In 1971, 19-year-old Don White moved out of the Sigma Chi fraternity house on the LSU campus and into a brand-new apartment in Tigerland. The neighborhood was less than a year old, and White, then a sophomore, was doing what hundreds of other LSU kids were at the time: moving off-campus to Baton Rouge’s hottest new neighborhood.
“There was a lot of building activity going on back then,” says White, who now owns and manages four Tigerland apartment complexes. “Tigerland was the place to live.”
Tigerland remained a desirable address throughout the 1970s. With its proximity to LSU—just two miles down Nicholson Drive—and its concentration of student housing—dozens of apartment complexes in a five-block area—the neighborhood was ideally situated to capitalize on the rapidly growing population of baby boomer students, who were enjoying their college experience in a way previous generations could hardly have imagined.
But times change, and as more apartments were developed in newer neighborhoods, students followed their friends to whatever complex had the buzz for being the nicest, newest, safest, most fun. By the 1980s Tigerland had begun a downward spiral that continued through the 1990s and reached its nadir sometime in the mid-2000s. By then few were leaving fraternity row for aging apartments in a neighborhood that had earned a reputation for being dirty and dangerous.
Today, Tigerland’s future seems more questionable than ever. In the past three years alone, more than 1,700 units of new, upscale student housing have been completed around LSU—or will be soon. With so much impressive inventory targeting a student population that, in many cases, has more to spend on high-end housing than did their parents—thanks to the TOPS program—how can Tigerland compete?
It’s a question property owners in the neighborhood are grappling with, and it’s a hard one to answer because Tigerland has so many different owners and so many different properties. Some of the complexes are well-maintained and provide decent housing at an affordable price. Others would send chills up the spine of a freshman coed’s mom, who would notice the dirty mattress in the dumpster or the guys loitering on the corner, holding their pants up with one hand and eyeing passing cars with suspicion.
Not surprisingly, property owners tell a positive story of a Tigerland turnaround they say is in the works. There is some truth to that narrative. The other view is that Tigerland, at best, is in a holding pattern until some deep-pocketed developer can come in and raze all the pre-Disco-era developments and build something better.
Steve Bonfanti remembers the early days of Tigerland. In 1970 he bought three parcels of raw dirt on Bob Pettit Boulevard at one entrance to the neighborhood. He improved each with a building and eventually leased them to bar owners. Today his properties are home to three of LSU’s best-known watering holes: Fred’s, Reggie’s and The House.
Before that shrewd acquisition, Bonfanti had owned a couple of bars on Highland Road, not far from the LSU North Gates. In the 1960s, that corridor had been the site of LSU’s off-campus action. But by 1970, Bonfanti could see change coming and knew that the student population was migrating from neighborhoods north of campus to new ones in the southeast.
“The civil rights movement really changed things along Highland Road, and commercial development north of campus became stagnant as the residential areas had started to change,” Bonfanti recalls. “When the south side of campus started to develop, everybody started to move over there.”
Records show the original development plat for Tigerland was filed with the city-parish in 1969, laying out a roughly 70-acre area south of campus off Nicholson Drive with seven streets named for famed LSU athletes.
Fred Frey Jr. was among the earliest of the neighborhood’s many developers. He built the first residential complex, what was then called the Middle Way, on a stretch between Alvin Dark and Earl Gros avenues with an alley down the center. His son, portrait photographer Fred Frey III, lived there in the early 1970s and helped his dad as assistant manager of the complex. It was a vintage ’70s party scene.
“It was kind of a wild place to be,” he recalls. “There were a lot of ex-football players and their girlfriends, young professionals. We even had our own bar in the middle of the complex, where you could hang out by the pool. It was the popular area.”
Frey Jr. didn’t hang on to his development for long. He sold it after a couple of years and also sold a second project he had developed in Tigerland, The Establishment. As did other early developers, he sold each unit in the complex separately to individual owners, a pattern that would have lasting repercussions for the area.
“Some kept them up; some didn’t,” says Frey III. “So there was no consistency of ownership.”
In the late 1970s, development in the parish began creeping out to the cow pastures south and east of Tigerland, neighborhoods that would become Brightside and Gardere. The abundant new inventory attracted 1980s-era students in droves. To compete, property owners in Tigerland lowered their rates, which drew a less affluent crowd of tenants, not all of whom were students.
As rental rates decreased, so did the upkeep of some of the complexes. Most of the initial investors were gone by then. Many of the second- and third-generation owners were absentee landlords. There was no continuity of control or management, and few seemed to care.
“It became an issue of locational obsolescence,” says appraiser Wesley Moore, who owned 154 units in Tigerland in the mid-2000s. “You can put all the lipstick you want on your pig, but ultimately it doesn’t matter what you spend on your property. You are going to be dragged down by the lowest common denominator in the neighborhood.”
Today there are more than 65 property owners in Tigerland. Collectively, they own the 30 or so complexes and 40 individual condominiums—1,422 units in all—that make up the neighborhood. Developer White owns some of the largest complexes: Cambridge, Cambridge West, Cambridge on the Green and The Establishment.
He began investing in Tigerland several years ago, buying older properties, fixing them up affordably, then managing them. It’s what he does all over the state with a family-owned company that handles both the real estate and construction side of business. For him, investing in Tigerland makes sense, and he is able to make the numbers work.
Since acquiring the 140-unit Cambridge apartments in 2006 for $4.2 million, or about $30,000 per unit, he has gradually been renovating the units in two stages: new paint and carpet first; fixtures, windows and countertops later. His occupancy has increased from less than 40% then to nearly 100% now.
White attributes his success to the fact that his units are clean and affordable. Sure, the kitchen cabinets and the appliances are dated. But units in the older complexes like Cambridge are 30% to 40% larger on average than units in newer developments.
Lease rates, meanwhile, average between $675 and $800 for a two-bedroom, more than 50% less than in a new complex. A certain segment of the market is looking for that kind of value and needs housing in that price range.
“Once you get out of that party-by-the-pool syndrome and get into graduate school, want to buckle down, pay your own rent That’s who find these units attractive,” he says.
Eric Sherer is one of those students. He just moved to Baton Rouge last month from St. Louis, Missouri, to pursue a doctorate in musical arts at LSU. He moved into a one-bedroom unit at Tiger Plaza that rents for $800 per month, including utilities. Sherer found the unit online and liked it because it was close to campus and inexpensive.
On the day he was moving in, he seemed pleased with his unit, which appeared clean, freshly painted, and newly carpeted.
Investor Greg Codarro, a real estate broker and property owner in Tigerland, believes it’s inevitable that landlords will fix up their properties. Economic realities demand it, he says. But then, Codarro has a vested interest in staking out that position. He bought The Quarters in 2007 and spent $1 million turning its 26 units into what is collectively, hands-down, the nicest complex in Tigerland.
The Quarters has an electric fence around the parking lot and a gated entrance to the units, which have been refurbished with granite counters, wood floors, and contemporary fixtures. Each opens onto a well-landscaped courtyard with an azure pool. Half the units Codarro is trying to sell as condos. The other half are apartments for rent.
“It gets to be where people have to make their income stream good enough to pay their loan, so they’re going to have to improve their properties at some point,” Codarro says. “If you’re not competitive with your interior, you’re not going to be able to get tenants.”
There is a noticeable disparity in condition among complexes in Tigerland. While The Quarters represents the best of what the neighborhood has to offer, you don’t have to look hard to find the worst.
Lionel Barksdale, 41, lives near the rear of the neighborhood in Tiger Den Apartments, where he pays just $550 per month, not including utilities. The two-bedroom unit has window units instead of central air conditioning, and tenants use a common laundry area, which Barksdale says is frequented by folks who don’t even live there. In the parking lot beneath his window, an aging Dodge Durango sits abandoned on four flat tires, and one of his neighbors recently fired a gun at a police officer who was serving the man with a warrant.
“It’s OK for what I pay, but it’s not great,” he says. “If you pay more you get a security gate and central AC, and you don’t get dilapidated cars in your parking lot.”
Barksdale is a one-time self-employed businessman from New Jersey, who came down here two years ago for a job opportunity that failed to materialize. He has been unemployed ever since. His wife drives a Yellow Cab. In some Tigerland complexes, tenants like Barksdale are far more common than students these days.
“We never had many undergraduates,” says Lamonde Whitten, who owns Courtyard Orleans and estimates fewer than 10% of its tenants are LSU students. “Now we don’t even have graduate students. There’s so much economic activity along the river, we’re getting the workers who are coming here to take advantage of it.”
Fred’s owner Mark Fraoli has seen it all and witnessed the fortunes of Tigerland come and go. He leased the building on Bob Pettit from Bonfanti in 1980 and has been the proprietor of one of Tigerland’s biggest draws ever since. He agrees the character of the neighborhood has changed and admits he thought about relocating a few years ago.
But Fraoli has noted improvements lately and says the neighborhood is looking a lot better, despite the experiences of those like Barksdale. His business is stronger than ever.
“We just finished our best 12 months in 34 years,” he says.
Fraoli could theorize on the reasons for the uptick. He’s not really sure. One thing he and some Tigerland property owners say with certainty is that Cheri Smith-Harrison is a driving factor behind a cleanup that is making a difference. Single-handedly, the local attorney and property owner has done more to galvanize clean up efforts in the neighborhood than anyone else.
Two years ago, she inadvertently became a Tigerland activist after she acquired a fourplex in the neighborhood and realized somebody had to do something to clean up the area. Since then, she has met with the Department of Public Works, the mayor’s office, Metro Councilmember John Delgado, and the Baton Rouge Police Department. She has gotten police patrols increased, crime cameras and lighting installed, and dumpsters removed.
“I met with (City-Parish Chief Administrative Officer) William Daniel, and he was able to get me permission to take down a bus stop on Alvin Dark,” she says. “It was a dead bus stop. LSU wasn’t using it, and the city wasn’t using it. It was just an area where people were dealing drugs, so we leveled it.”
Smith-Harrison also tried to create a special taxing district for Tigerland, which would have enabled the neighborhood to pay for additional security. But some legislators wanted to expand the boundaries of the district beyond the narrow confines of Tigerland, and getting property owners interested proved too challenging. For now, plans are on hold.
Smith-Harrison believes the best hope for Tigerland is to attract a deep-pocketed developer who could come in and buy the entire area, tear it down, and build a planned community of new, upscale student housing.
But it wouldn’t be easy. Amassing that much property from so many different owners would be a logistical nightmare.
Then there’s the fact that many of those owners don’t necessarily want to sell. They derive a nice income stream from their economically priced units and would demand more than market rate to be bought out.
Developer Mike Wampold is an obvious candidate for undertaking such a project. With some of the deepest pockets in the market and decades of experience in multifamily housing, among other types of real estate, Wampold could conceivably redevelop Tigerland.
But he’s not even thinking about it, he says. He believes the best hope for the neighborhood is to build a coalition of property owners who want to maintain and improve the area and get them all to work together.
Smith-Harrison is trying to do that, with a modicum of success. But she’s not giving up on trying to interest a big-name group in buying up an area that, by virtue of its location, is prime real estate.
“I’ve been trying to find someone to come in and invest,” she says. “It cannot be this difficult to redevelop. One man did Disney. This is just a few streets. We can do this.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated from an earlier version that incorrectly said Fred Frey Jr. was deceased. Business Report regrets the error.
Tigerland property owners say their older complexes give tenants a lot more bang for their buck. While value is a relative thing, there’s no question that rental rates in Tigerland are considerably lower than those of student housing complexes elsewhere. Here’s a comparison of three developments.
5689 River Road
An upscale student-oriented housing complex of townhomes that lease by the bedroom.
Average square footage: 1,500-2,400
Woodlands at Baton Rouge
777 Ben Hur Road
An upscale, student-oriented housing complex with units that are priced by the bedroom.
Average square footage: 1,264-1,834
4445 Alvin Dark
A 40-year-old gated complex in Tigerland with units that are priced by single lease or by the bedroom.
Average square footage: 687-1,043
Rent: $779 (1 bedroom/single lease), $479-$539/bedroom (multiple leases)