BY CINDY GERLACH
If you think downtown Lafayette is looking picturesque these days, then you’ve been watching its evolution. Over the past decades, while the downtown had its share of charm, sidewalks were looking as if they needed an update, a little tweaking to enhance the ambience.
Rejuvenating Main Street, a streetscaping program that has been underway for more than 15 years, continues this summer, improving sidewalks, adding gathering places downtown and planting trees.
It’s a beautification project that not only makes the downtown scene more attractive, but it is a boon to business as well.
Plans for this project date back as far as the late 1970s, says Dennis Carson, economic development director for the City of Lafayette. Funding was made available in the mid-2000s; the first phase of the plan was rolled out in 2005.
So why the need to change the look of downtown? For decades, when people lived and worked near the downtown, it was the major shopping and business center, with retail shops lining the streets, anchored by the Courthouse, with restaurants and movie theaters. It was the shopping and business district.
The feel of downtown Lafayette began to shift and change in the 1960s and ’70s, as it did in downtowns throughout the United States. With widespread use of the automobile and people moving farther away from the city center into more suburban neighborhoods, a shift occurred. By the 1980s, many businesses had fled to Market Square or the Tippecanoe Mall; single-screen movie theaters — places like the Long Center and the old Mars Theatre — had been abandoned in favor of larger multiplexes.
Downtowns were in danger.
But, Carson says, Lafayette’s downtown fared much better than those of other, similar-sized cities.
“Fortunately, even in that time, there was a lot of interest in downtown,” he says. Along with the Courthouse, many law firms and banks remained, as well as the newspaper and other government offices.
So the city took the lead, focusing on historic preservation. Much of the downtown consisted of buildings dating back to the first half of the 20th century, and the city wanted to preserve that architecture, knowing its value.
“One of the early efforts was historic preservation, to establish the historic district,” says Carson. “They really tried to preserve the architecture we have. We lost some, too, but we’ve been able to preserve a lot.”
But the need went beyond historic preservation and into safety. The sidewalks were so old that many had the WPA stamps, dating them back to the 1930s.
“It got to a point where not only did we need to do it for aesthetics, but there were several safety and ADA issues,” Carson says.
Thus the streetscape plan for downtown was meant to enhance the district on several fronts. Clearly, part of the goal was simply to beautify downtown. Sidewalks have been widened, and the corners are larger, with benches added, making it easier for people to gather.
And with wider sidewalks, downtown restaurants were able to take advantage and add more outdoor dining space.
Bike racks encourage people to use other methods of transportation. And public art installations add visual interest.
If you’ve walked through downtown, you’ve seen the improvements. These all make downtown more accessible to people with a specific destination or those who just want to walk and browse, soaking up the small-town yet big-city aesthetic.
“One thing we really want to improve on is the pedestrian experience,” Carson says. “So they don’t park, go into the shop, then get in their car and leave. We want to encourage people to walk the downtown as much as possible.”
For summer 2020, the project expands to upper Main Street, between 10th and 11th streets. Both sides of 10th Street, from Main north to Ferry, will see the widened sidewalks, striping and tree installation. The next phase will see the same improvements on the south side of Main Street between 10th and 11th, as well as 11th Street between Main and Ferry. The final phase, wrapping up at the end of September, will take the project south on both sides of 10th Street to Columbia.
The project is paid for through Tax Increment Financing, or TIF districts. Business owners have been asked to contribute to a portion of the project in front of their buildings.
“There was a little apprehension at first,” Carson says. “But once it was done, everyone was really pleased.”
The energy and enthusiasm associated with downtown has increased over the past few years, with urban living opportunities and more retail and restaurants than ever, says Carson.
Over time, that value will continue to increase. With the variety of arts and culture opportunities, the festivals, and more shopping and dining
options, people will continue to see and enjoy the revitalization of the streetscape project.
“It’s really transformed Main Street,” Carson says. “We’ve gotten a lot of comments; it’s been pretty well received. Over time we’ll see increased property values. It helps, helps maintain these historic structures. It’s been a fun thing and it’s been well received.”
For details on the project, visit lafayettedowntownisopen.com.