Drive down Government Street and you’ll see a developing Electric Depot, a finished White Star Market, an array of restaurants—Soji, Elsie’s Plate and Pie, Curbside Burgers—and bars as well as an eclectic mix of kitschy and traditional retail shops springing to life along Mid City’s main artery.
Yet what what you really notice along this road much traveled is the streetscape-dominating clusters of orange cones, striped barrels and lane closure signs that sporadically—and frustratingly—squeeze four lanes into a pair of serpentine lanes—one coming, the other going. The result is a weekday odyssey of commuters awkwardly merging into a single lane as close-by work crews lay sidewalks and curbs along the four-mile stretch of Government between downtown and Lobdell Avenue.
It’s all part of a plan that for drivers will ultimately trim four driving lanes to two—along with a center turning lane—to make way for bike lanes, sidewalks and improved aesthetics in one of the trendiest areas of Baton Rouge. In other words, proponents say, it’s the price we pay for beauty, which the now-one-year-old Government Street “road diet” promises.
Driving adventures aside, white-knuckling the $13.5 million project the most, however, are Government Street business owners and managers, who have been told to trade the short-term discomfort of the construction work for the long-term gain of better safety, more walkability and a greater aesthetic appeal. But the window of that “short-term” discomfort keeps getting wider and wider.
Originally scheduled to be complete late this summer, Daily Report reported earlier this year that the road diet project is running nearly 18 months behind schedule. DOTD officials attribute the delay to rainy weather as well as the challenges posed by the finding and moving of utility lines and pipes, and the removal of the street’s old concrete and asphalt. DOTD has since backtracked on the timetable, but concedes a significant delay is all but inevitable.
“It could be 2021, or we could make those days up if we get to spring and summer and have consecutive beautiful, dry days,” says Rodney Mallett, DOTD communications director. “The weather plays a big role in when you can and cannot work.”
While remaining tight-lipped on providing a more specific timeline (other than 2020/2021), Mallett says DOTD still has to finish the sidewalks and curbs, lay asphalt and construct a roundabout at the intersection of Lobdell Avenue, Independence Boulevard and Government before restriping the roadway at the end of the project.
DOTD officials have already added 75 working days to their contract with Barber Bros. Contracting Co., allotting 455 working days—or some 637 calendar days—for construction work. Mallett says DOTD will know more about the project’s potential delay this summer.
But Mid City merchants say they know better, with most of them having expected a delay from the beginning. Some have adopted a grin-and-bear-it mentality, saying that whether Government Street becomes the Magazine Street of Baton Rouge—as the concept has often been billed—depends largely on the success of the road diet.
In the increasingly lengthy interim, however, others say access to their storefront has at some point been limited, and there has been a lack of communication with DOTD, all for what they fear will ultimately attract less cars to pull into their businesses. At least one business owner has already left Government Street largely because of the construction work.
“We’ve got this with all projects,” says Mallett, “you’ve got people who love it and people who don’t like it.”
Checking the pulse
Most Government Street business owners feel the same way about the road diet: It’s challenging right now, but will eventually pay off—at least, for the businesses that choose to take a gamble on the construction period.
Valentine’s Day should’ve been a major profit-generator for David Heroman, owner of the Original Heroman’s Florist on the corner of Government and Delphine streets. But Heroman had 20% less walk-ins that day than a normal Valentine’s Day would bring, with sales uniquely down for his Government Street location. In contrast, walk-in sales in Zachary were up 120% and the Heroman’s on Staring Lane location saw a 40% uptick.
So why was his Valentine’s Day business down at the Government Street location? Simple, says Heroman, road diet construction work is creating what amounts to a blockade of the store.
“While I accept it, it’s still a major concern for the future of my business,” says Heroman, who has been there since 1964.
Mixed feelings come from another Government Street veteran, Ragusa’s Automotive owner Blaze Ragusa, who says he feels fortunate to run a 30-year-old business with an established, solid customer base as construction continues near him. But he worries about less-established businesses trying to make their way as roadwork blocks their buildings from plain sight.
Such was the case with Atomic Pop Shop, which closed its doors a year ago after seven years selling records. Former owner Kerry Beary says the ongoing construction work and a lack of parking contributed to her decision to move to North Carolina.
“Folks are always going to seek out the fastest route with the least congestion,” Beary says. “With Baton Rouge High School right next door to my shop, the street was impassable at certain times of the day, even with two lanes.”
The record store later became Pop Shop Records, which manager Zak Ocmand says is faring slightly better now that there aren’t any crews in front of the building. Some other businesses aren’t reporting much of an impact and generally see the road diet as a net positive for the community.
City Pork Catering and Events moved into the former Twine Market space on Government knowing road diet work would happen for awhile. Since opening Jan. 4, catering coordinator Zoe Booth says revenue has been on track with what they’ve anticipated, though they aren’t sure when construction is supposed to take place in front of their building or what kind of effect it will have.
Others have questions, too. Though Rocca Pizzeria owner Ozzie Fernandez supports the project, he wonders how the frequent Capital Area Transit System bus stops are going to affect bottleneck traffic. It’s a similar concern being shared nationally, by other localities undergoing road diet projects worried about traffic flow.
Perhaps the most pressing question: Are businesses prepared to potentially wait an additional 18 months for “the next Magazine Street?”
“While I think 18 months is a bit steep, I never expected them to be finished in the initial timeframe,” says Garrett Kemp, owner of The Market at Circa 1857, where construction work has been stalled since November. “As annoying as it is right now, I do still believe that once it’s finished it will benefit all of us.”
But there hasn’t been any tangible impact on sales at Kemp’s store, nor at Pink Elephant Antiques, whose owner, Lisa Pellissier, appreciates the cosmetic work that was recently completed near her storefront—a sentiment shared by nearly all business owners.
In fact, sales were up last year at Garden District Nursery, whose owner, Gordon Mese, submitted plans for a road diet more than 20 years ago. Mese has long been a cheerleader of the project, saying most opposition to it has historically come from people who are afraid of change, which he calls a “loud minority.”
“If it’s such a bad thing, why do we have $50 million of private investment on the street right now?” Mese asks. “People are putting $200,000 and $500,000 into things that wouldn’t have happened 30 years ago.”