Thursday, May 25, 2006

Freetown Under Threat

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The historic Freetown neighborhood in Lafayette, Louisiana is under threat. Capstone Development, a property company based in Birmingham, Alabama is proposing to build a 400 bedroom, three storey student apartment complex at the corner of Garfield and Taft Streets. The initial planning request was denied by a unanimous vote. However, Capstone are now appealing this decision to the City of Lafayette Consolidated Government Council. The hearing date is set for the 27th of June, 2006. This development threatens to radically alter the nature of the neighborhood. The purpose of this web site is to provide interested citizens with information relevant to the proposal. It also serves as a forum for community members. Please feel free to leave comments, or send useful information, either on this page in the comments section below, or send it to

About Freetown
- Glenn Armentor's "History of Freetown and The Good Hope Hall"

- Where is Freetown? The name 'Freetown' is not an official designation. As such, there is no clearly defined boundary to the area. The name though goes back over one hundred years. Roughly, Freetown is the area of Lafayette bounded to the South by Jefferson Street, as far as Johnston Street. The Western boundary runs from Jefferson Street, along Johnston Street as far as Garfield Street. Garfield Street forms the Northern boundary of Freetown, along the railroad tracks, as far as Taft Street. The Eastern boundary runs along Taft Street, back to Jefferson Street. An illustration of this area can be found here.

About The Developers
The Developers of the proposed property, Capstone Development Corp. "...was founded in 1990 to concentrate exclusively on providing housing for college and university students", according to their web site. It is clear that Capstone Development have a very strong marketing team. As for their success in providing student housing, this can be assessed by the comments of their tenants, their Better Business Bureau ratings and the stories from the press, listed below.

- List of Other Properties

-Information on Capstone Properties:

- The timing behind this project proposal is also revealing. Recently, Congress passed The Gulf Opportunity Zone Act. The idea behind this legislation was to encourage rebuilding in the areas of the Gulf Coast that were devastated by the storms of 2005. One provision in this Act creates so-called 'Go Zones'. Lafayette falls within a Go Zone. In a Go Zone, the Act provides for a bonus depreciation of 50% on construction projects that started after August 2005 and completed by the end of 2008, according to a story in The Independent, published on the 10th of May 2005. What this means in practice for the developers is that for every $10 Million Dollars they invest, they will receive a tax credit of approximately $5.3 Million Dollars. So, if this project goes ahead, a Birmingham, AL corporation will see significant tax advantages. However, these facts also give cause for concern about the long term commitment of the company to the development.

The Issues
- Traffic
One important concern for the residents of Freetown about the proposed development, has to do with traffic issues. The proposed development is very close to not one, but two railroad crossings. These are illustrated here. It will be necessary for students living in the proposed development to cross the rail road to access the major East-West highway (I-10) and the major North-South highway (I-49/Highway 90). The increased traffic will make accidents at the railroad crossing more likely. This is a particular concern given that this State has a poor safety record with railroad crossings.

Another very important issue concerns traffic from the development itself. According to what they said at the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, the developers are under the impression that students in their proposed property will walk to the University. This assumption is incorrect. As a matter of fact, students almost always drive, due to the heat and humidity, the ever present danger of rain, the need to carry laptop computers and other expensive, water sensitive, technological devices and the desire not to arrive in class too sweaty. One of the reasons that the developers are under this delusion is because they believe that their development is a mere six blocks from the campus. Their error comes from assuming that students wish to get to Martin Hall. This though is the administration building, seldom visited by students. Most classes at UL take place Griffin Hall, which is significantly further away. The image available here illustrates the difference in distance. For these reasons then, the development is likely to dramatically increase the traffic in the streets in and around Freetown.

- Drainage
Although the area of the proposed development technically falls in the 500 year flood zone, the area is subject to significant street flooding, whenever there are heavy rains. Stewart Street, in particular, is prone to flooding, as is the corner of Taft and Garfield Streets. Although drainage issues such as this are governed by statute (La. C. C., 655, 'Natural Drainage'), this issue is a concern to Freetown residents, who may be affected by excess water. The proposed development will in all likelihood exacerbate preexisting drainage issues. As they stand, the developer's plans have no space dedicated to holding ponds. At the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, the developers made some vague comments about underground retention facilities. The drainage issue still needs to be substantially addressed.

- Intoxication
It is a well known fact that intoxication can be a problem amongst college students. For example, in a study reported by Inside Higher Education, it was noted that "...almost 30 percent of all freshmen regularly drink two times the amount of alcohol that defines traditional binge drinking." (The full story is available here). Whilst this is not a problem for all students, the location of the proposed development is such that it is likely to make it especially attractive to individuals who like to 'party'. This is because the development is close to both the McKinley Street 'Strip' and the bars Downtown which are popular with students. In fact, the location provides better access to these locations than it does to the campus! This is plainly illustrated by the image available here. The problems associated with intoxicated individuals include noise, litter, drug use, lewd behavior and a host of other social evils. Indeed, residents on Stewart Street already have to put up with some of these problems, due to their proximity to the McKinley Strip. These facts alone constitute a powerful set of reasons why the development should not be permitted.

- Long Term Impact
At the current time, the Freetown neighborhood is a relatively quiet one, with many families and children. Indeed, it is common to see children and adults riding bicycles and walking around the streets. There are even chickens that wander free, from time to time. An important question is how this state of affairs is likely to be impacted by the proposed development. There appear to be a couple of scenarios.

There can be little doubt that the addition of four hundred students to the neighborhood will produce significant effects. There are roughly 890 households in Freetown. Assuming the U.S. Census Bureau average of 2.6 individuals per household, this means that the population of Freetown can be estimated to be 2,314. Thus, if the students move in, they will be adding nearly 20% to the population. The effect of this kind of invasion is discussed in a study conducted at Penn State. The Penn State Indicators Report (2000) notes that,

"[I]t appears that the spill-over of Penn State's expanding student population [including two Capstone properties] has contributed significantly to the fragmentation of the Highlands Neighborhood...Indeed, on some streets, the family neighborhood character has ceased to exist...Approximately 45% of all the residential space in the Highlands neighborhood is now occupied by apartment buildings/townhouses or fraternities and one-third of all homes are now rental properties."

So, if this pattern is repeated in Freetown, it is likely that the nature of the neighborhood will be radically altered by the proposed development. Such an outcome seems hard to reconcile with the philosophy of so-called 'Smart Growth'.

This is not the only possible outcome though. This is because another important issue which has not been addressed is whether or not there is even the demand for such a development. Capstone Development are convinced that if they build, then students will come. They have no evidence to support this contention though. In fact, prior to the beginning of the Fall 2005 semester, there were plenty of affordable apartments and houses available for rent, close to UL. One reason for this was the opening of the Legacy Park development by UL (against which the proposed development would directly compete). Things naturally changed after the storms of 2005. However, there is no direct evidence that there has been a significant and persistent change in the underlying circumstance. This being the case, it is quite possible that there will not be sufficient demand to make the proposed development financially viable in the medium to long term.

If the proposed development is constructed and their is insufficient demand to make it pay it's way, what will then become of it? The type and layout of the proposed construction is such that it will be difficult to convert for use, for example, as condominiums. What would happen to the buildings and the surrounding neighborhood under these circumstances is radically unclear. However, what should be fairly obvious is that the consequences would not be good. Thus, this development, which is fundamentally speculative in nature, represents a potential for quick profit for the developer, but at a huge potential cost to those who live close to it. Whereas the developer will be in a position to walk away in adverse circumstances, the people of Freetown will have little choice but to shoulder the consequences.

So, it appears whatever the final outcome, the proposed development will have a detrimental effect upon Freetown. If the development is built and fills with students, then the residents of Freetown can anticipate being squeezed out of their neighborhood over time. If the development is built and is not successful, then Freetown will be blighted by a White Elephant and whatever ills that may bring. Under either scenario, the developers get their tax credits, whilst the residents of Freetown pay the real price.