The transformation of downtown Baton Rouge as a place to live, work and play has been stunning over the past 20 years. (Photo by Collin Richie)
In June 1998, Baton Rouge embarked on one of the most comprehensive and significant planning processes in its history—a citywide effort aimed at transforming its dying downtown into a New Urbanist-inspired vision of a walkable, vibrant community where a diverse population could live, work and play.
For eight intensive days, esteemed planner Andres Duany led planning sessions at the Old State Capitol, where consultants, civic leaders and regular citizens gathered to share ideas, suggestions and dreams for revitalizing downtown and, by extension, the entire Capital City’s economy.
The result was Plan Baton Rouge, an ambitious document that served as a roadmap for the revitalization of downtown and, significantly, paved the way for future planning efforts and future planning organizations. Today, the once seemingly unimaginable goals outlined in Plan Baton Rouge—an arts center, a high-end hotel, an entertainment district, hundreds of residential units—have become reality.
“When I purchased the City Plaza building in 1999, downtown was empty after 5 p.m.,” says developer Mike Wampold, an early investor in downtown, who went on to develop the II City Plaza office building and the Watermark Hotel. “If you were down there, the police looked at you funny. But over the years, we’ve seen a significant transformation and I think that transformation will continue.”
But for as much of Plan Baton Rouge that has been realized—and on paper an estimated 90% of the goals have been implemented—a couple of key hurdles remain. One is the need for more diversified retail—not traditional clothing or shoe stores necessarily, which are struggling even in suburban shopping centers, but the kind of antique stores, art galleries and specialty retailers one might find along Magazine Street in New Orleans. Such tenants are hard to attract given the high price of downtown real estate, which goes for as much as much as $85 per square foot due to its scarcity and demand.
The other is the need for more downtown residents, which is directly related to the retail issue. Though some 9,000 people now live in a downtown area that includes Downtown East, Spanish Town and Beauregard Town, the population base is still relatively small. Until that changes, certain retailers won’t be able to take the risk or justify the investment to open downtown.
Yet, there’s also another, more subtle challenge: In a parish increasingly divided along political, racial and socioeconomic lines, not everyone embraces downtown and its revitalization. There is a degree of resentment, both among black residents of north Baton Rouge and whites in the suburban southeastern part of the parish, that downtown gets too much attention and benefits unfairly from public investment.
It matters little that the perception is not entirely correct. For a variety of reasons, there are those who either don’t understand or simply don’t buy the argument that a vibrant downtown is the rising tide that can lift the ship that is Baton Rouge. They believe the parish would be better served by more investment in their respective areas—more economic development in the north, better schools and roads in the south.
Those factions don’t necessarily pose a threat to the momentum of downtown’s redevelopment, but as advocates of the foiled TramlinkBR learned the hard way: The lack of support for initiatives requiring community-wide buy-in can dampen enthusiasm for certain projects and prevent others from moving forward at all.
Though Plan Baton Rouge is widely considered the blueprint for the revitalization of downtown, inspiration for the plan came from efforts begun years earlier—first, with Baton Rouge 2000 in the early 1980s, which called for the creation of the Downtown Development District, then with the Capitol Park Master Plan in the early 1990s, which called for consolidating state offices downtown.
Gov. Mike Foster’s Commissioner of Administration Mark Drennan is the guy who made the consolidation plan happen. A longtime Baton Rouge resident, he’d wanted for decades to bring state government back downtown. Once in a position to do something about it, Drennan found a creative financing mechanism that enabled the administration to move forward with the $300 million project.
Over the next decade, 10 new office buildings connected by a series of green spaces and walkways would be constructed, bringing some 3,000 state workers downtown every day.
Baton Rouge Area Foundation President and CEO John Davies watched with interest what was going on at the state level. He, too, wanted to move the downtown needle forward and saw the Capitol Park Master Plan as an opportunity to build something much bigger than just a complex of state office buildings.
“That was the motivation, the rationale, that drove Plan Baton Rouge,” Davies recalls. “There needed to be a little tail wind to take on social reform because at the end of the day, physical buildings are just a manifestation of social reform.”
Davies envisioned downtown as Baton Rouge’s “living room,” where a cross section of a diverse population could come and share a common space that reflected the greater community. To plan and execute that vision, BRAF put up $150,000 and convinced the city and state to each do the same. They used the $450,000 to hire Duany, whose specialty in New Urbanist design—with its emphasis on walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods and accessible public spaces—dovetailed with the foundation’s vision for what a progressive downtown should be.
In preparation for the planning sessions, BRAF began to educate the community on New Urbanism. They brought in a series of speakers in an outreach effort that helped generate interest in the concept and the planning process itself. When the charrettes began, residents came from throughout the parish to participate with a level of enthusiasm that Duany still remembers as remarkable.
“Average citizens came up with the ideas and solutions for this plan,” Duany says. “I would tell your community leaders, ‘Listen to your people. They have good ideas.’ I wasn’t sitting there having all these genius insights come to me out of the blue. The people of Baton Rouge were bringing the ideas to me.”
The ideas incorporated into Plan Baton Rouge covered every inch of downtown. From Catfish Town to the Capitol, the plan divided the area into districts, with specific goals and strategies for each. Some of the ideas were no-brainers—sidewalk cafes, improved streetscapes and better signage.
Some of the ideas came from the DDD’s Riverfront Master Plan from the early 1990s and its Capitol Park Master Plan, and improved on them.
“Plan Baton Rouge took our ideas for our office buildings and made them better,” says Drennan, who’d already begun construction on the state office buildings by the time the planning process got under way. “That’s how we ended up with ground-floor cafeterias in the state office buildings, which forced state workers out of their offices every day and onto the streets.”
Some of the ideas were transformational. These were the big ticket items Duany called “silver bullets” that served as catalysts for surrounding growth and development.
The most significant of these was the concept of an arts and cultural center that would be developed around and above the abandoned Auto Hotel, a historic but blighted 1930s-era parking garage overlooking the river. BRAF and its real estate company, Commercial Properties Realty Trust, took the lead on the project, bringing together the city, state and LSU in a public private partnership to develop what would become the $65 million, 125,000-square-foot Shaw Center for the Arts, with its Manship Theatre, LSU Museum of Art, Alfred C. Glassell Jr. Exhibition Gallery and rooftop sushi restaurant, Tsunami.
When it opened in early 2005, Baton Rouge suddenly had something it could be really proud of, something trendy, hip and unlike anything else around.
“The Shaw Center was ground zero for everything,” Davies says. “Once that got done people saw that you could actually make a plan and implement it. That changed everything.”
Another silver bullet project soon followed with the renovation of the former Heidelberg and Capitol House Hotel, which had originally been built in the 1920s but had long since deteriorated into a dilapidated eyesore that marred the view from the new Tsunami terrace. BRAF took on that project, too, acquiring and redeveloping the historic building at a cost of some $70 million into the Hilton Baton Rouge Capital Center. When it opened in 2006, it was the first new hotel downtown in half a century. Over the ensuring decade, five more would follow.
With the Shaw Center and the Hilton, pieces started falling into place. In 2007, Wampold developed the first new Class A spec office building in decades with
II City Plaza. Third Street evolved as an entertainment corridor, with the emergence of dozens of bars and restaurants. New residential units were developed from existing, historic office buildings.
In 2015, downtown reached another important milestone with the opening of its first full-service supermarket, the 15,000-square-foot Matherne’s on the ground floor of 440 on Third, a multifamily complex in the former Capital One building.
That same year, another silver bullet was realized, when the downtown IBM building and its adjacent apartment complex, 525 Lafayette, opened. Developed through yet another public private partnership engineered by BRAF and CPRT, the $30 million, mixed use complex included eight floors of riverfront office space and 100 residential units.
“Plan Baton Rouge gave us the knowledge of what a downtown could be and how intensive planning can change a city,” says DDD Executive Director Davis Rhorer. “When you have that kind of visionary plan, you can work that all the time. Everything we did, we would always ask, how does it relate back to the plan?”
(Photo by Collin Richie)
“Plan Baton Rouge gave us the knowledge of what a downtown could be and how intensive planning can change a city. Everything we did, we would always ask, how does it relate back to the plan?”
—DAVIS RHORER, executive director, Downtown Development District
Keys to success
That so much happened in such a relatively short amount of time can be chalked up to several factors, including a good plan, tireless advocates, and committed city and state governments. Equally important, however, is that Plan Baton Rouge included a detailed implementation strategy, which broke down the goals into action items that specified what needed to happen and which entity was charged with carrying it out.
“You can have a great plan but if you don’t have an implementation strategy it’s not going to work,” says Center for Planning Excellence Executive Director Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas, who coordinated hundreds of planning meetings during the plan’s implementation phase. “I think that is why this plan is recognized nationally as one of the most successful revitalization plans.”
While Plan Baton Rouge was successful in redeveloping much of downtown, the effort also had a couple of important spinoff effects. For one, it taught Baton Rouge how to plan more effectively and led to subsequent successful planning efforts. One was the 2008 Plan Baton Rouge II, which built on the original and is still being implemented by the DDD today. It called for amenities like the central greenway, new parks and green spaces, new modes of transportation and the expansion of the boundaries of the DDD to the east beyond Interstate 110.
The 2012 parishwide FuturEBR master land use plan also took its cues from Plan Baton Rouge, both in terms of the public participation that went into making it and the specific implementation strategies that came out of it.
CPEX itself is also a legacy of Plan Baton Rouge. Thomas was working for BRAF to help coordinate implementation efforts of the plan. After Hurricane Katrina, BRAF saw an opportunity to create a full-fledged planning organization that could teach local communities in devastated south Louisiana how to rebuild using principals of smart growth and sustainable development.
“Plan Baton Rouge set a vision for our community that has had a ripple effect through this community,” says Thomas, who has headed the organization since its founding and will retire in June.
(Photo by Collin Richie)
“You can have a great plan but if you don’t have an implementation strategy it’s not going to work. I think that is why this plan is recognized nationally as one of the most successful revitalization plans.”
—ELIZABETH “BOO” THOMAS, executive director, Center for Planning Excellence
While Plan Baton Rouge was a clear success, it wasn’t perfect and not everything outlined in the plan has been achieved.
Retail development, for one, still skews heavily towards entertainment venues like bars and restaurants, and less toward the diversified specialty and service retailers envisioned in 1998.
Granted, some of the retail components of the plan that seemed like a good idea in 1998—a 150,000-square-foot department store, movie theater and national bookstore chain outlet—are obsolete today. Such establishments are struggling in suburban retail corridors. That they never came to fruition downtown is fortuitous.
But other types of retailers called for in the plan—20,000 square feet of arts, crafts and antique stores—have bypassed downtown, opting instead to open along Government Street in Mid City, about two miles away.
In large part this has to do with the fact that downtown real estate is expensive. There’s not a lot of it and demand in recent years has only driven prices higher—from $65 per square foot on average for vacant land to as much as $85 per square foot in some cases today.
“If it costs you $85 to buy and another $200 per square foot to build, you’re looking at $300 per square foot,” says appraiser Tom Cook. “If you’re a small antiques dealer, you can’t pay the kind of rent a landlord would need to make those numbers work. Plus, you need three or four antique stores to all open in close proximity so you have some kind of shopping district.”
Adding to the problem, several large vacant lots remain undeveloped, including two prime parcels on the river that have been identified as key tracts for downtown redevelopment. The owners of those properties, however, have little incentive to sell. They’re able to lease the lots for parking, which generates nice income at a time when parking space downtown is at a premium and land values are going up.
The other reason there isn’t more diverse retail, however, is the number of residents is still relatively small. The 9,000 or so people living downtown today is impressive given where the area was just a few years ago. But until those numbers double or triple there simply won’t be enough demand to justify a certain mix of retailers providing goods and services.
Rhorer acknowledges there’s more work to do but says change is coming. Later this year, a new ground-up apartment building, the Lofts @ 6C, will open its first phase on Florida between Sixth and Seventh streets on the site of a former surface parking lot. To attract more such residential developments, he believes the key is to develop the kind of amenities young professionals demand.
“I think we continue to work on the development of green spaces and bike paths, things that are current to the needs of people today,” Rhorer says. “The lifestyle of young people is changing. They like the activity of an urban area, so we have to work to give them more of those amenities.”
When you talk to Rhorer and others, there is a certain sense of inevitability about the continued upward trajectory of downtown. An if you build it they will come mentality that, for the past two decades, has proven itself to be true.
But is the growth limitless? Will downtown continue to expand beyond I-110 east along Government Street, creating a great connected urban core? That is the vision, to be sure. But it’s important to acknowledge a certain resistance to such thinking.
As voters have become less trusting of government in the two decades since Plan Baton Rouge, they’re less supportive of taxing districts and incentives that enable private developers to come in and work their magic on an area.
There’s a rise in factionalism in Baton Rouge, as elsewhere in the country. Locally, there are those in economically underdeveloped north Baton Rouge and those in the more affluent suburban southeast part of the parish that find reason to grouse about downtown projects and investments—even when those investments are coming from the private sector.
Davis acknowledges the cynicism and chalks a lot of it up to misunderstanding. But he doesn’t see it as a threat to downtown’s progress. On the contrary, he points to the thousands of people who turn out for events downtown or the growing demand for downtown apartments, which average more than 98% occupancy, as evidence that Plan Baton Rouge and the vision it laid out is working.
“There are always going to be people who resist change, who question why can’t money be used for roads or schools,” he says. “But when you see 5,000 people down here for Live After Five you realize it’s working. We’re in implementation mode. And I’m every very pleased with where we’re going.”