getting the panels down, instead taking an “open to everything” approach to the situation. Meanwhile, Downtowners continue to view the site as another potential catalyst for economic development. In January, Guillory scuttled the redevelopment process set in motion by Robideaux, in part because the proposals it generated weren’t financially viable, he told Downtowners at Wednesday’s breakfast.
A key problem with the pro formas for the range of redevelopment visions was how to turn a profit while providing parking for the courthouse. The leases paid by the government stakeholders pencil out at far below market rate. Meanwhile, the cost to build a new garage would be immense, making it difficult to negotiate a deal that turns a profit for private interests while maintaining what many regard as an essential public service. As it stands, the garage generated about $80,000 a year, well below the cost to maintain it.
That takes a market-driven view of how parking ought to work. Last year, The Current invited noted urbanist and planning critic Chuck Marohn to Lafayette, in part to assess the Buchanan garage conundrum. Staring out of the top floor of the Iberia Bank parking tower, he drank in acres of surface parking lots and declared an abundance. Tear down the garage and don’t look back, was his recommendation, in so many words.
But another view holds that parking ought to be treated as a utility, a government service necessary to allow market forces to thrive. The current Downtown Action Plan, established in 2014, contemplates exactly that. DDA Chief Executive Officer Anita Begnaud echoes that sentiment, ratifying the work of her predecessors. From that vantage, seeing to it that the garage is put back in working order comes with the added goal of finding ways to make the most of the precious parking resource. Incoming development might be more attracted to the district if the parking situation looks good. That has her playing a longer-horizon game.
“I would hate for us to fix it without a solid next step,” Begnaud says. Developers have inquired about piggybacking onto whatever makeover is in store for the garage, she adds, building a mix of residences and shops on adjacent parcels owned by the city and/or the parish. Therein lies another point of challenge and opportunity: LCG’s willingness to part with land that amounts to dead space. Begnaud estimates that roughly a third of Downtown properties are owned by government, schools, churches and nonprofits, meaning they’re not taxed.
Begnaud says DDA could tap funds from the new sales and hotel taxes imposed in the economic development district to help make the right project happen. It’s not enough money to do the heavy lifting, considering the other major infrastructure needs to be in the pipeline, but it could chip in a match. In light of the parish budget having no cushion and even the city general fund running a deficit of millions, any little bit helps.
For his part, Guillory is open to the idea of selling off some of the government-owned assets in the district. Keeping options open is a key theme, so long as it doesn’t include raising taxes. Consolidated government collects more than $600 million, roughly half in utility and communications sales, that should be more than enough to run a government, he said. The implication, set against deficits and fund raids, is that LCG is living beyond its means and cuts are in the offing.
“We didn’t get into this position because of wasteful spending,” Parish Councilman Kevin Naquin said Monday before casting a vote to appropriate the cash to remove precarious garage panels. Naquin, the loan veteran on the Parish Council, bemoaned millions in tax revenue left on the table from earlier decisions not to roll forward property tax rates in more prosperous years. Last term, he championed a slate of new taxes intended to buoy the sagging parish general fund, all of which were walloped at the ballot box. The garage is yet another can kicked down the road, he warned, a point echoed by his junior colleagues. “You can’t cut yourself out of a wet paper bag,” he said.
In 30 to 60 days, the panels on the Buchanan garage will come down. At that point, city engineers said, we’ll be better able to assess the damage. It’s been a lingering disaster, spanning now three administrations and culminating in an actual threat of bodily harm.
That happened slowly and then all at once. Solutions, it seems, are moving at the same speed.