BY MICHELLE MILLHOLLON
Capitol news bureau
October 22, 2012
For sale signs could crop up soon on a state-owned piece of property near the State Capitol that once was home to Huey P. Long’s alleged assassin and now holds a parking garage.
The Jindal administration announced plans Thursday to seek legislators’ permission to sell the Spanish Town property, which is referred to in state government circles as the old insurance building lot.
“It’s certainly not in the taxpayer interest for state government to hold onto valuable property that’s being underutilized, and with this effort, we will return it to productive use,” said Michael DiResto, spokesman for the Division of Administration, by email.
The property, appraised at $4.9 million, will be sold at public auction if legislators agree and if at least one buyer expresses interest, he said.
Approval of the plan must come from the Louisiana House of Representatives and state Senate natural resources committees.
However, problems already are arising.
A tentatively planned legislative meeting for next week is off because of scheduling issues. The state Senate also adopted a resolution earlier this year requesting the Jindal administration transfer the property to the legislative branch for use by the legislative auditor and others.
State Sen. Francis Thompson, who authored the resolution, said he does not want to lose a part of the State Capitol campus to a bar, restaurant or dress shop.
“That property is so close I could stand on the Capitol steps and throw a baseball over to that spot. I wouldn’t want something that is an eyesore,” he said of his fears of allowing private industry to buy the property.
Travis Moore, acting chairman of the Historic Spanish Town Civic Association, said he is open to a positive development that works well with the historic neighborhood.
The best case scenario, he said, would be residential units that mesh with the eclectic homes. The worst case scenario would be a high rise that blocks residents’ view of the State Capitol, he said.
The neighborhood has battled developers in the past, most notably Richard Preis, who wanted to demolish rental houses along State Capitol Drive and North Seventh Street to build an apartment complex.
“Spanish Town’s been pushed up against the wall before on development ...,” Moore said. “We’re tired of fighting. We’re tired of being made out to look like we’re going against the grain. We’re just trying to preserve something that’s of value to us and of value to Baton Rouge.”
Another Spanish Town resident, David Brown, said he hopes the property’s next chapter entails something residential that improves on how it looks today.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” he said. “It’s not an attractive property as it exists.”
DiResto said the sale will include stipulations that the buyer consult area residents about plans for the site.
In 1935, Dr. Carl Weiss called Spanish Town home. He and his family lived in a cottage on the site the Jindal administration wants to sell. Weiss was within walking distance of the State Capitol, where he died on Sept. 8, 1935, when Long’s bodyguards shot him after he allegedly shot Long.
Seventy years later, Hollywood used the parking garage that now sits where Weiss’ home was to store antique cars used in the film “All the King’s Men,” which is thought to be based on Long’s life and death.
Weiss’ house either was demolished or moved in 1970 to make way for the state Department of Insurance’s building. A marker on Lakeland Drive traces the house’s history.
After the insurance department vacated the building for a newer home, the state imploded the building in 2003.
Over the years, state government has mulled building a new structure on the site to house the state Department of Economic Development and the Legislative Auditor’s Office.
Construction plans stalled when the recession hit.
Currently, the site holds a parking garage that allowed more than 100 government aides and reporters to park during the recent legislative session. Parking is notoriously difficult around the State Capitol during a session.
DiResto said the Welcome Center parking garage on the corner of North Street and River Road is available for use during the session.
He said the sale would generate money for state government, including dollars that could be used for hurricane expenses.
Exactly when legislators will vote on the sale is unclear.
State Senate Natural Resources Committee Chairman Gerald Long, R-Winnfield, said it will become increasingly difficult to schedule a meeting as the holidays approach. Problems corralling a quorum already short-circuited plans to hold a meeting next week, he said.
“It’s going to be without question a meeting that will carry some interest,” Long said.