What image pops into your head when you envision downtown Lafayette?
A quiet village, with tree-lined streets, that would make Norman Rockwell smile?
A bedroom community, dotted with fine shops and restaurants, where people move to escape the city?
A bustling suburb, with too many cars and too little parking, that could use high-density housing and mass-transit solutions?
If you can't decide, don't worry. Not even the residents can agree.
During a Monday night City Council hearing on the proposed 72-unit Town Center Condominium project near the BART station -- "behind the Panda Express," as locals say -- residents who spoke took turns debating the essence of their community.
"We live in Lafayette, as opposed to Walnut Creek or near the Pleasant Hill BART station, because we like its semirural feeling," said one man opposed to the project.
"I hear people talk about semirural living," said another. "This site is on a freeway and a mass transit station. This is an urban location. It deserves an urban solution."
Twenty-five residents spoke across an hour and 20 minutes -- more opposed than in favor of the project -- but most striking were the differences in their visions for the community.
One saw the proposed four-story, 55-foot-high residence as a "big, ugly building" that would block majestic views of the ridgeline. Another saw it as a "beautiful" solution for those wanting to downsize and shed their dependence on automobiles.
Lafayette was settled in 1848 and incorporated in 1968, but perhaps at no other time has it experienced the growing pains it is confronting now.
Five residential projects along Mt. Diablo Boulevard are in various stages of planning and development. They range from row-house town homes to senior residences to midrange and luxury condos, numbering more than 700 units in all. Plus, a 315-unit apartment complex, Terraces of Lafayette, is proposed for a hilltop south of Deer Hill Road.
Quaint little Lafayette seems to be bracing for population explosion.
"This is a town that's not accustomed to growth," City Manager Steven Falk said. "There was rapid growth from 1950, when we had 5,000 residents, to 1965, when we had 19,000. But then we plateaued at about 24,000, and we've been like that for years."
Falk knows his numbers: The town's population in 2000 was 23,908; in 2010, it was 23,893.
Many residents at Monday's meeting clearly were alarmed by what lies ahead. They presented a laundry list of concerns they foresee in a more densely populated Lafayette: overcrowded schools, obscured views, traffic jams, parking woes.
"I think we have to focus on the number of projects going up on Mt. Diablo Boulevard," one woman said. "We have heard there will be no impact on traffic. But if you look at the whole picture of five projects, how much traffic will there be?"
The reasons behind this phenomenon are open for debate, but Falk thinks Lafayette has become a development target at least partly because of its highly regarded school system.
"Because Lafayette voters have stepped up and funded the schools, housing developers are now rushing the doors," he said. "People who value education are interested in moving here. Developers see the chance to make money."
It's no surprise some residents are resistant to change. But they're going to find out change is a persistent thing.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.