ECI Report Snapshot: What floats the Bayou Vermilion’s boat?

by Christiaan Mader

Residents of the south Bayou Vermilion look to build a future on the banks of the city's first namesake.

Editor's Note: The following is the third part in a series of distillations and analysis of reports published by LCG's Evangeline Corridor Initiative.

Covering the arguably most sparsely populated of the Evangeline Corridor Initiative planning zones, the Vermilion River Recreational District report shows a different aspirational tack than the others. Where reports for the three more populous interior districts — Downtown and Freetown/Port Rico; Sterling Grove, Simcoe and LaPlace; McComb-Veazey — demonstrate a spiritual and economic trauma wrought by the present state of the Evangeline Thruway, the feedback collected for the southernmost planning district frames disconnection as a matter of travel convenience.

For the most part, the document codifies a frustration with an under-utilized natural asset: the Bayou Vermilion. Our city’s original namesake splits between the affluent Oakbourne neighborhood and the Lafayette Regional Airport, bisecting Heymann and Beaver parks near Vermilionville and the Jean Lafitte Center, ultimately crossing the Thruway on its way to Lafayette’s interior. In cities like San Antonio and Chattanooga, river frontage is often used as prime public and mixed-use property for attractions like river walks and patio night life.

While not exactly wishful thinking, that kind of development has run aground in Lafayette due to overwhelmingly private ownership of the bayou’s right of way and shoreline. The city has long struggled to stimulate public space due to well-entrenched properties up and down the river. Residents point to the abandoned Trappey’s plant along the river banks as untapped potential. But like other bayou-adjacent properties, the vacant cannery is a privately held asset.

Still, there’s plenty of improvement opportunity to be had. Residents suggest improved boat launches and general recreational access to the river. Landings near Vermilionville give access to kayakers and tubers eager to bob down the river’s gentle current. Some believe that the river gets a bad rap for pollution, a misconception no doubt stained by the river’s murky color. Public advocacy is named as a solution to the dirty river myth and a way to attract more boaters and their dollars to the area.

Constituents on the Community Working Group — a DOTD-appointed planning group for the I-49 Connector, comprised of local stakeholders — previously suggested features to the Connector’s design that would rejoin the bifurcated plots of Beaver Park, presently split in two by the Thruway. Like so many other modifications, the workability of the idea is yet to be seen, but a park reunification would create a commanding recreational asset to the city at large if combined with better public transit, and surface street access.

To be sure, residents in the area want some of the same things as the folks in the other planning zones: better bike and pedestrian networks, better access to the rest of the city, redressed blight, better parks and a grocery store. Come to think of it, grocery stores cut a big a hole in these reports, implying that many residents in the city of Lafayette perceive themselves to be marooned in food deserts.

In that sense, the Vermilion area gripes same tune as the other four districts, if not with the same existential timbre — the Thruway has cut them off from the city, and they want back in.