Could UL and Downtown finally connect?

A man crosses a street on a bicycle.
A cyclist rides his bike across East Lewis Street near a newly constructed bike path on the University of Louisiana's Lafayette campus. Photo by Alena Maschke

The gist: UL students want to connect with Lafayette at large, according to One Acadiana’s most recent quality of life survey. Right next door, Downtown is an obvious starting point, but making that connection has been tough to do. 

Why? Two words: Johnston and University. Students have long viewed Downtown in particular as miles away, says architect Steve Oubre, who has guided UL’s master plan. 

“There was a psychological distance that wasn’t real,” Oubre says of student attitudes toward Downtown when he began master planning work in 2014.

UL students walk — a lot. Between 3,500 and 4,000 pedestrian crossings were tracked across Johnston and University daily in a UL traffic study commissioned in 2022. That was before UL opened its health sciences campus down St. Mary Boulevard.

There are a lot more kids on campus. Many are playing live-action Frogger to get to class. UL has been on a housing tear as the campus footprint expands and is taking a hard look at how it can make University and Johnston Street safer for the campus community and everyone else too. 

“This isn’t just something that Downtown and the university want. There are people who live in neighborhoods [around campus] that this affects their quality of life as well,” says Gretchen Vanicor, director of UL’s Office of Sustainability.

Downtown is an important amenity for students, Vanicor points out. They rated access to festivals, nightlife and the arts high on the 1A survey. “It was the infrastructure that’s poor,” she says. Here’s the good news (maybe): You can fix that.  

Making these connections isn’t a new idea. UL rolled out bike paths in collaboration with LCG and transit concepts have been tested. In 2017, M-P Joel Robideaux pursued a UL/Downtown bus loop routed with an autonomous vehicle. It didn’t quite take off. 

“Now you have a demand that you didn’t necessarily have before,” says Kate Durio, who worked for Robideaux and before that at the Downtown Development Authority. The demand is creating more urgency to stitch this part of Lafayette’s urban core back together. 

So…what about Johnston and University? The UL-adjacent segment of Johnston Street, a state highway, was transferred to city control this spring. University is to follow. Making them safe to walk should theoretically be easier today, provided local leadership is behind it. 

A key takeaway: Johnston and University are already pedestrian thoroughfares, just dangerous ones. 

“This isn’t just a quality of life issue,” says Vanicor. “They’re already crossing the road, and it’s unsafe.”