Oasis of blight – As Baton Rouge develops around it, Gardere faces an uncertain future.

Growth is not just coming to the southeast corner of East Baton Rouge Parish; it is here.

Last fall, the $368 million L’Auberge Casino & Hotel opened on the banks of the Mississippi just west of Gardere Lane, turning the sleepy strip of River Road into a tropically landscaped miniresort.

Less than a mile away, the Emerge Center for Communication, Behavior and Development broke ground in January on what will be a state-of-the-art facility in Innovation Park, LSU’s newly renamed south campus on GSRI Avenue.

This spring, developer Mike Wampold will begin construction on the first phase of Harveston, a mixed-use development that will bring housing, retail, offices and nature trails to 1,470 acres off Bluebonnet Boulevard and Nicholson Drive.

Those are just three of the many examples of development afoot in the last large, undeveloped chunk of the parish. The area roughly bordered by Staring Lane and the Iberville Parish line, Burbank Drive and River Road is being transformed from raw, wooded land into subdivisions, TNDs, research parks and entertainment destinations.

And smack in the center of it all sits Gardere, a low-income neighborhood of roughly 3.5 square miles and 10,000 residents that is synonymous with crime and urban decay. For many in white, prosperous Baton Rouge, Gardere is as close to the ghetto as they get. They speed past it on their way to BREC’s soccer fields or venture just one block into it, when their kids play ball at Cypress Mounds.

For the most part, however, they try to ignore it, which until recently is what official Baton Rouge has done. The East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority does not have a plan for Gardere. The city’s new land-use plan, FuturEBR, does not address Gardere. Even the Center for Planning Excellence has overlooked Gardere, despite being approached by Gardere community leaders for help.

It’s a problem, as just about everyone with a vested interest in the area concedes. For the moment, there is no comprehensive solution. How do you deal with Gardere, its dilapidated apartments and overgrown lots? Can you develop around it or does it hinder potential growth? They are questions that matter because the market is moving in and around Gardere on all sides and yet the area remains an oasis of blight.

“The Gardere area needs to be looked at holistically,” says RDA President and CEO Walter Monsour. “I don’t know what needs to go in there at this point. But you don’t attack a problem without a plan, and right now we don’t have a plan.”

Perhaps if there had been a plan in the first place, Gardere would not have ended up the way it has. But in the blow-and-go years of the late 1970s and early 1980s, a lot of people in Louisiana were rich—at least by Louisiana standards—and real estate was an attractive investment for doctors and other professionals with more disposable income than they knew what to do with.

A couple of developers are primarily credited, or blamed, for throwing up the inexpensive fourplexes that still define the landscape on and around Gardere Lane. They hoped to capitalize on growth from the Gulf South Research Institute, which was supposed to lure high-tech firms to Louisiana, and also to take advantage of the increasing number of LSU students who were moving off campus and looking beyond Tigerland for affordable housing.

For a time, it worked. LSU students flocked to the neighborhood. Real estate broker Beau Box was a freshman at LSU in the mid-1980s and remembers driving out to Gardere early one morning to give a ride to some older fraternity brothers, who didn’t feel like waiting at the LSU-Gardere bus stop in the winter cold.

“I remember being amazed at how many LSU kids were out there, waiting for the bus,” says Box. “They were everywhere. It was a really popular place to live.”

It wasn’t the rental income from students that made Gardere attractive for investors, however. It was the fact that the improvements on the land made great tax shelters, thanks to Investment Tax Credits, or ITCs, which enabled investors to write off as much as 25% of their investments in the first year.

“The philosophy was sort of, build it now and we’ll give you first-year tax credits,” says Wesley Moore, a commercial real estate appraiser with Cook, Moore & Associates. “We’ll worry about whether it makes sense later.”

The Reagan Tax Reform Act of 1986 changed all that. Among other things, it did away with blanket rules of depreciation, making write-offs available only to so-called qualified real estate professionals. About the same time, the price of oil plummeted, dealing a direct blow to the Louisiana economy. Then, the stock market crashed, followed by the savings and loan crisis.

“All of these properties people built to get the depreciation had to make money because they could no longer get the depreciation,” says local developer and real estate attorney Ed Kramer. “Then the economy collapsed and everything failed.”

Almost overnight, the shoddy fourplexes were worthless. Some went back to failed lenders and, later, the Resolution Trust Corporation. Eventually, most ended up as either federally subsidized Section 8 housing or as slum property, owned by out-of-state investors who swooped in looking for deals. The LSU students moved out, replaced by low-income residents, many of whom brought with them the social ills that breed crime and drugs. Gardere never recovered.

“It’s not just about the housing,” says CPEX Executive Director Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas. “You have a lot of crime because the residents don’t have jobs, and they don’t have jobs because they don’t have skills. It’s like, every problem that could possibly exist is magnified in an area like that.”

Carlos Padial Jr. sees examples of those problems up close every day. He owns 150 rental units in Gardere, and manages more than 300 altogether. Padial is not among the area’s slumlords, but some of the apartments he owns are in some of the roughest parts of Gardere. He has worked hard to clean up his units, to make them attractive, safe and comfortable. He buys in clusters in order to develop a critical mass of decent apartments. He screens tenants carefully. But it’s a constant challenge.

“You can screen your tenants very thoroughly,” Padial says. “But you can’t screen your neighbors’ tenants, and there are management companies out here that will rent to anyone.”

Crime is also an ever-present threat, though many who toil in the trenches of Gardere will tell you the perception is worse than the reality. Statistics bear that out. Violent crime has come down in Gardere over the past few years, thanks in large part to a nearby substation of the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s office and stepped-up community policing efforts.

Innovation Park Executive Director Charlie D’Agostino says since LSU acquired the south campus property in 2005 it has not had a single crime-related incident. In fact, a few employees of EA Games, the digital gaming company that is a tenant of Innovation Park, even live in Gardere apartments and walk to work daily.

“The crime is not the problem,” D’Agostino argues. “The perception of danger and crime is really the problem.”

But perception can go a long way toward damaging the reputation of an area. The persistent blight doesn’t help. Metro Councilman Chandler Loupe, whose District 12 includes the Gardere area, estimates he spends 30% of his time answering complaints about conditions in Gardere.

“The complaints are mostly for things like abandoned shopping carts, high grass, overgrown lots,” Loupe says. “And this is right in the back yard of a $370 million casino and hotel.”

Getting a handle on the blighted properties is complicated, however. For one thing, the parish law regulating code violations is lax. Violators are fined if their properties are not in compliance, but fines don’t have to be paid until a property changes hands, which might be years, or never. Though the RDA is working on a new set of proposed laws that would crack down on code violators, it will likely be 2014 before the changes are implemented.

What’s more, there are hundreds of blighted properties throughout East Baton Rouge Parish—dozens in Gardere alone—and the process of getting them condemned and demolished takes months. The last time the Department of Public Works demolished blighted houses in Gardere was in 2011, when it tore down just six. Currently, four are on the list to be demolished in the spring. Why so few when so many appear blighted to the naked eye?

Part of the reason is the challenge involved in identifying and locating the owners. Some are absentee landlords who live out of state. Others are reputed slumlords, who know how to skirt the system and get their rundown units removed from the condemned list before it’s too late.

Not that demolition is the solution, per se. Tearing down condemned properties leaves vacant lots, which can be as much of a hazard as blighted properties. In the tall grass and weeds, criminals hide stolen goods or drugs.

DPW is aware of the problem, and Padial has taken it upon himself to keep the department aware of lots that need tending. Still, there are more than the department can handle. Interim DPW Director David Guillory estimates there are 40 or so overgrown lots in Gardere alone, and literally thousands more parishwide. Says Guillory: “We simply cannot maintain them all.”

The conditions in the neighborhood frustrate those who live there as much as they do anyone. Most Gardere residents detest the blight and crime. They are not drug dealers or criminals. They’re just poor or working-class residents of subdivisions like Hermitage and Santa Rosa, neighborhoods of modest, single-family homes in the so-called good section of Gardere.

Sammie Grimes is one of those people. He heads the Hermitage and Cross Creek Homeowners Association, a neighborhood group of some 2,000 residents who live on the east side of Gardere Lane. Grimes is tireless in his devotion to the betterment of the neighborhood. He hosts neighborhood cookouts on the weekends and works with young people who need mentors.

He has given a lot of thought to the plight of those in Gardere and understands the social ills. He also gets the challenges involved in cleaning up blighted property. What he can’t comprehend is why it’s so hard to get a sidewalk built on Gardere Lane. It’s a little thing, in one respect, but to Grimes and his neighbors it speaks volumes about how the rest of Baton Rouge looks upon the area.

“The infrastructure here is the same as when they first put it together, and it’s a safety problem,” he says. “It’s like living in the Mississippi Delta in the 1950s and ’60s—you can see the opportunities and just watch them pass you by.”

Loupe shares Grimes’ frustration on the sidewalk issue. He, too, has been lobbying DPW and the state to build a sidewalk along the busy thoroughfare, which has become busier since the opening of L’Auberge. DPW’s Guillory says he wants to help, but there are hurdles. For one thing, Gardere Lane is a state roadway. For another, it is flanked by ditches, which complicates the construction of sidewalks. Then there’s the question of money.

“If Gardere was the only road with ditches that needed sidewalks, I could find some money and do it in a couple of weeks or months,” he says. “But I’ve got numerous projects in north Baton Rouge where sidewalks are needed. So, where do I start?”

Where, indeed? For now, Gardere is an afterthought; one of many impoverished areas in a parish with a lot of poverty. The problems are so numerous, but then, so are the problems of so many areas. What will it take to change that dynamic?

For Gardere, perhaps the change will come when the land under the shabby fourplexes becomes more valuable than the properties themselves. Many believe it’s just a matter of time before that happens. It hasn’t yet.

In 2012, the median price for a fourplex in Gardere was just $82,500, or slightly less than $22 per square foot. While that’s up a bit from 2010 and 2011, it’s still considerably less than in 2007, when Gardere benefited from the post-Katrina bubble—and even then the average price per square foot was just $41.

“At this point, the underlying land is worth less than the cost of demolishing the structure,” says Moore. “Unless you come in and buy the entire swath, it is just not financially feasible.”

Wampold believes someone will do that. It might be him, though he has no immediate plans to do so. He and other developers are looking at the area, though, and he is aware that some redevelopment plans are in the works.

“I have been approached by several people about partnering on redevelopment … taking some of those fourplexes and redoing them and offering special deals to good tenants to get them in there,” he says. “It’s still all a little theoretical, but there are some good opportunities to do things.”

Wampold believes it will take some sort of public-private partnership to achieve the kind of full-scale transformation that is really necessary. The RDA would be the logical entity to step in, and Monsour says the agency is looking at the area and is aware of its problems. But he concedes Gardere is not a focal point for the RDA.

“We have been more focused on Mid City, where you have an opportunity to build on an existing tax base,” he says. After all, how do you create a TIF if there isn’t any commerce to tax?

That may change if and when more retailers come to the area. Walmart has plans to develop to the east of Gardere on the Bluebonnet extension. CVS is interested in the corner of Gardere Lane and Burbank. A new Hibbett Sports outlet recently opened in the strip center on the other corner of that intersection, marking the first new significant retail in the area in a long time. But it’s still not a critical mass.

In the meantime, the RDA is working with DPW and the city to tighten the code enforcement laws. The RDA is getting ready to propose to the Metro Council and Mayor Kip Holden a series of ordinances that would make it easier for the city-parish to go after blighted property owners and force them to clean up their properties.

New Orleans, Baltimore, and Flint, Mich., have all revamped their code ordinances in recent years and have seen tremendous improvements in once-blighted neighborhoods.

“What we have seen and heard over the last four years is that code enforcement is the biggest and most effective tool of redevelopment authorities,” Monsour says.

There are also some small but potentially powerful changes taking place at the grass roots level to address some of the underlying social ills in Gardere. Padial has been working with local property owners to find a location for a full-time Boys and Girls Club for the Gardere area. He has several promising leads and hopes to have the facility up and running by the summer. It’s one of several local initiatives he and other community leaders in the area are spearheading to attack the area’s problems at their roots.

“A Boys and Girls Club facility is the biggest crime-fighting initiative we can have,” Padial says. “If we have a safe place for these kids to be, it will solve so many problems and will create so many opportunities.”

It’s a relatively little thing, but it’s an example of positive change Padial believes signals hope for the future of Gardere and its residents. Perhaps the area has not yet reached a tipping point. But Padial believes the balance is beginning to shift.

“It’s getting a hell of a lot better,” he says.

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