July 26, 2017 12:04 AM

Wading into the political stalemate around the old federal courthouse, the mayor looks to make his mark.

Photo by Robin May

The old federal courthouse in Downtown Lafayette has sat idle for 15 years, collecting broken windows and serving as little other than a sticking point for the central business district’s fractured politics. A blight at what is arguably Downtown Lafayette’s center point at the intersection of Jefferson and Main streets, the site has been caught in a tug-of-war between one leadership faction that wants to see it moved into private commerce for redevelopment and another that’s sympathetic to the legal community’s call for a new parish courthouse, itself in disrepair.

For the first time in recent memory, votes on the City-Parish Council are up for grabs, positioning the stalled political bargaining chip to be moved into use. Settling the long-simmering dispute once and for all would mark a signature victory for Mayor Joel Robideaux. His messaging around the issue, set against the wider question of how to breathe life into the city’s urban core, reveals a not insignificant influence of urbanism on his thinking — that fixingDowntown could help him fix the city’s budget. Redeveloping the federal courthouse, a goal that eluded his predecessor, could be the proof of concept the mayor needs. Uncertainty on that issue among council members, for once, is a good thing to come by.

Photo by Robin May

The council must approve any plan to move the site into commerce or into public use. Thus far, three council members have voiced support for selling the property for commercial development, provided the right plan comes into play. Not yet a majority, the pro-commerce block of council members, Nanette Cook, Liz Webb-Hebert and Bruce Conque, shows some movement in the council’s likely vote count, which has been a steadfast “no” for some time.

“There’s been a shift in the council consensus. My predecessor [Andy Naquin] was not in favor,” Conque tells ABiz. He notes that, in 2006, attempts to get funding for improvements to the parish courthouse failed in a referendum. “Yes, we do need a [new parish] courthouse. Will it happen? No. Because there is no funding source. If that’s not going to happen for the foreseeable future, why should we let this prime real estate property sit idle in Downtown Lafayette when it could become productive in so many ways?” ABiz reached out to councilmen William Theriot, Kenneth Boudreaux, Jared Bellard, Pat Lewis and Kevin Naquin, but they did not respond.

Councilman Jay Castille, who has been linked to the party of leaders lobbying for a new parish courthouse, doesn’t see a convincing shift in the council’s politics on the issue. He argues that city-parish government should not pursue commercial redevelopment at the expense of addressing what he says are pressing issues at the parish courthouse. While the building is under floor-by-floor renovation, prisoners are riding the courthouse elevators with the general public, he says. In his view, a new facility is the only way to fix those security issues.

“I’m not against development Downtown or development of that site,” Castille tells ABiz. He believes voters rejected the $65 million plan in 2006 because it lacked concrete details. He suggests a consensus plan could win the funding from the public and that the old federal courthouse would serve as the right landing spot. “Why get rid of that piece of property when it can serve that purpose?” he asks.

Castille’s entrenchment may dampen optimism to an extent, but belief that the ground on the topic has shifted seems nevertheless well-founded. Political gesturing around the project is now pointing to movement, particularly coming from the mayor’s office.

At the beginning of July, Robideaux hosted a visiting advisory panel from the Urban Land Institute, a well-regarded urbanist non-profit, to review development opportunities around Lafayette’s urban core, including the federal courthouse. That move telegraphs the mayor’s intention to tip the scales on the courthouse quagmire, likely in favor of moving the site into commerce for redevelopment. The panel looked at the old federal courthouse and two other properties in Lafayette’s historic urban core, the old

Our Lady of Lourdes hospital campus in the Saint Streets and a parking lot site adjacent to the IberiaBank tower, and will produce a detailed report later this year recommending ways to address the city’s drainage and storm water management.

By bringing in outside consultation, Robideaux sought ammunition in the courthouse battle: reinforcement from third-party experts that the project had both languished too long and would make a compelling catalyst for Downtown redevelopment. The group’s week-long visit culminated in a public presentation, where the 10-member panel laid bare its unvarnished view of Lafayette’s development potential and, at least in part, its bureaucratic inadequacies.

Panelists hosted by Mayor Robideaux discuss a plan to redevelop the old federal courthouse Downtown.
Photo by Robin May

Panelist and New Orleans-based developer Lex Kelso provided return-oninvestment bullet points that Robideaux can now fire off in the coming months of haggling, claiming that a multi-use development — a mixture of commercial and residential properties — would unmoor Downtown’s residential stagnation and add $400,000 in annual property tax revenue on a site that currently produces nothing.

Kelso gave the ammo, but panel lead Tom Murphy, a former three-term mayor of Pittsburgh, coined the rallying battle cry: 15 years of inaction have carved a “monument of indecision” out of the federal courthouse.

For a numbers man like Robideaux, who worked as an accountant prior to his career in politics, Kelso’s appraisal quantifies the problem with the site’s idleness and identifies the payoff of a commercial solution, albeit an optimistic one. As it stands, the unoccupied building is a net drain on the city’s budget. It produces no income and chokes off commerce and activity at Downtown’s center-point intersection. Revenue from development,Robideaux argued in an interview in June, will also serve to plug holes in the parish budget.

“I’m looking at this, Downtown, as a way to help solve the parish budget,” Robideaux said. “Any market value or development that happens, the return on investment and the amount of money that drops on the bottom line, that’s parish property taxes that I didn’t have to build roads, I didn’t have to build infrastructure costs. I’m able to prop up the parish budget.”

For perspective, the Costco-anchored Ambassador Town Center is projected to produce around $600,000 in annual property tax revenue when its tax exemp tion expires. Spread across 58 acres of new concrete, that would produce around $10,000 per acre in revenue from its property, on top of the millions it generates in sales tax. Following Kelso’s backof-the-napkin assessment, a mixed-used development sprouted on the 2-acre courthouse site would generate $200,000 per acre in revenue, without calculating for sales tax from shops and stores in a mixed-use development. Therein lies the most fundamental tenet of urbanist thinking: Center-city development may be more expensive per square foot, but it produces more bang for the taxpayer’s buck. While the Ambassador Town Center may produce more gross revenue, the thinking goes, Downtown developments will cost much less in infrastructure because the drainage, roads and electric lines are already in place.

Kelso also gave the mayor and attending city leadership a development road map. He outlined a $31 million project plan that piggybacks “public entrepreneurship” on top of conventional financing from private developers and investors, which would, together, carry two-thirds of the costs. The courthouse, Kelso noted, qualifies for federal and state tax incentives — federal new market tax credits and both state and federal historic tax credits — that he said could generate roughly $6 million toward project costs. The final financial leg, he argued, should come from city revenues to the tune of $3.6 million to pay for site preparation, a not-unsubstantial sum for a cash-strapped local government.

Sales tax aside, at $400,000 per year in property taxes, the city would make its money back in nine years, taking an oversimplified view of already unvetted math. Surely, any revenue for a near-broke parish budget would be a plus. Kelso’s mockup mixed-use development, based on work already drawn up by the Downtown Development Authority, was projected to house 94 apartment units and produce a 1 percent return on investment. Tacking on a potentially cascading development from the presence of new bodies in Downtown, the prospect of chopping the rope on the courthouse tug of war is understandably attractive for a mayor seeking to establish himself as a change agent.

The presentation helps make the mayor’s case, but the slog is far from over. Even if the council were to come on board — and there is some dispute as to how, exactly, to go about closing the deal on the council — the best way to offload the public asset into commerce is not exactly clear. LCG rarely moves property assets and has not had to deal with a project of this size or complexity. There remains a chicken and egg issue: Should the pro-commerce faction secure a resolution from the council, raising a flag to developers that the city is ready to make a deal, or should proponents wait for a fine-toothed plan that covers all potential snags that may come with the council’s politics?

Beyond the council, there is a briarpatch of agencies and competing interests on the road to getting a project of this magnitude into play. As a general proposition, the ULI panel noted that the city has a complicated network of agencies that could effectively chill interest from otherwise hungry developers.

Groups like One Acadiana, LEDA, DDA, the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority and LCG’s planning and zoning office, they argued, all have hands in the development process, and potentially work at cross purposes.

The panel advised the mayor to establish a city office in charge of navigating the city’s development process — a kind of facilitator who could walk developers through a web of civic entities with overlapping roles. A development officer, the thought goes, would cut through the red tape, clearing the path from concept to construction. The catch here is that the city already had such an office and officer, called the chief development officer, a title once held by current Planning and Zoning Director Carlee Alm-Labar. Mayor Robideaux abolished that office at the beginning of his term and shifted Alm-Labar to her present position.

Even if all that politicking resolves in Robideaux’s favor, finding $3.6 million for site preparation during a budget crisis is tricky. LCG does have bonding capacity available should the need arise, but in tough financial times, re-allocating public monies to aid private interests could be a tough sell and would require re-ordering some priorities. Pitching the move as a income generator provides a silver lining that could curry favor from parish interests, especially if an extra half million dollars could hit the budget as a result.

From a Downtown perspective, the tangible impacts make developing the site a no-brainer. Geoff Dyer, interim CEO of DDA, backs Kelso’s overview in principal. He pegs a more modest property tax haul from a developed courthouse site in the $200,000 range. He says that the money for preparation around the site is already on its way in the form of a $7 million grant from the Acadiana Planning Commission awarded to overhaul Main Street and parts of Lee Avenue, right around the courthouse. That money would not cover direct improvements to the property itself, but would likely cut into some of the figure Kelso calculated, which included street improvements.

The approach of the Main Street overhaul puts more pressure on addressing the federal courthouse with urgency.

Dyer pegs completion of the street design at three to five years. Leaving the federal courthouse site unattended would neutralize some of the good work done by the beautification project.

Dyer sees a commercial project on the courthouse as a potent catalyst for Downtown redevelopment, particularly as it pertains to the type of mixed-use projects envisioned in DDA’s long-range plan. A completed mixed-use development would set the market value for similar projects, providing the comparative values needed to evaluate and negotiate land deals in the area. It would make an immediate impact on a marquee intersection in the Downtown area, potentially anchoring growth in the district’s residential sector, thereby attracting what Dyer calls a “willing market” for walkable urban spaces.

On that view, putting the federal courthouse into commerce is a necessary but not sufficient condition of addressing the city’s wider development needs. Even if the mayor is able to get the movement he wants on the site, the city has a lot of work to do to shore up long-sprawling development patterns.

Solving the federal courthouse problem could kick over the first domino on Lafayette’s road to solvency, but it’s no panacea if the city fails to make good on the 2015 Comprehensive Plan’s promise of urban discipline.

“If this is the only thing we develop in the next five years, we’re sucking wind,” Dyer says.

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