The gist: A relatively lightweight pair of council meetings is again on deck this week: another developer looking for more public subsidies, new grants for the police department, and the administration seeking to establish new restrictions on minors relative to their use of electric bikes and scooters and late-night access to Downtown. Bigger news is on the horizon, though, as […]
Only a few weeks in, and the new Parish Council is beginning to grapple with its budget woes.
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The gist: Intense rainfall hovered over central Lafayette neighborhoods, raising waters from drainage systems into homes that haven’t taken water in decades and onto streets that stayed relatively dry in 2016.
Residents in the Saint Streets, LaPlace, McComb-Veazey, Freetown and elsewhere reported flooding in the streets, and homes in some cases, though not nearly as widespread as the floods of August 2016. A branch of Coulee Mine overtopped south of West St. Mary Boulevard, pouring water into some homes near the concrete-lined channel. Pop’s Poboys in Downtown Lafayette took on water for the seventh time since opening in 2015. Carpe Diem and The Juliet Hotel, across the street from Pop’s, flooded for the first time in recent memory.
A woman was rescued from a car trapped at the bottom of an underpass near Downtown in the early morning. Firefighters busted out the back window of her white SUV and pulled her out, according to bystanders. She was safely escorted by EMTs to an ambulance, walking under her own power. Water levels rose to 11 feet in the underpass, which forms a deep bowl beneath the railroad track. DDA CEO Anita Begnaud tells me that level is unprecedented.
The rain event equalled 2016 in intensity, but for a shorter period of time and over north-central Lafayette instead of further south. Lafayette Parish took 7 to 9 inches of rain between 5 and 8 this morning, according to KATC Chief Meteorologist Rob Perillo. Perillo tells me he expects to see more and more rain events of this scale, calling the intensity a “climate signal” — an event that bears the markings of climate change. Rapid urbanization is careening more stormwater runoff into drainage channels, he says, putting Lafayette Parish at a “crossroads” when it comes to how it deals with growth and a changing climate.
Youngsville stayed dry. South Lafayette was devastated by the floods of 2016, but escaped trouble in the Thursday morning downpour. Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter credits the city’s “aggressive” work on drainage infrastructure for the performance. Areas around Youngsville, however, saw relatively slower pours than in the 2016 deluge. In a sense, 2016 was repeated but reversed geographically in Lafayette Parish and confined to a shorter window.
“By no means do I want to do a victory lap, but I’m pleased with what I’ve seen,” Ritter tells me.
The Vermilion crested for the 33rd time since 2010 and once again reversed flow. That figure points to the impact of development on flood levels. By contrast, the Vermilion River hit flood stage only five times in the 1980s. Flood events have increased alongside population growth in Lafayette Parish more broadly. This was the 6th flood stage recorded at the Surrey Street gauge since March 2016.
Why this matters: It appears the work cleaning out parish coulees and ditches has made a difference. Councilman Bruce Conque credits the work for easing the flow of the Coulee Orgeron between W. Congress Street and Johnston Street and preventing a repeat of flooding in homes along that channel. Still, Lafayette appears to face a more existential problem with respect to stormwater management.
The gist: For a couple of months, it seemed Lafayette’s “monument to indecision” was finally about to come unstuck. A deal to sell the old federal courthouse Downtown for private redevelopment was presented to the City-Parish Council Tuesday night, and the council tabled it until Nov. 20, sending the deal back to the administration for wholesale revision. The proposition now seems in jeopardy.
Some background: While we usually single out the old federal courthouse, the 2-acre site along Jefferson Street is really three structures owned by the city — a former library, a police substation and the old AOC facility. The property is generally considered a blight on Downtown’s main drag and has sat unused for the past decade while leaders argued whether to put it into private commerce or use it to site a new parish courthouse. Mayor-President Joel Robideaux moved the ball farther than any previous effort, negotiating a deal to sell the property for $1.4 million to a group fronted by Downtown developer Jim Poche and financially backed by E.J. Krampe. The group, selected unilaterally by Robideaux from five respondents, proposes a 68-unit mixed residential and commercial development. The deal came before the council for final vote and was expected to pass at long and laborious last. Then things went awry. Now you’re caught up.
Council members have three basic problems with the contract:
- Asbestos cleanup and some electrical work would be paid by the city out of the $1.4 million it earned on the deal
- Those costs could go up unchecked, and the council won’t have any say in it
- The city would pay for sewer upgrades, guesstimated at $400,000, to accommodate the development while other developers are often required to pay for their own upgrades.
“I’ve heard a lot about those dreams over the past 11 years,” Councilman Jay Castille said of the vision for the redevelopment. “I don’t see any of that in these documents.”
CARLEE. IF YOU’RE WATCHING. PLEASE ANSWER. Seemingly no one, save Assistant City-Parish Attorney Steve Oats, was there to speak for the deal or offer definitive answers to the council’s inquisition. Oats summoned former LCG Planning Director Carlee Alm-LaBar, not in attendance, to answer some questions from the council, at one point asking aloud, as if to the heavens, “Carlee, if you’re watching, please answer.” Robideaux was conspicuously absent from the proceeding, leaving the measure without a real champion. Council members were clearly concerned that the contract offered power to the mayor-president to approve cost overages without their input, yet Robideaux was not there to settle their stomachs on the issue. Communication between the council and administration is a festering problem.
If you can’t flush a toilet you can’t do development. That’s the way a local architect explained the Downtown sewer problem to me. “The Romans figured that out over 2,000 years ago,” he added. The urban core’s lack of sewer capacity is a key variable in this deal, and Robideaux has sought to leverage a public asset to address what’s become a sticky problem for Downtown development. As I’ve reported previously, 100-year-old sewer lines are nearly maxed out and unable to accommodate more residential development in the urban core. Developers have walked away from projects after LUS sewer officials told them the lines can’t handle the stress. Robideaux’s idea here is to flip the old federal courthouse and use the proceeds to invest in badly needed sewer infrastructure. Oats told the council the improvements tentatively planned would expand capacity beyond Downtown. In principle, that seems to make a lot of sense. Council members said that was unfair.
The vote count was always going to be tight. In hindsight, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that discussion didn’t go smoothly. Clearly, council members felt unequipped to move forward with information presented to them, and more or less the same block that has always opposed redevelopment of the site remains, led by Jay Castille and Kenneth Boudreaux. But even members most likely to support the deal in principle raised eyebrows. “I love the idea of this, but I have some concerns about how it’s written now,” Liz Hebert said. That’s a communication problem — and it appears to be on Robideaux.
Given that he fostered an industry that generates billions of dollars in GDP, it’d be great to ask him what he would do to get us out of the $10 billion hole our economy’s in.
Angling for a fall 2018 opening, a new Downtown concept is ready for the bright neon lights.
The gist: A major real estate developer has reportedly moved to purchase the Less Pay Motel and the adjacent former Coca-Cola building, together comprising a whole block of the beleaguered Four Corners area.
What we know: Two separately owned properties are under contract for an undisclosed redevelopment project: the Less Pay Motel at 120 N. University Ave. and the former Coca-Cola bottling facility at 1506 Cameron St. Representatives of both properties have confirmed independently that the buildings are pending sale, but would not disclose terms or the buyer.
UPDATE: A public notice for a $15 million artist loft development called Bottle Art Lofts, located at the bottling facility, links HRI Properties, a New Orleans-based development outfit with extensive experience in historic rehabilitation, to the sale of that property. The development would include 40 units with a “leasing preference” for artists and would be primarily financed with the equity sale of low income housing tax credits. State records list HRI’s New Orleans address for Lafayette Bottle Art Lofts, LLC, the company issuing the public notice.
HRI also submitted qualifications to redevelop the old federal courthouse, a project that was ultimately awarded to a team helmed by Jim Poché of Southwest Group.
It’s unclear if HRI is also the buyer of the Less Pay Motel.
“A number of things we have wanted to see are coming to fruition,” says Greg Dugan, who has owned the Coca-Cola facility with his wife, Stephanie Cornay Dugan, since 2001. The Dugans currently use the building for fabrication and storage for their company ASCO Window Coverings, located a few blocks away in the La Place neighborhood. Dugan declined to comment further but says more information on the deal will be available by early next week.
Dewitt “Zeen” David of NAI Latter & Blum confirms that a sale is pending on the Less Pay property but also declined further comment, citing a confidentiality agreement. David is the listing agent for the Less Pay Motel, which is owned by M&L International LLC, according to Louisiana secretary of state records.
Why this matters: The Less Pay Motel has been an albatross of sorts for Four Corners, a historic intersection that once was a bustling city center. Plans for redevelopment of the site, which at one time envisioned a police precinct under former Mayor Joey Durel, have faltered over the last decade. Mayor Joel Robideaux quashed Durel’s plan upon taking office, saying he preferred to see the property moved into private commerce. A successful redevelopment could be transformative for Four Corners and the University Avenue corridor. Robideaux has made University Avenue a signature development project for his administration, although Dugan notes that he and his wife have been working to redevelop the Coca Cola building since before the Robideaux administration’s initiative began. Dugan says he believes they’ve found the right buyer to realize a revitalizing vision for the neighborhood.
“We’d be very enthusiastic to see that site moved in commerce,” says Robideaux.
Additional reporting by Leslie Turk
▸ The gist: Dyer announced Tuesday that he will officially leave DDA this August to take a private sector job in Calgary, Canada. DDA will also fill three board vacancies at that time.
▸ Why this matters: Downtown Lafayette has struggled to build momentum over the last decade, but not for any lack of effort or expense. Dyer succeeded Nathan Norris — who actually recruited Dyer to Lafayette during his time as CEO — after Norris resigned in 2016, holding the post for 16 months, beginning first as an interim CEO and easing his way into the position without much fanfare. Dyer continued to pursue an urbanist approach to Downtown development. He played a key role in lobbying for changes to the district’s bar moratorium and recently won council approval to introduce streetside dining Downtown. DDA Board Chairman Pat Trahan says he is disappointed but not shocked by Dyer’s departure, saying that Dyer is a talent in high demand nationally.
“It can seem a little disconcerting,” Trahan says. “At the same time, we’ve got a Downtown Action Plan that’s well thought out and a new zoning code that makes a lot of sense.”
▸ The rule of threes: Dyer is the third urbanist-minded talent to leave a politically influential development post for greener pastures. Former LCG Development and Planning Director Carlee Alm-LaBar officially began her new job at Southern Lifestyle Development this week, ending her eight-year run in consolidated government. One Acadiana’s Harry Weiss, who ran the chamber’s urban revitalization efforts, took a public sector job in Oregon. Different circumstances influenced each departure, but it’s hard not to read the cluster of resignations as something of a trend, and a dismaying one at that. Agree or disagree with their work, Dyer, Alm-LaBar and Weiss were the kind of dynamic, forward-thinking leaders that just years ago were attracted to positions of influence in Lafayette. Lafayette’s magnetism appears to be waning.
▸ What to watch for: Downtown leadership turnover. DDA will seat three new board members and a new CEO. Trahan, Donald Broussard and Bryant Poché will term out on the board this August. The search for a new CEO could straddle the board changeover. That’s a challenge or an opportunity, depending on how you look at it. New blood could invigorate the organization with the energy needed to finally unfreeze Downtown’s residential development deadlock.
“We need to be able to push through and usher in some development,” Trahan says. “That’s one of the reasons the old federal courthouse is so important.”
No project is perhaps more emblematic of the morass Downtown has been in than the old federal courthouse. Yet, a project of this magnitude is exactly what we need to catalyze development.
Film industry workers have been settling into Lafayette recently, lured largely by state tax incentives, city assistance and the rich cultural and artistic milieu of Lafayette.