From an engineering perspective, tonight’s presentation of public-influenced planning concepts generated by Lafayette Consolidated Government’s Evangeline Corridor Initiative has nothing to do with the proposed I-49 Connector. The federally and locally funded planning team has been charged with design work in the neighborhoods abutting the Connector’s future mainline structure, whatever geometric form it takes, and not with the construction specifications of the interstate facility itself.
If things had gone according to the original design schedule for the Connector, the Evangeline Corridor team would be crafting an improvement plan around a far more advanced and coalesced Connector design. Thanks to public friction, Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development consultants charged with planning the Connector slowed the process down to allow for more public input in their own design work, leaving the TIGER-funded planners with a 5.5-mile question mark to work around. That’s a vacuum or an opportunity, depending on how you’re inclined to look at it.
The TIGER team, as we took to calling the Evangeline Corridor planners late last year, will unveil, hopefully, a civic vision: A substantive, comprehensive goal for the future of Lafayette’s urban core.
They will not tell the state specifically how to build its potentially $1 billion Connector. They are beholden to no Record of Decision or Environmental Impact Study, as the Louisiana DOTD's $21 million team of consultants and engineers are. They could, in a sense, reverse engineer of the Connector’s structure, taking advantage of the lack of head strength toward a design in DOTD’s camp. By writing aspirations for neighborhood improvements in ink, the TIGER team could in turn set different parameters for the Connector’s physical design than what DOTD had in mind. It’s a conflict set in motion by the parallel planning groups' inability to work out well-defined roles given obvious overlap in their respective scopes of work.
Back when planners with LCG announced that the city had won a federal grant for planning around the proposed I-49 Connector last year, a natural tension formed between city and state planners working to carve a longitudinal vision of a Lafayette with a completed I-49 running through it. On the one hand, DOTD’s engineers and consultants had — and still have — a mandate and jurisdiction to finish a job at least nominally started in the early ’90s. On the other, LCG had a vested interested in preserving and improving the integrity of the historic city center that the Connector will traverse — Freetown/Port Rico, McComb-Veazey, Downtown, La Place and Sterling Grove. Behind the scenes, the two organizations tried to hash out planning territory. Months passed and no agreement was reached.
Now TIGER’s work encroaches on state plans by default. That’s because both planning organizations ostensibly draw their plans from public input.
Since May 21 planners with Evangeline Corridor Initiative have hosted a marathon of charettes and design workshops out of Rosa Parks. The open house studio put citizens in direct contact with the drawing hands of some the country’s top urban planners and architects, including Lafayette’s own Architects Southwest and Miami’s Duany Plater-Zyberk — the New York Yankees of the New Urbanist design movement. Prior to the week of charettes, the team hosted workshops in five TIGER-created constituent districts, gathering on-the-ground input from community stakeholders in a process that mirrors the state’s own Context Sensitive Solutions process.
From the state’s own work, 19 so-called refinements have been considered, in most cases presenting stark structural changes to the Connector’s more than decade-old preliminary design. The TIGER team has reportedly pounced on a couple of design series for its charette process. Judging from photos of elegant sketches from the TIGER design team, there’s been a minor rally around a series of DOTD-produced refinements that feature a semi-depressed Connector mainline through Lafayette’s urban core, capped with a concrete structure hiding the freeway 10 feet below its surface. The “cap and cover” design affords planners lateral space to re-connect the city grid, build plazas and parks, erect transit lines and considerably dampen the noise and danger presented by cars moving at interstate speed.
TIGER planners have produced some very compelling plans around the “cap and cover” series in the charette process, riffing off the loose concepts presented by DOTD. Again, these are not even closed to engineered. They do not have any specific monies allocated to their realization — much like the Connector itself — but based on the TIGER public input process, the concepts have a claim to more intimate ratification from the Corridor residents themselves. Whether those riffs will jibe with what DOTD has mind is yet to be seen.
Tonight’s presentation, or the TIGER work at large, has no official influence on DOTD’s selection of a Connector design. It’s not specifically factored into their public input matrices, but it will no doubt have to be accounted for as they narrow their 19 refinements down. But TIGER’s work could create a fixed outline that, if fueled by vociferous community support, will put immense pressure on state designers. To what extent state designers will ignore or heed this iteration of public input, will largely depend on how much steam is generated by concepts and visions unveiled tonight.
If all goes well, we could be on our way to getting the closest to a consensus of vision for the Connector the project has yet seen. If city and state planners fail to commensurate, it’s hard to see how any idea gets genuine public traction.
The Evangeline Corridor Initiative will present its charette work tonight at 5:30 at Immaculate Heart of Mary School on 12th St.