Testing FuturEBR

Testing FuturEBR

Officials derail the sale of land pegged for a key connecting corridor in the city-parish land-use plan.

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After nearly five years on the market, the 2.9-acre tract of vacant land at the intersection of Kenilworth Parkway and Perkins Road was set to change hands this month, and realtor Ty Gose thought he had a good deal in the works. A group of buyers had signed a purchase agreement for the parcel and had hopes of developing an office park there.

Two weeks before closing, however, Gose got word from the Department of Public Works that it wouldn't issue permits to build on the property because the land is identified as the site of a future cut-through street that would provide access directly from Perkins to Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center. The city's new land-use plan, FuturEBR, also identifies the site as a potential “connecting corridor,” and goes so far as to suggest it could eventually link Kenilworth all the way to Corporate Boulevard.

As of press time, Gose was still hoping to change the minds of city-parish leaders and prevent them from effectively killing his deal. After all, he says, whatever the city's land-use plans call for on paper, to suggest Kenilworth should be extended straight through some of the mansions on Moss Side Lane is a little incredible.

“I'm just trying to get in front of decision makers and get them to take a level-headed view of this right of way,” he says.

But in a city where traffic congestion is feared as much as crime, shouldn't plans that further road connectivity take precedence over just about any other kind of land deal?

Such will be the challenge of implementing FuturEBR, a $2 million land-use plan that was more than a year in the making and has been much-heralded since its release last summer. It's a great plan, like other city-parish land-use plans that preceded it. But turning its many great suggestions into reality will take a lot of time and money. In the process, it's going to gum up a lot of deals and anger some of the same people who supported the plan in the first place.

“You need to start acquiring rights of way and you want to do it before development takes place,” says Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas, director of the Center for Planning Excellence and a member of the FuturEBR Implementation Team. “But it's not going to be easy.”

Part of the problem is that Baton Rouge isn't used to having land-use plans that are really followed by decision makers and developers. In the past, land-use plans were lauded by planning experts, then given a wink and a nod by everyone else. FuturEBR promises to be different, with an emphasis on implementation. From the get-go, city-parish leaders have pledged to get serious about identifying specific projects outlined in the plan, prioritizing them, and trying to move forward.

“We've been identifying what is the low-hanging fruit,” Thomas says. “There are some things that can be done immediately, and I think that's what we're focusing on now.”

While getting a few relatively easy projects under the belt is important to establishing the legitimacy of FuturEBR, it's the long-term, pie-in-the-sky projects that will make a significant difference in the community's quality of life. Many of those projects are related to transportation in general, and to traffic congestion and road connectivity specifically.

And they're expensive. FuturEBR identifies 30 projects totaling nearly $1 billion that are “considered critical routes to help relieve traffic congestion in the parish.” Most involve widening or extending existing roadways. Eight others are newly constructed connecting corridors that would link major streets, many of which should have been connected in the first place.

The tract of land on Perkins at Kenilworth is the site of one such connecting corridor, and could eventually lead into another. The first is a road that would connect Perkins directly to the OLOL medical district via a tunnel under the railroad tracks. That project was originally proposed in the city's Master Street Plan many years ago. It is again listed in FuturEBR, which dubs it the Kenilworth-Hennessey Connector.

“Clearly, the most important use of cutting Kenilworth through is for another outlet for the medical complex,” says Walter Monsour, director of the Redevelopment Authority and a FuturEBR Implementation Team member. “Right now, if there is a train, you can't get there.”

The plan also goes on to envision a so-called Kenilworth-to-Corporate corridor, which would dog-leg off of the Kenilworth-Hennessey Connector, snake behind Concord Estates, cross under the interstate and eventually tie in to Corporate Boulevard. It's ambitious, to be sure. But planners says it's a perfect example of the big-picture thinking the city-parish needs to do if it is to get serious about addressing its traffic issues.

“It's hard to say where it would all tie in because it's all very theoretical at this point,” Thomas says. “But the idea makes great sense.”

Gose disagrees, and not only because it would screw up his purchase agreement on the site. Some of the most expensive residential property in the parish on Moss Side Lane would be destroyed by such a cut-through, he argues. Besides, there are other developed tracts in the path of the envisioned connecting corridors, to say nothing of the challenges of building under the railroad.

“It doesn't make sense,” he says.

While that's a debate that will likely play out over time, should things get that far, the larger issue is why the city-parish hasn't already acquired such parcels for future rights of way. Moreover, as it moves forward with trying to implement FutureEBR, will it attempt to?

“In a case like this, you would want to acquire that property now,” says Portland consultant John Fregonese, the architect of FuturEBR. “This would be the time to do it.”

Easier said than done, however, when there's no money, which brings up the biggest challenge of implementing FuturEBR. So far, there's no source of funding for major projects, especially those that have no specific timeline attached to them.

“We have a major street plan that has lots of projects in it,” says Mike Bruce, an engineer and FuturEBR Implementation Team member. “But there is no funding source, so there is no way to do it.”

But there is a way to stop the sites of future rights of way from slipping through the cracks: by denying permits for construction and development. That way, at least, even if the city-parish cannot afford to purchase the property now, it can ensure it will be less expensive to expropriate it down the line.

In the meantime, implementation team members are trying to identify funding sources for a prioritized list of projects. Monsour says some of the ideas on the table include TIFs, the creation of special economic development districts and still more dedicated property taxes.

But for major projects, like the Kenilworth-to-Corporate Connector, local government and voters are going to have to get behind a single, major funding source that looks at all the projects on a given list as a whole, not as single-issue items that exist in a vacuum.

“Those projects have to be looked at in a macro fashion,” says Monsour. “Lots of these things cannot be achieved without a grand plan for financing and then prioritization as well.”

Monsour, Thomas and others are optimistic they can accomplish the planning and prioritization. As for identifying the $1 billion or so it would take to implement all the transportation projects identified in FuturEBR and then getting the community to rally behind it, well that's a different challenge altogether.

“Where are you going to get the money?” says Thomas. “It all comes down to money.”

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