After years of languishing in the shadow of south Lafayette's growth, north Lafayette gets ready for a major wave of residential and commercial development.
Designer Kevin Royston was playing a round of golf at Acadian Hills a few years ago and couldn't help notice the vast expanse of beautiful land bordering the course. Ancient live oak trees and fields of green stretched for miles, with hawks and squirrels their primary inhabitants.
One landmark business deal later, the animals on Lafayette's north side are about to get a lot of new neighbors. Royston and his partners' new Couret Place subdivision is the cornerstone of $300 million worth of residential and commercial development. In addition to Couret Place, two additional housing subdivisions located just off I-10 in the I-49 corridor are bringing up to 1,000 new homes and multi-family residences to the north side ' beginning what some developers say is non-stop development all the way to Opelousas.
Couret Place will be a traditional neighborhood development, including homes, live-work condominiums and apartments and commercial businesses. Around half of the homes in another community, Coteau Acadian, will overlook Acadian Hills Country Club; and La Bon Vie will be a gated community with hiking trails and ponds. The trio of subdivisions is geographically intertwined, and the commercial development at Couret Place will also serve new residents in the other two subdivisions, while the influx of new residents will help support existing businesses.
The development of the north side has been a long time coming, says City-Parish President Joey Durel.
"Private investors are realizing that Lafayette is a great market," Durel says. "As the south side has grown more and more congested ' and property values continue to go higher ' investors are looking for land that is currently less expensive." With the only big parcels of land left in Lafayette Parish mainly on the north side, the development tide is finally turning north.
The most ambitious of these new communities is Couret Place, under development by the Royston family. Doing business as the TND Group, the company acquired the old Couret family homestead, along with 177 surrounding acres. Its main entrance will be from Pont des Mouton Road with additional access from the I-49 frontage road and Acadian Hills' golf course. Long tucked away from view, the Couret home, built in 1790, is considered one of the finest examples of early Creole architecture existing in Louisiana today.
Preserved as a historic landmark, the home and surrounding outbuildings will become the centerpiece of the sprawling neighborhood, which will be dotted with parks and lakes. Ancient live oak trees planted by Couret family ancestors surround the entire property, which "sits on the only real hill in Lafayette," says Jaci Russo of Russo Ad Group, who markets the community. Geographically, it is the highest point in Lafayette Parish. Couret Place will be a mixed-use development, including apartments and "mansion lots" that border the golf club. (The Coteau Acadian subdivision also will offer homes overlooking a different part of the course.)
Royston began his career working for Steve Oubre's design team at Architects Southwest before partnering with his father, John and wife, Ronnie, to form their new business. Architects Southwest design River Ranch, the traditional neighborhood development on Camellia Boulevard that's the first of its kind in Louisiana.
Couret Place will offer 600 lots for construction of residential properties. The condominiums, apartments and commercial businesses will be located on another 25 acres.
Given the disastrous long-term effects that poor planning on Johnston Street created, Couret Place's traditional neighborhood design and use of "smart growth" principles is an auspicious start to north side development. (The TND model was introduced in the United States in the 1980s as a response to the rows of look-alike houses being built in suburbs and across the nation.)
New TNDs echo small communities of the past. Tighter setbacks, narrower streets, service lanes and regional architecture are some of the elements borrowed from historic cities like Charleston, S.C., and Alexandria, Va. Couret Place will integrate a variety of housing types, front porches and garage-less streetscapes that complement each other, says Royston. In the "live-work" condominiums, small business owners and artists can work in the first-floor retail space and live upstairs.
The design of the neighborhoods encourages interaction by neighbors with its network of residences and businesses such as coffee shops, dry cleaning stores and restaurants, Johnnie Royston says. The commercial businesses of Couret Place will be built on separate fronts on I-49 and Pont Des Mouton Road.
The Roystons haven't set a price for the lots or a price-range for the houses and condos, although they say it will be similar to other subdivisions like River Ranch according to appraisals and market demand. The family declined to say how much they paid for the land, but estimates its total investment in the project will approach $20 million. (Public records show that property in that area has been selling recently for between $4,600-$6,000 an acre.)
The subdivision, because it is still in the planning stages, has not been officially presented to the parish's planning and zoning department, although the family has been working closely with planners.
THE MAGNETIC NORTH
City-parish government, on the other hand, has already approved the La Bon Vie development off Pont Des Mouton Road a few hundred yards down Veterinarian Road.
When developer Larry Leger put his lots up for sale last September, they almost sold out immediately, says Mona Burris, senior project manager. The company closed on the property last June, purchasing 54 acres, according to public records. There is very little land left for sale in La Bon Vie, and construction on the first houses should begin soon, says Burris.
The gated community, built among rolling hills and tree-lined pastures, will be integrated into the local landscape. This area originally was developed by horse farmers to serve the nearby Evangeline Downs Race track, but the track's move to Opelousas created an opportunity for new land uses.
There are more than a dozen builders who will contribute to the project, offering a range of architectural styles.
Leger refers to the area as the "Magnetic North" and was one of the first developers to begin buying land there at the turn of the new century. Among other business dealings, he specializes in bringing dead or dormant properties back to life; when Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse abandoned old stores in Acadiana, he bought the buildings and renovated them for new uses.
Built on more than 50 acres, La Bon Vie will soon feature 200 homes in various stages of construction. Lots started in the low $50,000 range, and home prices will begin at $230,000 and above, Burris says. It will also have water features and hiking paths. The entrance in front of the gates, accessible only by a keypad, will feature a statue of a Cajun fiddler.
The Guilbeau family members didn't have to acquire the land they will begin developing at Acadian Hills Country Club.
It's a legacy, says John Guilbeau. His grandfather, the late Eric Guilbeau Sr., began buying hundreds of acres of land decades ago, while serving as a long-time "horse and buggy" doctor in Carencro. "We played in the buggy all the time as children," John Guilbeau says.
Eric Guilbeau Sr. and his wife, known as Popsie and Mumsy, incorporated CENAC Inc., for the express purpose of issuing shares in the company to their four children. (CENAC stands for Carroll, Eric, Nanna, Albert and Cecile; "Nanna" was added to make a recognizable acronym.)
The four children first developed the Acadian Hills Country Club, doing business as Acadian Hills Management Inc. But it was their children who rebuilt and re-invested in the property after the clubhouse burned to the ground in 2001. "We were leveled," Guilbeau says.
Since then, they have spent $1.5 million rebuilding the clubhouse, renovating the pool area and building a new bathhouse. Building homes on the property is a natural progression, Guilbeau says.
Although the Guilbeau families own large land parcels up and down the I-49 corridor ' they once owned the Evangeline Downs racetrack property ' this first subdivision will be more modest.
Coteau Acadian will cover 14 acres and feature up to 59 lots. Around half the homes will overlook the golf course. Its entrance will be right across Pont Des Mouton from La Bon Vie. Built on a long road that doglegs like the golf course, the street will be named Rue Acadian.
Like the Royston family, the Guilbeaus have not set a price for the land or homes, although they will run in the same price range as La Bon Vie. The project is up for approval at Planning and Zoning on April 15.
WHAT TOOK SO LONG?
In real estate, the old adage is location, location, location. These subdivisions certainly live up to that model, but it's traffic, traffic, traffic ' specifically, lack of it ' that will help make them successful, say developers.
Burris says many of the people who bought lots in La Bon Vie wanted to escape the congestion of the south side. South side businesses are also calling, hoping to relocate near a critical mass of upscale consumers.
That begs the question: Why did the south side develop so much faster than the north, especially when the northern part of the parish is beautiful and has proximity to two major highways?
"If you look at I-10 and I-49 as the core of Acadiana, then we ate too much of the apple in the south," Leger says.
Burris says the south side developed, in part, because it was mainly cleared farmland, making it easier to acquire large parcels to develop, while Guilbeau says the big south side landowners were simply ready to develop before their counterparts in the north.
"It goes back to the old family holdings, of the attitude 'I don't want to give it up,'" he says.
Of course, all this new development also begs another question: What's to stop the north side from becoming just as congested as the south, where the drives into the subdivisions in Youngsville and Broussard have become the most miserable commute in the city?
While it's taken far longer to begin developing north Lafayette, its infrastructure won't take as long to catch up, says Phil Lank, coordinator for the Committee to Rebuild Lafayette North. I-10 and I-49 already offer superior access, and Pont des Mouton Road will be widened to four lanes between I-49 and University Avenue beginning this summer. A $12 million project, this phase should be completed in 2.5 years, says Pat Logan, associate director of the Department of Public Works.
Lank's group has been coordinating with developers and the city for years, and they're finally seeing the payoff.
"The north side is going to explode," he says. "That was the whole purpose of Rebuild Lafayette North. The north side wasn't keeping pace with the south."
A main concentration of the committee has been to also attract jobs, he adds. Judy Keller, executive director of the Acadian Home Builders Association, says that's an inevitable ' signaling a promising new era for the north side. "Commercial always follows residential," she says.
PRESERVING THE PAST
Most of the people zooming up and down Interstate 49 past the old Couret place don't know it's there.
Located down a quarter-mile gravel road, this astonishingly well-preserved example of early Creole architecture presents itself in profile. It's hidden by a series of ramshackle outbuildings.
The Couret homestead turns its back to Pont des Mouton Road, facing of Bayou Teche, where the original structure was built in 1790.
That one-story structure was eventually placed on logs and rolled to its current location. From there, through the feat of engineering, it was hoisted into the air, eventually becoming the second story of the current dwelling.
The Couret home will now become the centerpiece of a traditional neighborhood development, with up to 600 new homes, condominiums and apartments forming a bridge between Acadiana's ancient history and Lafayette Parish's modern-day growth. The home, outbuildings, tenant houses and surrounding tree-studded 177acres, is now owned by John, Kevin and Ronnie Royston, will be the centerpiece to the project.
The new development has been designed around existing mature trees, many of them hundreds of years old. Of the dozen or so red outbuildings, one still houses a defunct horse-drawn wagon. One of the larger barns pre-dates construction of the house. Guinea hens still produce eggs and 15 or so sheep blissfully graze.
Architect Kevin Royston can't stop pointing out its many historic features during a recent visit, from the bleached plank cypress floors to the old grocery list on the inside of the pantry, written in pencil in 1903.
Ronnie Royston, wife of Kevin, points out a tiny staircase in the upstairs bathroom. The last step stops just short of the ceiling.
"During the Civil War, when they heard the carpetbaggers were coming, they hid the chickens up there," she says, pointing to an attic crawlspace. Gov. Huey P. Long stares out of a poster on the wall.
In its heyday, the old home was part of a 5,000-acre plantation that stretched from Breaux Bridge in St. Martin Parish deep into Lafayette Parish.
The last surviving relative to live in the home, Lucille Couret, died in 2003, and her family made the painful decision to end centuries of ownership. Her presence palpably remains in the home, her bedroom still intact. Family members dismantled an armoire to move it, but found it would not fit into a modern-day home. It was returned and reassembled where it sits today, her old-fashioned dresses and tiny shoes still inside the antique. Couret, an avid Catholic, apparently had an audience with the recently deceased Pope John Paul II. His picture remains on the mantle, her name inscribed below.
Couret was a schoolteacher who valued her privacy, says Bonnie Mabry, the old woman's companion for the last four years of her life. She lived her life quietly after retirement, punctuated occasionally by the family picnics held on the grounds. Outside of her cousins and their offspring, hardly anyone has seen the place up close in several decades.
The Roystons are in awe of what they've purchased. Well-known preservationist Eugene Cizek, of the Tulane University School of Architecture, has cautioned them to go slowly with the restoration, and that's what they intend to do, first placing the property on the National Historic Register. ' KHD