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.
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 […]
The gist: Downtown and UL are only a mile away from each other but worlds apart. LCG has been testing a transit route to connect them and is now looking for dollars to buy vehicles to run it.
All about them millennials. The theory behind the loop is that Downtown needs youth to thrive, and UL’s got youth to give. At one time, we called youth “millennials.” I guess at this point it should be Generation Z, right? I’m a millennial, technically, and I’m 34. Anyway, here’s the m-p:
“In order for us to ultimately have a thriving Downtown environment, we need a lot of things to happen,” Mayor-President Joel Robideaux told me back in 2017, when the idea first materialized publicly. “A residential component. We need all of those things. But you also want the millennial connection to Downtown that doesn’t currently exist, except very late at night on the weekends. This is an easy first step to the connection between the millennials and the Downtown environment.”
Buses already in the Lafayette Transit System fleet have been used in a test route. Planning Director Danielle Breaux says a city bus isn’t quite the ideal fit, suggesting a shuttle is probably the right size for the ridership and route of narrow urban streets. Robideaux said in 2017 that an electric vehicle was a possibility, arguing something small and innovative may appeal to student riders. The "proof of concept" provided by the LTS route, Breaux says, allows LCG to avoid spending money on a more extensive study and direct the dollars to buying vehicles.
“Pilot programs in transportation such as this one not only help to take unnecessary car trips off of the road, but also improve connectivity, transportation options, and lower cost for citizens, students and visitors to better access jobs, services, and education,” Breaux tells me in an email.
Bus transfer. Robideaux is pursuing dormant transportation dollars to buy whatever vehicle(s) get used. The administration put in a request to the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the agency in charge of federal transportation dollars in the Acadiana region, to move just under $380,000 from funds originally set aside to pay for a roundabout and a study on West Congress Street. The budget and scope of the project are unclear. Breaux says LCG will have more info on the project available in mid-April, when the transfer applications are turned into the MPO.
What to watch for: Whether the transfer request gets OK’d when the MPO votes in May and July. Robideaux took some heat for other MPO transfer requests on the slate, most pointedly from Downtown representatives and Councilman Bruce Conque on a move to zero out a $6.8 million streetscape project in Downtown to pay for improvements on the University Avenue corridor, a priority project for the mayor-president. Robideaux and four council members, including Conque, have committee seats on the MPO, along with officials from other parishes in the MPO's footprint.
Wines, digestifs and intimate décor will tempt the after-dinner crowd to the Downtown staple.
The gist: Designer and community organizer Maureen Foster will run Downtown Lafayette Unlimited, the nonprofit responsible for fundraising and programming for Downtown. Foster’s role is a new position created to professionalize DLU and energize a sometimes fragmented community.
DLU and DDA are one but not the same. That’s a common mistake; we all make it. I’ve covered Downtown for a few years and the distinction isn’t exactly clear. DDA, the Downtown Development Authority, is a public agency in charge of Downtown development. It’s funded by a property tax assessed in the Downtown area that generates around $450,000 each year. Downtown Lafayette Unlimited is a nonprofit org, under DDA’s organizational umbrella, that’s most visibly in charge of programs like Downtown Alive! — I’m adding this phrase so I can end this sentence with a period, instead of the exclamation point part of the DTA! brand. DDA’s CEO, in this case Anita Begnaud, is in charge of both organizations.
The goal here is social and community activation. A 2018 Women Who Mean Business honoree, Foster was the brains behind Designing Women of Acadiana, a professional association and social club that connects women in the architecture, planning and design fields. DWA programmed panels and community conversations around the arts, design and social services, in essence glueing a previously disconnected community together.
“She found a pocket of people within her industry that were not coming together and having conversations and not advocating for themselves and created the mechanism for that to occur,” Begnaud tells me.
Downtown has long struggled to get stakeholders on the same page. And now it appears the district is poised for a major breakthrough with critical employers and residential projects converging. Getting Downtowners on the same page will be key to taking full advantage of the momentum. Foster tells me her goal is to energize community conversations, expanding the role of DLU beyond major social activities like DTA! and Movies in the Parc. Look for more networking events, daytime activities and information sessions.
“Anita has lit a big fire for renewed enthusiasm,” Foster says. “I’m planning on building on that fire.”
A born campaigner. “I think they wrote the job description for me,” Foster tells me of the DLU job. Begnaud says Foster’s tenacity caught her attention. Supporters stopped her in public to advocate for Foster’s hiring, spurred by a campaign of sorts that Foster sparked to get out the “vote” on her appointment. A Sterling Grove resident, Foster has taken an active role in urban core issues, serving on the Evangeline Thruway Redevelopment Team, the LCG committee charged with redevelopment projects in the I-49 Connector corridor.
“If she wasn’t doing this job, she’d be doing this in a volunteer capacity,” Begnaud says. “Now I get to pay her to do that.”
The gist: Waitr is busy taking over the Lemoine building. CGI is sniffing for office space. Meanwhile, new residential projects in the works could break down the housing dam.
Vermilion Lofts broke ground last week to some who’s who fanfare. The project, a mixed-use development at Johnston Street and W. Vermilion Street, represents something of a coup for Downtown. Scheduled for completion by fall of this year, the loft development will feature 24 units (studios and two-bedroom apartments) and 3,600 square feet of commercial space on the bottom floor. Developments like Vermilion Lofts are the norm in successful urban centers; Lafayette’s got a long way to go.
“This project will set the tone for the future,” Downtown Development Authority CEO Anita Begnaud told onlookers, basking in “chamber of commerce” sun. (No fewer than three speakers made use of that turn of phrase.) “This is what we’ve been waiting for for a long time.”
Housing is showing up at the right time. Waitr has moved into the top floor of the Lemoine building at the north end of Jefferson Street and is reportedly slated to take over all three floors in the not-so-distant future. The app company’s rapid expansion is poised to bring scores of new jobs, if not hundreds. Meanwhile, tech consultant CGI has been after space Downtown to accommodate 400 new jobs announced in an extended incentive deal with the state last year. This is the virtuous cycle of urban development. Who knows, maybe a grocery store is next *insert interrobang.*
“We need to ask the question if there’s good alignment among all the pieces,” Begnaud says of the outlook. “How do we move at the speed of business to make it as cost efficient and timely. Those conversations are starting to happen.”
Vermilion Lofts makes four substantial housing developments on the way after years in a residential quagmire. Four projects, in varying stages of development and certainty, would bring around 200 new housing units Downtown. That’s still well below the 1,000 units a 2017 market study estimated Downtown could handle. (That figure is down from 2000 in 2011.) Here’s the rundown:
- Vermilion Lofts: 24 apartments and studios. Under construction. Estimated completion in 2019.
- Buchanan Heights: 30 townhomes. Under construction. Estimated completion unknown.
- The Monroe: 70 apartments. Seeking approval for HUD financing. Estimated completion one to two years.
- Place de Lafayette: 68 apartments. In due diligence. Deadline for completion Dec. 31, 2020.
The big question: Is Downtown ready for success? Vermilion Lofts tested the limits of Lafayette’s aging wastewater system. LUS has not given the all clear on the project’s 34-unit second phase. Sewer capacity remains a challenge long term; Place de Lafayette (the old federal courthouse redevelopment) will have to invest in sewer upgrades to go forward. That project is not yet a sure thing. But it’s not just the pipes that could clog up momentum; some developers say it’s just too hard to build Downtown.
“It’s great we have a lot of momentum, but that momentum can only go so far,” Vermilion Lofts developer and architect Stephen Ortego tells me, if the district doesn’t figure out how to navigate developers through thorny regulations and higher taxes.
The gist: Turns out those e-scooters aren't exactly street legal, according to state law, at least not clearly. Bird and Lime agreed to take the scooters off the streets until legislation can clear a legal pathway for them to continue service.
When a scooter is a motorcycle: Ambiguities in state law may inadvertently define the electric scooters as a motorized vehicle and thus regulate them like rascals, mopeds, motorcycles. Viewed that way in the eyes of the law, the scooters may be prohibited from sidewalks (Bird and Lime say the scooters shouldn't be on sidewalks, anyway) or from riding the streets without registration and titling. The state definitions predate the shared mobility rage, a phenomenon that took cities by storm in the last couple of years with free-standing, app-enabled bikes and scooters. In other words, it's more or less an accident of history that Bird and Lime may run afoul of statutes like this one from 2005.
What if we call them something else? In an email sent to Mayor-President Joel Robideaux over the weekend, Lime representatives suggested calling the scooters "motorized novelty vehicles" as a workaround. The loophole accommodates Segways, for instance. The semantic solution was apparently considered in New Orleans before city officials ultimately decided — "for political (not policy) reasons," according to Lime reps in the email exchange — not to let the companies operate there. Scooter companies first encountered the state issue in approaching New Orleans and have worked to find a state-level solution since.
"Simply using a newly defined name falls short of a workable solution on our end and does not change the fact that current State law would still consider them a vehicle which cannot be operated on sidewalks or any street without the required equipment, " Robideaux replied in an email to Lime reps.
Robideaux raised the legal issue two weeks ago in remarks to the City-Parish Council, suggesting the administration has been grappling with what it now views is a cut and dry prohibition. Robideaux has taken a cautious but friendly posture to the scooter companies since they arrived in early December, working to develop a policy framework that would allow them to stay long term. State law, however, trumps local law. In other words, Lafayette can’t be more lenient than the state in regulating the scooters. It's unclear how long the administration, which has not responded to a request for comment, has been aware of the statute. UL threatened to impound scooters left on campus back in December, shortly after the fleets landed. Students were told not to ride on sidewalks and were ordered to park them in bike racks.
Please leave before we kick you out. In letters delivered to Bird and Lime, Robideaux asked the companies to "stand down" voluntarily rather than face cease and desist orders. The companies will have to pull approximately 100 or more scooters scattered around the city but mostly clustered around the urban core. Some cities have taken to impounding the scooters when Bird, Lime and other operators have been slow to leave when asked. The companies have tended to pounce on new markets unannounced, part and parcel of a disruption ethos among Silicon Valley outfits, and have faced backlash from some communities and welcome in others. That strategy seems to be changing as the element of surprise has dissipated. Now rideshare companies are commonly working with municipalities to design agreements ahead of deploying the scooter fleets.
What to watch for: If this is truly a pause or something more final. Legislation, at its earliest, would be available in late spring. Locals have had a love-hate relationship with the devices. Some see them as a nuisance, even a safety hazard, taking issue with teenagers zooming on Downtown sidewalks, in clear violation of Bird's and Lime's own user instructions. Others view them as a useful mobility tool able to provide quick and convenient access for short trips, addressing a major cause of traffic in urbanized areas. LCG has made clear its intent to find a way to keep the scooters here. But it’s an election year, and public opinion on the scooters has hardly been uniform.
This year, the parade without barriers gets an expanded route and a new theme: Louisiana folklore. Organizer Paul Kieu weighs in via email on local pronunciation, local folklore (Shaq), pho profanity and more.
The gist: The old federal courthouse renovation project appeared doomed last month after council members pounced on purchase provisions that placed the risk of cost overruns on Lafayette Consolidated Government. But new changes to the contract now make the deal an outright $1.4 million sale that requires the development team to pay for sewer upgrades and removing asbestos.
A game changer: That’s how Councilman Bruce Conque describes the revision. The original deal put the $1.4 million purchase price in escrow, with excessive expenses for the project to be paid from that pool of money. In October, Conque and other council members shredded the contract at introduction, fuming that the deal put too much power in the developer’s hands and gave approval of overages to the mayor-president rather than the council. In particular, the deal would take the unusual step of saddling city-parish government with the cost of sewer upgrades needed to accommodate the 68-unit, 25,000-square-foot complex. Developers, in most cases, pay some of the upfront costs for utilities. Downtown and the city’s urban core more broadly are virtually out of sewer capacity.
Kenneth Boudreaux, a perennial no vote on previous attempts to put the city-owned Downtown property back into commerce after years of blight and vacancy, complained that all proceeds from the sale should be “profit.”
The revised purchase agreement appears to hit all major concerns levied thus far: The sale is a lump sum transaction that requires the development team to pay for peripheral infrastructure needs.
“I’m thrilled,” says Conque. “This benefits everyone, and this project can now move forward.
It’s not quite over. Conque and Jay Castille, another staunch opponent of previous redevelopment attempts, will propose two other amendments to the contract, one to prevent the developer from sitting on the project by eating penalty fees against rising costs, and another to require that the facility’s appearance conform to the city’s Unified Development Code. The previous version gave the mayor-president approval of the complex’s facade.
Earlier this year, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux unilaterally selected the team behind the project, led by developer Jim Poche, architect David Weinstein and Ed Krampe, a personal friend of Robideaux's.
Counting chickens: No vote is final before it’s cast, but early indications place the support count at eight. One of the assumed no votes, Boudreaux, will not be at Tuesday’s meeting after announcing health complications associated with a cancer diagnosis earlier this week. With a majority reportedly on board, approval of the contract would be a significant win for Mayor-President Joel Robideaux after months in the doghouse over his pursuit of a deal to privatize management of LUS.
It’s a microcosm of the state of our current affairs — a parish asset, that’s really a liability, decaying from neglect with no solution in sight.
Downtown is running out of sewer capacity That’s another roadblock for redeveloping the Old Federal Courthouse
Not long after the city received and released ideas for the Old Federal Courthouse from five interested developers, it surfaces that Downtown may not have the sewer capacity to serve their ambitions.
Mixed Use A snapshot of the five bids to redevelop the Old Federal Courthouse
The Old Federal Courthouse in Downtown has languished unoccupied for about 10 years now. Last year, a team of consultants advised the city to do something with the property, warning that it had become a “monument of indecision” — words now stenciled in polite graffiti on the courthouse door. Now, five groups have thrown their hats into the ring to redevelop it, responding to the city’s call for credentials. The projects and players range in ambition and notoriety. One idea would add 135 new residences to the district. Below are the responses and some overviews.