Controversy is building over a proposed development on Highland Road about half a mile west of the Country Club of Louisiana that would include more than 60,000 square feet of office, multifamily and retail space in two, 2 1/2-story buildings in an area zoned rural.
For now, the project, called Aztek Cove, appears to be on hold because of a technicality surrounding the zoning code, which has changed since site plans for the project were approved in March by the staff of the East Baton Rouge Planning Commission.
But residents of the area and district Councilman Chandler Loupe are outraged the project was approved without public knowledge or input, and was being quietly facilitated by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Louisiana Economic Development, which Loupe says had planned to soon announce Aztek Cove as an economic development win for the parish.
“It bothers me a lot to find out about a 60,000-square-foot project in my district that is being backed by BRAC and LED and no one knew anything about it,” he says. “Every time I ask questions I get different information. I’m still trying to piece it all together.”
Aztek Cove’s developer is Nitin Kamath, who owns the software development firm DB Sysgraph. In mid-March, he received planning commission staff approval to develop a 32,000-square-foot office building and a 29,700-square-foot multifamily building with 18 units and ground floor retail space for a restaurant, cigar bar and pilates studio. Together the two buildings would have more than 250 parking spaces, which Loupe says is deeply troubling to residents who suffer daily gridlock on two-lane Highland Road.
“That road was at 150 percent capacity eight years ago,” Loupe says. “It’s a public safety hazard.”
While such concerns would have been aired at a public hearing before the Planning Commission, only projects over 50,000 square feet are required to go before the full commission. Projects between 30,000 and 50,000 square feet can be approved by commission staff if they meet the proper requirements. Though Aztek Cove would total nearly 62,000 square feet, Kamath submitted site plans for two separate buildings, each less than 50,000 square feet.
“These two buildings are on five separate lots,” Planning Director Frank Duke says. “As long as he submits them as separate site plans and meets individual requirements for each then he meets the requirements for approval.”
Duke says the plans approved by his office in March were the latest of several versions Kamath had submitted to his office over the past year. Previous plans were rejected for any one of several reasons related to code violations.
The role BRAC and LED played in the project is unclear because both agencies declined to comment on what they say is an “active economic development project.” But Loupe says he was told by both agencies that Kamath was planning to relocate his offices off Bluebonnet Boulevard to the new development and hire additional employees, for which he was eligible to receive state enterprise and digital media tax credits.
Kamath did not return calls seeking comment.
While neighborhood groups have been meeting to air their concerns about the project, a change in the zoning code may solve their problem for them. Until 2017, commercial development was allowed in rural zoning districts on any properties that at one time were used for commercial purposes, as Kamath’s was in the 1990s. The Metro Council changed that law in 2017, but grandfathered in existing property owners for one year. That grandfather clause expired April 1, two weeks after Kamath received site plan approval.
Now that the zoning has changed Duke isn’t sure the developer will be able to get commercial building permits from the city-parish.
“The code says you cannot establish a prohibited use on the property,” Duke says. “Doing the site plan by itself does not necessarily vest them with the right to pull building permits.”
Parish Attorney LeAnne Batson says her office has an open file on the project and is trying to determine the answer to that question.