Some early pieces of plans for improvements to University Avenue are coming together, starting Monday morning when Lafayette leaders kicked off a long-in-the-making maintenance project for the railroad underpass just north of Cameron Street.
The $429,000 project, which will include painting, pressure washing and sealing, is one of the first components of Mayor-President Joel Robideaux’s revitalization plans for the 2.2-mile stretch of University Avenue from Renaud Drive to Cameron Street. Those plans involve more than $40 million in public investments over the next decade aimed at sprucing up the appearance of the roadway, improving pedestrian access and encouraging private development.
Two additional pieces of the University Avenue plans are moving through procedural hurdles this month. The Planning Commission on Monday gave preliminary approval to New Orleans-based HRI Properties’ proposal to retrofit the old Coca Cola bottling plant along Cameron Street, and the Zoning Commission on Sept. 16 is scheduled to consider a new overlay district aimed at stimulating further development.
The commissions’ votes are considered non-binding recommendations to City-Parish Council — or City Council, if the final votes are scheduled in 2020, after the consolidated legislative body splits apart.
Robideaux has championed University Avenue improvements throughout his first and only term in office, but his successor’s priorities will determine how much of the plans come to fruition. Robideaux announced in April that he will not seek re-election on the Oct. 12 ballot.
A series of community meetings preceded a final set of plans for University Avenue the administration released in December. They include installation of traffic circles, new landscaping, signage and other cosmetic improvements for a stretch sometimes referred to as the city’s gateway, since it connects Interstate 10 to the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, downtown and the airport.
The old bottling plant, combined with the notorious and dilapidated former LessPay Motel, are identified in the administration’s plans as one of three “catalyst sites” ripe for private development. The other two are vacant lots on the west side of University Avenue comprising a combined 37 acres between Alcide Dominique Drive and Willow Street.
Developer HRI Properties wants to build 40 loft-style apartments in place of the bottling plant and motel, with leasing preference to artists. Plans are on track for construction to begin on the $15 million development before the end of the year, an HRI senior vice president, Josh Collen, said on Monday.
The company still needs to secure state approval for four percent low-income housing tax credits and execute sale agreements with three different property owners, Collen said.
“We are knocking on the door of all of that,” Collen said.
Stephanie Cornay Dugan, who owns the bottling plant with her husband, said they agreed to sell to HRI because they liked the developer’s plans. Longtime residents of the University Avenue corridor area, Dugan said they didn’t consider offers they considered inappropriate.
“We are not leaving town. We are not leaving the neighborhood, either,” Dugan said. “We are very invested in making the project work.”
To stimulate street-level retail and other private development, the administration is proposing a zoning overlay that would switch the area between Cameron Street and Willow Street from “commercial heavy” to “commercial mixed.”
The area north of Willow Street and immediately north of the interstate would remain commercial heavy, which allows for big-box stores, auto dealerships and industrial uses. The new zoning designation between Cameron Street and Willow Street would limit the types of businesses allowed to open there.
The proposed overlay district bans certain uses through the corridor, regardless of zoning designation. They include pawnshops, bail bonds services, car and truck repair, manufactured home dealers, cemeteries and “adult businesses.” New businesses would be subject to signage, landscape, architecture and other requirements, although existing property owners would not be required to change anything.
“What we wanted to do is really make sure we are giving some architectural freedoms that are happening here, but maintaining some consistency with the landscaping, the signage,” said Cathie Gilbert, a planning manager for the city-parish.
Robideaux said Monday that his administration had set aside capital funds from sales tax revenue to cover the underpass maintenance project, which will cost $429,000. While the project is cosmetic, Robideaux said decades of deferred maintenance had made it more complicated than initially thought.
“What started as ‘let’s get it clean’ led to ‘well there is a lot of chips in the plaster, we should really go ahead and fix it. Let’s do it right,’” Robideaux said.
Some residents complained about the safety of the underpass for pedestrian commuters in community meetings last year. The narrow sidewalks can barely accommodate a single person on foot as traffic passes with no buffer, and there is no extra room along the road for bicyclists.
To address those concerns, plans call for the city-parish work with railroad officials on above-ground improvements to facilitate pedestrian movement away from traffic. That project is estimated to cost $6.5 million, with work expected to occur sometime in the next two years, according to a corridor study report completed last year.
While there is much to do in the future, Dugan said the underpass maintenance project is a good start. She said she and her neighbors have been pushing for that work to get done for about 10 years, and even considered doing it themselves.
“We were actually trying to figure out how we could slither down the walls in the middle of the night and wash it,” Dugan said.
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