ECI Report Snapshot: What Downtown wants

by Christiaan Mader

What the city’s Connector workshops gathered about Downtowners' and Freetowners'’ vision of prosperity.

A vision of an activated, walkable Downtown Lafayette.
Rendering by Geoff Dyer/DDA

Editors Note: The following is the first part in a series of distillations and analysis of five reports published by LCG's Evangeline Corridor Initiative. Click here for part two of the series, on McComb Veazey.

While convened by federal grant to respond to the construction of the I-49 Connector, LCG’s Evangeline Corridor Initiative took stock of the general development and community aspirations for the neighborhoods adjacent to the proposed interstate project. For the amalgamated district of Downtown and Freetown/Port Rico, the impressions collected in the ECI report reflect a district caught in a series of Catch-22s. The key to unlocking that predicament, it would seem, is connectivity to people living outside the district.

The economic goals presented in the report are more or less what you would expect for a center-point cultural district. Downtown and Freetown/Port Rico residents want to finish what the Streetscape efforts on Jefferson Street started in the late 90s, moving the district toward more efficient land use with a healthy mix of residential developments, retail and non-bar related entertainment. It would seem Downtown is still hung over from the bar glut of the past decade despite taking a healthy dose of moratorium.

Some boilerplate dreams are name-checked in the report, like an art house movie theater, a grocery store or high density residential development. Downtown has struggled to attract major residential development, arguably because it lacks precisely those sort of round-the-clock amenities. Crime and homelessness figure largely into that narrative, irrespective of facts or figures. Whether Downtown is actually besot with crime is besides the point so long as residents and, more importantly, potential developers think it is.

Much of Downtown’s development fate is tied up in the budgetary emphasis taken by Mayor-President Joel Robideaux’s proposed budget. The last adopted budget of previous Mayor Joey Durel messaged heavily on the need to create a vibrant Downtown to attract more further development in the city at large. Robideaux, on the other hand, has sighted the so-called University Avenue gateway as the catalyst to the city’s future.

The former federal courthouse on Jefferson Street

The old federal courthouse figures in here, as the report notes that residents looked at its large vacated footprint as untapped potential. As of the proposed budget published today, no money has been allocated to demolish the building to grease the wheels for sale to private development.

Part of the solution here could be how Downtown interacts with the neighborhoods nearby. While Freetown/Port Rico is the most obvious source of foot and bike traffic, potentially connecting Downtown to the thousands of students scurrying about UL’s campus, neighborhoods disconnected from Downtown by the Evangeline Thruway could serve as an important feeder of shoppers, diners, clients and patrons the district’s businesses.

It’s a no-brainer that adjacent neighborhoods could be a massive asset to Downtown if connectivity projects succeed, either through an appropriately sensitive Connector design or safe and reliable bike and pedestrian networks. Better and more diverse access to Downtown could be the tipping point that pops the Catch-22 and gives the city the urban center it needs.