ECI Report Snapshot: First impressions and Lafayette’s gateways

by Christiaan Mader

The Evangeline Thruway Gateway district needs more than a face-lift.

Gateway corridor residents discuss challenges facing their neighborhood at a recent ECI charrette.
Photo courtesy Evangeline Corridor Initiative

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

Driving south on the Evangeline Thruway from I-10, it’s hard to see the old neighborhoods stashed behind big box stores and the nearly abandoned Northgate Mall. The view from the highway spins a cautionary tale for folks in other districts faced with the prospect of living within eyeshot of the proposed I-49 Connector: not all commercial development is created equal.

Unlike the interior planning districts studied by the Evangeline Corridor InitiativeMcComb-Veazey; Downtown and Freetown/Port Rico; Sterling Grove, Simcoe and LaPlace — the north Gateway residents report satisfactory access to food, supplies and amenities, primarily through the big box outlets like Walmart and Super One. Similar to the other districts, however, residents report a longing for more mom and pop establishments that foster community spirit as well as commerce. From a map’s vantage, the Gateway district has solid grid of bones, bifurcated as it is by the Thruway. That portends well for future revitalization on a scale localized to the neighborhoods in each lobe of the planning district.

Large retail plots interrupt that urbanity as the Gateway neighborhoods approach the Thruway from either side, a phenomenon not dissimilar to the developments associated with suburban sprawl. The challenge here, as the report reflects, is that residents of the Gateway district aren’t as affluent as your typical suburbanite. The aging and impoverished community struggles to navigate the area by foot — a primary mode of transportation among residents — particularly when attempting to reach an outlet on the other side of major thoroughfare like Willow Street or the Thruway. Pedestrian fatalities in the area are tragically high. That’s a real human cost for poor connectivity and development that's insensitive to the surrounding residential context.

With parking lots and fast food chains as the primary frontage, it’s difficult to imagine how these areas can be molded into vibrant urban centers, so long as the stretch is treated like a travel corridor. The half dozen hotels and gas stations dotting the Thruway are clearly not marketed to homeowners and residents in the district, they’re targeted at passers-through.

That’s a damn shame considering this is one of Lafayette’s first impressions for tourists coming into town. One Acadiana and Mayor-President Joel Robideaux have emphasized gateway improvement as an important component of head-hunting new businesses and gussying up the city’s economic profile. Robideaux’s proposed 2017 budget includes $4.8 million in facade improvements like sidewalks and landscaping along N. University, just west of the Gateway corridor designated by the ECI.

It’s important to remember that the planning and funding for the ECI studies, while intimately responsive to the Connector, do not require that the Connector be built to be effected. The data and feedback received from citizens in the Gateway could readily be used by city planners to improve the corridor long before shovels hit the dirt for the interstate. The Connector could be 10 to 15 years away from anything resembling a material reality. Fortunately, with the city’s eyes focused on improving its gateway appearances, residents in Thruway corridor have better leverage to get what they need.