Earlier this year, local contractor Radu Cosman quietly bought a roughly 50,000-square-foot vacant lot of land at the busy corner of Jefferson Highway and Bluebonnet Boulevard for $10,000—an astonishing sale that has left local experts scratching their heads.
Perhaps even stranger is the seller: The city-parish of East Baton Rouge.
It’s unclear exactly how much the site is worth. The city-parish did not get an appraisal done on the property or set a floor price when it auctioned the site off. So when Cosman went to the auction late last year, he was the only bidder. He pulled the trigger for $10,000, after the attorney representing the city-parish said he could bid whatever he wanted, noting the Metro Council would have to approve the sale.
Billy Aaron, the assistant parish attorney who handles such deals, says he doesn’t remember the specific reason why the city did not get the site appraised. These land deals are rare, he says, and the city would have to bear the cost of a commercial appraisal, which can run a couple thousand dollars. There are not hard and fast guidelines for appraising land or setting a minimum price with city land deals, he adds.
“I assume what we felt like was the auction would drive a fair price” for the property, Aaron says.
When the sale went before the Metro Council, no one batted an eye. In fact, the council had to approve several measures to allow the land to be designated as surplus, go to auction and approve the auction, and council members did not discuss the matter at all.
While it is unclear how much the property is worth, Cosman likely got the deal of a lifetime—especially if his plans to develop the property move forward. He is marketing the land for a build-to-suit light retail or office building. Matthew Laborde, the broker for the property, says Cosman lives in the area and will bring something that complements the neighborhood.
“It will definitely not be a gas station or any similar use,” Laborde says.
A slightly larger corner site—1.5 acres—directly across the street sold last year for nearly $1 million, or more than $15 per square foot.
Former Metro Councilman Ryan Heck carried the deal through the process last year. Several years earlier, Cosman—a friend and Heck campaign contributor—had asked him for help buying a separate, 22,000-square-foot plot of wooded land behind his house, and Heck obliged. Cosman got that piece of land at auction for $50,000 after another bidder showed up.
That initiated a push by Heck to shed some of the city-parish land in his district that was not being used, citing a “fiduciary responsibility.” If the city could sell the land and then reap the property taxes, it would be a win-win for the cash-strapped local budget, he reasoned.
One of those pieces was the Jefferson Highway and Bluebonnet Boulevard corner site, which the city had obtained during the construction of Bluebonnet Boulevard.
“I wish we could have got a couple hundred grand for it,” Heck says. “My goal is to get this stuff out of the city-parish hands—we should have sold it years ago. … I did my fiduciary responsibility. Maybe there’ll be a Starbucks there in a couple years.”
Heck and Cosman both note there were multiple public notices published preceding the property sale. Aaron, as well as Heck and Cosman, say they followed the detailed process dictated by state law. Heck says he was equally perplexed at the fact that no one showed up to the auction.
“That’s my luck,” Cosman says. “I was there and was ready to bid with anybody.”