The Water Campus – A 27.6-acre riverfront research park could make Baton Rouge an international center for coastal preservation and restoration.

In a year marked by big deals, major announcements and game-changing developments for the Capital Region, news that Baton Rouge will be home to a world-class research institute and all that goes with it could be the most significant of them all.

And not only because of the size and audacity of the vision of the Water Campus announced by Gov. Bobby Jindal last week. Rather, it is the potential for Baton Rouge and Louisiana to sail a blue ocean of coastal preservation and restoration solutions that holds such great promise of charting a completely different direction for a state too heavily weighted in the energy and petrochemical sectors.

The 27.6-acre riverfront research park—which will be bordered by the Mississippi River Bridge, Nicholson Drive, Oklahoma Street and the river—will be a huge magnet for intellectual and investment capital trained on coastal restoration and sustainability. It could well establish Louisiana as a world-class center for the best available science on water management and coastal issues.

The brainchild of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and doggedly promoted by its president and CEO, John Davies, the Water Campus represents a coming together of multiple interests: state government, BRAF, the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, the city-parish, LSU and the Water Institute of the Gulf.

“The Mississippi River [and its delta system] is one of the premier laboratories in the world,” Davies says. “The Water Institute [the research component of the Water Campus] will be doing work not only for U.S. entities such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Corps of Engineers but for sovereigns, such as countries in Latin America.”

The campus, which will initially consist of three buildings totaling $45 million in construction costs, will also be an engine for economic development that will not only create as many as 45,000 jobs over the next two decades but an entirely new economic sector for Louisiana.

“We will develop scientific, engineering and construction expertise related to water management that can be exported around the world,” says Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret. “In this manner, water management can become a true economic-driver industry here.”

At street level, the Water Campus will be a catalyst for the redevelopment of the Nicholson Drive corridor, a three-mile stretch between LSU and downtown that has fallen prey to blight over the years. Plans call for construction of a streetcar line that would link LSU to downtown, passing through a new mixed-use district and in front of the Water Campus on its way to Town Square.

In addition to all its other virtues, the Water Campus will give Louisiana leverage in Washington, D.C., which controls the purse strings on coastal project spending. While billions of dollars from a variety of sources are committed to rebuilding Louisiana’s coast, there is still a fundamental disconnect in terms of getting actual construction dollars from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The credibility of being a world-renowned research center for coastal issues tilts the playing field in Louisiana’s direction when the feds start passing out checks. The Water Campus may significantly improve the state’s ability to get the funding it needs, quite literally, to survive.

“We hope this science prods the administration, the Congress and the Corps not only to accelerate their studies but to actually start building some projects and funding some projects,” Gov. Bobby Jindal says. “In our lifetime we have a chance to restore our coast and reverse the loss of land we have seen. But if we don’t do it, our kids won’t have the same opportunity.”

While the story of the Water Campus is positive—a textbook win-win made possible by cooperation among multiple entities—the underlying reality that makes the existence of the campus necessary is deeply sobering. Louisiana is washing away at an alarming rate. The state Department of Natural Resources says wetlands are disappearing at the rate of 24 square miles a year—a football field every 38 minutes. Over the past six years alone, more than $18 billion has been spent on coastal restoration projects. It is not nearly enough.

“We are going to have to make some tough decisions in Louisiana,” says Garret Graves, chairman of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “Based on science and resources, we just don’t see a scenario where we can take the 2005 or 2008 or 2013 footprint of our state and sustain it. … So we are trying to set it up so you have decisions based on the right parameters or metrics, rather than on politics.”

The Water Campus, as envisioned, will be a research park with academics and private-sector scientists and engineers collaborating to produce the best possible science to help inform the difficult decisions to which Graves refers. BRAF recognized the need for such an entity several years ago and has been working for the past two years to develop the campus with several partners, including the state, city, CPRA, LSU and the Water Institute of the Gulf, an independent think tank of coastal science rock stars that was created by BRAF and the state in 2011 to do research for the CPRA.

The first phase of the campus will include three main components. The first of those is a $20 million Education and Research Center that will be constructed on 11 acres that include the old city dock and an adjacent vacant parcel. The center—which eventually will be the home of the Water Institute offices—will be the marquee structure on the campus, visible to motorists approaching the city from the Mississippi River Bridge, and will symbolize the city and state’s commitment to coastal science. The city is donating the land for the building and is splitting the cost of construction with BRAF and the state.

The campus will also include a $16 million facility that will house a 90-by-120-foot physical model of the lower Mississippi River. It will be a key tool for researchers, with more than 200 computerized, foam panels that will simulate the movement of the river. BRAF is donating the property for the facility to LSU, which will operate it, and the state will pay for construction from the Coastal Impact Assistance Program.

“This is a tremendous research opportunity for us,” says LSU President King Alexander. “It is also a recruitment tool that will help us to attract top faculty and top graduate students.”

The third component of phase one will be a $9 million coastal research office building for the CPRA and other coastal researchers. The state owns the 13.3-acre tract on which it will be built and will enter into a long-term lease with BRAF, which will construct the building through Commercial Properties.

Once the first phase of the campus is developed, the second phase is intended to grow organically, with engineering and design firms drawn to the research and projects that will come out of the campus. Is the if-you-build-it-they-will-come philosophy overly optimistic? No, says the governor.

“There is going to be a huge demand for this,” Jindal says. “I think there will be more utilization than facility.”

So far, there are no economic impact figures available for the campus because no study has been done. But Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret estimates it will create between 20,000 and 45,000 jobs over the next 20 years. Many of those will come from out of state and even out of the country. But over time, their presence—and the participation of LSU and other universities—will create opportunities for locals in the area of coastal studies and water management.

With rising sea levels and sinking coastlines around the world, coastal studies is a growing field. But there is still relatively little competition in that arena, unlike, say, software development or biomedical research. That’s why LED identified coastal studies several years ago as a “blue ocean,” or a relatively untapped economic sector with little competition and thus ripe for development. With the Water Campus announcement, that vision becomes closer to being realized.

“This campus has the potential to catapult Louisiana into a leadership role in coastal restoration and a prime position in the water management industry in North America,” says Moret.

The facility to which Moret and others point as comparable to their model for the Water Campus is Deltares in the Netherlands, an independent institute that studies water issues, subsurface water movement, flooding and infrastructure. Louisiana officials have visited Deltares on more than one occasion to learn how communities in the Netherlands have dealt with living in flood-prone areas at or below sea level. The subject matter and issues are different (though related), but backers of the Water Campus see it as a U.S. version of Deltares, attracting not only visitors but engineers and design firms from the private sector.

Some of them are already here. According to a study from Duke University, 42% of all national firms doing work on coastal restoration have a presence in Louisiana. With the Water Campus, that presence should continue to expand. And they can be expected to want a place at the table as the Water Campus grows.

“That’s the highest concentration of technical firms in the country,” Graves says. “So we expect you are going to see a coalescing at the campus of that private sector as well.”

While the Water Campus has tremendous implications for the state, it is also expected to be a major catalyst for the redevelopment of the Nicholson corridor that links LSU to downtown. Plans for the blighted corridor have been in the works for several years, as various players have been assembling parcels of land, waiting for the right moment to start transforming what could be one of the city’s finest thoroughfares. That day is here now, they say.

“The Water Campus will be a world-class asset for the city of Baton Rouge and the perfect bridge between LSU and downtown riverfront development,” says Mayor Kip Holden.

LSU is already working on its end of Nicholson Drive, with a master plan for redevelopment on the south end. Those plans include a mixed-use development of student housing and retail, as well as a new building for the LSU Foundation on property that once was the site of Alex Box Stadium and a married student housing complex.

Dalis Moreno, a Lafayette developer, also has plans for the Nicholson corridor. She is working on a project started by her brother, Mike Moreno, to develop some 40 acres just north of LSU. Her mixed-use development will include commercial and residential uses and will be called the River District. Designed by architect Steve Oubre, known for his River Ranch in Lafayette, details of the project are expected to be released in the next few weeks.

FuturEBR, meanwhile, calls for a streetcar line to run from LSU through the corridor and in front of the Water Campus all the way to downtown’s Town Square. Once a pipe dream, city leaders now say that streetcar could really happen. Though it could cost as much as $60 million on paper, federal grants would likely make the actual local cost more like $20 million.

“This is the type of development that pulls the entire river corridor, LSU, Old South Baton Rouge and downtown together,” says Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District. “This is the real urban response to suburban sprawl.”

Perhaps most importantly, the Water Campus will help give Louisiana leverage with the federal government to fund the projects in the state’s $50 billion, 50-year Master Plan for coastal restoration. So far, some of those projects have been funded; over the past six years, the state has spent some $18 billion rebuilding levees and dredging.

But the Corps of Engineers has been notorious for dragging its feet when it comes to allocating the money to put a shovel in the ground, preferring, instead, to fund studies. The state is coping, cobbling together funding from a variety of different sources—from the BP oil spill fund, the federal Coastal Impact Assistance Program and Water Resources Development Act, among others. But it is still not enough.

“We absolutely need a more efficient, more effective partner in the Corps of Engineers,” says Jindal.

Bringing together top-flight scientists and engineers to do research that is exportable to other parts of he country and, even, the world, will only make it that much harder for the feds to turn their back on Louisiana. In the end, that may be one of the most significant contributions of the Water Campus to future generations.

“This coast is important to the entire country,” Jindal says. “We can’t keep funding endless studies. We want to prod the Congress and the Corps to act.”

The Water Campus concept has been years in the making. BRAF’s Davies is certain it represents a huge shot in the arm for downtown development. But he acknowledges it is a constant challenge to maintain the energy that has been building around downtown redeveloment the past few years.

Victor Dover, noted urban planner and founding partner of Dover, Kohl & Partners, has worked closely with BRAF on concepts for the Water Campus (see story on page 31). He sees the Water Campus as a logical extension of the stars that aligned to achieve the Hilton Capitol Center, the Shaw Center and then the IBM service center.

“The IBM [development] is simply not conceivable without the history of the Hilton and the Shaw Center preceding it,” Dover says. “I’m sure at some point, somebody at IBM took a look at what was happening downtown and said, ‘I can imagine us being part of that.'”

And that sort of halo effect, of course, is precisely BRAF’s expectation for the Water Campus.

Says Davies: “Without pulling that first olive out of the jar, you don’t invite others to do the same.”

THE WATER CAMPUS AT A GLANCE

It’s a world-class research park devoted to the study of coastal restoration and sustainability that will be developed along the Baton Rouge riverfront and include, initially, three buildings: an Education and Research Center at the old city dock, a facility housing a small-scale model of the lower Mississippi River that will be used by researchers from LSU and elsewhere, and a coastal research office building.

On a 27.6-acre tract between the Mississippi River Bridge, Nicholson Drive, Oklahoma Street and the river.

Partners in the project include the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, LSU, the Water Institute of the Gulf, the state, and the city-parish. The CPRA will have offices in the $9 million coastal research office building. The Water Institute will move into the $20 million Education and Research building built directly over the river.

The city and state are donating land to the project; BRAF is doing the development through its real estate company, Commercial Properties Real Estate Trust. The state is picking up some of the tab for construction through various coastal funds. LSU will operate the small-scale model. The CPRA will be located on the campus, as will the Water Institute, which will do research for the state’s Master Plan and other projects.

It matters because the Water Campus will be a catalyst for economic development, creating as many as 45,000 jobs over the next 20 years. It will also establish Louisiana as a center for coastal restoration and sustainability research, while linking LSU to downtown and helping to redevelop the Nicholson corridor.

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