Lot 14, Square 280 in the Suburb Magnolia subdivision sits vacant and unassuming on Duane Street between Oklahoma Street and Terrace Avenue in Old South Baton Rouge.
It’s now owned by the Gulf Coast Housing Partnership, a New Orleans-based affordable housing outfit with plans to build a $10 million condominium and retail development nearby. The 60-by-80-foot lot could someday accommodate a single-family house or be put together with other lots for a larger residential development.
But Lot 14, Square 280 traveled a long road to get to where it is today.
It’s also a testament to the difficulties encountered when trying to revitalize property and reverse blight through infill development.
Until recently, the property had 130 owners, with a host of succession issues and legal encumbrances. It took the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and partner agencies three years and $46,000 to clear the title on the $10,000 piece of property to put it back on the market.
Not a bad answer for anyone who’s ever driven by and wondered, “Why doesn’t anyone do something with that?”
Future BR, the proposed revamp of the city-parish’s land-use and development code that will go to city officials for approval later this year, encourages infill development as a major priority.
Infill development on any significant scale is going to require finding ways to put blighted, abandoned and court-adjudicated property back into commerce to help revitalize underpopulated neighborhoods.
“For the health of the entire capital region, Baton Rouge has to step up and revitalize and repopulate itself in its inner city and it’s core, ” said RDA President and Chief Executive Officer Walter Monsour.
The RDA was created in 2007 to revitalize declining Baton Rouge neighborhoods through land banking, administering federal tax credits for worthy projects and clearing the titles of properties seized by the city-parish through the courts for nonpayment of taxes.
The authority’s jurisdiction is the city limits and any subdivision that borders it. That area includes 1,490 subdivisions and 168,000 lots, 3,100 of which the authority has found are adjudicated and in the hands of the city-parish.
The RDA is not the only agency working on the issue of abandoned property. The East Baton Rouge Parish Mortgage Financing Authority, the Baton Rouge Housing Authority, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and the Center for Planning Excellence partner in various efforts.
But as the Future BR process geared up, it became clear that the RDA was going to play a major role in implementing parts of the plan that dealt with revitalizing the inner city, said lead planner John Fregonese.
“They will be a major agency for the implementation of the plan itself,” agreed city-parish Planning Director Troy Bunch.
The RDA had already started a public input process for Scotlandville Gateway; Zion City and Glen Oaks; the Choctaw Corridor; Northdale; and Melrose East. Those plans are incorporated into Future BR’s creation of small area plans to bore deeper into specific parts of town, such as Midcity and Broadmoor/Cortana.
Fregonese said revitalizing parts of Old South Baton Rouge, Midcity and the outer ring of downtown are crucial to helping Baton Rouge compete for population.
“I think Baton Rouge has failed in comparison to other cities by not taking advantage of what it has in abundance — these interesting inner city areas,” he said. “That’s one of the things that is important for Baton Rouge to discover.”
Monsour pointed out the kinds of cities with which Baton Rouge seeks to compete have more populated city centers, something he said was reflected in Plan Baton Rouge Phase 2’s recommendation of a larger residential base and greater boundaries for downtown.
The city’s urban core, he said, is the “living room of the parish.”
The RDA is currently in the process of testing state laws created to make it easier to get adjudicated properties back on the tax rolls. It’s first three test cases — vacant properties in Scotlandville — were done last summer and donated to Habitat for Humanity.
They were chosen because they were vacant, with no dilapidated structures or squatters, and were adjudicated, or seized through the court system, at least 10 years ago.
“Those presented … it’s hard too say an easier path, but they made a strong case for our ability to quiet title,” said RDA Vice President Mark Goodson. “Those properties had been neglected for a long enough time that if someone wanted to do something with that property, they would have done so.”
Goodson said nine more test cases are moving forward. The RDA also has acquired the adjudicated interest of about 135 other properties, but hasn’t started the process of clearing title.
“What we’re seeing is it’s between $3,000 and $4,000 per property,” he said, noting its a fraction of the $15,000 to $20,000 it would cost a developer.
“A private developer would be upside down immediately,” he said. “We’re much more on par with the value of the property.”
Goodson said taking over the properties and keeping them properly maintained is important, but the RDA will really only be successful if it can put them back into productivity.
Although the legislation creating the RDA allows it to acquire property at a tax sale, Goodson said it has not yet done so with any property. It has a cooperative endeavor agreement with the city-parish to take those not purchased at tax sales that have gone through the mandatory three-year redemptive period.
From there, the RDA begins its work clearing title, which includes notifying people they have a claim to the property.
If someone claims it, “we consider that just as big a victory as getting clear title,” he said. “We’re happy to put it back in their hands, provided they’ll maintain it and be responsible.”
As it starts to acquire property, the RDA and its board will screen interested partners at its public meetings, whether they are private developers or nonprofit organizations, looking for what is in the best interest of the area.
Goodson said the redevelopment authorities the RDA modeled itself after — the Portland Development Commission in Oregon, Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Genesee County Land Bank in Flynt, Mich. — have taught it that solutions have to be based in market realities.
Whether a tract of assembled lots becomes a housing complex, a community center or a grocery store, it has to be sustained by the surrounding neighborhood.
“Having the patience to hang onto (property) until the right, sustainable project comes along is something those organizations have done well,” Goodson said, adding those entities have shown how to identify funding sources.
Fregonese said RDA projects can serve as prototypes, showing lenders and other developers how nontraditional projects and building types can succeed.
In the meantime, the RDA and other nonprofits and agencies will continue the hard work that lies behind what looks to the average person as just a matter of cutting some grass or fixing up a house.
“I think the average person has no idea the complications that exist under the surface,” Goodson said.
Susan Ludwig is now with the RDA but worked for years with the Center for Planning Excellence
overseeing the implementation of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation’s revitalization plan for Old South Baton Rouge. She said that in the plan’s eight project development areas alone there are 2,300 lots with no improvements and 1,000 with vacant structures.
Only 17 percent had titles that were free and clear. The other 83 percent had some kind of issue, whether it was adjudicated or had title or heirship issues.
With median income in Old South at about $15,000, Ludwig said, estate planning is virtually non-existent and properties get automatically divided among children and siblings.
CPEX Director Boo Thomas said some kind of mechanism that promotes some modest estate planning and programs to help people draw up wills might be a solution.
“If you have a house in Old South or Zion City and it’s only worth $3,000, it doesn’t make sense to settle the estate,” she said. “Where are they going to get the money?”
Fregonese said he has not run across another city with as much of a problem with abandoned and adjudicated property. And with the need to preserve private property rights, he said, it just might be there is no quick fix.