The four- and five-lane stretch of Congress Street skirting downtown Lafayette will soon be brought down to three, with added bike lanes and on-street parking in some areas — the first step in a plan to spur quality development of the northern edge of the central business district.
“This can have tremendous, transformative effects on that corridor,” said Geoff Dyer, the Downtown Development Authority’s director of design. “A lot of that land has really been in a holding pattern.”
DDA and city-parish government are now researching zoning changes for the downtown section of the Congress Street corridor, much of which now falls under a “commercial heavy” designation more suited to big-box chain stores and strip malls than the pleasant streetscape envisioned by downtown officials.
DDA’s proposed changes don’t restrict any particular type of development but rather put in place form-based codes detailing how buildings interact with their surroundings.
Windows would be required on shop fronts. Parking lots would be tucked away behind buildings or shielded from street view. Businesses would push up closer to the street.
Such codes already are in place for the core of downtown, and the idea is to create a space where it’s pleasant to stroll along the street, peering into shop fronts or perhaps enjoying lunch at an outdoor bistro.
DDA is offering that scenario as an alternative to a future more akin to suburban development: cars whizzing by and big buildings pushed back from the road by sprawling parking lots.
“We can’t out suburb the suburbs,” said DDA CEO Nathan Norris. “We want to play to the advantages we have in the urban core.”
Another advantage, Norris said, is predictability: Developers considering projects along Congress Street could have confidence in what the area might look like 10 years from now.
No decision has been made on the zoning changes, and any new regulations would be subject to public hearings and approval by the Zoning Commission and the City-Parish Council.
The current proposal would have little impact on areas now zoned residential, and, like most zoning changes, existing businesses would not be forced to rebuild to suit the new codes.
In the meantime, the plan to bring Congress Street down to three lanes is moving forward and is scheduled to go out to bid this spring, said Carlee Alm-LaBar, city-parish director of planning, zoning and development.
No substantive change would be made to the road itself.
The lane reduction will be achieved by repainting the road markings, generally converting the four- and five-lane sections to three lanes — two travel lanes and a center turning lane, with added bikes lanes and parking along the side where space allows.
“You leave the curbs in place and you work with what you’ve got,” Dyer said.
The city’s traffic engineers believe a skinnier Congress Street will easily handle current traffic, Alm-LaBar said.
She said the reduced lanes should improve walkability in an area where pedestrians now must dash across five lanes.
“It’s not the safest experience,” Alm-LaBar said.
The Congress Street lane reduction has been in the works for several months, but newly minted Lafayette Parish Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, who took office in January, said he is on board.
“I just think it will add to the overall aesthetic of that area of downtown,” he said.
Still undetermined is the speed limit after the lane reduction. It is now 35 mph for most of the stretch.
The DDA has suggested 25 mph, but Alm-LaBar said the new limit will be based on traffic studies once the road is restriped.
DDA’s Norris said lowering the speed is critical.
“What if we create spaces worth being in rather than speeding through?” he said.
Jonathan Joubert, who owns commercial property along Congress Street, said he suspects some drivers will object to slowing down.
“I know that would be problematic. Ultimately, I understand the idea,” he said. “The whole goal is to get people to slow down and pay attention to business.”
A similar project is planned for the section of Bertrand Drive between Johnston Street and College Drive.
City-parish planners have proposed a major streetscape project there, adding sidewalks and landscaping.
In the short term, plans call for restriping the road to bring it from four lanes to three lanes.
A public meeting on the Congress Street corridor project is set for 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Rosa Parks Transportation Center downtown.
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