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Oil Center Renaissance

A 1996 master plan for redevelopment of the Oil Center is being overhauled to maximize the potential of this urban gem. It all started back in 1996. UL Lafayette School of Architecture’s Community Design Workshop had it first real client: Lafayette’s Oil Center. Long before smart growth caught on as the buzz word for planning in Lafayette, the professors and students in the workshop were devising a way to transform Lafayette’s Oil Center from a suburban office park into an urban pedestrian landscape. The workshop designed the master plan and presented it, but the initiative stalled for lack of a driving force to implement the suggestions in the final report. So while the Oil Center has since seen millions invested in new development in this urban gem, much of the workshop’s vision has been sitting on a shelf for more than a decade.

Until now. Lafayette General Medical Center, UL’s design workshop and the Lafayette Economic Development Authority are revisiting the comprehensive master plan. The not-for-profit LGMC, credited by many as the impetus for the redesign, and LEDA have contracted with UL to update and expand the design workshop’s old report. They split the $50,000 cost.

The idea for redevelopment actually took hold in December 2008 when City-Parish President Joey Durel called a meeting with officials at LGMC — the largest property owner and thus the main stakeholder — and LEDA to discuss the hospital’s need for more expansion space and how that would fit into the center’s future. Out of that dialogue came consensus that a master plan for overhauling the urban center was needed. “The first logical thing was to revisit the 1996 study,” LEDA President and CEO Gregg Gothreaux says. “We just offered to coordinate it.”

By mid-year 2009, LGMC, the workshop and LEDA were conducting charrettes to drum up a plan for the Oil Center’s future, with another charrette, or planning session, scheduled for October. The charrettes allow all of the interested parties to participate in the discourse for revamping the area: Between 30 and 40 city-parish officials, Oil Center business owners, property owners — like Todd and Chad Trahan whose company transformed the old Abdalla’s building into Class A office space — and area residents like Judy Mahtook, attended the meetings.

“LEDA and the UL School of Architecture are taking the feedback offered from stakeholders involved in the process and are coming back to the group with very tangible and actionable opportunities that continue to be refined,” says LGMC President/CEO David Callecod. “At the end of the day everyone involved in this process will have a much better sense of the opportunities to improve our immediate community, and it will be up to us collectively to implement these improvements over time.”

Lafayette’s Oil Center, initially developed in the late 1950s by visionary merchant Maurice Heymann for oil and allied services companies, now has medical facilities, banks, restaurants, specialty shops, beauty salons and a grocery store — most of which are locally owned.

Photo by Robin May

The Community Design Workshop took those suggestions and brought them to the design studio’s inventive graduate students, drawing up plans for landscaping, parking and multi-use buildings. This time around there is a bigger emphasis on concentrating growth to control urban sprawl in Lafayette, as new components of the plan involve not only maximizing the hospital’s space, but also incorporating more housing into the overall scheme, says Tom Sammons, UL professor of architecture and design and director of the workshop. “The hospital is much more of an issue. They’re landlocked,” Sammons says. “But housing is the big difference this time. The density issue is a little more [on people’s minds] because of River Ranch, because people are seeing that happen.”

Preliminary plans are to create an overlay district, develop the existing infrastructure, improve parking and increase mixed-use buildings. “We certainly believe in smart growth — how can we include mixed land uses, which also include housing opportunities and compact building design on a mid-rise scale,” says Sammons. The preliminary design phase calls for a number of four- to five-story compact buildings. “We’re in the middle of the process, so we’re going to have to test some of that out,” Sammons says. “We also talked to them [about] making it more walk-able, more green.”

LEDA’s Gothreaux believes the Oil Center is an obvious neighborhood to pour resources into. “The Oil Center was a second CBD for Lafayette since its inception in the 1950s,” he says, “[but] following the oil and gas downturn in the 1980s, the area had to redefine its mission. Today the center is a hub for medical and retail activity, and opportunities exist for businesses to find affordable space in an area primed for a resurgence.”

Gothreaux also maintains that traditional neighborhood developments like River Ranch have conditioned people to want to live near work and entertainment. “The Oil Center is perfectly positioned to accomplish that. Developers see the potential of revitalizing a well-established section of town. By strategically renovating buildings, maintaining a diverse business base and providing the necessary amenities to attract visitors and customers, the Oil Center can not only recapture its former glory, but exceed it,” Gothreaux says.

In the late 1950s, a visionary merchant, Maurice Heymann, decided to develop a site for oil and allied services

UL Lafayette’s Community Design Workshop is devising a master plan that will make the Oil Center more pedestrian friendly.

Photo by Robin May

companies, which became known as the Lafayette Oil Center. During the boom of the 1970s, the Oil Center exploded with activity as the regional hub for hundreds of energy-related businesses. The high times came to a halt when oil prices plummeted during the 1980s. Luckily, the Heymann heirs inherited Maurice’s business savvy, diversifying properties in the Oil Center. That turned out to be a wise move.

In what is perhaps the biggest single investment in the Oil Center to date, Lafayette General Medical Center recently launched a $70 million-plus renovation project that will take almost two years to complete. The hospital is undergoing a major exterior facelift, complete with a hurricane-proof glass wall system and white stucco covering the existing red brick structure. Inside, patient rooms from the third through 10th floors of the Y wing will be totally renovated, bumping square footage from 150-170 to 250-260 square feet apiece.

“Each of the rooms will be of a modern design, very hotel-like, and will have patient showers in the rooms,” explains Callecod. “Also, we are designing them in ways that will make them very user-friendly for our employees and patient care providers.”

Medical-surgical beds will increase from 160 to 189 post-renovation. Also in the works are redesigned nursing stations and supply areas. “We are just looking at better ways for distribution of pharmaceuticals, turn-around for lab test results, more spaces for the nurses to chart — just a whole host of things to make their jobs easier and to make the work areas better for them,” the administrator adds. “The citizens of Lafayette are getting a $370 million to $400 million hospital for $70 million due to the way [the hospital] was originally constructed in 1964.”

Callecod anticipates that the next project will be a revamping of the emergency department. This year alone LGMC will have approximately 48,000 ER visits. “We continue to have unprecedented growth of our emergency department,” he explains. “So, we anticipate having a big ER, as well as an operating room project, to follow this big project that we are undertaking right now.”

Elsewhere in the Oil Center, LGMC is preparing for more than 20 affiliated physicians to move into the area over the next 12 to 18 months. Across the street at the Burden Riehl Ambulatory Care Center building, LGMC spent about $3.5 million to renovate the third floor for the former Saint Streets Endoscopy Center, which is now known as Lafayette General Endoscopy Center.

At the Grant Mollett Medical Arts Center on Heymann Boulevard, LGMC is starting two major projects. The first is a new office for Drs. Paul Breaux, Henry Kaufman IV and Breaux’s son, Jason, who will be joining the practice next year. Also in the works is a $2 million office venture.

In December, LGMC purchased the Ziler building on Hospital Drive for $1.2 million. The 12,839-square-foot structure will be upgraded and used for physicians’ office space.

Chad and Todd Trahan, who worked with their father, Cecil, to convert the old Abdalla’s building into first-class office space, and resident Judy Mahtook of the nearby Girard Park area are active voices in the Oil Center’s, redevelopment. Above them is before and after of the circa 1960 building at 1023 E. St. Mary that the Trahans recently renovated and have available for lease.

Photos by Robin May

“Obviously the hospital can’t single-handedly redevelop the Oil Center,” Gothreaux says, noting that implementing the master plan will require buy-in from many partners. “That’s where private developers, current and future building owners and possibly government entities will come in. I think the successful redevelopment of the former Abdalla’s building serves as an example of what can be accomplished in the Oil Center and will serve as a catalyst for future redevelopment. If one is formed, a TIF may pay for infrastructure upgrades in the area including road repairs, the installation of sidewalks, possibly a streetscape project. With enough time and cooperation between Oil Center stakeholders, this redevelopment project will advance an area that is synonymous with Lafayette’s past and could embody its future.”

By most accounts the Oil Center is still going strong, as leased properties owned by Heymann’s Real Estate are at 99 percent occupancy, with only about 1,500 square feet available. “I’ve been here three and a half years, and we’ve always seem to have stayed in the 98, 99 percent occupancy range,” reports Heymann’s property manager, Rick Dickerson. “I think the main reason is the diversity.”

In addition to oil- and gas-related companies, the Oil Center has medical facilities, banks, restaurants, catering halls, specialty shops, coffee houses, beauty salons and most important, Champagne’s grocery store — which brings a constant flow of shoppers who don’t necessarily live or work in the area. Also, the center has a rich history of locally owned businesses. “As soon as a business has moved out, somebody wants to move in,” Dickerson says. “That happens with very little advertising — just by word of mouth.”

On the retail front, some existing businesses, including Renaissance Market and La Mode Shoes, have moved to bigger space. Mary Landry Hopkins, co-owner of Renaissance Market along with her husband, Jim, says that business has been “absolutely incredible” since relocating to a larger building at the corner of Harding Street and Oil Center Boulevard. “It was the best decision — it was a difficult one, because we were so comfortable,” Landry says. “But, the move has been fantastic for us.”

The Community Design Workshop’s proposed hospital design (top) shows an additional collection of buildings on LGMC’s campus wrapped around a public space. The public space becomes the organizer for the additional hospital program, medical office and parking. The family physician design at a smaller scale promotes the same strategy. Both urban forms pull themselves close to the street, internalize public space, make a greener walkable city and compact building design.

The original store was cramped in 1,711 square feet in the main building on Oil Center Boulevard, with 300 feet in the rear for “The Reserve.” Two years ago, the business moved into a standalone 8,300-square-foot building across the street. Last year, Renaissance Market added a casual restaurant, the Brasserie, serving Lebanese specialties, paninis, salads, soups and wine. Coming soon is a full-fledged wine store, where patrons will be able to purchase wine by the glass, bottle or case. “Each business helps the other one,” Landry says. “They come and eat, then they’ll shop. Or, they’ll come shop, and then they’ll eat. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful, plan that we’ve put together that came true for us.”

Relocating from the south side to the former Bella Luna space at Heymann’s shopping center is Esplanade Fine Antiques and Accessories. Also moving in the strip next to F. Camalo is another location of Tropical Smoothie Café. Both businesses are currently building out their spaces, with plans to be up and running before Festivals Acadiens et Créoles kicks off Oct. 10. “Some people are afraid to move up to bigger space and higher rent,” Dickerson observes. “But, we have had quite a few doubling and tripling their rents. So, the old saying that ‘perception is reality’ is one I believe in. People with good products, good services, good locations — they’ll make it.”

At 100 percent occupancy is 900 Plaza, located at 900 E. St. Mary Blvd. Cecil D. Trahan Enterprises Inc. transformed the 72,000-square-foot former Abdalla’s department store into first-class office space. Tenants include LHC Group, Medco Energi, Business FirstBank, Prize Petroleum, LANtec of Louisiana and Bradley & Moreau law firm. “Leasing actually went ahead of our projections,” says Todd Trahan, marketing director for the development company. “From when we bought the building in April 2007 to when we completely renovated and leased up was approximately 18 months.”

Why so fast? “It was something new and exciting for the Oil Center, and the Oil Center is such a great location,” Trahan surmises.

This May, the Trahan development group purchased a 3,042-square-foot standalone building at 1023 E. St. Mary Blvd. adjacent to Ruth’s Chris Steak House and has just completed renovations. It’s the former office of architect James Broussard and will serve a single user. “We’ve had quite a few interests in the building because it’s in such a great location,” Trahan says. The Trahan firm is still shopping for more buildings in the area.

Landry, whose family has operated various businesses in the Oil Center since 1959, believes that the area will continue to evolve. “As with anything else, there are peaks and valleys to every business,” she says. “But, it just seems like the Oil Center always, always, always holds on, no matter what the economy is. People know it’s a safe place to shop with easy parking. And, the part that I love the best about it is that typically, when you walk into a store, you’re going to be helped or waited on by the person who owns it. You are giving back to the community when you shop in the Oil Center.”