Photo for Downtown Plan Article

In this graphic from the Dec. 2019 draft of the West Lafayette Downtown Plan, the green color denotes conservation/recreation areas, which include current parks and prime locations for new parks or park expansion. Updated housing categories are designed to ensure smooth transitions between new development and historic buildings.

The West Lafayette City Council on Monday postponed until March a vote on the final phase of the West Lafayette Downtown Plan, which focuses on future land use and infrastructure improvements for Chauncey Village and the Wabash Riverfront.

The Tippecanoe County Area Plan Commission voted 14-1 to pass the plan on Jan. 15, its final test before facing West Lafayette city councilors.

The plan is the result of a process that began in May 2018, when West Lafayette requested the APC to study the downtown area and design a plan reflecting the results of the study. The APC serves as a planning commission that enables West Lafayette, Lafayette and several smaller towns in the area to undertake coordinated development.

“If the (APC) didn’t exist, then the cities themselves would have their own individual planning commission that would do this same work,” said Ryan O’Gara, assistant director of the APC. “Decades ago, the Greater Lafayette (area) decided to just have one place where that could all take place.”

The downtown portion is an amendment to the long-standing Comprehensive Plan utilized by the APC and Greater Lafayette to inform zoning and development. It recommends future land use and proposes improvements to transportation by suggesting locations for roads and trails in the area.

Below are some of the primary components of the plan.

Transportation and roundabouts

The plan suggests repurposing an existing railroad bridge with guard rails and a path for pedestrians and bicyclists to travel from West Lafayette to Lafayette as part of an expanded trail system. It also proposes the construction of a new cable-stayed bridge, to be named the Brown Street Pedestrian Bridge, to span the Wabash River and connect the two cities.

Characterizing the River Road and Harrison Bridge interchange as an impediment to the creation of a pedestrian-friendly downtown environment, the plan offers a bridge roundabout and intersection roundabout as two alternative solutions.

The bridge roundabout would replace an existing on-ramp and off-ramp with a roundabout. This alternative would fit within the mold of current infrastructure, limiting construction costs while also freeing up land for additional development along the riverfront.

The intersection roundabout would lower the grade of Fowler Avenue and Wiggins Street and raise the grade of River Road, joining the two roadways in one intersection. Though construction costs would likely be higher, the city expects its implementation would improve traffic safety and free more land for riverfront development.

Two additional roundabouts are proposed to better connect Chauncey Village and the Wabash Riverfront, one at Columbia Street and River Road and the other at Wood Street and River Road. Construction costs could pose obstacles to both projects.

Land-use designations

The Chauncey Village area has been surrounded by tremendous growth since the State Street project and remains a historic area the city hopes to be mindful of as it densifies. The plan proposes new land-use designations, Downtown Village and Urban Historic Residential, to avoid modern developments in the Downtown Core area from spilling over and creating a sharp contrast to historic sites.

The APC supplements the land-use designations with a “stair-stepping” policy for new developments next to historic buildings. By limiting larger height disparities between adjacent buildings and preventing historic sites from being overshadowed by massive properties, the plan shows “deference” to historic preservation and hopes to maintain the prominence of the city’s older buildings.

The plan proposes a redesign of the Wabash Landing area to incorporate a grid-street system. The system would extend Roebuck and Tapawingo drives to be two thoroughfares parallel to River Road, running perpendicular to Brown and Columbia streets.

Wabash Landing, constructed in the 1990s under then Mayor Sonya Margerum, is seen by developers as a potential opportunity to expand. Currently occupying the plot are a single-story commercial strip mall with restaurants and small retail shops, a movie theater and real-estate offices.

The plan says the “prime State Street acreage” could be densified with two or three multi-story developments, with new vehicular alleys and walkways to serve the new residents. In a hypothetical suggestion, the city envisions multiple open green spaces on the roofs of buildings or in courtyards between them.

Concerned landowners question park designations

The main criticism voiced at the Jan. 15 APC meeting came from developers concerned about areas designated as prime locations for parks. Their worries hinge on the negative effects park designation could have on a space’s property value.

Andy Gutwein, an estate planning lawyer, owns property in one of the areas identified as a good location for a park.

“I am concerned about the potential impact on the value of property, because while this isn’t a formal zoning action that changes the zoning of the property, it’s certainly going to have an impact on any requests for redevelopment,” Gutwein said at the APC meeting. “If the city’s not planning on (making) a park, then I question whether it’s really appropriate to designate a particular area as a park in the middle of other buildings and squeezing out an opportunity to have another property redeveloped.”

Two other local developers joined Gutwein in criticizing the park designations, saying the APC’s rationale was vague and could preclude future opportunities. A minor amendment was added to allow for the possibility of future real estate development in some green space locations.

O’Gara said that relying simply on donated land or land in the flood plain — an area of restricted development due to high flood risk — to create parks was not really planning, but rather just hoping opportunities for parks would arise.

The downtown plan designates much of the area along the Wabash River as future conservation and recreation space. O’Gara said the river shoreline offered a unique opportunity for West Lafayette to establish an unbroken chain of parks, something that could not happen in Lafayette due to the railroads that occupy the eastern shoreline.

Lucas Bleyle contributed reporting.

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