FutureBR team gives proposals to mayor

Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- John Price, center, discusses proposals during a FutureBR meeting on Tuesday.Around him are Sam Sanders, left, executive director of the Mid City Redevelopment Alliance, and city-parish Planning Director Troy Bunch. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- John Price, center, discusses proposals during a FutureBR meeting on Tuesday.Around him are Sam Sanders, left, executive director of the Mid City Redevelopment Alliance, and city-parish Planning Director Troy Bunch.

The team working to implement Baton Rouge’s master plan made more than a dozen recommendations to Mayor-President Kip Holden’s office on Tuesday, mostly a mix of initiatives already underway and others previously identified during FutureBR’s 18-month public planning process.

The gathering of the six appointees to the FutureBR Implementation Team was as much a public presentation as it was a board meeting. Combinations of the members and their staffs have been working for about a year behind the scenes to come up with Tuesday’s plan, even admitting to avoiding a quorum of members that would make the meetings public.

The bulk of Tuesday’s recommendations fell under the category of improving transportation and building stronger neighborhoods with a greater sense of place, particularly in midcity.

John Price, a planning commissioner and the mayor’s liaison to the FIT team, invoked 6th Street in Austin, Texas, and Beale Street in Memphis, Tenn., as examples of the cultural and economic draw that streets with a strong sense of place can exert.

He said that was shown during a recent weekend demonstration project that reduced lanes on Government Street in Baton Rouge and set up temporary retailers close to the street.

“Once you slow down that traffic, you begin to create a different environment,” he said, before acknowledging that permanent changes to Government and other streets will be expensive and a challenge to fund.

Price said the city will have a “complete streets” policy statement by the end of the year to guide its creation of new streets and rehabbing existing streets.

He said the policy will not necessarily result in every street having a bike path or sidewalk, but it will institutionalize the consideration of all modes of transportation in how the city builds and maintains its roads.

The complete streets element is a long-term, transformative process but one that “is both an economic driver and a transportation element.”

The team will also recommend a “great streets” program that will focus on how to improve the sense of place on the major corridors of Government Street, Plank Road, Perkins Road, Airline Highway, Florida Boulevard and Nicholson Drive. Government and Plank would be first in line. Price has said in the past that these initiatives could include taking over all or portions of any of these roads from the state.

The team will also recommend creating a tax increment financing district for midcity that could use additional sales tax revenue above an established baseline to make improvements to the area.

FIT team member Walter Monsour, president and chief executive officer of the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority, said such urban renewal districts could follow in North Baton Rouge and Old South Baton Rouge. But he said midcity is ripe because it is the most “in transition” of the three.

That district could overlap five council districts and its boundaries could ultimately be different than what is currently considered midcity. Monsour said the boundaries would be created in concert with the Mayor’s Office and his finance team, based on economics.

The district has potentially transformational projects in the works, including any changes to Government Street; the upcoming redevelopment of Smiley Heights off Florida Boulevard to include an automotive training center, a technical college, housing and retail; and the purchase of the former Woman’s Hospital site on Airline Highway to become the home of the Baton Rouge Police Department and the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office.

Monsour said the team is recommending a master plan be created for the 24-acre former hospital site, since the two law enforcement agencies won’t be using all of it. Their presence could help create some demand for key services missing in the area. Also, a private developer could get involved with the development of the site, he said.

Similarly, the outline of the team’s recommendations calls for a master plan of a “new” midcity.

The team also recommended the Mayor’s Office participate fully in the nascent effort to develop a passenger rail system between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. It noted the mayor and his counterparts in all but two parishes between the two cities have made their appointments to the Louisiana Intrastate Rail Compact. Price said a rail line, while not high-speed, could compete effectively for a share of the roughly 50,000 commuters per day traveling the route and enjoys the support of 70 percent of the population within the corridor.

The team also recommended the mayor hire John Fregonese, the consultant who led FutureBR’s creation, to help integrate changes into the code and some of the initiatives that will spring from it.

Some recommendations were not expanded upon, such as the need for a streetcar along Nicholson to link LSU to downtown and help rejuvenate the corridor through transit-oriented development. Others were initiatives already well underway, such as the greenway the Downtown Development District has funded through the first two phases or the improvements to the Capital Area Transit System funded through a recently passed tax.

Senate Bill 51, which will be taken up in the current legislative session, and any subsequent local ordinances will help make the redevelopment authority’s work of eliminating blight easier and more effective, the report said.

There was no discussion on funding for the various recommendations, though the list mentions TIFs, state and federal grants, and parishwide bond issues as potential sources.

It will be up to Holden, who was not in attendance, to accept and implement the recommendations. A spokesman for Holden’s office referred a request for a reaction to Price, who as one of Holden’s assistant chief administrative officers would already have access to the mayor and be aware of his expectations.

Price, who was elected at the end of the meeting to chair the committee for the next year, said public meetings will become more frequent over the next 12 months.

In addition to Monsour, other members of the team include Boo Thomas, president and chief executive officer of the Center for Planning Excellence; Sam Sanders, executive director of the Mid City Redevelopment Alliance; Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District; and city-parish Planning Director Troy Bunch.