Imagine strolling downtown on a wide sidewalk along Main Street under the shade of second-story galleries while gazing into big shop windows, perhaps taking a break at an outdoor cafe before returning to your nearby loft.
It’s a vision the Downtown Development Authority hopes to nurture with a new set of development codes set to come before the City-Parish Council for a vote in May.
The proposed regulations don’t dictate what can be built or where, focusing instead on what might be described as character.
Main entrances should face the sidewalk, windows are required and should be clear rather than tinted, sidewalks should be wide enough for at least two people to walk side-by-side, parking lots should be behind buildings or shielded from street view, and long facades should be broken up to make the street frontage more interesting.
Outdoor dining areas would be encouraged, along with awnings or galleries built over sidewalks.
Planners call it a form-based code, and when Nathan Norris, CEO of the Downtown Development Authority, talks about it, he uses phrases like “vibrancy,” “interaction” and “outdoor rooms.”
It’s a fairly new concept for Lafayette, and the concept of any rules at all is new for downtown.
“It’s the wild, wild west,” Norris said.
The proposed codes are part of a comprehensive overhaul of Lafayette’s zoning and development regulations.
One of the basic goals for the downtown area is to make it a more interesting place to be, and Norris said people are more interested in being on streets that have a room-like feel where they can see into buildings and interact with folks coming and going, rather than streets marked by heavily tinted windows or long, solid walls with no windows or doors at all.
“Blank walls kill the vibrancy of the area,” Norris said.
Form-based codes are fairly common in other areas of the U.S., and their effect can be seen in Lafayette’s largest residential and commercial development — River Ranch.
Architect and town planner Steve Oubre, who developed the codes for River Ranch in the 1990s, said local governments in south Louisiana began taking more of an interest in form-based codes during the major rebuilding efforts following hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
“People were very concerned with creating a special place, and form-based codes do that better than Euclidean zoning,” Oubre said, referring to conventional zoning laws that carve cities up into varying residential, commercial and industrial districts but rarely consider how people might interact with buildings.
Oubre said downtown officials have experimented with form-based codes in the past, offering grants or other incentives if developers adhered to the rules, but there were few takers.
He said some developers might be wary of the proposed codes at first because they seem so different, but “once people see it, they are less intimidated.”
Architect Greg Walls, who designed and built a downtown live-work unit for his family and has another downtown project in the works, said he generally approves but questions some of the finer points, like a requirement that wide buildings must have a separate facades every 100 feet.
Walls said he understands the desire for variation, but the requirement could lead to some strange combinations.
“It’s kind of like your grandmother dressing you from the bottom up,” he said.
Still, Walls said he believes the new codes are a good start, especially considering the lack of any guidelines.
“Anything can be built,” he said.
The new codes would impact mainly new construction.
Existing buildings would be grandfathered in, but any future renovations could not push a building further out of compliance.
“You can’t make it worse than it already is,” Norris said.
He said the codes alone will not bring significant changes to downtown, and much of the real work will come by the Downtown Development Authority’s design staff working closely with developers.
“A lot of inspirational tools will be used, a lot of collaboration with property owners,” Norris said.
One potential change could come not from an added requirement but from loosening an old restriction.
For years, city-parish government has not allowed new galleries to be built over public sidewalks, in part because of liability and in part because of concerns about access to utility boxes and other infrastructure. Galleries are an extension of a roof which are supported by columns and provide cover from the weather.
That policy is changing, said City-Parish Public Works Director Kevin Blanchard.
He said new galleries will be allowed, but there will be some restrictions, and developers will need to work with city-parish government when the galleries extend over a public right-of-way.
Norris said galleries, which are common in many historic downtown areas, could offer welcome protection from the tropical rains and intense summer heat of south Louisiana.
“That should be the norm everywhere, and we don’t have it,” Norris said.
To see the proposed codes, visit www.lafayettela.gov/ComprehensivePlan/Pages/unified-development-code.aspx.