Ellie Jones has had enough.
The married working mother has spent the last three years commuting up to 10 hours a week from her house near the Ascension Parish line to her office in downtown Baton Rouge. Jones’ precise descriptions of traffic conditions, optimum departure times and alternate routes sound more like the machinations of a wily urbanite than those of a resident of a once-sleepy college town. But getting around Baton Rouge today requires this kind of strategy from Jones and thousands like her who pour into the city routinely from points south and east.
“It’s frustrating,” says Jones, an event coordinator at the Shaw Center for the Arts. “I only live 15 miles from work and it takes me 45 minutes to an hour to get there—with a 4-year-old in the backseat.”
Jones, 29, says she and her husband, Ryan, don’t regret buying in their current neighborhood, an area off Old Jefferson Highway she describes as “affordable, with sidewalks and friendly people.” Moving to this neighborhood from their first home in Walker (east of Baton Rouge in Livingston Parish) was part of an ongoing plan to “buy more, closer in” as the couple’s earning power progressed, she says.
But Jones cringes at the amount of time wasted in the car, and says she “absolutely” would have considered buying near downtown if houses in areas like Mid City or the Garden District weren’t largely fixer-uppers or cost-prohibitive.
She doesn’t use the term, but Jones’ concerns point to a need for better livability, the issue at the heart of a comprehensive planning effort under way in East Baton Rouge Parish called FuturEBR. The plan is effectively an update to the parish’s long-lived Horizon Plan, but it’s being led by Fregonese and Associates, a Portland, Ore.-based firm with national credentials. Accordingly, expectations are high that FuturEBR can help wrest Baton Rouge from the grip of sprawl and traffic congestion.
“Baton Rouge has a lot of potential going forward, but it needs to cultivate the advantages of being the central city in the region,” Fregonese says. “It’s certainly possible to take out-migration and reverse it, like we’re seeing in a place like San Diego, and turn it into an opportunity for people to move back in to live and work.”
Fregonese says developing housing in the infill for young families like the Joneses is an important element, as is finding other strategies for easing congestion beyond road widening. According to FuturEBR these include creating walkable, mixed-use “20 minute” neighborhoods and distributing traffic from single arteries like the interstates and Siegen Lane to alternate routes throughout town.
Baton Rouge is not alone among south Louisiana communities investing in new comprehensive master plans to improve quality of life and protect economic development. Numerous cities, towns and parishes along the 10/12 corridor are now engaged in comprehensive planning processes, a trend triggered by several factors, including the population shift from New Orleans to the corridor after Hurricane Katrina in 2005; increased awareness in Louisiana about concepts culled from “smart growth” and New Urbanism, many of which were articulated in the Louisiana Speaks Regional Plan; and, most recently, the distribution of $8.8 million in federal community development block grant funds to support renewal projects (including planning). The funds support communities hit by hurricanes Ike and Gustav in 2008.
The trend is encouraging, since Louisiana remains woefully behind other states when it comes to planning, says Camille Manning-Broome, director of planning at the Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX), a nonprofit based in Baton Rouge. “You can look around and see we are not a state that has done a lot of planning,” she says. “A paradigm shift has to occur to get from a being a state that hasn’t planned to one that will.”
According to CPEX, only 14 parishes had some form of a comprehensive plan to guide growth and development before 2005. By the end of 2010, 29 had adopted plans or were in the midst of a planning process.
In the absence of a state planning office, CPEX, which formed after Katrina, has moved into the role of technical assistance provider to a number of communities, says Manning-Broome. Between 40 and 50 have approached the nonprofit for some form of planning assistance, she says. The organization is also working with Louisiana Economic Development to create applicable sets of municipal and parish codes that will help communities make good decisions about land use.
Fregonese, who has also produced master plans for Capital Region parishes Pointe Coupee and West Feliciana, says the interest in planning along the corridor points to a promising future.
“A lot of parishes are feeling like they’re better off developing strategies that will give them ability to look down the road,” he says. “It’s encouraging to see.”
In East Baton Rouge Parish’s case, the impact of sprawl and bad planning is sharply felt by commuters. While large numbers of Baton Rouge’s workforce have opted for bedroom communities in Livingston and Ascension parishes, the interstate system and major arteries like Siegen Lane and Florida Boulevard have become parking lots during peak hours. The 2010 Urban Mobility Report published by Texas A&M’s Texas Transportation Institute ranked Baton Rouge worst in the nation in traffic among cities with population between 500,000 and 1 million.
FuturEBR, which is now under public review and could be adopted in May, recommends pushing traffic into a network of surface streets, beefing up transit and bike routes and conducting “small-area planning” in six districts: Mid City; downtown; LSU, Nicholson/Northgate and Old South Baton Rouge; Southern University, Scotlandville, Zion City and the Baton Rouge Metro Airport; a so-called “South Medical District” that connects Perkins Road between Essen Lane and Bluebonnet Boulevard; and the Broadmoor Shopping Center and Cortana Square. Breaking off planning into manageable neighborhood chunks increases the possibility of implementation, says Fregonese, particularly in areas where development is already under way.
If Baton Rouge is trying to reverse the painful effects of decades of bad planning, Hammond is trying to prevent them. On the heels of a master plan created for Tangipahoa Parish, the city of Hammond is now at work on a master plan that builds on the success of its downtown, says architect Jeffery Smith of Holly & Smith Architects, a member of the master plan’s steering committee.
“Hammond is unique geographically because of the railroad and the intersection of I-55 and I-12. It’s been described as the epicenter of a Northshore metropolis since all of the growth is occurring along 1-12,” says Smith. What’s most promising about Hammond, he adds, is that downtown escaped much of the disinvestment seen in other downtowns nationwide. Thus, one of the goals of the city’s master plan is to replicate the “live-work” success of Hammond’s urban core in adjacent rings of development.
The plan’s intention is to alter the developer’s typical march toward the large suburban tracts, says Smith.
“In the past, we’ve seen developers determining growth patterns, because they buy property, want to put a development in it and say to the city, ‘You need to run your sewer and highway out to my place.’ ”
Hammond’s investment in a master plan, produced by Florida-based urban design firm Dover, Kohl, was funded in part by the Northshore Community Foundation, which launched a program in 2008 to provide planning assistance grants to Northshore communities.
NCF has funded a plan for Covington’s “West 30s” neighborhood, an area in decline due to disinvestment, high crime and unemployment despite its adjacency to prosperous neighborhoods. (See “West 30s revitalization moving on,” page 49.) The foundation has also funded matching grants to spark urban renewal in downtown Amite City and in St. Helena Parish, where the hope is that a parish plan can help jumpstart economic activity in an expansive rural area.
“St. Helena Parish has both suffered from and benefited from no growth. It hasn’t had the economic vitality that other parishes have, but it also doesn’t have the sprawl,” says Frank Saxton, NCF director of community development. “We think that creates some neat opportunities to use the area’s natural resources and wilderness to create parks, eco-tourism and agri-tourism. It might also be a place where green industries could develop.” Baton Rouge firm Brown Danos is leading both the Amite City and St. Helena Parish comprehensive plans.
Mandeville is also engaging in a town plan, funded through the state Office of Community Development. Miami-based firm Duany Plater-Zyberk held a series of charrettes in late March to glean feedback from the community.
“It will be a model project for resiliency and good town design,” says Saxton. “Mandeville does not really have good urban fabric now, but once we get it to that point, it’s going to endure and be a model.”
Planning processes have also launched in West Baton Rouge Parish, which sees itself as an underplayed asset across the river from Baton Rouge. “We are literally 10 minutes from downtown and from LSU. It’s been a well-kept secret,” says Kevin Durbin, West Baton Rouge Parish director of public works and parish planning official.
About $200,000 in Ike-Gustav funds enabled the parish to begin a comprehensive plan update, PlanWest 2020, now under way and led by Tipton Associates in Baton Rouge. Durbin says the plan focuses on three different planning districts and could serve as a precursor to a first-time land use plan for the parish. Like many unincorporated areas in Louisiana, West Baton Rouge Parish currently has no zoning.
Similarly, Iberville Parish has no restrictions on land use, a point of concern for parish leaders who believe development needs to take place to grow housing stock and stimulate a retail economy. Moore Planning Group (now ERM) completed a comprehensive parish plan in 2009. A follow-up land use plan is now under way. When adopted it will provide new zoning codes and design guidelines for the parish.
Once the visioning process is over, implementing master plans becomes a real and constant challenge, say insiders. Carlee Alm-LaBar, assistant to Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel, has implementation on her mind. The city is about to engage in its own planning process, having just selected its consulting firm in February.
“The biggest thing about planning I think is money and implementation. We wrote into our RFQ and RFP an implementation component. We wanted planners to leave themselves here for up to a year,” she says. “We also know we need to try to find quick wins so that progress is clear to the community.”
As for implementation, Fregonese says success can depend on the local economy (it needs to be robust), and that while federal funds play a role in new construction, it’s impractical to rely on them too heavily.
Adds CPEX President and CEO Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas: “It requires elected officials to make community planning a priority within local government. In every instance of success there’s a real leader there pushing the plan. Everyone in the administration is on the same page.”
Manning-Broome says successful plans will trigger diverse sources of funding, including public investment, private investment, public-private partnerships and land use regulations that create predictable conditions for developers. “You can’t reach the vision you want to reach without the right rules in place,” she says.
“We tell communities, change is inevitable. It’s going to come. You can either be prepared for it and the disruption it can bring or you can be completely disrupted.”