Future BR: Charting a new course

Development. Quality of life.

They do not always go hand in hand. Example: Baton Rouge — and countless other cities — where traffic congestion; swaths of blighted, underpopulated neighborhoods; and retail corridors often define the decade in which developers built then moved on to greener pastures.

The fact is, all cities experience growing pains and many lose as often as they win in striving to achieve a balance between growth, economic development, equity, aesthetics and sustainability.

As for Baton Rouge, the city-parish is wrapping up a $1.9 million overhaul of its land-use and development plan, dubbed Future BR, to fix problems and reverse troublesome trends cited in public hearings.

After creating specific, small area plans for several key districts, one of the more prominent aims of Future BR will be fostering so-called 20-minute neighborhoods.

Future BR “is going to focus on the creation of compact and sustainable neighborhoods,” City-Parish Planning Director Troy Bunch said. “By that I mean providing services (with a) neighborhood concept where you can provide all services within a 20-minute walk.”

More than 2,000 residents and 61 organizations participated in some 70 public meetings to provide the ingredients for Future BR. Another 3,400 surveys were submitted by residents.

A 60-page draft that emerged from those efforts lays out a plan for: battling blight and encouraging “infill” development; public transportation and regional transit; connecting streets and relieving traffic congestion; “complete” streets for cars, pedestrians and bikes; and an implementation strategy.

A more voluminous, complete document is expected to go before the Planning and Zoning Commission and Metro Council after the summer.

The city-parish, beginning in 2009, used $1.9 million in federal hurricane recovery dollars to start overhauling the parish’s comprehensive master plan, the Horizon Plan. It was created 19 years ago to guide land use and development in East Baton Rouge Parish.

Mayor-President Kip Holden decided Hurricane Katrina and a significant shift in thinking about planning, sprawl and urban development had hastened the day that a Horizon Plan overhaul needed to be done.

John Fregonese, a Portland, Ore., planning consultant who was at the center of planning initiatives in Portland and Salt Lake City, was hired to lead Baton Rouge’s effort. In addition to a public hearing process that spanned more than a year, Fregonese’s team has been working with the city-parish to blend the existing land-use and development plan into Future BR.

Boo Thomas, president and chief executive officer of the Center for Planning Excellence, said she is glad Future BR will recognize the relationship between land use and transportation, particularly the need for more public transit options and better street connections.

“That is so vital if we are going to solve some of these transportation problems,” she said of the draft document’s stated goal of “healing” the city’s post-war development pattern of unconnected developments by finding key points to add surface streets.

Planners, developers and residents, she said, “are beginning to see you have to solve some of these (traffic congestion) problems with our local streets, rather than … just another six-lane highway.”

Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District, said he is glad that the Future BR draft document encourages residential development in and around downtown as a key to reversing the city’s traditional, unsustainable sprawling development pattern.

He said the plan’s encouragement of tax increment financing programs, which use future tax revenue in a specific area to help with development costs, reflects the success downtown has had using TIFs on two completed hotels and one in the works and can be used for riverfront development.

CPEX’s Thomas said Future BR recognizes the importance of bike paths, walking trails and parks as a welcome change. “That’s the stuff that is going to keep young people here,” she said.

She pointed out the concept of “complete streets” — streets that cater not just to automobiles but bikes and pedestrians — wasn’t even a smart growth concept when the Horizon Plan was created in the early 1990s.

Planners also discussed how newer concepts built into the development code will allow developers and traffic engineers the creativity and precedent to do things differently.

Thomas spoke of getting away from inappropriately wide streets running through residential subdivisions.

Bunch, the city-parish planning director, said the new plan will encourage development more appropriate to the types of transportation corridor, with more intensive, commercial uses on wider streets and more pedestrian-scale, Main Street-oriented building types along smaller streets.

Bunch said Future BR will have guidelines built into it governing aesthetic standards, whereas the city-parish has been accomplishing this on an area-by-area basis in the years since the Horizon Plan by creating overlay districts.

Bunch also said Future BR will refine the permitted uses within zoning districts. This will allow developers greater flexibility without having to rezone but still give surrounding neighborhoods the comfort of knowing what’s allowed. This would apply not just for building uses, but design elements of the buildings themselves.

The idea, he said, is “letting the developer be as creative as possible while raising the design bar standard in our community.”

Bunch said that while the Horizon Plan always recognized Baton Rouge had growth centers and economic development, “we always need to look at providing more incentives for development in the growth centers.”

Ways to do this, he said, are looking closely at height restrictions, setback requirements and permitted uses.

The draft version also stresses the need to better coordinate activity between government agencies by breaking down “silos” and improving communication and cooperation. Future BR also envisions the city-parish working more closely with businesses, local universities and entities like the Baton Rouge Area Chamber to grow jobs inside the parish.

Fregonese said Future BR should encourage economic development with broader aesthetic goals and quality-of-life issues in mind.

“One of the realities is, you can’t just add amenities, you have to drive it with economic development and investment,” he said. “It’d be great if you could just add amenities.”

Fregonese and Thomas also noted that Future BR is not just a plan, it will have an implementation strategy. It also will have a monitoring program of specific targets for population and job growth, traffic counts and other measures of success.