The greatest buildings never built
|Monumental victims of the economic downturn, man's best unmade plans exist only as colorfully rendered visions on a lost landscape.|
An ambitious ark-shaped revival of the old Baton Rouge Municipal Dock. New York-style apartments and condominiums. An overhaul of a vacant downtown building. A narrow multifamily residential structure with semi-translucent rooms extending from the side of the building. A mixed-use tower that would serve as headquarters for a bank. A high-rise condominium across River Road from the Mississippi River.
Because of the economic downturn, some of the city's most inspiring structures planned for the urban core have been left on the drawing board, grand monuments that now are nothing but fantastical renderings of futuristic buildings on the cutting edge of modern architecture.
If all of these buildings had been constructed, not only would the skyline of downtown Baton Rouge look dramatically different, but there would be more commercial, residential and retail options along or near the river. The reality, however, is that firms design nearly as many buildings that never see the light of day as those that do—and sometimes more.
"It is common, especially in the market we're in," says Fritz Embaugh, CEO/director of operations for PLUSone Design and Construction. "A few years ago, developers had plans for anything and everything. But as the economy has stalled out, so have a lot of these projects."
Some of the projects might be mere pipe dreams, says Norman Chenevert, founder and managing partner of Chenevert Architects, but most of them could easily be resurrected when the economy shows real signs of improving.
Chenevert speaks from experience: He's survived three recessions during his 33 years in the business.
"These projects get delayed primarily due to the lack of financing and the economy," he says. "But once the economy starts to turn, the projects that have sat on the shelf for a few years can begin to happen very quickly."
Baton Rouge Municipal Dock
The dock, along the Mississippi River south of the Interstate 10 bridge, has been scheduled for redevelopment for more than four decades.
Two attempts during the 1970s to build a restaurant on the site failed, and a 21,000-square-foot platform is all that remains after a 1978 fire. The city-parish leased the dock in 1992 in hopes of attracting a casino, but it has further rusted and deteriorated.
Last year, Trahan Architects unveiled an ambitious mixed-use plan, with renderings of a curved, ark-like wooden envelope serving to shade residences above a public plaza and commercial space. The louvers were designed to allow for natural circulation from the river.
"Initially, I think, there was some concern that it was too contemporary and too costly for Baton Rouge," says Trey Trahan, principal of Trahan Architects, "but we've continued to work on it quietly, and we think it could be built for a reasonable amount, about $250 to $300 per square foot.
"We're still hopeful that as the economy begins to come back, we will find a developer that will join forces with us to advance it."
Laurel Towers/Regions Financial Centre
The 19-story, 90,000-square-foot building, at Laurel and Fifth streets, was designed in 2006 to serve as the local headquarters for Regions Bank, with a branch on the first floor and offices on two floors. Regions has since relocated its downtown branch and administrative offices to II City Plaza.
The building, a Commercial Properties Realty Trust project, would have included about 30 condos and 640 parking spaces.
"That project is on hold until there is more certainty about the real estate markets," says Mukul Verma, spokesman for the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, of which Commercial Properties serves as the real estate arm.
An impasse in negotiations has left the eight-story, 180,000-square-foot building, at 333 Laurel St., vacant for years. Norman Chenevert, however, says he can transform the structure into about 120 residences on top of retail space in about a year if and when he can finally strike a deal with owner Bob Dean.
Chenevert made his first offer on the building in 2007, he says, and plans to create a development team for the renovation once a deal is finalized. Renderings call for 114 apartments, eight luxury condos, a 95-space parking garage and a 9,500-foot grocery store and delicatessen.
"The beauty of the Commerce Building is it's in excellent condition structurally," Chenevert says. "The entire interior could be brand new, and the exterior fašade could be upgraded in about 12 months.
"The whole project, with land and everything, is about $30 million right now, but it needs to be closer to $25 million if it's going to happen. This is a project I've been wanting to complete for years, and I do feel it eventually will happen. It just takes a lot of persistence to get projects of this kind done."
Laurel Street Condominiums
PLUSone's Fritz Embaugh admits his team might have exceeded developer Danny McGlynn's request to bring him a design so daring that it would "scare the hell out of me."
As a result, the building maximizes downtown riverfront views in a narrow space, with semi-translucent rooms hanging off the side.
McGlynn "wanted to shake up the downtown scene, and we're always looking for a way to push the envelope and make a statement while still being respectful of our clients' wishes," Embaugh says. "We really feel like we did both on this project, but it was one of those things where the economy had a number of issues working against us."
One of the most interesting features of the building is special paneling that literally would brighten its exterior when the interior lights of the rooms extending off the development are turned on at night.
The project could be built for about $10 million, Embaugh says, but its chances in the near future are "zero."
"We feel like there is still a demand for something this cool downtown," he says. "People would come from a ways out to live in a place like that."
The $15 million mixed-use development, which would have occupied about half of the block bounded by Laurel, Main and Fifth streets, has been on hold for about four years.
With 72 residential units, 30,000 square feet of office space and underground parking with 81 spaces, renderings of the project by Chenevert Architects reflect a revival of the historic Saltz Building fašade.
"It's an empty site used for parking, and I think it could still very easily happen," Chenevert says. "The lending market is just not favorable for that type of project right now."
Commercial Properties Realty Trust acquired several parcels years ago: two former state office buildings, the abandoned New Richmond Apartments and an existing parking lot.
Plans to bring affordable living to downtown with New York-style apartments and condominiums were announced in 2007. Restaurant and retail space also were part of the project, as well as a redevelopment of the nearby Bogan Fire Station into small shops and office space.
The 36-story condominium complex has undergone multiple design changes since 2006, when a groundbreaking was first announced.
Hurricane Katrina sent construction costs skyrocketing, and developer Richard Preis went back to the drawing board. His plans were further revised in 2008, when the financial markets crashed.
The latest design, scaled back in size but not in grandeur, comes from WHLC Architecture, with about 200 condos on 28 floors, a four-story parking garage and ground-floor retail space along Lafayette Street.
"We're still working on it with the developer," says Rex Cabaniss, project designer for WHLC Architecture. "He's very committed to the project, and we will move forward as soon as the credit market improves."
The original groundbreaking was hailed as a historic moment for downtown, representing the first high-rise residential building in the central business district. The latest version still brings much-needed residences to downtown, Cabaniss says, while also making a distinct mark on the skyline.
"It's really the kind of project downtown Baton Rouge needs," he says. "It would add a very striking landmark, and the added residences would, of course, lead to more commercial development."
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