031317 Gonzales Main Street District

GONZALES — City officials hope to bring a true downtown flavor to Gonzales by creating a mile-long Main Street District along Burnside Avenue, the main street that cuts through the heart of the city. 

Letters went out last week to 120 commercial property owners situated on both sides of the avenue, telling them of the city's intent to give the area the new designation of main street zoning, which allows residential and commercial uses at the same site, one of several new zoning designations approved in an ordinance adopted by the city in April.

Property owners along Burnside would be grandfathered in, meaning the new zoning would not affect their commercial retail status or the existing uses of their properties, said City Clerk Clay Stafford.

In fact, Stafford said, the new zoning "would be more liberal for them." 

Under the new zoning, shops can be built up to the sidewalk with parking at the back of the buildings. Businesses can be on the ground floor and residential above, similar to Perkins Rowe in Baton Rouge.

"It's an up and coming trend, a move back to people being able to walk to services near where they live," said Frank Cagnolatti, chairman of the Gonzales Planning and Zoning Commission. 

"It's a way of making a prettier downtown," Cagnolatti said.

The Planning and Zoning Commission voted in March to move toward a Main Street District after a local doctor requested the new commercial zoning for a two-story building he owns on Burnside.

"The idea is to not do it in a piecemeal fashion," Stafford said of creating the district.

The area the city hopes will become a pedestrian-friendly Main Street District is a block deep on either side of Burnside and is a about a mile long — from Bayou Francois to the south, and to the railroad tracks that run through Gonzales to the north.

"At one time that was the hub of Gonzales," Cagnolatti said. 

Burnside, also known as La. 44,  is a busy corridor between La. 30, where the Tanger Outlet Center is located, and Airline Highway, and for many years was a two-lane street with parallel parking next to the sidewalks.

When the street was expanded from two-lanes to four-lanes in the 1970s, it lost a lot of its small-town appeal, say local residents. Burnside, though, is still lined by a variety of businesses, most of them locally owned.

A new master plan adopted by Gonzales in the summer of 2015 suggests the city look at the possibility of converting the older section of Burnside Avenue back to two lanes again.

City Engineer Jackie Baumann, who's talked with the state Department of Transportation and Development about a possible transformation of Burnside Avenue downtown, said reducing the number of lanes is not a likelihood "at this time, because of growth" in the parish.

The master plan, developed for Gonzales by the Center for Planning Excellence of Baton Rouge, describes a revitalized main street that would fit in with the nearby site of what city officials hope one day will be a train stop along a commuter rail line between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

In December, Gonzales was awarded a $50,000 federal grant by the Southern Rail Commission to design a plan for the infrastructure that would be needed for a train stop on North Boullion Avenue, just a couple of blocks east of the old part of Burnside.

A different project to improve the sidewalks and add other features along that section of Burnside Avenue is due to begin later in March.

Baumann said the project will repair the street and sidewalks, as well as add wheelchair-accessible ramps where sidewalks meet cross streets.

New pedestrian crosswalks will also be added across Burnside Avenue at two of its main intersections, New River and Roosevelt streets.

Pedestrian crosswalks will also be added on several side streets where they meet Burnside.

The railroad crossing on Burnside will also be rehabilitated to give it a smoother, less elevated approach, Baumann said.

Eighty percent of the $694,000 project — first sought by the city in 2014 as it looked to develop a new master plan — will be funded by a federal program with the city paying the remainder, she said.  

The Gonzales Planning and Zoning Commission plans to hold a public hearing at its meeting April 3 for the city's proposal to create the Main Street District.

Cagnolatti said that if the commission gets largely negative feedback, the proposal would be tabled for another time or dropped.

But, he said, "We're trying to get citizens on board."

The new Main Street zoning would "mainly affect new construction," he said. 

Such a district and the train stop the city hopes to get, "would work hand in hand," said Gonzales Mayor Barney Arceneaux. 

Follow Ellyn Couvillion on Twitter, @EllynCouvillion.