Greg Walls has big plans for little neighborhoods. The longtime contractor and co-owner of Johnson’s Boucanière has for years been an engine for redevelopment on the edge of Downtown Lafayette where he built the smokehouse staple, a pair of townhouses and his current home. And he’s far from done.
As chairman of the Downtown Development Authority’s board, Walls is acutely aware of the city center’s need for more affordable housing options to help Lafayette attract and retain young professionals.
To that end, he’s bringing a solution other communities have embraced into the fold in Lafayette with a six-unit pocket neighborhood of townhouses planned for just 10,000 square feet of land in the 1100 block of Washington Street behind Johnson’s.
The idea is to convert larger lots that used to hold single-family houses into a micro-community of smaller homes, making more efficient use of expensive land Downtown and adding to the area’s housing supply.
It’s a path Walls says should be more accessible to developers in Lafayette, but it’s blocked in most residential areas by restrictions on what are called “cottage courts” in the city’s development code.
Cottage courts give developers flexibility by allowing more than one house on a single lot with reduced setbacks from property lines. But the code’s 20,000-square-foot minimum total lot size for cottage courts makes them difficult to build in existing neighborhoods.That’s not a dealbreaker for Walls because his duplex development is in a Mixed-use Neighborhood (MN-2) zoning district, which gives him a different workaround on setbacks. A map of Lafayette’s zoning districts is available here.
Allowing for cottage courts and other types of pocket neighborhoods — where smaller single-family and duplex houses are clustered around a courtyard — on lots smaller than 20,000 square feet could encourage projects in areas where denser, more affordable housing options could flourish.
“We need to make ‘stealth density’ more approachable,” says Walls. “And we have to look at neighborhoods that are conducive to more density to get there.”
Some communities have tried to make it easier to build more types of low-density housing in single-family zoning districts, which account for 75% of residential areas in Lafayette. It’s an option that could unlock more space for construction within city limits and potentially reduce costs.
|Zoning||% of City*||Description|
|Single-family (RS)||43.5%||Exclusively for detached, single-family homes, with very limited exceptions|
|Residential mixed (RM)||9.3%||Allows for detached homes, duplexes and townhouses at up to five-times the density of RS zones|
|Mixed-use Neighborhood (MN)||2.6%||Allows a higher-density mix of residential and commercial buildings, plus detached houses. Prioritizes residential considerations, like noise restrictions and limits on drive-through operations|
|Commercial mixed (CM)||5.5%||Also allows a higher-density mix of residential and commercial buildings, but with no allowance for detached homes and fewer protections for residential considerations|
|Commercial heavy (CH)||18.4%||Allows higher-density commercial buildings but restricts all housing to multi-family options at a similar density to MN and CM zones|
Land use regulations are the purview of Lafayette’s City Council, which has almost exclusive control over the city’s development code. The city’s development code already allows duplexes and townhouses to be built in single-family neighborhoods through conditional use permits.
But even though those uses get special recognition in the development code, they require the same months-long, politically sensitive process as rezonings.
That’s an additional barrier to increasing the city’s housing supply that the council could clear. Creating a streamlined process for duplexes and townhouses could make it faster and easier to add housing of a similar scale in existing neighborhoods, says Rachel Holland, development and planning director for Lafayette’s Downtown Development Authority.
“Projects with four units or two units could go through an abbreviated approval process with fewer public hearings,” says Holland. “But right now we’re lumping gas stations and bars and duplexes into the same process.”
But that option isn’t without its fair share of criticism. Homeowners often push back on changes to the single-family composition of their neighborhoods, arguing that more density worsens traffic, harms their quality of life and ultimately wrecks the investments they’ve made in their homes. Such changes have a high bar, they say, and for good reason: It gives neighbors a voice.
“It should be a neighborhood thing that you do. The way that conditional use permits are done is that you have to notice all of the neighbors around you. Those are the people that would be most affected by more traffic, more noise, more trash,” says Stephanie Cornay, a lifelong resident of the Saint Streets.
“Those are the people that are going to be most affected by that, and they should have the opportunity to be heard if we’re changing the character of the neighborhood,” She says. Cornay has been active in pushing for limits on short-term rentals in single-family residential zones, an issue with similar contours.
Easing rules for duplexes and townhouses is a similar, if less all-encompassing, approach to those taken by other cities looking to address their own housing concerns. In recent years, cities around the country have gotten rid of exclusively single-family zoning in favor of lower-density residential zones that automatically allow duplexes and sometimes triplexes.
“There is no more effective way to rein in inflation than to expand the supply of affordable housing and increase housing affordability,” Moody’s Analytics Chief Economist Mark Zandi told Bloomberg in August.
Minneapolis made headlines in 2018 when the city’s council voted to allow two- and three-family homes in all of its single-family zones, which accounted for the majority of its residential areas. That decision was at least one factor that helped the city avoid national inflation trends in recent years.
Houston, Texas, a famously sprawling city, lowered minimum lot sizes to 1,400 square feet in its core in the late 1990s and expanded the boundaries of that policy in 2013. Houston residents pay less for housing than Lafayette residents when median income is accounted for, according to an analysis by UL economist Gary Wagner.
Outside of zoning policies, Lafayette has other tools at its disposal to find room for urban development. Other Louisiana communities use redevelopment authorities to piece smaller lots together into parcels large enough to encourage denser housing developments.
Redevelopment authorities, which are created by state law but typically rely on local funding, can take the burden of accumulating into sufficiently-large parcels off of potential developers, which can become a significant barrier, says Lafayette Consolidated Government Planning Manager Cathie Gilbert.
“We’ve had internal discussions on how we could help with land assembly to be able to do developments in parts of town where the parcels are really small,” says Gilbert. “That’s kind of an ongoing discussion about how we could administratively help assemble property and help with those planning issues, because it does become one of the more expensive things for people to do.
“We are always up against the fact that we don’t have a redevelopment authority,” she adds.
Looking at those potential solutions and others to facilitate infill development in pursuit of addressing Lafayette’s housing needs is the goal of a new group of stakeholders being put in motion this week by LCG’s Community Planning and Development Department.
While a timeline for proposals from the task force hasn’t yet been set, Gilbert says the department is hoping to use feedback from the group to identify the various barriers to building denser housing in the city, whether they’re procedural, regulatory or otherwise, and hopefully come up with solutions to expand the city’s affordable housing supply.
“Anything’s on the table, whether it’s departmental, LUS, Public Works, our LDC [development code], financing, whatever the case may be,” Gilbert says. “What we hope to do from that is get a couple people in that room to…meet a little more frequently and hopefully from there come out with some recommendations.”