Four Corners and the toxic land of opportunity

by Christiaan Mader

Are the developmental stars finally aligning for the long blighted intersection?

Photo by Robin May

Earlier this week, the Acadiana Planning Commission announced receipt of a $300,000 grant to assess and address environmental contamination in sites around Four Corners. The money, care of Scott Pruitt’s EPA, gives the neighborhood a fighting chance at getting the attention that the mayor promised. Writ large, it could also serve as a model for how Lafayette could make substantive progress on developing its urban core.

Due to relatively high traffic volume in the area, APC CEO Monique Boulet says Four Corners would likely have commercial development already underway, if it weren’t for the contaminated lands. That may be an optimistic viewpoint, and one that ignores important qualitative questions — i.e. what kind of commercial development — but Boulet’s sentiments are supported by the area’s history.

The intersection of Cameron Street and University Avenue, known lovingly as Four Corners, once was a vibrant slice of Americana. It used to be the sort of place where local kids stayed out too late on hot summer nights, kicking up trouble while mom and dad popped into Toby's Oak Grove for a drink with the Joneses, according to this account from an unnamed historian — historians? — associated with a 2015 Better Block event for the district.

Blight is an acid. Over the years, the social fabric corroded by the widening of US 90 and the construction of a railway underpass ate outward into some of the city’s historic neighborhoods. Four Corners’ post-war demise took La Place and portions of White subdivision with it. The neighborhood died to make way for car travel; four gas stations at one time occupied all four titular corners. Prosperity packed up its woody station wagon and took off down the highway — an all too familiar tale of disconnection, disinvestment and white flight to the suburbs.

There are still good bones on the site. Take a look at these visioning slides by architect Corey Saft, produced for the Better Block Four Corners event in 2015. What once was could be again.

As Boulet notes in the press release announcing the EPA grant, the development (no pun intended) and clean-up potential aligns with Mayor Joel Robideaux’s administrative pivot to the North University corridor. Upgrading the city’s entrance gateways was one of Robideaux’s campaign planks, a disposition that distinguishes his priorities from the previous administration’s. Pointing his efforts toward north Lafayette, Robideaux — arguably in the throes of a nascent and pragmatic urbanism — will have his work cut out for him, facing the effects of decades of blight by poor planning and bad infrastructure.

But brownfield remediation, the next logical step from APC’s assessment, can be a powerful tool for economic development. Properties besotted with hazardous waste like spilled gasoline, oil, paint, detergents and other nasty stuff can be prohibitively expensive to clean up. While contamination can lower the price of admission for enterprising developers, in zones with little economic offering outside a low price point, brownfields tend to languish or remain in a commercial holding pattern.

Redevelopment efforts have hung just out of reach for this section of town since the tail end of the Durel administration. At one time, the city looked poised to buy the Less Pay Motel, an infamous landmark that's evaded purchase. Robideaux has since indicated he’d prefer private development over a public acquisition. Cleaning up the blocks around it may make the property more attractive to a private developer. The property has sat idle for years.

Boulet says that APC has identified over 200 brownfield sites in Lafayette’s urban core, which is really gross if you think about what that means chemically. And indeed APC’s efforts have keyed in on public health as a primary motive, even if profitable development doesn’t come of remediation in the near term.

Considering the volume of these kinds of sites in Lafayette’s urban footprint, cluttered with gas stations and pestilence with underground storage tanks, brownfield work presents a massive opportunity for transformative development in the heart of the city. Brownfield redevelopment and adaptive reuse projects are tools widely used in successful urban environments, and its of particular vogue in the South. Chattanooga was an early pioneer in adaptive reuse of former industrial sites around its downtown. Atlanta’s famed but embattled Beltline is also a reuse of industrial properties.

Whatever comes of this grant, the first community-wide assessment awarded in Acadiana, could show how the city can address what appears to be widespread problem. Or, if you’re an optimist, a widespread opportunity.