Frank Duke took over the helm of the East Baton Parish Planning Department nearly three months ago, just as the city-parish was beginning the process of implementing its new master plan, FuturEBR, and rewriting its zoning code. The new director has wasted no time rolling up his sleeves and getting down to business since coming to Baton Rouge from Norfolk, Virginia, where he headed that city’s planning department. Duke sat down recently with Business Report to discuss his initial impressions of the Capital Region, his priorities and his hopes for the long term.
I think Baton Rouge is an amazing city. It has such good bones in the form of a grid system of streets, and it offers the diversity of neighborhoods that a real city has to offer. You’ve got downtown, older traditional neighborhoods, suburbs and, as you go farther out, rural area. From a planning perspective it concerns me that our current regulations don’t recognize that diversity of neighborhoods. We have a one-size-fits-all development code that is, unfortunately, a bit dated. It is showing its age in that it has been amended many times. It needs a thorough revamping.
That’s what should happen. As planning staff we should only evaluate based on whether something technically complies with ordinances and whether it is consistent with adopted policies and plans. We can’t take into consideration whether something is politically popular. We can’t take into consideration whether there is neighborhood support or opposition. At that point we are getting into the political side of the consideration. That is why we have a Planning Commission—to begin playing a role in evaluating things beyond the technical compliance with ordinance and plans, and that is why you have decision makers in the form of the Metro Council.
If the city’s plan is consistently being ignored, then you have a fundamental problem with the plan. That is why you need to re-evaluate plans every five years. FuturEBR is already three years old, and we are already finding areas we can’t implement that are in the plan because we lack authority to do them. We lack the resources to do them. In some cases they are so broadly written, people aren’t sure what we want to do. We’re already thinking about some of the things we will bring forward in 2015 as proposed revisions to the plan.
It desperately needs to be done. One of the things I’ve committed to doing is bringing to the Planning Commission 11 areas of the Unified Development Code that I’ve recommended for revision quickly, and these are beginning to move forward with the implementation of FuturEBR.
Two areas badly in need of updating are landscaping and parking. Those are huge, so I have requested in the next phase of [planner John Fregonese’s] contract that they focus on revising the two areas of the zoning code that deal with parking and landscaping because they are so big. For example, right now we have one set of parking requirements that is very suburban. Over the past five years you’ve seen a resurgence in urban development, infill development, and you cannot apply a suburban standard in those areas. We need through our ordinance to revise our current standards to recognize both suburban and urban standards, and we also need to recognize that in a downtown area you may not need the on-site parking that is typically required because people will have opportunities to park in other areas; so it totally changes the formula. And if you continue to require all those suburban requirements, you end up in a city where people can’t do anything, so you encourage disinvestment.
No. I think there is always a tendency to see the planning staff as partial to developers because planning staff talks to developers all the time. It’s the nature of what we do. But the fact that we talk to developers shouldn’t mean we are bending over backwards to accommodate them. We are typically trying to work with them to bring forward products that will comply with regulations and still function. I do think we—the planning staff—have not done enough outreach to the community, to explain what we do. I have met with several citizens and walked them through how this process has to work, and they were amazed. My honest belief is, developers and the community want the same thing. … It’s just they don’t speak the same language. It really should be the job of planning commission staff to help translate and recognize that they’re really not that far apart.
You talk. You listen. I have sat down with several groups that were upset about a case coming before the Planning Commission, and we’ve talked and they understand at the end of the day where we’re coming from.
Developers have complained here that they’ll play by any set of rules. It’s just that the rules here are not uniformly applied.
I play by the rules. The rules are the rules. But I have found rules here I think are nuts like certain provisions of the zoning code.
For instance, if you make a zoning request and your request is denied by the Metro Council, you cannot apply for any change to that property for a full year. To me that’s a problem because if the property owner comes in with one proposal and that gets turned down, that doesn’t mean that property should sit vacant or idle for a year. The issue isn’t that the property shouldn’t be developed. If the property owner can sign a contract with someone else to do something significantly different, then why shouldn’t they be able to move forward?
I also think it’s ridiculous that if someone wants to designate their project as historic, they have to pay for a quarter page ad in the newspaper. My question is, why? Why can’t they do this through a typical legal classified ad?
Another is, right now there is no difference between [zoning districts] heavy commercial 1 and heavy commercial 2, and there should be differences. They are two totally separate zoning districts, but if you read them, the provisions are exactly the same. There should be distinctions.
That’s why I say our zoning code was very good at the time it was done, but it has been amended over time, and when you amend it too much you create weirdness.
We talk in Baton Rouge about wanting to support smart growth and advocate for smart growth, and smart growth really does mean you simplify your code. You tell people what you want and make it easy for them to do exactly what you want.
I went before the Planning Commission, and they authorized the staff to work on these ordinance revisions. I also want to hear from the Zoning Advisory Commission and the Federation of Neighborhood Civic Associations. Then we can come back to the Planning Commission and go through a public hearing process. Some of these ideas I hope we can move forward fairly quickly. Some are fairly simple.
I have not had a meeting with them yet. I think I would not call them my kitchen cabinet. They are providing advice on ordinance changes to the Planning Commission. I believe in a very open form of government. I have no secrets. I assume every email they get is a public record.
I think I surprised the HPC because I told them I intend to attend all their meetings. One of the changes I have requested of the Planning Commission is to make wholesale change to the HPC ordinance. I want to simplify it. It is very convoluted. I have given staff examples of other cities and said, Let’s rewrite this.’ I’m impressed with our HPC and by simplifying the HPC ordinance I hope we can encourage more neighborhoods to apply to become historic districts.
The Time Out Lounge controversy. We recommended approval because it met all ordinance recommendations and there is nothing in FuturEBR that is inconsistent with it. But this was back to that issue where you have got to have neighborhood support. And every time a developer comes in and meets with me on a project my first comment to them is, Go talk to the neighborhood.’
If you can get a strong segment of the neighborhood to support you, you have a chance; but if you have a strong segment against you, I don’t think you have a shot. I was not at all surprised by the vote.
Several years ago there was a regular quarterly meeting between DPW and the Planning Commission staff. I asked that we start meeting again. We have met and talked about how we can improve our coordination.
DPW staff brought up some issues with the UDC they thought should be changed. We will deal with those. I have indicated I would like to meet with DPW staff on a quarterly basis because we have to work together. We’re two of the largest departments in the parish in terms of what we do. We need to work closely together.
Every city in which I’ve ever lived feels it has the worst traffic in the world. I think traffic in Baton Rouge moves fairly well compared to other places. Are there times when I wish traffic moved better here? Absolutely.
I think it’s a shame we only have one easy way to cross the river. It creates a bottleneck. But we need to look at how we can recognize that moving people doesn’t just involve moving cars. We need to look at complete streets. We need to look at building an interconnected street network. We have a long way to go, but you have to start somewhere.
Implementing changes to the UDC. It’s the biggest challenge because I don’t think it reflects the smart growth principles we say we want to embrace, and it is going to be very difficult to go through and get it changed as quickly as I would like to get it changed.
Interview edited for space and clarity.