Columnist Geoff Daily explores Lafayette’s economy and government, providing critical commentary about what’s working and what’s not.

Column: Why are we tearing down a functioning city courthouse?

Lafayette City Court building in downtown Lafayette
Lafayette City Court is located Downtown at 105 E. Convent St. Photo by Abigail Wilson

When Mayor-President Josh Guillory announced his desire to tear down the Lafayette City Court to make way for a 208-unit apartment building, I was dumbfounded. As far as I could tell, literally no one was asking for a new city courthouse — and even the top officials who occupy it were blindsided by the proposal.

While the current city court building is old, it’s still functional. I’ve spoken with multiple stakeholders who believe it’s still got at least another 20 years of useful life. And over the last decade, we’ve invested millions of dollars into it for necessities like a new roof and new HVAC system.

But now Guillory is championing a plan to throw those investments away and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars destroying a building that the Lafayette assessor values at more than $4 million. And as proposed, we will spend at least $9.5 million buying the old Lemoine building on Jefferson and adjacent properties to transform them into a new city court and marshal’s complex.

I say “at least $9.5 million” because we have no idea how much that project’s actually going to cost. City Court’s two judges told the City Council last week they have not been presented with plans they can sign off on. Courthouses and marshal complexes have significant requirements for specialized facilities and durable materials. And renovation projects invariably come with unexpected expenses.

The Guillory administration also has a track record of its projects costing millions more than was originally budgeted. Like the Buchanan Garage renovations, which were supposed to cost $3.5 million but required an additional $1.6 million. Or Moore Park and Brown Park, which were originally proposed at $25 million but are now up to $31 million, and construction hasn’t even started yet. Or the Homewood Detention Pond mess, which is likely to exceed its $60 million price tag with no end in sight. At this point we should be adding at least 25% onto whatever estimated costs Guillory presents to account for fiscally irresponsible behavior.

Since no one was asking for a new city courthouse, and the current city courthouse is still functional, all of this money amounts to a subsidy for these new apartments. That means the city is going to be effectively spending $15 million or more — $9.5 million plus the lost value of razing a $4 million asset — to subsidize the creation of 208 market-rate apartments, or roughly $75,000 per unit. And that’s before we factor in the $12 million budgeted for a new parking garage, half of which will be dedicated to this development. 

However you slice it, that’s paying a public premium on housing. Compare this deal with the $1.5 million loan the city gave to the Bottle Arts Lofts apartment, which Guillory opposed. That project removed an eyesore motel and renovated an historic building to create 40 affordable housing units for artists, penciling out to a $37,500 per unit subsidy — half as much as the proposed city court development, and that subsidy might actually get paid back. 

What makes this all the more surreal is it feels like we’re tearing down the wrong courthouse. We’ve been talking about how horrible the parish courthouse is for years, with its numerous functional deficiencies. But rather than address that courthouse, Guillory wants to destroy the one that’s actually functional.

The other thing I’m really struggling with here is that we have no idea if this particular proposal is the best possible deal for the city. Guillory didn’t even pretend to have a public process. 

That means we’re closing off an opportunity to make the most of a public asset. What if there’s a developer who would buy the existing city court and renovate it as a part of their development? That could allow the city to collect millions from the sale of the property and not waste hundreds of thousands of dollars on demolition. This could be enough to almost cover half the cost of a new city court.

To be clear, I actually do support projects like the one businessman Johnny Blancher wants to do Downtown with LCG. I want to see developers like him and others investing in building more housing Downtown. And I’m not against the idea of our city government using tax dollars to subsidize these types of projects.

I just don’t think we can afford to be so lackadaisical with our spending decisions. If our city government were fulfilling all of its baseline responsibilities and had extra money lying around that’d be one thing. But that’s not where we’re at. We still have miles of roads to pave, dozens of parks to maintain and improve, a flooding problem that still isn’t fixed, dozens of city buildings in need of repairs, a homeless crisis that the city continues to ignore, and so much more.

We need our elected officials to work harder to ensure that they’re spending city dollars judiciously and on the best deals possible. We need to make every effort to not spend money destroying functional buildings when we have others that are falling apart. And we need to conduct the due diligence that’s required to ensure the city is getting the best bang for every buck.