(Photo courtesy Emory University: Frank Alexander)
Before the RDA could go about redeveloping blighted neighborhoods of Baton Rouge, it had to decide where to focus its energies and what to do in those areas.
To that end, it embarked on an extensive planning process that resulted, 18 months later, in community improvement plans for the five inner-city council districts with the worst blight and decay: Choctaw Corridor, Northdale and Standard Heights, Scotlandville Gateway, Melrose East, and Zion City and Glen Oaks.
The plans are impressive, well- researched and painstakingly detailed. Each is centered on a catalyst project designed to spawn redevelopment that would spread organically.
In the case of the Choctaw Corridor plan, for instance, the catalyst project involves new commercial and mixed-use development within the existing underutilized parking lot of the Choctaw Village Shopping Center. The plan explains the big-picture vision for the area and also specific action items that need to be done.
The plans were completed in 2011 and have helped shape RDA decisions about where to target investment. But so far, nothing concrete has come of the plans. None of the suggested catalyst projects has been developed or, for that matter, is even in the planning stages.
Instead, the RDA is now focused on two, much larger catalyst projects: Ardendale, the proposed urban village off Florida Boulevard in the neighborhood formerly known as Smiley Heights, and 1509 Government St., the 6-acre former Entergy site that straddles downtown and Mid City.
RDA officials say they haven’t abandoned the five community plans, but they concede the projects have proven harder to get off the ground than originally thought.
“We identified catalyst areas through each of the community improvement plans where we thought redevelopment could occur most easily,” says Susanna Bing, the RDA’s director of finance and economic development. “In hindsight, some of these areas are much more challenging than we originally anticipated. We don’t own the catalyst areas, so we don’t have site control.”
RDA board Chairman John Noland also blames the lack of development so far on the fact that the RDA didn’t have adequate funds to acquire those catalyst properties or take on any of the actual redevelopment work itself.
“The money wasn’t there,” he says.
To be fair, few redevelopment organizations have undertaken much development over the past few years, due to the foreclosure crisis in 2008 and subsequent economic downturn.
“The level of activity reached all-time lows between 2008 and 2014,” says Frank Alexander, a law professor at Emory University who worked with the RDA on its land bank program. “Y’all got into this, and then the market began to crash … and by the time the RDA was in a position, structurally and organizationally, to do something, there was no redevelopment being done in any city in the country.”
Of late, the agency’s focus has shifted to the much larger, more glamorous Ardendale Village and 1509 Government St. site. Noland says both projects have potential to transform entire swaths of the community.
Though it sounds good in theory, for now it’s too soon to say whether either undertaking will spawn the kind of residential redevelopment that will breathe new life into those areas. At Ardendale, infrastructure work is nearly complete, and construction of the state’s Automotive Training Center for Excellence is scheduled to begin early next year.
As for 1509 Government St., the project is still in the planning stages.
But RDA officials have been hopeful, paradoxically perhaps, that the large-scale catalyst projects will be easier to do than the smaller ones.
“In order to bring along the blighted bad stuff, we’ve got to create some exciting good stuff so we can get people to vote with their feet by moving into Ardendale or the 1509 complex,” Noland says. “That’s the idea behind these projects.”