Written by The Independent Staff
Wednesday, 24 March 2010
Lafayette is becoming a magnet for the creative class. Here’s why.
When Susan Shaw, a native New Yorker, visited Lafayette during Festival International, in 2008, she was enchanted by the fountain in Parc Sans Souci. Two years later, the artist, who works in a multitude of media, produced six pieces based on the Sans Souci fountain and the children playing in it. Those six are currently hanging at the Acadiana Center for the Arts in a one-woman show that opened March 13.
According to the count at the door, more than 1,200 people attended the AcA opening during the March ArtWalk. “That’s a big crowd,” gushes Shaw. “I couldn’t have hoped for anything better. You don’t get that many people, generally, in a regular opening in New York. That’s like a museum opening. That was really wonderful.”
While Shaw has been visiting Louisiana for 30 years, since her brother was a law student at Tulane in New Orleans, she only discovered Lafayette five years ago. She says her first love was Louisiana music, but when she hit Lafayette, a lot of things came together for her. “I have to say I like Lafayette better than any other area of Louisiana, I think because it has this beautiful micro-culture, this beautiful intact culture.”
Much has occurred in the almost 200 years between the Vermilionville of the 1820s and the Lafayette Shaw now finds so attractive. Today we’re a mid-sized city with big-city amenities that looks forward to the future while incorporating our past, a city that draws creative people and, once they’re here, makes them feel like family. Lafayette is fast approaching a critical point wherein our culture and commerce will sustain a creative class of individuals — professionals such as engineers, architects, artists and writers who labor in ideas. Our children who are raised and educated here will seek first to remain in Lafayette because it offers what they want: festivals, live music and theater, art galleries, great restaurants, public spaces and, most important, career opportunities.
It didn’t have to be this way; Lafayette a century or so ago was indistinguishable from its neighbors both in size and prospects. But where cities like Crowley and Opelousas grew steadily but modestly, Lafayette’s population exploded, especially from the 1950s on when the energy industry set up housekeeping. But even before the Oil Center, there were other visionary moments that set us on our course to becoming not only the city we are today, but the city we will be in the coming decades — moments that, when the bottom fell out on the oil industry in the mid-1980s, helped us maintain our equilibrium. Until the oil bust, Lafayette and Lake Charles were mirror images of one another, especially in population. But while Lake Charles’ population has actually contracted since the 1980s, Lafayette’s has continued to grow at a prosperous rate.
Lafayette has three things that author and economic development professor Richard Florida points to in his ground-breaking 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class: technology, talent and tolerance. The term “cool town” is borrowed from Florida’s lexicon.
When the oil bust cast a pall over southwest Louisiana, Lake Charles wilted. Lafayette turned its focus to the medical sector, making itself a regional hub for specialized medicine and facilities. Health care is now the top employer in Lafayette. We also used our natural cultural infrastructure — our Francophone heritage — to turn tourism into a major money maker. So while the energy sector remains an important part of Lafayette’s economy and a critical contributor to our historical success, it is just one of the many things we do well.
That’s what this Cool Town issue is about: the assets Lafayette has developed to make us a place that is attractive to the Susan Shaws of the world.
VISION AND VOLUME
From ordinary to extraordinary, Lafayette’s growth has been charted by visionary decisions.
Consider for a moment the growth of Lafayette Parish over the last century or so compared to the four contiguous parishes — Acadia, St. Martin, St. Landry and Vermilion. It has far outpaced that of the other parishes since 1900 due in large part to three things: the creation of a public utility, LUS, the establishment of UL, nee South Louisiana Industrial Institute, and the emergence of the oil and gas industry as a major player in the Lafayette economy beginning in the second half of the 20th century.
In 1900, Lafayette was the third-most populous parish in the cluster, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with just under 23,000 residents, trailing Acadia (23,483 residents) and St. Landry (a whopping 52,905 souls).
Three years before that 1900 census was taken something significant happened: Lafayette voters approved a bond proposal to establish a public utility for water and electric service. That service is now known as LUS. In turn-of-the-century south Louisiana, a city with water and electrical service was a magnet for business, industry and population. “The Chicago World’s Fair [in 1896, which focused on electricity] showcased how they could make a city be usable 24 hours a day,” says Lynn Guidry, a Lafayette architect and history buff whose research into Lafayette history has made him a popular presenter at civic events in the city. (The time line in this issue is based in large part on Guidry’s own time line of significant events in Lafayette history.) “It’s been written that half the people living in the United States at the time visited that world’s fair,” he continues, “and so you have to believe that somebody from Lafayette went, came back with idea and said, ‘We can do this.’”
A year later, in 1898, the state Legislature approved and Gov. Murphy Foster signed a bill creating SLII and locating it in Lafayette. Foster had vetoed a similar bill in 1896 because of a lack of local funding to complement the state expenditure. Other towns in southwest Louisiana were also vying for the proposed industrial institute. But between the veto of 1896 and the bill being signed in 1898, Lafayette rose above the competition. The Girard family offered to donate 25 acres for the school in an area that at the time was just south of the city limits, and town fathers also ponied up $8,000 in cash and offered a 10-year property tax to supplement the state’s share. This convinced the governor. Lafayette got its institute. SLII was established in 1900 and accepted its first enrollment — 100 students with eight faculty members — a year later. We never looked back.
Between 1900 and 1950, Lafayette Parish grew 153 percent, from 22,825 to 57,743. By contrast, St. Landry to our north, the most populous parish in 1900, grew just 48 percent, from 52,905 to 78,476. Lafayette surpassed Acadia to become the second most populous of the five parishes.
Today, UL has an enrollment of more than 16,000 students and roughly 2,100 faculty and staff and is responsible for an additional 7,800 non-university jobs. As City-Parish President Joey Durel pointed out in his Feb. 2 joint state of the parish address with UL President Joe Savoie, if UL were a separate city, “it would be the 17th largest in Louisiana.” That 25-acre institute is now a 1,400-acre university — the second-largest university in the state — with an economic impact of more than three quarters of a billion dollars. “The farsighted action of Lafayette’s citizens a century ago has paid off in ways that few then could have imagined,” Savoie said at the Feb. 2 presentation.
Lafayette’s economic engine became fuel-injected — and our population began to explode — in the second half of the 20th century thanks to a visionary named Maurice Heymann, a man after whom many a public facility, street and park are named today. In 1952, Heymann turned his plant nursery at the corner of East St. Mary Boulevard and Pinhook Road into what became the Oil Center. It began as an office complex with 11 companies in four buildings. By the apex of Lafayette’s oil economy in the early 1980s, the Oil Center comprised 90 buildings scattered over 16 blocks. The area diversified over the last quarter century, adding banks, retail shops, offices for non-energy firms and, most notably, medical companies. Much of its businesses are locally owned.
Energy, more than any other single sector, defined Lafayette over the second half of the century. It pumped wealth into the community and drew in tens of thousands of new residents, many of them professionals like engineers, chemists and geologists. Between 1950 and 2008, Lafayette’s population grew from 58,000 to almost 210,000, almost four-fold. St. Landry generated fewer than 20,000 additional residents in that almost 60-year period, and the other neighboring parishes also fell far behind.
At critical moments, Lafayette has shown the capacity to take on new challenges, and to see those challenges before they crested the horizon. Going back to the earliest times of the city and parish, when Lafayette was known as Vermilionville, we see this tendency.
In 1836, when the town was less than 20 years old, voters passed a bond issue to pay for the construction of roads connecting Lafayette to Abbeville, New Iberia, Opelousas, Crowley and St. Martin Parish, likely Breaux Bridge. “The significance of that,” says Guidry, “was if you were in New Iberia and wanted to go to Abbeville, the easiest way was to get on the horse and come to Lafayette, and then go to Abbeville — not cut across like you would now on Hwy 14.”
“Of course,” Guidry continues, “once you got to Lafayette you were hungry, your horse was in need of water and hay, and so commerce happened because of those roads. All roads led to Lafayette.”
Lafayette, in other words, has been the Hub City for 176 years.
— Walter Pierce
The oil and gas industry, with its nexus of education and affluence, laid the foundation for Lafayette’s creative class.
In 1933 Sun Oil Company became the first major oil company to open an office in downtown Lafayette, relocating white collar workers like Jack Francisco and W. K. Rainbolt Sr. to the area. Neither man planned to be in Lafayette more than a couple of years, according to the book, Oil People: A Gap in Understanding, but both lived out their lives here. Those types of stories are told over and over again, as all of the majors soon followed, each establishing a significant presence in Lafayette. Eventually Lafayette would attract oil scouts, engineers, chemists, landmen, geologists and draftsmen from across the country and globe — including Texas and California, the Middle East and Great Britain and anywhere else oil and gas were found. Following close behind were the oilfield service and supply companies that came here to support the exploration and production effort (and today outnumber E&P personnel about 500 to 1). Many brought their families with them.
And whether transplants or natives, these early oil men immersed themselves in the community, coming together with businessman/philanthropist Maurice Heymann in the early 1950s to establish the Oil Center and Petroleum Club.
Oil and money, tons of both, would flow through the city’s veins for decades to come.
The university responded to the needs of the industry, developing a worldwide reputation for educating these professionals. Students flocked here from across the U.S. and faraway countries, and faculty came too, adding to the Lafayette melting pot.
As the industry developed, professionals from south Louisiana were assigned to projects throughout the world, many of them bringing back a broader appreciation for cultures far beyond Acadiana.
By October of 1979, The Times-Picayune, in a Sunday feature story, was referring to us as a laid back Cajun city, “the rich kid on the block, Louisiana’s gifted child, a boom town whose pace hasn’t slowed since the oil industry set up shop here 30 years ago.” The story went on: “There may be more millionaires living [in Lafayette] than any town of comparable size in the country. There are a minimum of 300, or a maximum of 2,000 depending on who is counting.” Less than two years later, The New York Times weighed in: “At first, only scattered clues hint at Lafayette’s new character and importance. A steakhouse puts $100 a bottle Chateau Mouton Rothschild at the top of its wine list, and it becomes a frequent seller. A woman is overheard telling a coffee shop hostess how she is ‘getting ready for Acapulco.’ A Mercedes here and a Cadillac there zip along past fresh-faced new buildings.” The NYT reported that there was an astonishing amount of money flowing for a city with a population of 85,000, concluding that as many as one family in 15 could have a net worth of $1 million or more. “And the super elite, what one millionaire calls the big rich, are the present-day counterparts of the steel, auto, and rail millionaires of a half a century ago.”
It was all about oil. All of the attention. All of the wealth. All of the creativity.
Bo Ramsay moved to Lafayette in 1962 with a small publicly traded oil company but struck out on his own after a company merger in 1969. The geologist, who was then president of the Petroleum Club, told the NYT in 1981 that people making money in Lafayette fit into two categories: “There are people who have been here a long time and have reaped the benefits of this development in oil by being established in a business and owning land, and secondly, the independents. Lafayette has a tremendous amount of free-thinking, independent, creative people.”
Young, intelligent and ambitious, up-and-comers like Ramsay took huge financial risks, and when they paid off, they turned to ventures outside of the energy industry. In Ramsay’s case the investments were twofold: he helped start Southwest National Bank and a new school, Episcopal School of Acadiana in Cade (the kind of philanthropy he continues to this day).
Oil and gas stoked the inherent entrepreneurial spirit of locals, many of whom spent their time developing expensive new tools for the industry that were marketed globally, further expanding the wealth base of the community. It also fostered a broader “wildcatter” mentality, and the value of innovation became widely understood, from tool pushers on the rigs to geologists and engineers on the drawing boards. A mindset developed in the business community — even beyond the oil and gas industry — that some risk is inherent in a business’ success, which to this day serves Lafayette well. Our business community is known for having an open mind to new opportunities. Business decision markers here are prudent but they are not risk-averse.
But equally important, these “creative types” had expectations for cultural experiences, in both the performing and visual arts. They not only bought tickets and made personal donations, but they also worked for companies that signed on as sponsors for arts organizations, performances and shows. Michael Curry, who was executive director of The Fine Arts Foundation in the boom times (the Performing Arts Society of its day), used to say that Lafayette was one of the few stages in America to host all three Russian ballet superstars, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Alexander Godunov. Also great opera singers like Frederica von Stade and Beverly Sills attracted sell-out crowds. Herman Mhire later ushered in a similar vision for the visual arts, and again it was longtime oil man Paul Hilliard (himself a collector) who stepped up in the late 1990s and made a multi-million-dollar donation for construction of the University Art Museum. Over time, an appreciation developed for the value of local artists as well. The successes of ArtWalk and of recent collaborations between the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra and local musicians are but two examples.
Our local cuisine was a big selling point for companies seeking to transfer employees into Lafayette, but these transplants still wanted their fine dining experiences. Fueled by the combined purchasing power of personal disposable incomes and corporate expense accounts, the restaurant scene expanded and thrived. The NYT story noted that Lafayette ranked right up there with New Orleans and Baton Rouge in terms of restaurant sales per household. We had good food, good wine and became known for good times.
Art and food, however, were not the only components of our lifestyle. These well-paid professionals were also the impetus for the launch or expansion of high-end boutique retailers like Sandy Austin, Raffaele, Molli, F.Camalo, Brother’s and Gaidry’s, which had made-to-order English suits among its inventory. Our reputation as a retail center continues today.
And even though the industry collapsed in the mid-1980s, taking businesses and people down with it, oil and gas has bounced back time and again. With each cycle come new lessons for all of us — and an opportunity to find creative ways to emerge more resilient and more diverse than ever before.
— Cherry Fisher May and Leslie Turk
WIRED FOR THE FUTURE
Lafayette’s tech community looks to capitalize on its momentum.
In 2005, the old ARCO building in the Oil Center had been collecting dust, abandoned for seven years. The combined forces of Hurricane Katrina and the LUS Fiber project changed all that. Katrina brought native daughter Ruth Ann Menutis back to town from New Orleans. A prolific entrepreneur, Menutis bought the ARCO building and teamed up with Abigail Ransonet of Abacus Data Exchange. “I said, ‘This is easy,” Ransonet recalls. “Let’s create a technology center in this building. Let’s power it up and then recruit tenants by offering really cost-effective true broadband and phone service, and we’ll have a total package in the building.”
“Within 12 months we had the building 100 percent occupied,” she continues, “and we’ve had a waiting list ever since.”
Abacus Data Exchange is one of 11 wholesale buyers of LUS Fiber that first began selling direct fiber connectivity to businesses of the LUS network, along with other IT services. Ransonet is quick to give credit for her success back to LUS’ visionary fiber project. This year, LUS will complete its build-out of a citywide fiber network that will give Lafayette homes and businesses higher broadband speeds and capabilities than almost anywhere else in the nation.
|Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise (LITE)|
“This is all a direct outgrowth,” Ransonet says. “It’s a business development project that has proved successful. We rent space. We pay for utilities. We pay for broadband. We hire developers and programmers and engineers, and we spend our money here. None of this would exist if not for the LUS broadband project.”
The Travis Technology Center, which boasts a multimedia studio and conference room replete with touch screen monitors, wireless Internet, and a green screen, has become more than just an office. It’s also a gathering spot of sorts for young programmers, software developers and engineers, hosting meetings for IT networking groups like Lafayette’s Adobe User Group, Lafayette Dev Net and Lafayette Net Squared.
This bevy of innovative young professionals is exactly what author Richard Florida, in The Rise of the Creative Class, argues is an essential backbone of any “cool town.” They are entrepreneurial by nature, help to spur economic growth and also frequent the museums, clubs, restaurants, festivals and other gatherings that further enhance a town’s quality of life. “The interdependence of the 3 Ts also explains why cities like Miami and New Orleans do not make the grade,” Florida writes, “even though they are lifestyle meccas: They lack the required technology base. The most successful places — such as the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, Washington, D.C., Austin and Seattle — put all 3 Ts together. They are truly creative places.”
Lafayette’s IT industry has waxed and waned over the years. Annual promotional events such as Zydetech and Tech South cropped up to much fanfare, only to then fizzle. However, many are hopeful that the expansion of fiber networks by both AT&T and Cox Communications and the successful launch of LUS Fiber, combined with other maturing endeavors like LITE’s 3D Visualization Center and Lafayette Net Squared, will give rise to creative new applications and businesses — and put Lafayette on the map with tech hubs such as Austin and San Francisco.
Mike Bass, IT supervisor for the Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court and one of the co-organizers of Lafayette Net Squared, says Lafayette’s digital media and IT industries are poised for growth but need to seize on the unique advantage fiber, in particular the LUS Fiber network, gives them. “What makes it exciting now,” he says, “is we’re one of the few [cities with an all-fiber network], so we can kind of get out there and say, ‘Hey, look at us, look what we’re doing.’ Right now, there’s that excitement that we could kind of be a trendsetter, but eventually other municipalities, other communities will get fiber and then, it won’t be that big of a deal.”
Bass believes it will be important for Lafayette to have a couple of entrepreneurial success stories over the next few years. “If a year or two goes by,” he says, “and no one’s really jumped on the fiber network and done anything exciting, I think fiber’s just going to end up as just another Internet provider. Right now, people here are just starting to think about what kind of things we can do with fiber.”
“If everybody in Lafayette,” he continues, “had this broadband straight to the house, what sort of businesses could you create? What kind of services could you create? Right now we’re just thinking of all those sorts of things; nobody’s building them yet. We just need to get it going. If just a couple of people would start building these companies and these services, I think it would snowball.”
— Nathan Stubbs
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
Perspective from members of Lafayette’s creative class
“The music here is incomparable. You can’t find this anywhere else. In addition to the indigenous music that comes out of here, over just the last few years there’s been a lot of good popular music being made. Lafayette’s not too big, so you get a nice, tight sense of community here. Everybody seems to know everybody and works together.”
— Cecil Doyle, KRVS radio host
“The thing that makes Lafayette cool to me is the fact that it was founded by people who like to dance.”
— Griff Blakewood, assistant professor of renewable resources at UL
“Lafayette and Acadiana has an indigenous culture that doesn’t exist anywhere else on the planet. People move here just for this music and culture. It’s mind blowing. I cannot tell you how many people Terrance meets throughout the world that get turned on to this region’s music and are inspired to move here because of it.”
— Cynthia Simien, wife and manager of Grammy-winning zydeco musician Terrance Simien
“I like Lafayette, because you’re still close to the country. We’re only 15 miles from hunting, fishing, or any outdoor activity. There’s Lake Fausse Pointe State Park or the Henderson levee – anything that can get you out of the city.”
— Drew Landry, musician and activist
“What I like about Lafayette is the down to earth attitude of the activism. Most of the activism that goes on here is not done by raging hippies, it’s done by people that just want to see things done in a sustainable and logical manner.”
— Danica Adams, activist and bayou education and recreation coordinator at Bayou Vermilion District
I’ve been to every state in the United States except for Hawaii, and I would rather live here in Lafayette than anywhere else. It’s great for kids, people are friendlier, a lot more laid back, and the weather is nicer here. People down here go out of their way to be friendly and just chit-chat. Also, music is such a big part of the culture here that parents are more likely to want their children to experience it and learn to play it.”
— Hawley Joe Gary, co-owner of Acadiana School of the Arts
“Everyone I know is moving downtown. It’s a good little community of young people. People just getting married or people my age who are single. Artists, a lot of creative type people. Interesting people. With all the businesses that are going downtown, and people I know who are opening businesses downtown, it’s a fun little community; you can ride bikes everywhere. I don’t have to cross any major streets. I don’t have to cross Congress or University. I have a lot of friends that live in Freetown, too. I feel like I’m going to be living in another city. Right now I live by Comeaux. I’m in a neighborhood that has no trees; every house looks alike. I bought an older house right behind the cathedral. It’s going to be work. It’s very old and funky, has a cool little yard. I’m going to take up gardening. I already have a bike I got at Recycled Cycles. It has a cup holder.”
— Katie Frayard, co-owner of kiki in River Ranch and soon-to-be downtown resident
son: “Cooking brought me here.”
father: “I came to help my son move to Lafayette from Miami. I thought it was a beautiful town, so I decided to visit a while. The owner of Pamplona gave me a job, parking cars, but I’m really the public relations man, the first face you see. Lafayette is a town rich in culture. I appreciate how people are motivated to get into the arts and all the special events. Tourists come for the arts. People are very friendly. I told my son it is a nice place to grow his family.”
son: “It is a quiet city, good for my family. My daughter, Maria Poala, is 10. She speaks English, Spanish and French. At first I didn’t like it here, but now I love it.”
father: “I came to visit, and I’ve been here two years and three months. Now I have to go back to Venezuela, to take care of my business. I own a tequila business, Don Elias. I make organic tequila. Since I have been gone, the business hasn’t grown. I need to go be the salesman for my business. But I will be coming back every three or four months.”
— Pamplona chef Orlando Amaro Farias and his father, Pamplona doorman Orlando Amaro Garcia
“Jim, Bryant and E.J. went to Cathedral Carmel — that began their deep connection to downtown. Our offices are here; we own four buildings and have long term leases on several other properties. You can see the firm’s focus on historic preservation in The Tribune building. We’d had our eye on it for a while before it went up for sale, and we knew we wanted to do retail there. Now we’ve got a contract on Jefferson Street Market; it’s a significant building downtown and we’d like to see more retail there. Downtown’s the historic core of the city, and it’s the cultural core as well. We’re committed to downtown both from a business and personal standpoint. It’s cool to be here, eat lunch, hear some music, drink a glass of wine overlooking the park.”
— Danny Nugier, business development manager for Place de Lafayette, which is owned by Nugier, Jim Poché, Bryant Poché, Ed Krampe and E.J. Krampe
“We first fell in love with the house. Its proximity to downtown. And then there’s the fact that Mills Addition is the oldest incorporated subdivision in Lafayette. It’s historical; we don’t have very many historical areas in Lafayette, and that was important to us as well. We appreciate the history of the neighborhood. Moving here is always one good step in regentrifying the neighborhood, but moving my business here really showed the commitment we have, in the eyes of most of my customers and my clients.
I’m from Lafayette, born and raised here. Lafayette has a fantastic cosmopolitan mentality for a small town. It’s not New Orleans. It’s not as stuffy as Baton Rouge. It has so much culture and so much more fun than any other small town.
I have never been worried about who I am in Lafayette. We have a very small gay community, but I’ve never run into a place that was intolerant. Especially downtown. Being gay is so mainstream now, it’s not a worry. As Lafayette is trying to become more cosmopolitan, and in doing so, tolerance of homosexuality just kind of is fashionable. Everybody has their favorite gay couple. It’s fashionable to have a gay couple at your dinner table.”
— Ty Hanes, owner, retromodern
“I came to Lafayette five or six years ago. I have to say I like Lafayette better than any other area of Louisiana, I think because it has this beautiful micro-culture, this beautiful intact culture.
The downtown is beginning to get a chic veneer. The heritage is being preserved, but it’s being enhanced. So you get that same feeling. I went into a drugstore downtown; it had a new facade. But the people were so nice inside. They’ve retained all the nice parts of Lafayette. Or when I went to Borden’s to get ice cream. Borden’s is beautiful; it’s like it’s been picked up and refreshed. But it’s Borden’s. It just makes you want to stop, it glows. By the same token, you can still have the old flavor, you can go down the street to Dwyer’s and have the old Louisiana feeling. You can get a plate lunch. You have this wonderful spectrum of old and new that exists in Lafayette.
The first time I saw the rookery at Lake Martin, I just about had a heart attack. I’d never seen anything like that in my life. It’s so beautiful. Since then, I’ve done thousands of photographs of birds at Lake Martin. To the point that I bought a houseboat. I can’t think of anything better than being on either Lake Martin or Chicot or the Basin, just sitting on your porch, your floating porch, and either watching or painting birds.
— Susan Shaw, artist [currently in the Main Gallery at the AcA], New York City
“I’ve lived in some larger cities and even though Lafayette’s so small, this downtown had an urban feel to it, and it drew me to downtown. I work for [architect] David Courville, and I own the Lafayette Top Shop on Jefferson, so I’m really invested in downtown. Lafayette has a really hip urban feel to it even though it’s a small town. In November, we moved upstairs, above the shop. I figure if I’m going to start designing smaller, more efficient units, I need to live in one. It’s 700 square feet.”
— Greg Walls, intern architect and owner, with his wife Lori, Johnson’s Boucaniere
“People who live in Lafayette are separated by 3 degrees. For everyone else it is 7 degrees.”
— Robert Guercio,
co-owner of The Green Room
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|Krewe de Chien|
|Katie Frayard riders her bike in Parc Sans Souci|
|Spaghetti and meatballs at Marcello’s|
|Grand Opera House of the South|
|A passive park is planned for
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