Cover Story

Making Downtown Livable — One Loft at a Time

by Walter Pierce

Even as government and private investment struggle to realize ample residential units, a Downtown business owner/resident is chipping away.

About 17 years ago the city of Lafayette recommitted itself to its Downtown — to revitalizing a dusty central business district that had long been withering on the vine. The legal and government-administration aspect was intact, but commerce had abandoned Downtown for the greener pastures of the south side.

The Streetscape project helped stave off further decay. Bars, restaurants, boutiques and galleries moved in, sometimes bringing with them, in the case of bars, unforeseen complications and needless drama. Yet there’s little disagreement that Downtown Lafayette today is much improved over the iteration that staggered out of the oil slump of the mid-1980s.

But one vital aspect of revitalization remains unrealized: the residential component.

The Downtown Development Authority, under new leadership for the last two years, has made increasing the residential footprint in the area a top priority. But Executive Director Nathan Norris and Geoff Dyer, DDA’s design director, can only more or less act as intermediaries between public and private initiatives. Making Downtown Lafayette a place where people in decent number actually live will need both private, commercial forces behind it as well as political will. Currently the two are not in sync. Norris and City-Parish President Joey Durel have vigorously championed a plan to turn over the old federal courthouse and adjacent properties to private developers for a mixed-use project that would include a substantial uptick in the number of residential units available for lease or purchase Downtown. That plan isn’t likely to gain much traction in 2015 in large part due to a powerful bloc of interests connected to our run-down parish courthouse. The court house folks, led by Clerk of Court Louis Perret and a phalanx of judges and attorneys, would like to see a new parish courthouse on the acreage occupied by the old fed building — and they have enough ears on the City-Parish Council to bring any redevelopment at the site to loggerheads.

Enter Greg Walls. Co-owner with wife Lori of the popular Johnson’s Boucanière barbecue/plate lunch restaurant near City Hall, Walls is also a builder with an architecture degree from UL Lafayette, and he and his family are heavily invested in Downtown. They built a gorgeous, modern regional-style home adjacent to the restaurant and have nearly an acre on which they plan to build more residential units.

The couple also owns the old Lafayette Top Shop at the corner of Cypress and Jefferson streets. Up to four other loft-style units are planned there as well as on Lee Avenue across from First Baptist Church in a 60-year-old brick building that once housed a blueprint shop and has been vacant for nearly a decade.

“Seven more residences Downtown is not a lot; it’s going to take a significant project like the federal building,” Greg admits. But this is a start: a private developer, invested in the Downtown, chipping away.

“We’ve always had the desire to live Downtown; it’s taken us a while to build up the financial capital to do it,” he says in explaining his burgeoning plans to build residential units. “Downtown is small, but it still has a nice urban feel to it.”

The two units at the old blueprint shop will sit atop a Crossfit gym. They’re small by suburban standards — roughly 1,000 square feet of clean lines and ample living space and will include free Crossfit membership and free WiFi. The units will lease for about $1,400 per month. The target demographic, Greg says, is young professional couples.

“There’s people who like urbanism and there’s people who sub-urbanism,” he says. “[Downtown] is just a totally different feel and a totally different vibe and lifestyle. That’s what I’m trying to create: I know there’s a demand for it, there’s just no supply.” — WP