UPDATE: Mayor-President Kip Holden defends riverfront development, says newspaper article ‘very critical’

Original story:

East Baton Rouge Parish is a waterfront community that doesn’t really act like one. It’s an area that desperately wants to be treated like a tourist destination, and yet it has no wharf, pier or boardwalk offering commercial entertainment options to visitors.

It is bordered entirely to the west and southwest by the majestic Mississippi River, and while this has heavily influenced the parish’s industrial economy, it’s only in recent years that planners have gravitated toward commercial projects that embrace the water.

Still, there are several miles of completely undeveloped waterfront property. There are only three entertainment options today for sitting on the river — the three casinos.

Even downtown Baton Rouge, which is leading the way with entertainment and residential riverfront-adjacent projects, is late to the game compared with other major riverfront cities that have enjoyed the spoils of the prime real estate for decades. The primary reason, planners say, is because of impediments, such as the railroad tracks on the riverfront downtown and the levee system, that complicate construction projects, making them more costly and difficult.

“We have been given the greatest gift a community can have, which is 18 miles of waterfront property that is undeveloped to this day because of both poor practices of the past, the policies of the present and a lack of vision for the future,” said Metro Councilman John Delgado, who recently led a council effort to thwart an industrial barge-cleaning facility from locating on the riverfront near residential neighborhoods. “And yet we build fake lakes all around the parish and live around them.”

One of the concerns raised about allowing an industrial facility like the barge-cleaning operation to locate on the mostly undeveloped riverfront south of downtown was the tone it could set for future development of the land.

While north of downtown Baton Rouge much of the riverfront is commanded by petrochemical industries using the river for transporting products, planners are starting to envision entertainment and commercial uses for the river south of downtown.

“Is it doable? Yes. Is it more expensive? Yes. Is it more complicated? Yes,” said Baton Rouge Area Foundation President and CEO John Davies, whose organization has spearheaded both successful and failed riverfront attraction proposals. “But is it worth it to work on the river, to live on the river, which is a real allure and a real attraction? Absolutely.”

Attracting visitors

For years, the only commercial attractions on the Mississippi River were Baton Rouge’s two downtown riverboat casinos,the USS Kidd and the Louisiana Art and Science Museum. In recent years, L’Auberge Casino and Hotel joined Hollywood Casino and the Belle of Baton Rouge as a riverside attraction at the southern end of the parish. But there are miles of undeveloped land that separate them.

In downtown, there has been a flurry of inland activity adjacent to the waterfront, with high-rise apartments and office buildings offering views of the Mississippi River, and bars and restaurants opening up within walking distance. Pedestrian access, bike paths, lighting and seating on the riverfront also has been built over the years connecting LSU to downtown and attracting more visitors. There are plans in the works to stretch the paths all the way to L’Auberge.

But Baton Rouge still lacks a restaurant that sits on the waterfront or a boardwalk boasting retail, in the way other cities have embraced their waterfronts.

It’s not entirely for lack of effort.

In 2008 and 2009, Mayor-President Kip Holden tried to sell voters on massive tax plans that would have included numerous parish infrastructure projects, including the $225 million Alive riverfront attraction, which called for an aquarium, an outdoor amphitheater and scientific research facilities run by LSU, all tied to the theme of the Mississippi River.

Voters rejected the tax plans both times, with much of the criticism directed toward Alive, which taxpayers saw as a questionable use of public dollars.

Alive would have been on the 16-acre state-owned site south of Hollywood Casino on the batture, which is the land between the river and the levee. At the time, it was estimated that it would cost $40 million to prepare the site for construction by filling the land with dirt to build it up.

Holden did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story on efforts to develop the riverfront.

“Alive was a great project; it was just ahead of its time,” said Davies, whose organization pitched the project to Holden for inclusion in the tax package.

BRAF and other state and city leaders have since diverted their attention to the Water Campus, a hub for river and coastal development, located along River Road between downtown and LSU. Part of the campus will extend over the river on the old city dock, where BRAF leaders have said they expect to include a potential restaurant or cafe.

River Park, a 50-acre, $600 million proposed development directly north of Hollywood Casino, has been a work in progress for years that has yet to see much in the way of construction.

Developer Pete Clements has promised since 2008 to bring a riverfront boardwalk, restaurants, live music, hotels and residential space right to the river’s edge.

The land itself is some of the most ripe for development on the entire parish riverfront because there’s no levee there and it doesn’t flood, unlike the rest of the batture property, which likely would need to be developed over piers.

Its biggest challenge was the railroad that runs in front of it, blocking access. But Clements built a $14.5 million underpass to provide access under the railroad tracks to his property.

In fall 2013, Clements announced he had secured funding and was preparing to break ground by year’s end. He announced that he’d lined up a variety of tenants, including a dueling piano bar, an Asian fusion restaurant, a beer garden and a tapas restaurant. However, the groundbreaking never occurred, and there has been little activity since.

Clements didn’t return a call for this story, but Davis Rhorer, director of the Downtown Development District, said Clements’ project could be transformative. He said he looks forward to a commercial development that connects downtown businesses to the water’s edge.

Rhorer said the fact that the Mississippi River is a working river in Baton Rouge is something to celebrate and bring to the attention of downtown visitors.

“You can see the barges in it, the tankers coming in,” Rhorer said. “It’s a working river, and it’s fascinating to watch at different times of the year.”

Development challenges

Much of the undeveloped riverfront property south of downtown is privately owned or held by LSU.

Steve Boudreaux, a principal for Stantec who previously has worked on riverfront projects, including L’Auberge, said the two largest challenges to developing the riverfront are the levee and the railroad.

The Canadian National Railway blocks the levee downtown before diverting southeast at the interstate.

Boudreaux said he was engaged to help work on a project to turn the proposed Alive site into a riverfront park during former Gov. Mike Foster’s administration. But, he said, the state couldn’t move forward because it could not come to an agreement with the railroad owners about how to access the park over the tracks.

Patrick Waldron, a spokesman for Canadian National, said the freight line has been there since the early 1880s running between Baton Rouge and New Orleans and serving local industries across southeast Louisiana.

Boudreaux said they had suggested at the time a pedestrian path, where people could simply walk over the tracks, but the idea was rejected because of liability concerns.

If developers want to access land across the tracks and aren’t granted crosswalks, they have to build elevated pedestrian bridges or else underpasses, as Clements did, which are expensive. ?The riverfront land further south of downtown is considered “prime real estate,” Boudreaux said. But, he said, developers who want to access the water will have to contend with the complex permitting process of dealing with the levee, which is overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The primary concern of the Corps is to ensure that the levee isn’t weakened or damaged.

Davies, BRAF’s leader, also noted that development of the riverfront property south of downtown has been hampered by the sewer plant north of McKinley Street, which faces the river.

The unsightly and smelly plant is being decommissioned at the end of this year, as its functions are being transferred to the recently expanded treatment plant in the southern part of the parish.

“The decommissioning of the sewer plant allows for a whole host of opportunities in the area around Nicholson (Drive) to the river,” Davies said.

Chattanooga successes

Chattanooga, Tennessee, was once known as an industrial city, just like Baton Rouge. Legendary broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite in 1969 referred to the river city as the “dirtiest” city in America.

But today, Chattanooga is known for its natural beauty and artistic, up-and-coming downtown scene, which has, in large part, revolved around the revitalization of riverfront attractions over the past few decades.

In the 1980s, Chattanooga leaders created a nonprofit tasked with focusing solely on embracing the river.

Chattanooga boasts a riverwalk, an aquarium and various public amenities that tie the community to the river.

“Our connection and utilization of the river is the crown jewel of our city,” said Amy Donahue, a spokeswoman for River City Company, the nonprofit economic development group responsible for overseeing riverfront improvements. “Chattanooga wouldn’t win all these titles if our community had not invested in the river and the connection to the river.”

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz.