On The Beaten Path
● By Robert Frey
New Iberia’s Church Alley Bike TrailBy Wynce Nolley
In April, the long-awaited Church Alley Park was unveiled in Downtown New Iberia marking the culmination of a vision that was years in the making from local officials and citizens. The pocket park is also a trailhead for a 3.2 mile bike path that encircles New Iberia and runs through several of its historic and cultural districts.
Church Alley is actually almost as old as the city of New Iberia itself. The alley sits neatly downtown and connects East Main Street and East St. Peter Street right across from St. Peter’s Catholic Church. The alley was originally owned by one of the city’s founding citizens, Frédéric Henri Duperier, who incorporated New Iberia on March 13, 1839.
“Mr. Duperier would sit on his porch and view the Catholic church through the alley,” says Jane Braud, director of the New Iberia Planning and Zoning Department. “And so, he decided to donate that space to the city on the condition that it would never be sold or used for any other purpose other than an alleyway and that the vision would always be maintained from the bridge downtown to the church. And that’s why it’s named ‘Church Alley.’’’
The idea to modernize the alley started two decades ago with the city’s current mayor, Freddie Decourt, who worked as a volunteer on several downtown projects.
“The main focus was to improve the alley as a pedestrian walkthrough, which it always has been for many of our residents and visitors,” says Braud. “And so the idea for those improvements to take place actually was the mayor’s idea. I worked with him 16 years ago to find funding sources. And it wasn’t until about two years ago that the idea was actually approved through the Louisiana Recreational Trails grant through the lieutenant governor’s office for funding.”
The Church Alley Park and Trail will bring several benefits to New Iberia, namely a means of transportation for its burgeoning bicycle community and constant influx of tourists. The trail runs through the city’s nationally-registered commercial historic and residential districts and will feature several kiosks and signage along the route to elaborate on the area’s abundant historical context.
The length of the Church Alley Trail will pass by several of New Iberia’s major attractions including the Shadows on the Teche, a historic antebellum home that’s been on Main Street since the early 1800s; the Conrico Rice Mill, which is the oldest rice mill in the country; and of course the Bayou Teche itself.
The project was constructed through the Federal Highway Administration Recreational Trails Program for Louisiana and went through an extensive planning process to come up with what the community wanted to build with the recreational trails program funding. And since a portion of the bike trail runs along Main Street, which is a state highway, it had to receive approval from the Department of Transportation and Development. Ultimately, the Church Alley Project beat out nearly 30 other projects to receive the grant.
“It’s a rigorous competition,” says Michael Domingue, FHWA Recreational Trails Administrator for Louisiana. “We take applications every year and we score them. We have $1.5 million to give away every year and we give it out roughly in $100,000 increments. It’s usually the top 14 projects that get funded. And on an average year, we get twice as many grants as we can fund.”
The project also had to pass an environmental review process given its proximity to the Bayou Teche.
“It was 2015 that the application was put in, but it wasn’t awarded until 2016,” says Domingue. “And once it’s awarded, it goes through an environmental review process that takes a couple of months, but it’s not that tough a deal. We just want to make sure that it’s not doing damage to anything, particularly a project that’s on Bayou Teche.”
The City of New Iberia then hired local architect Paul J. Allain and his firm to design the requirements for the construction drawings to be able to build out the alley and to secure a permit from DOTD for the bike path.
“We knew it was a blighted area between two existing buildings and we wanted to create a pedestrian way,” says Allain. “It shows what could happen to a blighted area in terms of redevelopment. It takes an eyesore and makes it a beautiful thing to invite people in who want to enjoy it.”
Allain describes the aesthetic of Church Alley as a small meditation park where visitors are able to sit down, read, relax, take a break from work or meet after hours. There are also future plans for creating some festivals in association with the park.
“It kind of had an existence there that we kind of wanted to connect the church back to the Deperier home, so everything related to that kind of tells a story,” says Allain. “It’s between two very historic structures, and it’s in the downtown historic district, which has a national designation.”
According to Braud, the Church Alley Park and Trail is only the beginning for Downtown New Iberia’s redevelopment. The next project will be for boat slips, which Braud says has just received approval from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries for grant funding.
“We have several projects now, one just being approved through Wildlife and Fisheries for a downtown marina, which will be adjoining the bicycle trail, and a canoe and kayak dock, which is just across the street from the old Duperier home,” says Braud. “And so there’s a master plan for downtown and Church Alley and the bicycle trail is one of the goals that’s been successfully accomplished.”