When Lafayette outgrew Downtown and the surrounding established neighborhoods a half century ago, we headed south down Johnston Street, throwing up a 20th century suburban ideal within a decade — subdivision after subdivision of ranch houses and tidy lawns, neighborhoods often disconnected from one another, isolated, that all fed out onto Johnston. As other arteries evolved, more of the same — one major road taking the traffic of thousands. Congress Street. Ambassador Caffery Parkway. Kaliste Saloom Road.
|Driving between houses separated by a fence in this image provided by LCG requires a two-mile drive and having to venture onto two major thoroughfares.|
We live with that legacy today: gridlock and unnecessarily long commutes, even as we embark on the most ambitious attempt ever to address sprawl and congestion through the comprehensive master plan — a way (on paper anyway) to make our urban landscape conform to us rather than us to it; to reduce travel time, put less strain on resources and infrastructure, to promote walking and cycling.
To will a liveable city to our grandchildren.
Connectivity — the concept that neighborhoods should be connected and have multiple points of ingress/egress to lighten the heavy lifting we’ve long required of most of our major thoroughfares — is actually written into our zoning codes. Cul-de-sacs are discouraged, sidewalks are encouraged, and stub-outs — partial roads on the edges of neighborhoods meant to connect to future adjacent neighborhoods — are required of new subdivisions.
Many neighborhoods in the middle of town, which used to be the “south side” back in the day, have since been joined. It’s easier — and I should probably keep this to myself — to get from Downtown to River Ranch by way of Girard Park and West Bayou Parkway than it is running the Johnston Street gauntlet.
Yet Lafayette’s exurbant growth has often been a case of one step forward, one step back. Lafayette has a Planning Commission that signs off on residential and commercial development projects, often requiring developers to connect neighborhoods, add sidewalks, place buffers between businesses and subdivisions, etc. But in some ways the Planning Commission is toothless. Every rejection or requirement it issues that a developer believes is an undo burden, or residents don’t like, can be appealed to the City-Parish Council, and the council has a history of ignoring the Planning Commission, as it did in late July when it brokered a compromise between an established neighborhood and a new subdivision by granting an appeal. The commission wanted the two neighborhoods connected to an additional existing road to ease congestion in the area. The council said meh.
Developers frequently appeal the requirement that they build sidewalks, seeing them as a drag on their bottom line, although the council has become more willing to enforce this caveat. And residents in established neighborhoods often appeal having stub-outs connect to new adjacent neighborhoods, although invariably when they move in the stub-out bears a sign indicating that it will eventually be connected to something else. But curb-side basketball goals go up, kids play in the street and residents don’t want additional traffic in their quiet neighborhoods. It’s all about safety, understandably.
But do these disconnected subdivisions really promote safety? Not in terms of the greater good.
“We understand the concerns expressed by residents who oppose a connection,” says Bruce Conque, the Planning Commission’s chairman. “Interestingly, the positions of the residents and the commission are similar: the safety consideration for the residents. The commission’s position is that the connection of neighborhoods allows for access by school buses, police and fire protection and numerous other public services. Multiple access points into neighborhoods provide emergency responders and others with options to provide service.”
To help visualize this, Kevin Blanchard, the city’s chief development officer, sent me some maps he asked traffic engineers to develop showing just how crazy Lafayette’s lack of connectivity can be. In one case, it takes a two-mile drive using Ambassador Caffery and Johnston Street to get between houses in adjacent neighborhoods whose backyards are separated by a fence.
People can jump a fence. Fire trucks can’t.