Downtown Lafayette needs another sewer fix

Apartment building under construction
The Monroe Apartments is one of several new residential developments near Downtown Lafayette. Sewer upgrades are needed to enable more. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Two years after the last bid to address a sewer capacity shortage that stymied development in Downtown Lafayette for years, the heart of the city is facing another sewer capacity shortage that has local leaders working on a short-term plan while the city center awaits a long-term solution from Lafayette Utilities System.

Some 1,000 units of new housing are in limbo because the district, and Lafayette’s urban core more broadly, lacks the sewer infrastructure needed to convey the wastewater. The issue collides with longstanding LUS policy that developers pay the upfront cost of sewer upgrades needed for their projects.

A lack of sewer capacity has stunted Downtown’s growth for half a decade, delaying the conversion of the Old Federal Courthouse into apartments and the development of other higher-density dwellings that have since become success stories of growth in the city’s urban core.

The issue came to a head in 2018 as developers couldn’t get the sewer coverage they needed to start building new units while LUS declined to fund the upgrades itself.

A short-term solution wasn’t implemented until 2021 with a $1 million project by LUS and the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority to install a sewer lift station at LPTFA’s cost and have LUS repay most of that expense as builders connected to the sewer. But new developments in and around Downtown quickly blew through that added capacity, leaving Lafayette’s urban core back where it was two years ago — stagnated.

Downtown’s potential for dense residential development is a unique asset within the parish, advocates say, but a stronger commitment to proactive infrastructure development is needed to unlock its potential to impact Lafayette’s housing market and accelerate efforts to retain and recruit young talent.

Young voters have told Straight News Online that housing costs and access to opportunities are priority issues. And many identified a resurgent Downtown as a recent bright spot for the city.

Communities competing for workers have invested big in their downtowns, making bets on amenities like walkability and public spaces that have paid off in some high-profile cases. Lafayette’s Vibrant Acadiana program has echoed that philosophy, putting quality of life front and center in its lineup of speakers. 

To that end, LCG has budgeted millions for improvements in the district, including a $12.5 million drainage program, $2.5 million for lighting improvements, $1.5 million for sidewalk upgrades and $1 million for increased public transit access. And its plans to move the parish jail out of Downtown would free up more than a whole block for new development in the coming years.

LUS is also planning a major investment in the city center with a $10 million-plus sewer capacity upgrade that has been in development since 2019. That project would add capacity for 2,000 new residential units in the urban core, but LUS is yet to break ground on it and is at least two years from completing the upgrade.

Downtown Development Authority CEO Anita Begnaud says her agency has identified 20 developments Downtown — including the 200-unit apartment complex proposal by Rock n’ Bowl owner Johnny Blancher and the Guillory administration — in various stages of planning that would need the additional sewer capacity to come to fruition. She is one of a handful of local leaders who are again looking for ways to help LUS quickly add capacity to Downtown’s sewer infrastructure.

“When I sat down with LCG and LUS to show them there are 20 projects in Downtown’s development pipeline that represent more than 1,000 new residential units, leadership immediately leapt into action saying, ‘How can we work together to ensure these projects can be built?’,” says Begnaud.

This time they have a new tool to shoulder the financial risk that kept LUS on the bench in the past with funding from the Downtown Economic Development District that was created in 2019.

A deal for the Downtown EDD to pay the upfront cost of installing a new sewer lift station for Downtown, similar to the LPTFA project, is in early stages, according to Begnaud, LUS Director Jeff Stewart and others involved.

“I want to make sure that LUS is part of economic development opportunities,” Stewart says. “I don’t want to be a roadblock or an obstacle … I want to make sure that we have an open line of communication [with the development community] and that we are collaborating where we can.”

The arrangement may come with the caveat that the Downtown EDD, which is governed by the City Council, would oversee which projects can connect to the expanded sewer to address the concerns of Downtown advocates who were frustrated by the previous lift station’s use for developments outside of Downtown.

“We are mindful of what the EDD’s goal is, and we want to take that into consideration and take every necessary action to allow them to reserve the capacity that they’ll be installing for our system,” Stewart says.

With LUS’s bigger sewer upgrades still at least a couple of years out, details for how much capacity the new lift station would add and how quickly it could be brought on line remain up in the air. But it will likely follow the same general outline as the previous lift station deal, putting the cost at approximately $1 million, the timeline at around a year and the additional capacity in the ballpark of several hundred residential units’ worth. A formal proposal hasn’t yet been submitted to the Downtown EDD, which would have to vote on approving any contracts or funding for the project.