While it may be years before the I-49 Connector breaks ground, Lafayette is starting to turn dirt on its response to the decades-old megaproject. Lafayette Consolidated Government has advanced well over a dozen projects as part of the Evangeline Corridor Initiative, planning millions in improvements to neighborhoods the Connector will one day arc over.
Pending approval of the proposed budget, $14.7 million will be deployed in areas left in limbo by the Connector’s delays. Among them are projects to restitch the Fightinville neighborhood’s connection to Downtown, reimagine McComb-Veazey’s historic 12th Street strip and empower neighborhoods to recapture and redevelop blighted properties.
Scaled against the billion-dollar magnitude of the Connector itself, it’s a small investment. But community advocates and locals nevertheless view the progress as a big deal.
“It’s a significant baby step,” says Tina Bingham, executive vice president of the McComb Veazey Neighborhood.
By mileage, McComb has major exposure to the Connector and has suffered decades of disinvestment while the project sputtered. The proposed budget, set for final adoption Sept. 8, will pay for a major update to 12th Street, McComb’s main drag. Bingham says the group has envisioned it as a food corridor, anchored by staples like Creole Lunch House and Kirk’s U-Needa-Butcher.
LCG’s budget will also allocate $500,000 to study the economic impact of converting a stretch of the Evangeline Thruway adjacent to McComb into a boulevard. The concept, floated by the coterie during the Connector planning process, reimagines the Thruway’s north-bound lanes into a neighborhood-level thoroughfare. With sufficient investment, planners hope the boulevard would attract residential and commercial development.
These projects are part of the Evangeline Corridor Initiative, a plan produced with a $1 million federal grant awarded to LCG in 2015. The funding created a parallel planning process intended to prep Lafayette’s urban core for the Connector, which resumed its own planning activities around the same time.
The Guillory administration has chopped at the ECI plan in successively bigger chunks, moving rapidly ahead of the Connector. The speed has quickly shifted projects into action.
“That’s a big deal,” says Kevin Blanchard, executive director of the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority. While working for the Durel administration, Blanchard helped draft the federal grant application that created the ECI and its work group, the Evangeline Thruway Redevelopment Team. Blanchard currently serves on that team.
“Honestly, as someone who has worked at LCG, it’s a very fast pace,” he says. “The administration has done a really good job of pushing that work and making it a priority and seeing the value of it.”
The first run of small-scale projects was originally funded in 2017 with $550,000 but didn’t kick off until 2021, most visibly in the array of neighborhood signs that now dot Lafayette’s urban core. Later that year, LCG moved several major projects into engineering and design phases with a $3 million outlay. Some of those projects are now moving into construction with the latest tranche, including the 12th Street project and the largest investment on the list: a $4.7 million project to resculpt Congress between Fightinville and Downtown.
The Congress project will make permanent changes to the roadway that were striped several years ago, which removed a car lane to make room for bike lanes and street parking. So-called “road diets” have been documented to have tremendous safety benefits, reducing crashes between 19% and 47%, according to studies commissioned by the Federal Highway Administration.
Fightinville locals have noticed the improvement. Jen Borel Doucet used to push her son in a stroller to the Downtown library across Congress Street from her house. Even with crosswalks, the trip could be harrowing, she says, like playing a game of human Frogger. The diet calmed the traffic.
“It definitely made it easier and safer once they put that all in,” she says. “The traffic was forced to slow down.”
Beyond safety improvements, the project dovetails with sprouts of investment and community activity in the Fightinville area, including the LPTFA-financed Monroe Apartments and a new headquarters for edtech company SchoolMint.
Both Fightinville (also called LaPlace) and McComb have struggled with declining populations and blight. Hundreds of abandoned homes and lots, locked up by Louisiana’s century-old property laws, have suffocated the neighborhoods. Efforts to reclaim adjudicated properties — tax-delinquent properties unclaimed by tax sales — have ramped up since LCG rolled out a process to offload them.
The budget includes a pilot program to empower neighborhoods to bootstrap redevelopment of those properties, many of which have been left to rot for decades. Conceived by McComb’s coterie and funded with a $100,000 allocation in the proposed budget, the pilot will help defray the cost of legal work needed to clear title on a batch of up to 20 properties.
It can cost roughly $5,000 to execute the legal notices to clean up the title on an adjudicated property, which puts redevelopment out of reach. The pilot takes advantage of a local ordinance allowing LCG to “donate” adjudicated properties to nonprofits, in this case the McComb-Veazey Neighborhood itself. Locally, the approach has been pioneered by Habitat for Humanity. This program turns the keys over to the neighborhood.
“What I love about this process is that it’s born of the community,” says Bingham, who also works for Habitat. Habitat’s efforts have focused on affordable housing. This program could be a way to unlock market-rate housing or commercial development, depending on developer interest.
While not part of the ECI, the McComb pilot joins an important, but gradual, pivot toward neighborhood investment within LCG. This year’s budget also includes major road projects, some financed by city funds, that follow Lafayette’s historically suburban development patterns, which have contributed to rising maintenance costs and flooding.
Neighborhood work has moved slowly, bottlenecked with limited staff. The administration sought to change that with a new planning division that would have added civil service manpower to neighborhood reinvestment work. The $500,000 concept, called the Office of Communities, was axed by the councils during this week’s budget wrap-up.
While the administration will go back to the drawing board on the Office of Communities, staff in the planning office have their work cut out for them, says LCG Planning Manager Cathie Gilbert. The ECI plan is a sprawling document, populated with dozens of projects, big and small. Even incremental improvements can be impactful, they say, and those increments aren’t easy to accomplish.
“The small stuff is a lot of work,” Gilbert says.