Lafayette’s relationship with the Bayou Vermilion is changing.
In recent years, recreation has returned to the river in small steps, as efforts to clean the water and the bayou’s image have slowly paid off.
Now, with millions in public and private investment on tap, Lafayette looks to be banking on the river as a cultural asset.
The most visible change to come is the redevelopment of the abandoned Trappey canning plant. The development group, led by architectural firms from Lafayette and New Orleans, is set to unveil a master plan this spring, and it’s ambitious.
“Where do I start? It’s a pretty big project,” says Stephen Ortego of Lafayette-based SO Studio, developer of Trappey’s River Front Development.
A big project indeed, the first phase will cost $120 million to develop the eight-acre plot near the Evangeline Thruway’s crossing of the Vermilion River.
“This development is going to change the regional image of Lafayette,” Ortego says. “It’s going to be the 2020s version of what River Ranch was in the 2000s.”
Ortego’s vision was inspired by the Pearl District on the famed San Antonio Riverwalk. Ortego and Marcel Wisznia of New Orleans partnered with Lake Flato, the Texas-based company behind the Pearl District in San Antonio.
The Pearl is a mixed-used, 22-acre development north of the main San Antonio Riverwalk. Instead of a cannery, the project redeveloped an old brewery. The development has grown tremendously since its purchase by Silver Ventures in 2001.
Ortego and Wisznia hope to re-create that success in Lafayette. Their vision is grand: a 55-room hotel, space for 260 apartments and more.
The group is currently in talks with grocers, a brewery, a coffee roaster, a few outfitters and a gym to move into the area when the first phase is finished. They also plan to build a boardwalk along 1,600 feet of shoreline and docks for kayaks and boats. They hope to break ground in 18 months, Ortego says. If all goes well, the first phase should be finished in 18 to 22 months.
Take Me to the River
Several initiatives have shown promise in improving water quality. But major investments and more personal responsibility among locals are needed.
Organizations have worked to make the river cleaner. But how safe is the Vermilion? Well, when was the last time it rained?
Nearly 40 years into an effort to clean up America’s most polluted river, Lafayette is rebuilding its relationship with Bayou Vermilion.
“This was a master plan that had a lot of public input,” Ortego says. “It’s something that can change Lafayette for the better.”
Unlocking the bayou as a public asset is a key goal, as much of the Vermilion is lined by private development. Many of Lafayette’s most expensive and exclusive properties are on its shoreline. The Trappey development seeks to enable public access to the river, Ortego says.
“One thing that was a conscious effort was to make the development very inclusive rather than exclusive,” Ortego says.
The Trappey redevelopment will be financed in part through public funds. A special taxing district was created to offset infrastructure costs through a 2% hotel occupancy tax and a 2% sales tax. The taxing zone, called an economic development district, was among five challenged in a lawsuit brought against the city.
The development also benefits from state and national historical tax credits.
The group is also asking the state to put in $8.5 million to assist in river abatement and the creation of bulkheads. It worked with the Guillory administration to create a pedestrian bridge across the Vermilion River to connect Trappey’s to Beaver Park on the opposite bank. The city footed two-thirds of the funding for the bridge.
Ortego argues that public investment is necessary for projects of this size. The Pearl District was built with public assistance. So was the San Antonio Riverwalk as a whole. In 1998 San Antonio created the Riverwalk Extension, a planned development to improve flooding and expand commerce that included the Pearl District. The plan was completed in 2009 to the tune of $384 million.
“We think it’s a minor investment for the state and the city compared to what investment is being put into it. It’s going to take city and state investment on top of private [investment] to make the project successful,” Ortego says.
Along with the Trappey’s development is LCG’s own plan to connect three nearby parks, Heymann, Beaver and Lil Woods, with pathways and bridges.
OJB, a Texas-based architecture firm working alongside Ortego and the city, estimates the project would cost tens of millions of dollars. The plan is an overhaul, to say the least, with community pools, tennis and pickleball courts, and boardwalks.
Chevron donated six acres of land to add more public access to the riverfront. It now represents a major chunk of shoreline put into public use.
The full scale of the project is for now just a vision, says Parks Director Hollis Conway. LCG has budgeted for an amphitheater in Heymann Park and $1.5 million for pedestrian bridges over the Vermilion.
Some residents have pushed back on the grander plan rolled out by the Guillory administration, because it put near-term projects like the amphitheater on hold. City Councilman Glenn Lazard, who represents the McComb-Veazey area near Heymann Park, has voiced frustration that the amphitheater project was reset by the Guillory administration to accommodate the master plan.
Conway says his department has worked closely with the public to get their input and hopes that eventually they can fulfill the communities’ desires.
“It would be great to have a plan in place as we build the amphitheater to just coordinate everything. That was the thought process,” Conway says. “We have Beaver, Heymann that have access to the Vermilion. I always thought, how can we take advantage of everything that we have?”