The Connector’s new urban renewal

by Christiaan Mader

A new Connector coalition hopes against history that the interstate project will be a boon to Lafayette's neglected black community.

At the podium Monday is 1A CEO Jason El Koubi, who is surrounded by members of the Senior Pastoral Alliance, DOTD offiicals, economic development officials and members of other community groups who have come together as the Connect Lafayette Coalition
Photo by Paul Kieu/image courtesy 1A

Community leaders, including several prominent members of the local black ministry, gathered in an unfinished church in north Lafayette to profess their faith in the I-49 Connector at a press conference Monday.

Members of the Senior Pastoral Alliance, One Acadiana, at least two mayors, state transportation officials, and representatives of three economic development lobbies announced a new support coalition that believes completing the Connector will do more than just ease traffic congestion — it will bolster the economic prospects of north Lafayette, née the Northside, a.k.a. Lafayette’s historically black neighborhoods.

While the gathered signatories to the Connect Lafayette Coalition displayed a belief in the promise of the project, questions yet remain as to how, exactly, an urban interstate will catalyze urban redevelopment in the economically vulnerable neighborhoods it touches. Of particular concern here is the cost of such an ambitious undertaking and who will pay for it.

Considering the history of urban freeway projects, signing on support from prominent black leaders is nonetheless a decisive coup for Connector proponents. Whatever negative impact occurs will happen disproportionately in the neighborhoods that produce congregants of those black churches, and perhaps to the disproportionate benefit of business interests in south Lafayette. Curious as it is that black leadership would imbue a manifest spiritual destiny into a class of infrastructure that obliterated America’s black neighborhoods during a process often called Urban Renewal, it’s an indication of just how bad things have gotten along the Evangeline Thruway, and how circumstantially exceptional this project is.

The Rev. Ken Lazard
Photo by Paul Kieu/courtesy 1A

As The IND has reported in the past, the damage interstates do in cities has by and large already happened along the Thruway. The Rev. Ken Lazard, named a 2015 Influencer of the Year by The IND, made clear in his remarks at the presser on Monday that he views the Connector as a chance to correct the blight and disinvestment wrought by the Thruway, and borne primarily by black neighborhoods severed from south-crawling suburban Lafayette. It was in Lazard’s unfinished church, surrounded by middle-income housing developments he spearheaded, that the coalition was announced.

“We know that new investments in our area, historically neglected portions of our community, will generate tremendous returns that reverberate throughout Lafayette Parish and the Acadiana region, and will help create a more resilient community,” Lazard said at the presser. “The Connector offers even greater opportunities to invest in positive environmental, social and economic improvements that will assure better quality for our families and our business. The revitalization potential of the Connector offers economic development through new commerce, job creation, and stronger neighborhoods. Benefits that will make a better and more prosperous Lafayette.”

1A CEO Jason El Koubi
Photo by Paul Kieu/image courtesy 1A

The rub in this endeavor is cost. Building something that’s never been built before — a not only urban-sensitive but neighborhood-improving interstate — is an ambition that’s likely to be expensive. Interstates are designed to move cars, not change lives. With no budget set, no funding identified, and a conceptual design phase that’s getting longer, it’s not clear where the state will get the money for a project that does more than serve commuter traffic above and through the neighborhoods it promises to “restitch,” in the words of One Acadiana CEO Jason El Koubi.

Emerging now is the very real probability that the city will have to cough up money to make this project the catalyst for revitalization that some of its supporters espouse.

“We recognize that for the full potential of the project to be realized, it’s going to take significant investment not only from the state and the feds, but also locally,” El Koubi said of the Coalition’s discussion of the project’s financing.

In a technical memo produced late last year, the state’s design team crunched preliminary cost estimates for the various design options currently on the table. For the elevated interstate options, designated Series 4 in the state’s design process, the state produced no cost estimates for the “signature bridge” feature which has been held out as an essential place-making element for the project. Both elevated concepts evaluated by DOTD rang in the $430 million range without the signature bridge. It’s unclear how much a signature bridge would cost, but it’s arguable that its design plays a key role in mitigating the urban impact of the Connector. Costs will rise depending on the type of bridge and its height.

The Evangeline Corridor Initiative, the city organization in charge of planning for the neighborhoods around the Connector, has submitted a set of questions regarding the cost and technical evaluations contained in that memo. The ECI has not yet received a response.

Officials with DOTD have intimated in the past that it would not cover the costs above the preliminary budget estimate of $700 million. That would likely leave the city to pick up the remainder of the check, potentially to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.

During failed negotiations over a memo governing the relationship between DOTD and LCG at the tail end of the Durel administration, the state specifically stipulated in a draft that “enhancements" on the project "that result in costs exceeding the preliminary budget would be the responsibility of LCG.”

Urban sensitivity routinely seems to hit the chopping block before level of service, the measure of a roadway's capacity and speed.

“Both DOTD and MPO want the facility to blend with the community and hopefully serve as a catalyst for redevelopment along the corridor,” wrote DOTD Deputy Secretary Eric Kalivoda in a chippy, late 2014 email to LCG concerning those memo negotiations. “Having said that, it is important to keep in mind that cost is always a consideration.”

Mayor-President Joel Robideaux and DOTD chief Shawn Wilson
Photo by Paul Kieu/image courtesy 1A

According to DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson, the state cannot pay for elements of the project that lie outside the project’s scope — picking up litter, mowing the lawn to standards set by the city, ornate water features, or under-bridge lighting etc. Wilson noted in a interview after the presser that this is standard operating procedure.

“What you have heard from people talking about urban revitalization tends to transcend the core footprint. I don’t have a problem having that negotiation and discussion. I want to manage the expectation that the state cannot absorb all of those costs,” Wilson said.

Wilson said that’s a matter of long term of costs born by a budget strapped state. DOTD can’t be on the hook for changing out light bulbs under the Connector when its staring down a backlog of infrastructure projects some tens of billions of dollars long.

“Bicycle paths, lighting for bicycle paths, architectural landscaping all of those are elements that we don’t necessarily invest in. We love them because they have value.," Wilson added. "We see how they affect the adjacent property, but at the end of the day I can’t go out and plan that if I can’t maintain that.”

The key tension here is that what the state considers lagniappe may be considered essential by the people who live in the Connector’s radius. Should elements demanded by the city or its citizens exceed what the state considers its responsibility, the burden of that excess cost seems likely to go to city taxpayers. Considering the legacy of neglect invoked by Pastor Lazard, there’s good reason to be skeptical that the city will pick up the state’s slack.

That this new coalition was launched in a black church, buttressed by the moral clout of the Pastoral Alliance, was a fitting reminder that all the community has to go on is faith that the Connector can indeed be a catalyst for urban revitalization and not a revisit of 20th century urban renewal. There’s very little, if any, record of an urban freeway serving as a positive change agent for urban neighborhoods, a fact recognized publicly since design activities on the two decades-old project resumed last year.

As the Trump administration mulls implementation of a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, urbanists and city planners have grown wary of a new urban renewal. For many, projects like the Connector hearken to that legacy. Should we take it on faith that the past won’t repeat itself?