Corridor cities like Lake Charles, Lafayette, Crowley, Baton Rouge, Hammond and others are in the midst of attempting to draw residents and patrons back downtown, now considered the community “living room,” and worth hefty investment. Strangely, one revitalization bellwether, Breaux Bridge, is at the center of a downtown zoning controversy about whether or not to legally declare residents welcome.
Breaux Bridge is known for its strong arts vibe and thriving main street – the anchor of which is Café des Amis, a restaurant and inn that’s drawn hundreds of celebrities since it opened in 1991. The B&B’s national acclaim, both for its Creole menu and high-octane Zydeco breakfast, has helped spark a healthy collection of residences, venues and basic services in the city’s downtown.
But success in Breaux Bridge has happened under an antiquated zoning ordinance, which, among other dated features, did not officially protect the rights of downtown residences, says Mayor Jack Dale Delhomme. “We had a planning and zoning ordinance that needed to be upgraded,” he says, adding that “if a resident had been challenged for some reason, they had no protection.”
However, a new version presented to a sparse crowd in December also didn’t specify mixed land use in downtown. In fact, the proposed ordinance, drafted by University of Louisiana at Lafayette professor and consultant Dennis Ehrhardt, calls for exclusively commercial downtown zoning going forward.
Delhomme says he was concerned about the lack of resident feedback at the December meeting on the proposed city-wide ordinance, a 74-page document, so he called for two additional public hearings in February – one devoted to residential issues; the other, to commercial. Downtown residents learned about the proposed ordinance and showed up for the residential meeting on Feb. 3.
That’s when a tense vibe got worse. Because downtown residents live in an officially “commercial” district, officials figured their issues should be heard at the commercial meeting on Feb. 17, and stymied the discussion on Feb. 3, says Delhomme, who was not in attendance. Ehrhardt had been asked to steer the meeting, but according to downtown resident and Café des Amis owner Dickie Breaux, the consultant waived off all sorts of questions – including ones concerning his contract fee, credentials or details about the ordinance itself. “At first blush, it was so overwhelming to hear this man lambaste the people who were paying him.” Breaux and others left the meeting in a huff.
Delhomme says he takes responsibility, and despite a wave of letters asking him to fire Ehrhardt, he says the consultant will stay on. But Delhomme adds the lack of residential zoning in downtown was an oversight and that the ordinance needs to be tweaked. “It’s a public document that really has to be scrutinized,” he says. “It’s not embedded in stone.”
Meanwhile, Breaux says he and other residents are inspired to show up on Feb. 17 with not just a defense of their position, but with ideas on how to build upon the city’s past New Urbanism successes. Among other ideas, they want to suggest a potential artists’ colony that would keep young people busy and draw more patrons to downtown. “Some of the creative ideas that are coming out are absolutely spectacular,” says Breaux.
Chad Theriot, a downtown business owner and incoming president of the Breaux Bridge Chamber of Commerce, which supports downtown mixed use, says it’s unfortunate things got off on the wrong foot, but is hopeful that a constructive discussion lies ahead. “Breaux Bridge has a lot of good potential,” he says. “We’ve got some really progressive people on one side and some more conservative people on the other, but with some good dialogue we can meet in the middle.”
The meeting on Feb. 17 will be held at 6 p.m. at Breaux Bridge City Hall. To see a copy of the proposed ordinance, click here. To read a story about downtown revitalization along the corridor, click here.