Horse Farm Deal Taking Shape

by Leslie Turk

Johnston Street acreage may become Lafayette’s ‘central park.’

Photo by Robin May

Great cities have great public spaces.

Lafayette may be on the verge of becoming a great city.

A controversial proposed land-swap deal that once divided this community and the university it has supported for more than a century could be taking a decided turn. Thanks to potential anonymous benefactors, a deal is in the works to transform the 100-acre UL Lafayette horse farm on Johnston Street into a world-class passive recreational park.

Officials directly involved in the project would not comment before press time late Monday night. UL President Joe Savoie declined comment, saying an announcement would likely be made later this week.

Details remained sketchy Monday, but sources familiar with the negotiations say the master plan calls for linking the park to both Girard Park and the planned University Common at UL’s Research Park property, making it the centerpiece or “central park” of Lafayette. It will rank among the five largest park developments in the parish, significantly increasing the amount of recreational acreage this community offers its residents.

The deal also involves Lafayette Consolidated Government and will catapult the standing and visibility of the 9-year-old Community Foundation of Acadiana.

The potential donors, who have requested that their identity not be revealed until all legal and legislative matters are firm and various board approvals are granted, plan to gift $5.7 million to the not-for-profit Community Foundation of Acadiana, which has committed to raise funds for development of the park and create an endowment fund for perpetual maintenance (there are numerous examples of community foundations across the country that own and operate parks). The $5.7 million gift (the recently appraised value of the horse farm) for purchase of the horse farm will be made to the Community Foundation after the matching funds are raised.

The Community Foundation and LCG are working through the details of an ongoing maintenance agreement of the grounds and facilities.

The deal requires various approvals. Before the legislative session, state Rep. Joel Robideaux prefiled a bill seeking legislative authority for the Board of Supervisors for the UL System to sell the property to the Community Foundation (the bill is expected to be heard by the Natural Resources and Environment Committee next week); LCG’s council will need to approve any agreement with the Community Foundation as well as a partial swap of the horse farm land for the 8-acre Youth Park that adjoins the campus behind the Johnston Street fire station (a small portion of the horse farm is needed by the city to construct an emergency access road from West Bayou Parkway); and the Community Foundation’s board will also have to approve its role.

UL will use proceeds from the sale to purchase additional land near campus and redevelop portions of the existing campus. In its “Open Letter to Authement: Kill the Deal,” (Dec. 7, 2005), The Independent Weekly suggested that valuable and easily developable property could be freed up with the relocation and modernization of the university’s cluttered maintenance facility that is separated from Youth Park by a coulee. It now appears that the university plans to do just that, along with exploring ways to cover the coulee to connect the maintenance acreage with Youth Park, the beautiful, rolling landscape that includes mature live oaks and is defined by a single-family residential community. The park is a key component of a smart growth or infill plan that will allow UL to create a mixed use development that will have apartments, retail and restaurants for the student body (don’t worry, the skate park isn’t going anywhere — at least not any time soon).

It’s unclear what additional properties the university hopes to acquire.

Preserving the acreage has been a mission for the community group Save the Horse Farm, which was founded by UL students and community activists in the wake of the suspect land-swap deal, and City-Parish President Joey Durel, who has long maintained that turning the horse farm into a jewel of a community park would be a dream come true for a city underserved by this kind of recreational facility. In mid-2006 Durel negotiated a verbal first right of refusal agreement with then-UL Lafayette President Ray Authement, securing for local government first dibs on the 100-acre horse farm property.

Perhaps more notably, since taking over as UL president last year, Savoie has maintained — in several interviews with this paper — a commitment for the university to be a full partner in projects that benefit the community as a whole. “That’s how I intend to operate,” he has said. “It is important to re-establish that relationship.”

This park project, if it comes to fruition, would be the first outward sign that he fully intends to fulfill that objective.

Sources also indicate that executing the master plan for connectivity, beautification and functionality of the park appears to be in the hands of landscape architects Douglas Hoerr and Peter Lindsay Schaudt of Chicago-based Hoerr Schaudt, which designs public and private landscapes throughout the country.

The Independent Weekly has learned that the landscape architects were in Lafayette in recent weeks to study the acreage in preparation for rolling out a plan for a comprehensive design. Their plan calls for the property to retain many of its existing natural qualities, incorporating features like walking trails, bike paths, and a tremendous amount of open, green space for relaxation. Buffers will be added to ensure privacy for residents in adjoining neighborhoods.

This particular horse farm deal has been in the works for several years. Sources tell The Independent Weekly that potential donors actually stepped forward during the controversial land-swap deal under Authement. The former university president had proposed a trade of the front portion of the horse farm acreage for Lafayette attorney Jimmy Davidson’s Girard Park Drive property.

After widespread community outcry and discrepancies in the values of the properties surfaced, Authement backed away from the deal.