Plans afoot for old federal courthouse

by Walter Pierce

What to do with the old federal courthouse at the corner of Jefferson and Main streets Downtown has been a nagging and divisive issue for more than a decade.

The old federal courthouse on Jefferson Street, left, and the current Lafayette Parish Courthouse on Buchanan Street
Google Earth

What to do with the old federal courthouse at the corner of Jefferson and Main streets Downtown has been a nagging and divisive issue for more than a decade, pitting the legal community at the outdated parish courthouse against the interests of economic development — those who want to raze the old federal building and turn the lot over to private development.

Dee Stanley, Lafayette Consolidated Government’s chief administrative officer and candidate in the October election to replace his boss, City-Parish President Joey Durel, hinted at a candidate forum Wednesday evening that a solution is in the works. Joined by the candidate he’ll face on Oct. 24 — state Rep. Joel Robideaux — Stanley revealed that the Durel administration is in negotiations to purchase property in the vicinity of the current courthouse, Lafayette Parish Correctional Center and the new federal courthouse, all in the heart of Downtown. (See bottom of story for a bird's-eye view of the old federal and current parish courthouses.)

“We’re in discussions with property owners to be able to do that on a wonderful, 2-acre site that is 50 percent bigger in space, and it’s a rectangle; it’s shaped like it’s supposed to be shaped,” Stanley said. “But we don’t own it yet, and the council’s voting on the budget tomorrow.”

Photo Robin May

Although he didn’t identify where that property for a new parish courthouse is located, Stanley further acknowledged that Durel put additional funding — $1.5 million to raise the old federal courthouse and $1.5 million to purchase property for a new parish courthouse — in the budget the City-Parish Council will finalize Thursday night.

The original question posed to Stanley and Robideaux was whether they would support selling the old federal courthouse without first having secured a location on which to build a new parish courthouse. The existing parish courthouse, built in the early 1960s, is currently being renovated, but judges, the clerk of court and others who work at the location have long complained that it’s inadequate to serve the needs of modern Lafayette Parish. And, as important, they’ve had the ear and support of enough members of the council for the last eight years to block the Durel administration from doing anything with the old federal courthouse, which the parish courthouse bloc believes is the most likely place to build a new parish courthouse.

“I would have to say that without buy-in from the Downtown community that includes the legal community, I’m not so sure that that’s something I would push right out the box,” replied Robideaux, who fielded the question first. “I would first try to get some consensus, even though I know there’s a lot of folks saying we’ve tried that, we’ve done that. But it’s a new day; the airport tax passed, so you never know what can happen if you don’t have those conversations. But first and foremost I would want to have those conversations to see if we could come up with a consensus on some plan that would allow us to have a win-win situation and not to have a loser in that argument.”

Stanley said the administration met with a parish courthouse contingent this week, and one judge suggested that knowing the administration had a new site secured for a future parish courthouse would ease things along in terms of liquidating the old federal courthouse and getting it back into commerce. Estimates are that a mixed-use, residential-commercial development on the site of the old federal courthouse would generate about $160,000 per year in property and sales taxes for the city and parish.

Soon after Durel took office in 2004, the council that was also recently sworn in signed off on LCG selling the old federal courthouse, which is a city-owned property turned over to LCG by the feds in 2001 after the new federal courthouse was built on nearby Lafayette Street.

Virtually everyone agrees Lafayette needs a new parish courthouse.

“[The parish courthouse] was not only built before computers; it was built before electric typewriters,” Stanley observed. “But now we’re making it functional, and it could be a suitable parish annex one day for the non-court functions.”