City eyes improvement plans for Government St.

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Agencies implementing Baton Rouge’s master development plan will hold a two-day public demonstration in the spring to show what it would be like if Government Street had fewer traffic lanes, new bike paths, better landscaping and storefronts that opened out onto the sidewalk.

The effort could ultimately lead to the city-parish taking the busy transportation corridor from the state in exchange for improvements to it that would enhance Midcity, said John Price, assistant chief administrative officer to Mayor-President Kip Holden.

The plans were discussed Tuesday at the Center for Planning Excellence’s Smart Growth Summit, held downtown at the Shaw Center for the Arts.

The discussion also included plans to create an urban renewal district encompassing Midcity. That could become the basis for a tax increment financing district, which would channel any additional tax revenue into improvements within its boundaries.

The “Better Block” demonstration project, which has been done in Dallas, San Antonio and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., would transform two blocks across in front of the Westmoreland Shopping Center for a weekend in March or April to show what a “complete street” would look like. It would be less focused on automobile traffic and more on open storefronts, sidewalks and bike lanes, according to Camille Manning-Broome, director of planning for the Center for Planning Excellence.

CPEX, which is organizing the project with the Mid-City Redevelopment Alliance and the blessing of the Mayor’s Office, is gathering public input and will host two workshops, the first one sometime in January. CPEX is working with the BR Walls Project to incorporate an emphasis on the arts for the event, which could include pop-up vendors, food trucks and other attractions.

But at its core, the project aims to show residents how calming vehicular traffic and enhancing its other uses can change the nature of a street. Better Block demonstrations use temporary striping and potted plants to claim the outer lanes for pedestrian and bike use and slow down cars, bringing the street down to a more human scale.

For over a decade, residents and businesses along Government have told planners they would like Government to resemble Magazine Street in New Orleans, not the dangerous, high-speed throughway it is today. Traffic studies haven’t ruled it out — there are other parallel roads that are underused. But moving cars has remained the city-parish’s priority over the years, and skepticism remains about whether such a project could work.

“We want to be able to demonstrate (that) absolutely it can,” Manning-Broome said.

The project, between Bedford and Beverly drives, will have a budget of roughly $17,500, though a specific weekend hasn’t been selected. CPEX and the redevelopment alliance will work with the state Department of Transportation and Development on a traffic control plan to do it safely, Manning-Broome said.

Price, who is the mayor’s liaison to the FutureBR implementation team, said after the discussion that Government Street is one of several roads in East Baton Rouge that are crucial to traffic flow and economic development, but are owned and maintained by the state. Others include Nicholson Drive, Airline Highway, Florida Boulevard and Perkins Road.

While the city-parish couldn’t take over all of them because of maintenance costs, it is in discussions with DOTD about the possibilities. And Government is a prime candidate because it runs right through the heart of Midcity, one of FutureBR’s early “demonstration” areas, Price said.

Price said Nicholson, for example, was identified in FutureBR as a prime candidate for a streetcar between downtown and LSU, which would boost economic development, land values and the tax base along the corridor.

The potential overhaul of any of these streets — assuming funding is found — would require the city-parish to have control, Price said.

Mark Goodson, vice president of the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority, said targeting Midcity for improvement is also the goal of the urban renewal district. Such districts are planned for north Baton Rouge and Old South Baton Rouge, but the RDA would give Midcity the designation first, probably by early next year.

And if a study of sales and property tax revenue shows a tax increment financing district is feasible, he said, “we think (Midcity’s) got the best chance to catalyze investment.”