By the time Petula Clark recorded her 1964 hit “Downtown,” a majority of Americans had passed on bright lights and neon signs in favor of life in the suburbs, where shopping centers, ball fields and post-war housing offered a spacious version of the American Dream. The ‘burbs’ popularity escalated, helped along by automobile ownership and expanding roadways, and in short order, downtowns throughout the U.S. lost their economic edge.
Louisiana was no exception. During the sixties, seventies and eighties, Baton Rouge, Lake Charles, Alexandria, Slidell, Hammond, Lafayette and others watched their urban cores lose retail energy – and public sentiment.
“It was bad,” says Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District in Baton Rouge. “The old Governor’s Mansion, the Old State Capitol and Catfish Town were all closed. There were no docking facilities on the river, and downtown’s two historic neighborhoods were in transition. The River Center (then Centroplex) was in need of expansion and the state’s various offices were scattered, rather than centralized downtown.”
But by 1990, Baton Rouge had taken the first steps in what would become a significant downtown revitalization. Neighborhood residents supported a tax that created the Downtown Development District, and the State of Louisiana passed a law to consolidate its operations in a Capital Complex.
Six years later, the state, city, and Baton Rouge Area Foundation jointly funded a downtown master plan. Twelve years later, an urban market, the Shaw Center for the Arts, a planetarium, a state museum, 600 new hotel rooms, an expanded convention center, secure property values and new bars and restaurants are among downtown’s Phase I successes.
“We are really on the cusp of becoming, as our mayor says, ‘the next great American city,’” Rhorer says. “You can feel the momentum.”
Lafayette’s downtown comeback followed a similar trajectory. In 1997, a $7.5 million overlay project was completed on the major thoroughfare, Jefferson Street, helping it subsequently lure private retail and restaurateurs. Coupled with well-established events like the Festivals Acadiens et Creoles, the 25-year-old Downtown Alive!, and the Festival International de Louisiane, which draws 300,000 people, the projects branded Lafayette’s downtown as an arts and culture nerve center.
Like Baton Rouge, Lafayette is moving into a second phase of priorities and projects, says Cathy Webre, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority.
“We want to increase our residential and hotel capacity,” she says. “That is really where we’re focusing now.”
Today, there is more community planning taking place in Louisiana than ever before, much of it the result of an infusion of public and private funding after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, says Scott Ball, senior project manager with Miami-based Duany Plater-Zyberk, which created Baton Rouge’s master plan, and later, post-storm plans for Lake Charles, Abbeville and St. Bernard Parish.
Other communities have jumped on the band wagon, and to varying degrees St. Francisville, Crowley, Central, Plaquemine, Gentilly, Algiers, and Ascension, St. Tammany and Tangipahoa parishes are engaged in master plans that preserve livability. On the horizon are master plans for the city of Hammond as well as Washington and St. Helena parishes.
“Historically, this was one of the least planned states in the nation, which actually works to its benefit now,” Ball says. “There are some real opportunities to do things right.”
Experts are fond of using the analogy of downtown as a living room because it has the potential to gather disparate parties and hold their interests with varied amenities. Cleaning up a downtown and putting it back into commerce can ignite economic change throughout the community because it improves the overall image, says planner Patrick Moore, CEO of Alexandria and Baton Rouge-based Moore Planning Group, which has created plans for dozens of the state’s municipalities and parishes.
“If you look at a map and you see how cities have grown, how their resources have become spread out rather than concentrated, you can actually see how they’ve unraveled,” Moore says. “Lay it on a piece of paper and the heartbeat of any city is the downtown.”
That intangible quality is what residents respond to, says Boo Thomas, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Planning Excellence in Baton Rouge. Since the storms of 2005, CPEX helped run the 18-month planning process that led to Louisiana Speaks, a document that details how Louisiana residents want to see their state rebuilt.
“The buildings, the look – these are the things that people hold most dear,” Thomas says. “We have been told time and time again by people throughout the state, ‘we have to preserve what is unique about us.’”
After Hurricane Rita ripped through Lake Charles, Mayor Randy Roach saw an opportunity. A master plan, he believed, had the potential to not just help the city rebuild, but to transform it.
“Creating a place where people want to live, that is the most important role that cities – small cities in particular – have in terms of economic development,” he says. “Interstate 10 is the north boundary of our lakefront and 50,000 cars a day pass by. We wanted to take advantage of that.”
Five months after Rita, the city begin a master planning process. Among the projects the emerged was an overhaul of the city’s lakefront. Its views and adjacency to downtown had the makings of an economically viable mixed-used and tourist district, said DPZ planners. Residents agreed, and they passed a $90 million bond issue that later that year, $18 million of which was devoted to downtown revitalization. Another $5.7 million in Community Development Block Grant Funds rounded out the project’s coffers to almost $24 million.
A handful projects are under way now, including a promenade, palm tree and lighting installations, improved gateways into the area, new streetscapes, traffic calming, an amphitheater and park and a 52-slip marina.
“Public improvements were the first step and will be what convinces tenants to come in,” Roach says. “People need to see we’re serious about this.”
Lake Charles has received acclaim from national planners on the potential impact of its Lakefront Development Action Plan and its success in raising public funds, but Roach says the three-year process has had its challenges.
The public has been impatient, and the media, says Roach, has questioned the length of time it has taken to start construction. Like other public officials in communities with master plans, Roach found that hardest part was getting hammers to swing.
“You can only go so far with pictures,” he says. “We needed something you could touch and feel. We needed to go from concept to reality.”
Roach did what a growing number of municipalities with lean staffs have chosen to do – he outsourced part of the implementation. Lake Charles contracted with Moore Planning Group for help on formally prioritizing the plan’s list of projects. The 25-year firm has found that a growing number of clients with master plans are asking for help with implementation, fundraising and overall management.
Such outsourcing, says DPZ’s Ball, is a growing trend, particularly as municipalities without planning departments face an overwhelming set of steps.
“This is a new breed of planner,” he says. “It’s very valuable to have someone help you get from point A to point B.”
As in the case of Lake Charles, cities often start with solid return-on-investment projects, like overlay districts that bring in new landscaping, brick pavers, traffic calming and realignment of key arteries. With more funding, a city might take on the construction or renovation of a signature building, like a museum or arts center.
But residential development is more complex. Even in cities like Baton Rouge and Lafayette, where substantial construction has taken place and revitalization efforts are firmly entrenched, enticing private development is hard. It’s still easier for developers to build predictable units in the suburbs, Ball says.
In downtown, spaces are tighter, parking can be expensive and good planning means throwing out how things are built in outlying areas. What makes the urban core appealing in the first place is its embrace of diverse styles, pricing and sizes.
“You need diversity on all levels, the small home next to the big home. If you zone too much you create a fragile condition,” he says. “You can’t say diversity enough. Homogeneity is the death of the urban fabric.”
Rhorer and Webre say their respective cities are working on incentives and public-private partnerships to level the playing field for developers. In Baton Rouge, downtown’s 550 acres currently supports 2,200 residences largely in its two historic neighborhoods, Spanish Town and Beauregard Town. Rhorer hopes that number will increase by 2,000 to 4,000 in the next five to 10 years.
Some lofts and condominiums are in the works. Another possible strategy, Rhorer says, is to revive from six to ten blocks east of Interstate 110.
But the largely low-income corridor is chock-full of pesky hindrance common to urban areas statewide: adjudicated properties. Often abandoned, these houses could be bought en masse and redeveloped, but each parcel comes with thorny legal issues. Buyers must find the last recorded sale, which can mean going back decades, and they must track down current owners or heirs who often live out of town.
“Every major city has that as an issue,” Thomas says. “As a state, we need to look at ways to address it.”
Nathan Gaspard, director of planning for Moore Planning Group, says that the trappings of a downtown, including the sturdiness of its buildings, its charm and its enduring style appeal to residents on a visceral level. But there are also tangible economic reasons for fostering a downtown comeback, he says.
“High ground. There has already been a great deal of public and private investment on the part of the city in terms of streets, water lines, sewer lines,” Gaspard says. “The infrastructure is there. and if we keep developing out, we dilute our capacity and strength.”
In its most recent round of grantmaking, the Northshore Community Foundation funded a flurry of planning projects including parish land use plans for Washington, St. Tammany and St. Helena Parishes, as well as a $75,000 matching grant for the Hammond to develop a master plan.
“Communities are concerned about sprawl and in the case of Hammond, they want to use their existing assets, including good night life and proximity of the downtown to campus, to increase livability,” says Frank Saxton, the foundation’s director of community development.
Thomas says that while substantial progress has been made in the state’s understanding of land use and planning through Louisiana Speaks, she hopes to see initiatives that will ensure statewide consistency. For example, a state Office of Planning would coordinate resources among state agencies that play a role in growth, including the Department of Transportation and Development, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Environmental Quality. It could also set standards and advocate for progressive solutions to problems like adjudicated property and energy conservation.
Currently, enthusiasm is high for helping downtowns fight back, but experts warn it takes time and solutions are not one-size-fits-all. The existing elements in each downtown are different, and communities must decide what’s most important to them and what they can pull off. But in the end, CPEX Assistant Director Rachel DiResto says, success is measured simply.
“When downtown is functioning as a healthy neighborhood – where people can live, work and play, and where you see reinvestment.”