Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A comprehensive plan can’t undo much of the poor planning of the past, but it can provide a blueprint for the future. By Walter Pierce

City-Parish President Joey Durel is negotiating a contract with a Philadelphia, Pa.-based planning firm for a comprehensive master plan the company will produce for Lafayette Consolidated Government, assuming the negotiations are successful. The firm was selected last week — one of four finalists vying for the honor of pointing out how cockeyed our community is and delineating ways of fixing it.

The plan will address everything from downtown revitalization to connectivity and urban in-fill — concepts embraced by New Urbanism, the school of city planning that emphasizes mixed-use development, walkability, public transportation and generally less reliance on cars and suburban sprawl. Under duress from Durel, the council has been squirreling away in the last two budgets the $1.2 million the plan is expected to cost.

Last week’s presentations by the planning firms also underscored the lack of engagement by our community in most things municipal and civic. The event was held at the theater in the Acadiana Center for the Arts, which seats but a few hundred people. There were about 70 there and many of them were elected officials and architects — people with a dog in the fight, or at least an interest in dogs. When I wasn’t in the theater hearing the pitch — The Ind’s office is right around the corner — I joined a roiling mob of 39 people viewing the presentations via streaming video. In a city of more than 120,000 souls in a parish of better than 220,000, just over 100 were plugged into the process.

Consider the $1.2 million a down payment for the sins (of omission) of our fathers, because, A) the million-plus only gets us a plan — we still have to pay for the projects envisioned by it — and, B) Lafayette is not a well-planned city. I don’t mean poorly planned a generation or two ago. I mean mainly during the 20th century and especially during the oil boom of the mid 20th century when it was obvious the city in particular was going to grow enormously, yet we kept inching out to the cane fields with two-lane roads, and building bustling subdivisions off those inadequate arteries.

I lived through the pain of widening roads like Kaliste Saloom and Ambassador Caffery — roads that should have been wider when they were built.

Like most cities, one supposes, Lafayette just sort of happened. Local lore says our curvy streets — look at a map of Lafayette; nowhere does it resemble a grid — are based on old cattle trails into town. I can imagine the winding Bayou Vermilion having an influence on this as well. Consider how many streets change name when they cross a major thoroughfare: Johnston Street becomes Louisiana Avenue when it crosses Evangeline Thruway, Mudd turns into Cameron, North College into Bertrand, Agnes into Simcoe, St. John into St. Landry, ad nauseam.

When I interviewed Traffic Director Tony Tramel for last week’s cover story, he explained that most of these dual-identity roads are the result of realignment: separate roads ending near one another at a common thoroughfare were realigned to become one road crossing the thoroughfare. Parochialism — don’t you dare change the name of my street! — led to politicians accepting that a newly aligned road would have two names.
We have to give our forebears credit for building roads radiating out from Lafayette to other towns like Abbeville, Breaux Bridge, Crowley and Opelousas — spokes to our hub, hence the nickname Hub City — as well as establishing our own public utility company. But the kudos end there. Lafayette’s growth has otherwise been a willy-nilly hodgepodge of just enough for now.

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