To regain the ground our economy’s lost, we need to take bold swings at projects with catalytic potential. That potential exists in a waterfall hidden under the parish jail and courthouse.
The gist: The team redeveloping Downtown’s old federal courthouse requested an extension on the 60-day due diligence period back in February and have yet to file for a building permit. Nevertheless, they maintain the project is on schedule to start construction in June.
Get caught up, quickly: Last year, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux successfully navigated a sale of the long-vacant building through the council to a private development team for $1.4 million, a feat that had eluded proponents for more than a decade. As contracted, the project would place 68 housing units and 25,000 square feet of new commercial space on a prominent street corner. It represents an important domino in toppling the district’s residential development quagmire. Skepticism has clouded the project since the beginning, strung along by a lack of new information.
"Everything is moving along smoothly,” Assistant City-Parish Attorney Steve Oats told the City-Parish Council Tuesday night, noting the purchase of the old federal courthouse and adjoining properties will close in May. Oats provided the status update at Councilman Jay Castille’s request, and has served as the project’s default spokesman since last year. Castille has questioned the aggressive timeline set by the administration and the experience of the Place de Lafayette project’s team led by financier E.J. Krampe III and contractor Jim Poche.
Construction activity must begin by July 1 or the developers will face a $25,000 monthly fine, according to the contract. The inspection extension does not move the start date or the substantial completion date of December 31, 2020, which still backstop the project timeline.
The timeline is doable but leaves little room for error. For comparison, Developer Stephen Ortego tells me permitting on his Vermilion Lofts mixed use development Downtown took six months to complete. Even quick turnarounds on permits are measured in weeks or often months. “It moves as fast as you push it,” he says. Ortego was part of a team that pitched unsuccessfully for the old federal courthouse.
Variances could be the real hurdle. Going through the Board of Zoning Adjustment can be a lengthy process, especially if there’s any back and forth on variances requested. Ortego says the process can take three months, but that developers can pursue a building permit simultaneously.
"I'm assuming from the drawings they will have to go BOZA," Ortego says, referring to the rendering posted during the Robideaux Report last month. As depicted, for instance, it appears some newly constructed buildings on the site could be set too far back from the sidewalk under Downtown's development codes, he says, requiring a variance. It's unclear if the drawing represents a final concept. Calls to Krampe, Poche and project architect Dyke Nelson were not returned.
What’s your definition of commencement? According to their contract with LCG, the developers at minimum would need to put up construction fencing with contractor signage, begin interior demolition and roll trailers and other equipment on site. It’s possible that work could be accomplished without a building permit issued, I’m told by sources with development experience. Whether it would pass a skeptical council’s smell test is another question.
Why this matters: The old federal courthouse is a big deal for Downtowners and the mayor-president, who has held the project up as a signature win for his administration. Should something go sideways, it could let air out of recent Downtown enthusiasm and devalue an important accomplishment for the mayor-president’s re-election bid.