GONZALES — Gonzales has a number of parks and a museum. It has a boulevard lined with governmental buildings. It boasts a major shopping center, the Tanger Outlet mall, off Interstate 10.
But what this city of about 9,800 residents on the east bank of Ascension Parish doesn’t have is a clearly defined downtown.
Consultants working on a new master plan for the city asked about 30 residents at a forum Wednesday to find ways to turn the oldest section of Gonzales into a recognizable downtown.
It was the second workshop for public input from CPEX, the Center for Planning Excellence, of Baton Rouge. The city hired the nonprofit organization for $162,500 to create a new master plan to replace the current one, which is 17 years old.
At the first meeting, in October, “redevelopment focused in the historic core of the city” was a recurring theme from residents, said David Whitley, an urban planner with CPEX.
He invited the residents who attended Wednesday’s workshop at the city’s civic center to keep three thoughts front and center —“what if,” “what I worry about” and “what must happen” — as they envision developing a downtown.
The area being considered is about a dozen blocks along La. 44, also known as Burnside Avenue, interchangeable names for what’s considered the city’s main street, which connects the two commercial corridors of U.S. 60 (Airline Highway) and La. 30, where Tanger is located at its intersection with I-10.
Currently lined by various businesses, a handful of vacant buildings, a primary school, football and soccer fields and a Catholic church, the street that was home to the community’s first businesses would benefit from a new, tied-together look and purpose, residents said.
Gonzales is a relatively new community. From a settlement of a few families in the 1850s, it was declared a town by Gov. Huey Long in 1952 and a city by then-Gov. Edwin Edwards in 1977.
“Donaldsonville has cool old buildings,” Gonzales resident Karen Hatcher said of the parish seat on the west bank, a city that served as the state capital from 1829 to 1831. “We don’t have that here, but we can have a modern twist that can be attractive.”
“We need to build a lot of attractive storefronts here,” Hatcher, president of the Gonzales Committee on Cultural Affairs, said after the meeting.
Before the workshop got started, attorney Erin Lanoux said she’d like to see a Gonzales main street that’s “more pedestrian friendly, eases traffic concerns and has a little more culture and shopping, too.”
With residents working in four groups around maps of the downtown area, a “what I worry about” item that surfaced early was the problem of parking — there’s no parking along the four-lane state highway.
However, resident Debbie Lacour offered her group’s suggestion of looking at areas along a residential street parallel to La. 44 that perhaps could be home to new mixed-used developments of residential and commercial, with parking spaces from which shoppers could walk to nearby stores.
And while not much can be done to widen or change La. 44, “we do agree we can enhance curb appeal,” Lacour said.
“We didn’t see a whole lot of historical buildings that are left there,” resident Murphy Painter said of his group’s analysis.
Maybe, he said, incentives could be found for the existing businesses there to perhaps rebuild or give a new look to their buildings.
Janet Tharpe, associate planning director with CPEX, said the organization plans to have a draft of the city’s new master plan ready in the spring.