Lafayette officials seek to spare building from wrecking ball

The state plans to demolish a more than century-old brick building in the right-of-way of the planned Interstate 49 connector, despite appeals from the Downtown Development Authority and others to spare the structure.

At issue are the now-vacant buildings in the block bounded by Third, Grant, Second and Cypress streets near the railroad tracks downtown, but DDA CEO Nathan Norris said his main concern is the oldest of the structures, a two-story brick building constructed in 1885.

“Why demolish one of the few historic buildings (in downtown) capable of being used in a productive way?” he said.

The state Department of Transportation and Development purchased most of the block as right-of-way for a future I-49 downtown interchange and plans to demolish the vacant buildings within the parcel, including the two-story brick building built more than a century ago.

Norris has been pushing to delay the demolition, pending efforts to find some use for the old building and to keep the property from becoming a vacant block — a large empty hole that could discourage redevelopment of adjacent property.

Norris said he sees no immediate need to raze the building, considering the I-49 Connector through Lafayette is still in the planning stages and there are few prospects for securing the up to $1 billion needed for the project.

“Right now, we don’t have any final design, and we don’t have any funding in place,” Norris said.

Norris said he had been talking with DOTD about alternatives since March, when he learned of plans to clear the block. But he said DOTD Secretary Sherri LeBas called last week and said the state planned to move forward with the demolition.

DOTD had no timeline for when the demolition might take place.

DOTD spokesman Rodney Mallett said Wednesday the property will eventually need to be cleared for the I-49 South project and DOTD sees no reason to delay.

“It’s a way to keep momentum and keeping being aggressive,” he said.

But Norris said he was told by DOTD officials that another issue was at play — concerns about having to pay out the contract with the company lined up to tear down the buildings, New Orleans-based Hamp’s Construction.

The demolition contract was for about $124,000, and DDA considered securing the money to pay for cancelling the contract, a penalty that Norris said might be reasonably estimated at between $30,000 and $40,000.

But Hamp’s Construction made a demand for $350,000 — nearly three times the contract amount — arguing the company would lose out on $500,000 it planned to make in an agreement to sell salvaged antique bricks and lumber from the old buildings, according to a letter Norris sent to DOTD in June.

“We view this as an opening offer, which is significantly higher than any amount to which he is entitled,” Norris wrote of the $350,000 demand.

The planned downtown demolition has also attracted the attention of local beautification group Lafayette Roadside Pride.

Group member Robert J. Guercio said he sees no reason why the I-49 interchange, which would be a major gateway into the city, could not be redesigned to spare historic structures.

“Why would we want to tear down properties along that path, especially buildings of a historical nature?” he said.

Guercio also pointed to a nearby lot he said DOTD cleared in recent years, knocking down the buildings but leaving a mess of crumbling concrete slab.

“They (DOTD) don’t have a vested interest in downtown Lafayette or the city of Lafayette,” he said.

City-Parish Councilman Brandon Shelvin, who represents the downtown area, said he just became involved in discussions about the dispute this week. Based on what he knows at this point, Shelvin said, he would support efforts to save the building if there was a plan for its use.

But he was not certain what could be done to halt DOTD’s plans.