Around Town

Mayor eyes Downtown development to fix parish budget woes

by Christiaan Mader

Talk of redeveloping the vacated federal courthouse is back on the table.

The old federal courthouse on Jefferson Street, left, and the current Lafayette Parish Courthouse on Buchanan Street
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The latest in a long line of visiting consultants have hit town with marching orders to break Downtown’s nagging development logjam, with a longview toward solving the parish budget crisis. A consulting team from the Urban Land Institute, a well-regarded urban development non-profit, is assessing development potential on three sites in the city's urban core — a lot adjacent to IberiaBank tower, the old Our Lady of Lourdes hospital campus in the Saint Streets and the long-languishing, vacated federal courthouse on Jefferson Street. At the behest of the Robideaux administration, the gaggle of urbanists will file a set of recommendations for development following a week-long visit and interviews with upwards of 90 city stakeholders.

Mayor Joel Robideaux said he sees the consulting visit as a fact-finding mission on urban core development, which he hopes could shore up a parish budget he says is in shambles.

“I’m looking at this, Downtown, as a way to help solve the parish budget,” Robideaux said in an interview. “Any market value or development that happens, the return on investment and the amount of money 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 just able to prop up the parish budget.”

Part of the hook for the ULI visit was the parish’s travails in last year’s massive flood event. The ULI team will also evaluate the city’s storm water management and drainage strategies, producing recommendations ahead of a possible ballot measure dedicating revenue to parish drainage. Hosting the all-volunteer team, comprising officials from several different cities, will cost $25,000 in travel accommodations.

Putting the old federal courthouse on the docket for study revives a dormant city interest in redeveloping the property, once a fixture of debate among Downtown stakeholders.

Long an emblematic eyesore for Downtown’s stuttering progress, development of the old federal courthouse has been blocked for years, primarily due to conflicting interests between parties favoring commercial redevelopment and a district court faction angling for a new parish courthouse. The Durel administration at one time tethered any new development on the site to the construction of a new parish courthouse, a deal which appeased the district court's partisans.

During his campaign for election, Robideaux's plank on the issue was that he would approach the issue cautiously and with an eye toward consensus.

“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,” Robideaux said of selling the courthouse without a new parish courthouse in place, while on the campaign trail in 2015.

Redevelopment by private enterprise, or through a public-private partnerships, according to Robideaux, would offload a city asset for cash and could deliver significant return on investment via increased sales or property tax.

Robideaux noted in an interview with The IND on Monday night that he’s heard from several suitors interested in the property since taking office. Getting an idea of potential profitability from redevelopment by the ULI consultants would support the mayor’s case with the City-Parish Council, should he push to sell the property into development. Some estimates, dating from several years ago, have pegged potential revenues from property and sales tax at around $160,000.

The Downtown Action Plan, a part of LCG’s Comprehensive Plan that lays out the district’s strategic development, identifies the site for potential mixed-use redevelopment combining residential and commercial facilities.

At a launch event for the visit held Monday at the IberiaBank Tower, Robideaux sounded downright urbanist himself, spinning a gospel hardline about the virtues of infill building in the city’s urban core, where infrastructure like drainage, roads and electrical lines are already in place. That’s a central principle in urbarnism — that cities manage growth and budgets better when they don’t add miles of roadway and pipelines. Using downtowns as profit centers, activated with public spaces and mixed-use stacks of apartments and retail, some cities have turned around flagging economies and attracted new corporate tenants that see vibrant city life as an asset to attracting talent.

“If say to you General Electric, McDonald’s, Caterpillar, Marriott, what do those companies have in common?” asked Tom Murphy, a former mayor of Pittsburg, Penn., and crew chief of the ULI delegation. “They all moved their corporate headquarters out of the suburbs and into downtowns. Why are they doing that? They’re doing it because they can’t get talent to ride the subway two stops to take a cab to get to work, so they’re moving their operations. You need to do the same thing.”

Skeptics have already seized upon the appearance of yet another set of experts promising yet another set of unexecuted master plans. Lafayette has hosted several urbanist junkets in the past few years. One study from 2015 purported to show substantially more revenue per cost in infrastructure for the Downtown area and Lafayette's urban core, a refrain heard in the talking points of the ULI consulting team. That study, by Urban 3 of Asheville, North Carolina, also evaluated LCG’s drainage costs.

Downtown hosted an expert on managing nightlife districts last year, in an effort to address the district’s moratorium on new bars and persistent security and safety issues.

Little in the way of concrete implementation has come from these recommendations.

On Friday, the ULI team will unveil its recommendations in a presentation at Acadiana Center for the Arts.