When he took over as city-parish planning director in June, Frank Duke promised he would wait six months before making any radical changes. Now that Duke has been on the job for eight months, he’s ready to start making changes to improve the quality of life in Baton Rouge.
“If you’re going to have a great city, if you’re going to have a great community, you have to be able to plan, you have to be able to think about the kind of city you want to be in the future,” Duke said Wednesday during a speech before the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge.
One of the main ways of improving the city-parish will involve overhauling the Unified Development Code.
“In 30 years of working as a planner, I have never found a development ordinance more in need of work,” he said. The goal is to make the code easier for people to understand, with streamlined, simplified regulations written in plain English.
Duke wants to make the regulatory process clearer, so developers and residents know what to expect as part of the procedure.
“I cannot make development happen,” Duke said. “We live in the United States, it is the market that will determine what will happen. All I can do is make it easy for the type of development we want to be in a place.”
One of the problems is regulations were developed in the 1980s and assume every development is suburban. “You’re in the middle of an incredible urban neighborhood,” Duke said. “There are opportunities along Government Street to encourage people to park once and walk around. Our regulations haven’t caught up with that reality.” Parking regulations are in the process of being changed to reflect this and encourage redevelopment and reinvestment.
Landscape regulations also will be changed to break up parking lots that are “seas of asphalt,” Duke said. New landscape regulations would have environmental benefits, since paved, unshaded lots contribute to increased stormwater runoff and rising urban temperatures.
“If we’re going to be the next great American city, we need to take steps to address that,” he said.
Duke said there’s a good foundation of planning in Baton Rouge, thanks to the work of Davis Rhorer, with the Downtown Development District, and Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas, with the Center for Planning Excellence.
But he wants to make sure the parish is working toward achieving the goals that were laid out in the FutureBR land use plan.
To do that, Duke wants to scrap some of the reporting that was going on as part of FutureBR, like counting the number of rezoning permits that are processed in a year, and release updates that evaluate if the city is making a difference. “What matters is are we making progress toward that overall vision?” he said. “Are we becoming a city of walkable neighborhoods? Are we doing those things that strengthen and empower our neighborhoods?”
Duke said he wants Planning to work with the East Baton Rouge Parish Redevelopment Authority and the Midcity Redevelopment Alliance to redevelop the old Entergy site on Government Street. He said the property, which is being mapped for redevelopment, could be a way of extending the vibrancy of downtown to Midcity.
Another redevelopment that is being studied is the health district in the Essen Lane-Bluebonnet Boulevard-Perkins Road area. Duke said planning needs to be involved in this, because much of the work deals with improving the traffic flow in the area.
Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter @TCB_TheAdvocate.