Cars are parked all around DiGiulio Brothers Italian Café and on the sidewalk out front. Drivers circle the pockmarked road behind the building, looking for a place—any place—to park.
The door to George’s is open, but parking under Interstate 10 is full. The same is true at Chelsea’s Café, where some vehicles have forged their own parking spaces in the grass.
A mother, pushing a baby stroller with one hand and carrying a shopping bag in the other, sprints across the street in front of Amies Boutique—barely ahead of cars and trucks rumbling down the Perkins Road overpass—and trudges back to her car on Elissalde Street.
Everywhere else, there are warning signs: “Parking For Cleaners Only.” “Parking for Pinetta’s and Cottonwood Books Only.” And this one, upside-down in its metal stand: “Parking for Jimmy John’s, Rock-n-Sake, Denim Library, Schlittz & Giggles Only. All Others Towed.”
But this isn’t Friday or Saturday night in the Perkins Road overpass district, arguably the busiest times of the week. It’s lunchtime, on a Tuesday. And it’s proof that this increasingly popular, eclectic slice of Baton Rouge—oft likened to Magazine Street in New Orleans—has a serious challenge that could be hindering its growth: parking.
For the past five years, the historic Perkins Road overpass district has experienced steady revitalization. The combination of comparatively affordable property, close proximity to LSU and a steady 20- and 30-something clientele from nearby neighborhoods like the Garden District, Southdowns and Old South Baton Rouge has attracted new restaurants, bars and boutiques.
Schlittz & Giggles added a location behind the newly developed Perkins Road Hardware complex in 2009, followed by a Rock-n-Sake around the corner and Frankie’s Dawg House across a side street from Zippy’s in 2010. Bet-R, an independent grocery store, added 3,700 square feet last year.
The influx has left those businesses and other newcomers such as Stella Boutique, Bella Bella, Loft 3H, Local Eco Vintage and Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches increasingly competing for parking slots with old-timers such as Tres Bien Yoga & Massage, Pinetta’s European Restaurant, Parrain’s Seafood Restaurant and Duvic’s Martini Bar.
Business owners in the district have done their best to work it out amicably and practically, with daytime establishments splitting their parking with adjacent nighttime venues. But at times, battle lines are drawn to protect what has become highly valuable turf. Parrain’s is said to have hired a sheriff’s deputy to monitor its parking, and Zippy’s management once called in the tow truck for five cars parked in reserved spaces.
And now, existing owners are keeping a close eye on the shuttered Perkins Road Parlour—a former salon and tattoo shop—whose new owners want to turn it into a café. The new owners are trying to secure a waiver for the 17 parking spaces required to open the restaurant, possibly by licensing just a small portion of the building.
“Everybody wants the area to grow, as do we,” says Neal Hendrick, who opened Zippy’s in a converted gas station 10 years ago. “We don’t want to see any businesses down here dark. We want every store open. But everything needs to have decent parking or parking that works with an adjacent business. That’s just reality.”
The situation hasn’t gone unnoticed by city officials. The East Baton Rouge Planning Commission recently asked the Department of Public Works to conduct a study of the overpass area to use as a springboard for exploring possible remedies.
DPW is still finalizing the report, but its analysis indicates the district has 795 parking spots, but needs 855. That deficit of 60 for the existing businesses means new restaurants or shops will only add to the shortage.
“At the moment, it would be very difficult for another business to locate there, because there’s no parking,” DPW Director William Daniel says. “So as far as stymieing growth, parking is definitely the controlling factor that’s limiting growth there.
“Even if we’re able to provide more parking, there’s a deficit of parking places there now. We’d like to make parking a better situation for the existing businesses, but as far as new businesses coming in, it would be virtually impossible at this point for one to get a permit without acquiring parking places.”
At issue in part is the Unified Development Code. Restaurants must have one parking space for every 50 square feet of dining or patron area, and one space for every 200 square feet of employee area. Requirements aren’t quite as rigorous for retail.
Most of the Perkins Road overpass area was developed long before the code was put in place, making it difficult for newcomers to meet the requirements. The district retains many of its original buildings and limited lot sizes, and it wasn’t really designed for the kind of traffic the area enjoys today.
“We’re trying to be fair and treat all of those businesses the same,” says Carey Chauvin, a certified building official in the DPW’s Permit and Inspection Division. “We certainly want to see them open up and operate, but we’ve also got to make sure we’re enforcing the requirements of the UDC.”
ABMB Managing Principal Mike Bruce, who serves on the Planning Commission’s Zoning Advisory Committee, says such challenges are common in historic areas that are becoming urbanized.
“As more things try to open, the harder it’s going to be,” he says. “As new things come in, they’re going to have to adhere to the current rules, which are a lot tougher than they used to be. They’re going to have to find a way—and it’s not going to be cheap—to provide whatever parking is required.”
Bruce and Rachel DiResto of the Center for Planning Excellence say there’s room for revisions to the code, particularly when it comes to preserving and improving the walkability of popular cultural districts throughout the city. And change could be on the way.
In February, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded Baton Rouge $750,000 for technical assistance from private-sector experts. The money will be used to develop parking audits to help the city better manage parking supply and apply strategies for making the best use of parking for existing and planned uses.
“I believe there is readjustment needed to allow for those smaller footprints of buildings to be occupied and functioning,” DiResto says. “Typically, that’s dealt with in a pooled parking solution where you would be looking off-site to accommodate those cars.”
City officials and business owners agree some sort of solution is needed to preserve the character of the Perkins Road overpass district while still allowing it to grow.
Decades ago, the district was considered a bohemian counterculture neighborhood and mecca for live music. The Colonel’s Club—now Chelsea’s Café—and Ruby’s—now George’s—were hot spots for rock and roll and R&B, according to the Perkins Road Historic Merchants Association. Today, designer boutiques, antique shops and modern eateries are mixed in with historic icons.
“It’s one of those wonderful, smaller neighborhoods that has a lot of character and an eclectic feel,” DiResto says. “The funkiness is what might attract people from across the city, but it also has real appeal for the adjacent neighborhoods because of the walkability factor.”
Such mixed-use walkable areas are a key focus in FuturEBR, the land-use and development plan for East Baton Rouge Parish. In urban areas, such neighborhoods often experience a difficult transition played out in a vicious tug-of-war between parking and walkability. Chimes Street experienced a similar problem when a larger parking lot was redeveloped, leaving little more than on-street parking for retail shops along Highland Road.
Though it might seem counterintuitive, fewer parking restrictions—combined with measures designed to make the community more walkable—might help “tip the balance” in the Perkins Road district, DiResto says. Sidewalks extended from Acadian Village to City Park have already gone a long way toward increasing the appeal.
Chief traffic engineer Ingolf Partenheimer says those conducting the parking study will meet with business owners in the district in coming weeks to see how they might be willing to pitch in to fix the parking problem.
DPW has identified some areas where the roadway might be widened for off-street parking, as well as areas where additional sidewalks might make it more feasible for patrons to park farther away. The city is also considering the possibility of engaging in a public-private partnership of sorts to secure available lots and connect them with sidewalks.
“We’d like to build a long-term plan for the future,” Partenheimer says. “If we’re going to put parking in there, we’re going to have to acquire some space. We want to take a look at what’s affordable.”
Hendrick, who currently spends up to three hours every Friday night in his back lot directing traffic, says businesses in the district are open to collaboration.
“All the business owners I’ve talked to are willing to do whatever it takes,” he says, “because they love the area.”