Building Blocks

For one weekend in April, Baton Rouge will have a chance to experience Government Street — or a few blocks of it, at least — the way planners and midcity merchants and residents have long felt it should be.

Better Block BR is a demonstration project that will bring the road down to one lane in each direction and a center turn lane just west of Acadian Thruway. It also will introduce slower traffic, better crosswalks, bicycle lanes and shops up close to the street with café seating.

While 15 temporary businesses, a beer garden, a park and public murals will undoubtedly create a festive atmosphere, organizers say the intent is far more serious.

“It’s not a block party, it’s an actual demonstration project,” said John Price, Mayor Kip Holden’s point man in the implementation of FutureBR, the overhaul of Baton Rouge’s land-use and development plan.

Road signs will be put up a week in advance of April 13 and 14, when traffic cones will be put up in one of the eastbound lanes just west of Bedford Drive and in a westbound lane just east of Beverly Drive.

Between those two streets, trees and bushes in planters will be used to “quiet” vehicular traffic, create bike lanes, make side-streets more narrow and create on-street parking.

Camille Manning-Broome, director of planning for the Center for Planning Excellence, said the point is not to move cars off the road, but to have motorists share it with pedestrians and cyclists or maybe even stop to enjoy the streetscape and merchants as pedestrians themselves.

“That’s the overall goal for everybody,” said Laurence Lambert, a traffic engineer and volunteer with Better Block BR, “to turn Government Street into a destination, rather than just a means to get from point A to point B.”

Government street has been the subject of numerous studies and public workshops over the years. One major theme can be counted on to surface every time: No one wants Government Street to be the high-speed, unsafe and pedestrian-unfriendly vehicular corridor it is today.

Planning for Better Block was no different. Manning-Broome said one exercise had participants look at photos of different streets with various levels of public amenities. They assigned red stickers for a negative reaction and green stickers for a positive reaction.

One of the photos was actually of Government Street. It got the highest number of red stickers and no green ones.

“There was not one person that said that they liked Government Street,” said Price, who also sits on the planning commission and is Holden’s assistant chief administrative officer. “There is unanimity that people are dissatisfied with it, but the real question is: ‘What can you do with it?’”

A popular idea among planners and midcity residents and merchants has always been a so-called “road diet” — shrink the road from two lanes in each direction down to one in each direction, put in a center turn lane and give one lane back to the streetscape for parking, bike lanes and sidewalks.

Merchants and residents point out something akin to Magazine Street in New Orleans could be a major draw.

Traffic studies have shown it is doable on Government because of alternate parallel roads nearby, such as Florida and North boulevards. But taking lanes off of streets in Baton Rouge has historically been a nonstarter, politically.

That, however, may be changing.

“There are people who are starting to see the merits of it,” Lambert said, “because what’s out there now is not very desirable.”

Price said a major factor in that evolution was FutureBR’s recommendation that Government Street could be a demonstration project for the upcoming “complete streets” plan. The plan is a blueprint for making the city’s roads friendlier to modes of transportation other than cars.

Proponents of reducing lanes have pointed out that there is effectively only one lane in each direction already; it’s just not always the same lane because of the way traffic flows. Frequently cars come to a dead stop in the inside lane and those following move to the outside lane.

Lambert, a principal at Stantec who has lead traffic studies of Government Street, calls this the slalom effect, as drivers moving at fast speeds are constantly shifting lanes to avoid stopping.

Stantec, formerly ABMB Engineers, studied putting in a raised median and roundabouts at the intersections. While models showed doing so would move cars along Government efficiently, there are so many entry points that the line of vehicles at peak hours becomes difficult to penetrate, causing cars to queue up on the side-streets.

One lane each way, however, works fine.

“We didn’t see any degradation in the operations with the three lanes,” he said. “It tested very well.”

Lambert pointed to a recent natural experiment that worked: Sewer work the city-parish was doing reduced part of Government to one lane each way.

“From an operations standpoint, it already has been truth-tested,” he said.

Lambert conceded traffic will be much lighter on Better Block weekend. But cars on the weekends arguably move faster along Government Street.

“On a normal Saturday or Sunday, people can be going upwards of 50 miles an hour because there is no friction there,” he said, a reference to the large parking lots and set-back buildings that make driving fast seem appropriate. “But when you reduce the lanes and add activity up close to the street, people will slow down.”

Lambert said road diets are far less of a hassle and cost less than widening projects. Creating a stronger sense of place also encourages infill development, which is itself more cost effective.

“You’ve got the sewer, electric and drainage infrastructure, and with just a little more investment you can get a huge return, rather than building out into greenfields where you have to start from scratch.”

Lambert said that while there is a time and place to add lanes to roads, encouraging all kinds of development within the city’s footprint is the best way to decrease traffic congestion because it reduces the need for people to drive across town.

“When you mix land uses, you shorten trips,” he said. “And that’s how you get rid of congestion.”

For example, Lambert’s family purposely moved into Old Goodwood because it is near where he works, goes to church and where his children go to school.

“People say the traffic is horrible in Baton Rouge,” he said. “Not for me.”

Government Street is a state highway. Despite commissioning traffic studies there due to the high accident rate, the Department of Transportation and Development has been noncommittal about a road diet. However, DOTD last week officially approved Better Block BR as a road diet demonstration.

But there’s another option. Price said there are “always ongoing discussions” with the state about the possibility of the city taking over some crucial roads.

“There is a list of roads the city would like to see come into its domain, and Government Street would certainly rank up there,” he said.

The Center for Planning Excellence, which is organizing the demonstration with the city-parish and the Mid City Redevelopment Alliance, began by working with other cities that have done Better Block demos.

Then came the public meet-ups, input workshops and volunteer sessions.

“We had no idea the impact it would have on the community,” Manning-Broome said. “The turnout from our first public meeting and the response we’ve gotten from the community has been amazing and overwhelming.”

On a recent Tuesday night, dozens of volunteers once again gathered in a warehouse at the redevelopment alliance, swinging hammers and cutting wood to convert pallets into signs, planters and other temporary infrastructure.

“They want to see that area transform into a place that reflects their values,” she said.

In addition to about 100 volunteers, businesses in the area participated either directly or through the donation of time, materials and services.

Dominos provided pizza at the meet-ups; Letterman’s Blue Print & Supply and Downtown Duplicating printed flyers and made copies; PODS donated six storage units that will serve as pop-up businesses; Louisiana Office Supply, Ace Hardware on Government Street and Home Depot provided materials for the build-out; Elbow Room created the logo; Makaira Landscape and Garden District Nursery provided planters and trees; and Mid City Bikes is donating bike racks.

Rex Cabiness, of Washer Hill Lipscomb Cabaniss Architecture, offered to design two bus shelters.

Culinary Productions will be creating a street café at the Darensbourg building, while Phil Brady’s Bar & Grill will do a beer garden just west of Honeymoon Bungalow.

BR Walls, the local public mural initiative, will get an artist to paint a mural on the west side of Cash America Pawn.

Standing in front of Radio Bar on Wednesday afternoon, Manning-Broome explained how the planters are for more than just appearance. Government Street, she explained, needs access management badly. Access management is how road design controls where and how cars move on and off the street.

Hearthstone Drive, for example, is far too wide, which encourages cars to take the turn off of Government at high speeds. After the planters narrow it at the connection, it works fine at the appropriate speed and allows for on-street parking on Hearthstone. A driveway in Westmoreland — basically a break in the hedge — is wide enough for three vehicles, which creates confusion about where cars using it should be.

Organizers are particularly excited about the pop-up retailers, many of whom are trying out concepts for the first time.

Laurie Chapple, president of the Mid City Merchants Association, which was in charge of the line-up of participating shops, said retailers want more local boutiques and eateries in a walkable environment.

She said that with Baton Rouge High School and Catholic High School on each side of the street, Government “should be more vibrant than it is.”

Asked how they think Better Block BR will be received by the public, and how the street will function, organizers are confident.

Manning-Broome said that the demonstration has been such a grassroots effort that it can’t help but be well-received by the public. Lambert said the traffic studies indicate it will work.

Price said he likes that it’s something people can actually experience for themselves “rather than having another drawing with a happy family and a kid carrying a balloon across the crosswalk.”

Manning-Broome said Better Blocks in other cities have triggered code changes, infrastructure improvements and even special taxing districts.

Price said that while only a portion of Government Street might see significant change, something will likely have to happen, regardless.

“Eventually, we anticipate it will change in some form or fashion ...” he said. “Nothing ever stays the same.”