A team hired by city-parish government unveiled a vision Friday evening of walkable, attractive and vibrant neighborhoods along the planned Interstate 49 Connector.
The 5.5-mile stretch of I-49 through Lafayette would roughly follow the path of the Evangeline Thruway, a large road built decades ago that divided Lafayette and marred the historic neighborhoods it sliced up.
Some fear the planned interstate might only make matters worse, but a team of planners and architects working intensely over the past week have sketched the beginnings of a plan for integrating redevelopment efforts into the interstate project with the goal of repairing those old divisions and sparking revitalization.
"We want to connect neighborhoods split by infrastructure decisions of the past," said Lafayette Parish Mayor-President Joel Robideaux.
The state Department of Transportation and Development is designing the interstate, but city-parish government's Evangeline Corridor Initiative is looking at how best to mesh I-49 with the neighborhoods and commercial centers it will pass through.
The ideas presented Friday likely will face questions from those who are wary of talk that an interstate can spur economic development rather than stifle it.
But Steve Oubre, a planner and architect with Architects Southwest who is helping guide the Evangeline Corridor Initiative, said the idea of leaving the thruway in its current state should not be considered an option.
He talked Friday of repairing neighborhoods and "humanizing the streets."
The city, he said, will never reach its full potential if the north side doesn't experience the same investment and growth as the south.
"It is not healthier than the weakest part," he said. "We need every neighborhood to function at its highest level."
In general, the plan calls for new policies and projects to essentially take Lafayette's oldest neighborhoods back to a time when streets were narrower and lined with sidewalks and trees, a time when traffic was slower and each neighborhood had its own mixed-use commercial center, with restaurants and retails shops just a short walk away.
The plan, which is still considered a rough draft, also digs into the details of the distinct neighborhoods and commercial areas along the Evangeline Thruway, identifying where sidewalks could be built, where a commercial center might take shape, where a new park might be built or how an existing one might be improved.
In the area near Interstate 10, considered Lafayette's northern gateway, planners drew a grand arch over the interstate — think the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Élysées in Paris — surrounded by green space and ponds, with the arch possibly housing a tourist center where visitors could gaze out over the city.
Heymann Park in the McComb-Veazey neighborhood was reimagined with an amphitheater along the Vermilion River and pedestrian bridges connecting the park to the Vermilionville living history museum on the other side of the river.
In the Sterling Grove Historic District, homes in the path of the interstate or close to it could be salvaged and relocated farther into the neighborhood.
The design team used input gathered in recent neighborhood meetings as a starting point and crafted neighborhood plans over a series of often 12-hour days, bouncing ideas off residents and vetting the concepts for engineering feasibility and cost.
Outside neighborhood plans, the Evangeline Corridor team is encouraging DOTD to design an interstate that allows for better connections of local streets, possibly by cutting the interstate down into the ground and allowing local streets to pass over it.
DOTD is now reviewing 19 design alternatives for I-49 through Lafayette, and Oubre said the general consensus among the Evangeline Corridor team is that the initial design the state brought to the table — a conventional interstate with two big interchanges in the downtown area — is a bad idea.
"I think we all knew, intuitively, that it just wasn't our community," Oubre said.
Whatever the final interstate design, he said, it should allow for a better connection for areas on either side of the road and leave open critical connections to downtown.
"We not only need to connect them internally, but we need to connect them to downtown," Oubre said.
DOTD is set to begin next month narrowing the list of interstate design options.
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