Lanny Keller: Downtown Baton Rouge is booming; what’s the next step?

The Advocate

Maybe it’s become a cliché, but the “tipping point” for downtown Baton Rouge has probably already happened — a boom in both commerce and residential living has marked 2014 and shows signs of more progress this year.

The sense of change in the years since 1998 brought town planner Andres Duany to Baton Rouge for the first Plan Baton Rouge sessions has weathered recessions and turned around a daytime office park. Now, after-hours activity is not only continuing but increasing around a slew of restaurants and bars.

The big new development is in residential, the condos and apartments that provide not only customers for the businesses in the Downtown Development District but new uses for old and, if truth be told, sometimes shabbily maintained storefronts and office buildings.

The Downtown Development District’s year-end report noted that 191 units are now in construction and another 109 are planned — in addition to the more than 1,300 apartments and single-family homes in downtown and the nearby historic Spanish Town and Beauregard Town neighborhoods. Some of the new units are in relatively small apartment buildings tucked into the core of downtown. Others are larger mixed-use redevelopments such as 440 on Third, the location of the former Hibernia/Capitol One bank building.

It houses offices and apartments, but also a Matherne’s, marked last week by city leaders and the DDD as the first full-fledged supermarket in downtown in 50 years. Those kinds of services make downtown living easier, obviously, but they also achieve the goal of Duany and the Center for Planning Excellence in its 1998 original plan: walkability. That’s increasingly attractive to not only the stereotypical young, urban professional but older people who have seen off the kids and don’t want an acre of yard to maintain.

If Baton Rouge is hardly unique in the country in seeing this return to an urban lifestyle, having a showplace center of the region is an important component in making the city attractive to the technology sector. The centerpiece of that effort is the IBM office building that is also the site of new residential; it’s on the riverfront where the old Advocate office building once stood.

With hundreds of technology jobs, IBM is one but not the only indicator of growing technological employment in the region.

The Baton Rouge area vaulted no less than 55 spaces in the annual Milken Institute ratings of employment and the percentage of technical jobs in the region. The Baton Rouge Area Chamber’s Adam Knapp called that one of the significant indicators that he saw in 2014.

But if high-tech is part of the success of downtown, high-touch is also.

The social capital of daily interaction with neighbors and colleagues on downtown streets is a vindication of the visionaries of the latter years of the last century.

While there’s a lot of progress, there is nevertheless a lot of work ahead. Not only is financing more difficult than in the go-go years before the 2008 recession, but Baton Rouge remains the town that we grew up with, where second-class is usually more than good enough. The few really attractive streets by the Shaw Center for the Arts are a rarity, and most of the streetscape of downtown is in Urban Bland; typically, the crosswalks are striped in fading paint, the signs leaning in the official 40 degrees off-vertical that is a trademark of the Department of Public Works.

We get more taxes and more residents from a thriving downtown, but we also need to invest in making it a more attractive place to visit and do business here.

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