Aug. 2, 2013 06:00 AM

Density and infill are about to be the new buzzwords in Lafayette.


It's been a hot, humid, frustrating summer for many who give a fig about Lafayette due to the mind-numbing rancor coming from the school board as what has become an obstructionist simple(-minded) majority on the board perfects the art of division. That's the topic for this week's cover story/editorial.

But way behind the scenes, promise: the Comprehensive Master Plan, stalled briefly this spring, is getting its mojo back.

In late July, the Comprehensive Plan Citizens Advisory Committee met downtown to get an overview of the so-called Preferred Future Scenario. That's a draft version - broad yet threaded with some specifics - of what (hopefully) by the end of this year will be the, ta-da!, Comprehensive Master Plan for the city of Lafayette, a plan that will serve as a guide for development and infrastructure over the next few decades.

The Preferred Future Scenario, AKA "How we want to grow into the future," is the result of all those forums, meetings-in-a-box and online input from a little more than 1,000 Lafayette residents who filled out questionnaires and participated in other activities over the last year aimed at digging down to what Lafayette really wants, how we want to grow. And how we don't.

One thousand people participating in a city of more than 120,000 would suggest a lack of engagement, but who participated is as promising for the future of Lafayette as the plan itself: college-educated young people. Twenty-four percent were ages 25-34, and 40 percent have a bachelor's degree. In terms of age ranges and educational achievement, the 24 and 40 percents were the largest block in each category. Young, college-educated people don't participate in planning activities for cities they don't intend to actually live in long-term; these people are invested in Lafayette and its future. They want a cool town.

The plan a majority of the participants selected is called the "Multi-Center" plan. In short, it's the proliferation of mixed-use development in pockets spread around the city anchored at major intersections, development encouraged via government incentives but not legislatively mandated: "Build here and incorporate these development concepts and we'll make it easy for you." But alas, there will always be strip malls, y'all. Sorry.

The Multi-Center plan also relies on what in planner-speak is known as green infrastructure, that is, large swaths of grassy-leafy acreage that serves multiple roles, chiefly as recreation space and a means of dealing with storm runoff. A linear park skirting a neighborhood as opposed to an ugly cement coulee.

As here's the really important thing: The plan we're moving toward encourages the growth of these centers - mixed-use "nodes" (think of River Ranch, though not necessarily as swanky) where residential, commercial/retail, government and schools co-mingle, thus encouraging more biking and walking and less time in cars, which literally taxes us all by stressing our transportation infrastructure - chiefly in the heart of the city, downtown and in north Lafayette. These areas have for decades been neglected as developers looked south for open land at cheap prices.

As densely packed as Lafayette is relative to most other parishes, we nonetheless long followed a typical and ultimately wrong-headed pattern - spread out. Yet lots of wide-open, rural acreage remains in Lafayette Parish, and the Multi-Center plan, if we stick to it, if we fund it, if we decide it isn't after all a plot by collectivists at the United Nations to usurp private property rights, will preserve that pastoral aspect of the parish by encouraging density - growing in as opposed to growing out. It will protect the rights of landowners and make it cheaper for everyone to live, work and play.

There remains another round of community forums as this general plan becomes The Plan, and the council still has to sign on off it, but just as the diverse political, cultural and economic interests in this community have rallied around our superintendent and his turnaround plan, so too have those diverse interests rolled up their sleeves and undertaken this planning process. It's a great thing to witness, heat and humidity be damned.


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