There was skepticism, if not downright hostility—at least in some segments of the community—to the master plan for revitalizing Plank Road unveiled earlier this month by Build Baton Rouge, the city-parish redevelopment authority.
“Nothing will happen there until you clean up the crime.”
“It’s a waste of tax money.”
Build Baton Rouge President and CEO Chris Tyson has heard it all, and while he would argue there are many reasons for fixing up Plank Road, he believes there’s also a simple economic argument to be made:
“There is a connection between our inability to land big corporate deals and Plank Road,” Tyson says. “You can’t just bomb it and kick everybody out. You have to roll up your sleeves and dig in and do things that people in other progressive, growing communities are doing. That’s how you attract employers.”
Tyson has spent more than a year focusing on the 4.3-mile stretch of the blighted, neglected corridor that runs through north Baton Rouge and is unabashedly passionate about the new plan for the corridor.
A key component of that plan is the development of a new bus rapid transit line that will run down Plank Road and eventually connect to Nicholson Drive near LSU.
Just days after unveiling the plan, the city-parish announced it had been awarded $15 million in federal funds for the express route, which, when added to $17 million already committed locally, will enable the project to move forward.
It’s the kind of mass transit Baton Rouge needs, say proponents—especially in its underserved communities—and suggests this master plan will be more than mere shelf art.
But there’s another reason to be enthusiastic about the plan: It’s built around a bunch of blighted properties—85 adjudicated parcels, to be specific—that the Metro Council transferred to Build Baton Rouge in 2018. Since then, the agency has been quietly clearing title to those and other adjacent properties. It also, and this is significant, secured an $860,000 line of credit from the Capital Area Finance Authority to begin redeveloping the properties.
The investment by CAFA, under the leadership of Mark Drennan, is no small thing. Drennan was commissioner of administration under Gov. Mike Foster, when he spearheaded efforts to redevelop downtown by relocating state government to several new office buildings the state constructed. Drennan has experience revitalizing an area, and he and the CAFA board have put their faith in Tyson and Build Baton Rouge, which, for the first time in its existence, is assembling sizable parcels that it controls.
This is a key piece of the redevelopment puzzle that has been missing in underserved neighborhoods until now. Already, the agency has plans for one parcel it has put together. On it, will be a two-story, mixed-use building that will be anchored by a YWCA child care center and will house new offices for Build Baton Rouge. Another parcel, it is hoped, will eventually be anchored by a badly needed grocery store.
“Because I have the property, now, I can go talk to grocers or housing developers about coming here,” Tyson says.
As for the crime, Tyson is not so naïve as to think that redeveloping a couple of blighted corners will cure systemic problems. But it’s a start, he says, that’s long overdue.
“You’re not going to put up a brand new building and eliminate crime overnight,” he says. “What you can do is make smart investments and, bit by bit, have an impact. This is how economic development happens. We did this downtown. We know how to do it. Now, we have the strategy in place.”