Lafayette’s Saint Streets neighborhood offers a picture of the city’s early suburbia, with its detached homes shaded by a canopy of mature oaks.
From the early 20th century, neighborhoods like the Saint Streets — really a patchwork of subdivisions planned across decades — and others like it that surround Downtown came to define city life in Lafayette as it accommodated its first population booms.
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But as Lafayette grapples with another housing market crunch, the city’s development code makes replicating the density of its early suburban neighborhoods largely impossible, blocking the same path that was used a century ago to meet its demand for housing.
If neighborhoods like McComb-Veazey, the Saint Streets and West End Heights were proposed for development where they are today, Lafayette’s development code wouldn’t allow them because many of the homes in those neighborhoods don’t meet the 6,000-square-foot minimum size for lots in the single-family zoning that dominates the city.
Single-family zoning, which limits neighborhoods to just over seven homes per acre, is the most widespread use of land in Lafayette, covering 43% of the city and accounting for 75% of its residential areas. A map of Lafayette’s zoning districts is available here.
Lafayette’s development code puts strict requirements on single-family residential areas — designated RS-1 — by limiting how many residences can be built in them, creating a substantial barrier to growing the city’s housing supply as its restrictions block denser, more affordable forms of housing from being built in much of the city, with River Ranch offering a uniquely complicated exception.
The result is that residential growth in Lafayette, and outside the city’s limits, has largely been defined for decades by increasing suburban sprawl.
“The reason the development happens the way it does is that we've made suburban sprawl privately cheap but publicly expensive. Infill [development] today is privately expensive but publicly cheap,” says former Lafayette Consolidated Government Development & Planning Director Carlee Alm-LaBar. “So, the market is going to go to the sprawl because that's where the land is cheaper and it's easier to build. There are fewer barriers.”
Disclosure: Carlee Alm-LaBar is a member of The Current’s board of directors. Read our conflict of interest policy here.
That presents a serious challenge for meeting the housing demands of a city as geographically constrained as Lafayette, since its small, largely landlocked footprint gives it a population density that rivals New Orleans, where zoning for two-family homes is far more widespread. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 2,174 people per square mile of land in the Hub City versus 2,265 in the Big Easy as of 2020.
The code also makes it burdensome, if not impossible, to reclassify single-family areas to higher-density zonings through a months-long process that can often be thwarted by unhappy neighbors.
“You can’t really blame them, but invariably, if you do anything that’s proposed that’s more dense, you’re going to get neighborhood or citizen pushback. Major pushback for just trying to make something more dense in an existing neighborhood,” says City Planning & Zoning Commissioner Steven Hebert, who is also the president and CEO of development firm Billeaud Companies.
That was the case in 2019, when residents of the Girard Park neighborhood successfully lobbied the former City-Parish Council to block a plan to rezone several lots along Girard Park Drive near Ochsner Lafayette General’s campus to build a housing complex for resident doctors.
“They want us to sacrifice the integrity of our pastoral neighborhood for the hospital,” resident Jim Diaz told The Acadiana Advocate at the time. Other neighbors complained that the plan would worsen traffic or allow a three-story complex that wouldn’t mesh with the neighborhood’s character.
“That was such a smart proposal from the hospital, and it made a ton of sense for economic development and attracting and retaining talent,” says Hebert. “It was frustrating to see that go down. …That was a missed opportunity for the city.”
In some parts of the city, the barriers to upzoning effectively incentivize developers to exceed density limits rather than change zoning types, as evidenced by a 2017 project developed by Greg Walls in the RS-1 neighborhood around Myrtle Place Elementary.
Rather than fight through the city’s months-long zoning process and risk rejection from the council, Walls took advantage of the 1928 subdivision’s original 3,125-square-foot lots to build four single-lot homes on the corner of Bellevue and Jasmine streets.
The plan met with “a lot of opposition at first,” Walls says, but the neighborhood’s under-sized lots had inherited protection from the code’s 6,000-square-foot minimum, allowing him to build at nearly twice the max density allowed in RS-1 while avoiding the time consuming, politically sensitive hurdles of rezoning.
But those same hurdles killed a similar project Walls planned for the adjoining corner of Jasmine and Congress streets, since that property had to be rezoned to reach the necessary density to make the project viable.
“I looked at rezoning the lots on Congress Street because having four units wasn’t great,” he says. “To make it work [financially], it needed to be denser, and it wasn’t worth the trouble to try rezoning it.”
Making changes to the development code is one way for Lafayette’s City Council to address local housing concerns that “does not cost the city a penny,” says Hebert, who notes that this fall’s elections could be a chance to reevaluate the code since a majority of the current City Council members aren’t seeking reelection.
“Maybe we could circle the wagons and pull in the right administrators and ask, ‘How can we make infill development easier on developers?’” he says. “‘Is there anything we're requiring that we could turn the dial back on?’”
Infill development is “the smart way, the fiscally conservative way to build a city…particularly with our flooding challenges,” says Alm-LaBar, and adjusting the development code to facilitate that in a way neighbors can embrace is one path for the City Council to address the demand for housing in Lafayette.