Buying the Farm

by Leslie Turk

A recent regional mayoral conference spurs City-Parish President Joey Durel to get more aggressive in his quest to preserve UL Lafayette's horse farm property.

With a verbal agreement from UL Lafayette President Ray Authement that local government will have first dibs on the 100-acre horse farm property, City-Parish President Joey Durel is getting more aggressive in his quest to preserve the undeveloped land.

"Nothing is in writing," says Durel, who maintains he requested a first right of refusal. "[Authement] said he'd talk to us before he does anything." In December Durel initially expressed interest in preserving the horse farm or developing it into a community park, but no concrete design or funding plans have yet to emerge.

"I feel like I've got to bring this to another level," says Durel, who recently sought input on the project from design experts who had gathered for an urban planning conference in New Orleans.

In mid-August Durel was invited to the 2006 Mayors' Institute on City Design. The institute covers a 14-state southern region, but this year it concentrated on Louisiana because of last year's storms. Mayors from Gretna, Covington, Slidell and Baton Rouge made presentations on projects of their choosing, and Durel's focus was the horse farm. The panelists ' a planning director from Birmingham, a former professor of landscape architecture, and a number of architects and architectural scholars ' took a special interest in the preservation of this community asset, according to Durel. "They seemed to be more excited about our project than anything else."

Hosted by the Tulane Regional Urban Design Center at Tulane University, this year's conference was also of particular interest for Grover Mouton, TRUDC's founder and director. Mouton is a Lafayette native, grandson of the late J.B. Mouton and a descendant of some of the city's founders, including Jean Mouton.

"I have been hosting these institutes for nearly 15 years with the participation of more than 50 mayors and have not had the opportunity to host my hometown," says Mouton. "It was a great experience for me, and the project is a great opportunity for the city. The city has grown so fast, both naturally and due to the exodus from New Orleans, and for that reason we felt it was important to have Durel with us."

Mouton says the panel of architects and urban planners suggested the horse farm be preserved as an open space to reference the parish's history of ranching and horse breeding. "There continues to be a great deal of interest in this area today, and the farm could play a role in developing a sense of place in the geographic center of the city," continues Mouton, who visited the acreage with Durel before the conference. "The space should be open to the public, but it is important that it should have a use, including established pathways and minimal structures that could include shading devices or even an amphitheater."

Mouton says the discussion also focused on how to best develop the park's edge, with a recommendation that it offer intermittent yet accessible connections to the surrounding neighborhoods.

"Any built structures must be passive in nature, with the issue of landscape maintenance and views thoroughly examined," he says. "When passive uses are introduced, there is a wonderful opportunity to engage the nearby neighborhoods. The adjacency to the Johnston Street corridor is also important, acting as the 'front door' of the park."

Mouton holds the project up as a prime example of how the Durel administration can work to make Lafayette a leader in design by creating quality environments for its residents. The institute's mission is to prepare mayors to be the chief urban designers in their cities.

Established by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1986, the Mayors' Institute is now administered by the American Architectural Foundation in partnership with the NEA and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Mouton notes that a follow-up workshop in Lafayette with the panelists is an option. "The panel was impressed with the various developments in Lafayette [which Durel discussed]," he says. "If the city is interested, the TRUDC will try to work out the details that would make this kind of charrette a possibility."

For the past year, the horse farm property has been a source of controversy because of the university's proposed land swap that would have converted the front acreage into a retail center. In July, amid community opposition and questions about the value of attorney Jimmy Davidson's Girard Park Drive property the university was seeking to acquire and the horse farm acreage it was selling, Authement called off the swap. (The Independent Weekly has sued the university for access to a new appraisal of the Davidson property; the case is in the discovery phase, with a court hearing set for Sept. 11.)

Save the Horse Farm, a community group established last year to preserve the property, is exploring a number of options to fund a purchase of the acreage and has been inviting professionals with fund-raising experience to its meetings. The group meets on Thursdays at 5:30 p.m. on the second floor of the downtown public library.