The empty lot on North Boulevard that once held Romano’s Pack & Save neighborhood grocery could one day host a fresh foods retailer and café run by the homeless. Architecture students from LSU and Southern University spent the fall 2013 semester drafting versions of this Utopian vision for landowner, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
The LSU School of Architecture’s new Mid City Studio was responsible for the design project. Established in 2012, the studio is a service-learning initiative that allows students to earn course credit and gain hands-on experience while contributing to the social good.
The project is a collaboration between the School of Architecture, the Mid City Redevelopment Alliance and the East Baton Rouge Parish Redevelopment Authority.
Historically, the School of Architecture has created similar community design opportunities for students, but the Mid City Studio represents a new commitment, says Professional-in-Residence William Doran, who is leading the project with faculty member Jason Lockhart. The studio looks specifically at design opportunities in Mid City, an area bordered by Choctaw Drive, Interstate I-110, South Foster Drive and I-10 at College Drive.
Students can participate in the studio during their fourth year of study at LSU.
“Up to this point, they’ve been in the classroom, and what they’ve gotten is mostly theoretical,” Doran says. “This gives them a chance to work with clients and experience what the design process is really like. It also forces them to see the fabric of the place they’re working in and take those conditions into consideration.”
While the studio is primarily a curriculum tool, it has an important community by-product. RDA Vice President of Administration and Programs Chip Boyles says that the students’ designs can help raise money for redevelopment projects.
“For us, what’s so exciting is that these plans represent the first step in the process. There are, of course, lots of caveats. These are not finished products, but to be able to show the possibilities for a site on paper is so much more effective than just talking about it,” he says.
In 2012, students examined converting the now-decommissioned Laurel Street Fire Station into a local fire department museum. The idea sprang from a meeting between Doran and Mid City Redevelopment Alliance Executive Director Samuel Sanders when the two were discussing potential projects. Sanders says he looked out of his conference-room window at the notable Spanish tile roof on the fire station next door.
“It was just sitting there, and we realized what great potential it had as a studio project,” Sanders says.
The station was built in the 1920s to accommodate Baton Rouge’s growth beyond downtown, and until it was decommissioned in 2011, it was the oldest operating station in the city. Its firefighters were reassigned to the newly remodeled 3024 Florida Blvd. station.
“The project gave the students a chance to look at what makes the building significant, and to think about what you would have to do to convert it to a museum,” says Doran.
Students met with firefighters and examined fire department artifacts, including an antique truck stored at the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge and the former Bogan Fire Station downtown. They presented their plans during Mid City’s annual White Light Night event in November 2012.
Last fall, another group of students worked on plans to convert the former Romano’s site into a market-café for client Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
“Samuel [Sanders] approached us about the students’ designing the site,” says SVDP Executive Director Michael Acaldo. “We had been examining the possibilities for it because it’s so close to our service campus and represents a chance to develop a workforce development concept.”
Acaldo says the nonprofit, which runs shelters, a dining hall and thrift store, wants to open a market and restaurant staffed by its clients. The idea was inspired by Café Reconcile in New Orleans, which trains young people in the culinary arts and puts them to work in an on-site restaurant.
The architecture students spent the first part of the semester obtaining feedback from the surrounding community, and found there was a significant need for a corner store with safe pedestrian access. They drafted 15 different designs that delivered the market and café for SVDP, and that also featured design elements appealing to the community.
The students presented their designs at Letterman’s Printing in November during the 2013 White Light Night event. The renderings are also on display on the Mid City Studio website, midcitystudio.org.
The next step for the project, says Acaldo, is to refine the design and shop it to funders.
“It’s been a great idea generator; I think we’ll end up incorporating concepts from several of the designs,” he says.
Sanders and Doran are planning to identify additional project sites in Mid City for this year’s class, and are planning field visits to similar community design studios in Detroit and Dallas this spring.
As a separate project, Doran and Lockhart’s fifth-year architecture students will be working with the RDA on plans for the former Entergy site at 1509 Government St. Entergy Gulf States LLC donated the 6-acre site to the RDA in December 2013. The RDA plans to remediate it and turn it into a mixed-use development.
Food+Shelter: St. Vincent de Paul Produce Market and Café
1730 North Blvd., former site of Romano’s Pack & Save
Fourth- and fifth-year architecture students from both LSU and Southern University created 15 possible designs for the 6-acre site. Landowner Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s goal for the parcel is to create a market-café run by its homeless clients. Community feedback revealed a need for a grocery store with pedestrian access, appealing landscaping and nodes for community interaction. Designs featured components such as housing, green space, sidewalks, footpaths, public art and other amenities.
Laurel Street Fire Museum
1801 Laurel St.
LSU fourth-year students created design strategies for converting a historic fire station into a fire department museum that could showcase Baton Rouge’s firefighting history since 1825. The Laurel Street station was built in 1926 and decommissioned in 2011. The museum could hold firefighter uniforms, equipment and retired trucks currently stored at the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge and former Bogan Fire Station. The Laurel Street Fire Museum could also provide space for fire prevention education and community fundraisers and events.