Discussion focuses on redeveloping building
Downtown stakeholders will get their chance on Nov. 1 to weigh in on the redevelopment of the 175,000-square-foot black box at Third and Laurel known as the Commerce Building.
Some of the goals of the $22 million project are known. In about two years, New Orleans developer T.J. Iarocci, the new owner, is looking to open a 100-unit loft apartment building with 75,000 square feet of retail along Third and Laurel streets.
Iarocci is keen on nabbing a grocery store tenant. And the roof of the eight-story building will become home to some kind of public space to take advantage of the view of the Mississippi River and, in the distance, Tiger Stadium.
But how the design team at New Orleans-based Eskew+Dumez+Ripple transforms the relatively nondescript, mid-century modern building — known mostly for the black coat of paint it got last decade by previous owner Bob Dean — is only in the early stages of conception.
The Commerce Building is mainly two footprints. The first is 26,000 square feet. It is made up of the basement and the first and second floor and stretches down Third and Laurel streets. A 16,000-square-foot footprint is made up of the third through eighth floors.
The building was last used as temporary office space by the state, but has been vacant since the middle of the last decade. Over the years, the interior was increasingly chopped up as office space. Overhead in the hallway, for example, are three different ceilings layered over one another.
Michael Lang, of Iarocci’s 5th Floor development company and the project’s development manager, said the team will have to work within constraints of historic tax credits, which primarily pertain to the exterior of the building. For example, there are certain elements that must be left intact, like the windows.
The inside of the building has only a few areas worth saving and will be stripped down to the stairwells, columns and the lobby.
“Other than a very select few areas, we’re going to start from scratch on the inside,” Lang said.
The team will also try to design an aesthetic that plays off the building’s history and its existing architectural character.
The building is mid-century modern architecture, which, while not known for being overly ornate, does have clean lines and a distinct look. The building evokes the early to mid-20th century, notably the sign over the Laurel Street entrance, a black-and-white marble foyer and a vintage black-and-gold mail chute that runs the height of the building between the elevator doors.
The team is looking at archival photos and talking to people who had some experience with the building, trying to get their stories for inspiration.
“It’s really trying to think about how you do a modern interpretation of (existing architecture) and be true to the history of the building, which we think is very important,” Lang said, noting the team recently discovered that renown local architect A. Hays Town used to work in the building.
There has been much discussion of the success of Tsunami at the Shaw Center for the Arts, and Steve Dumez, director of design with Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, said the team is looking at the Commerce Building’s rooftop as “a means to bring people together.”
“If we’re able to navigate both an outside public use along with a residential use, that will bring more activity to the rooftop, which we would see as a plus,” he said.
“We want to do something really great with it and one of those components will be the view from the roof, which is amazing,” Lang agreed. “We want to activate that not only for the residents, but for the public as well.”
At the Downtown Development District meeting earlier this month, much was made of the residential tower Eskew+Dumez+Ripple designed at 930 Poydras St. in New Orleans. Dumez, however, said later that the two projects are very different, pointing to the fact that the Poydras tower was new construction and Commerce is a redevelopment with restrictions that are based on historic tax credit guidelines. But Dumez said one similarity will be the building’s potential role in spurring development by putting a large number of permanent residents there.
Poydras “really began to tip the center of gravity on that part of the warehouse district,” he said, noting coffee shops, restaurants and other support retail have sprung up. “It’s really become a very vibrant neighborhood.”
Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District, said having Eskew+Dumez+Ripple — the designers on the Bienville Building, The Shaw Center for the Arts, The Louisiana State Museum and others — back working in downtown Baton Rouge is a welcome development.
The firm “has played a major role in shaping the downtown skyline,” he said.
Rhorer said putting that many residents on Third Street at once will be a major economic stimulus, even before considering it will put an empty building back into commerce.
“It’s perfect,” he said. “I’m ecstatic. This is such a major leap forward in downtown development. This is a game-changing type of development here.”
Dumez said that already downtown’s “transformation in a little more than a decade has been huge.”
“The amount of activity on the street was really wonderful to see because it showed the ideas introduced in Plan Baton Rouge had come to be,” he said.