The Staring Lane extension may be an obvious example of what traffic officials call Baton Rouge’s effort at improved “connectivity.”
The project extends Staring - which itself is an extension of Essen Lane - on to Burbank Drive, adding a north-south connector and hopefully giving south Baton Rouge motorists another reason to use Burbank, a four-lane highway.
Better linking of not only neighborhoods, but disparate parts of town, is a central mission of the city’s campaign to improve connectivity. It is a key plank in some of the broad planning and development issues to be addressed by Future BR, the city’s rewrite of its comprehensive plan to be presented later this year to city officials for approval. Much of its focus is on the numerous - and by now notorious - transportation challenges the city faces.
“What we’re going to do is recommend a stronger language and stronger enforcement of connectivity,” in terms of the planning process for laying out new streets and connecting existing throughways, said Mike Bruce, of ABMB Engineers, a consultant on the Future BR project.
In that language will be a stronger focus on laying streets out in a grid network, establishing a more urban city fabric and giving motorists more options to move from one place to another, Bruce said.
Most Baton Rouge street construction or improvement projects are funded via the Green Light plan, an extension of a half-cent sales and use tax approved by voters in 2005. Twenty-six road or bridge projects are due to be completed under the Green Light plan by the end of 2011.
To date, nearly $450 million has been committed to projects within the Green Light Plan - either spent or obligated - through bond proceeds and tax collections, said John Snow, a spokesman for the Green Light Plan.
“These commitments include right-of-way and engineering costs in addition to construction costs,” Snow explained. “At the present time, the program estimate for the entire Green Light Plan is approximately $650 million.”
The concept for grid streets and to hopefully connect them to existing streets was born in part to reverse a decades-long trend in Baton Rouge where subdivisions were laid out along major feeder roads like Airline Highway or, more recently, Perkins Road. These neighborhoods generally have little or no connection to the other neighborhoods around them, creating intense traffic volume on the main thoroughfares.
This is in stark contrast to the way neighborhoods like Midcity, downtown or the area known as Old South, another older neighborhood hemmed in near downtown and Midcity, were planned, said John Fregonese of Portland, Ore.-based Fregonese and Associates, the lead urban planner working on Future BR.
The grid plan found in Mid city may be that neighborhood’s best advantage when it comes to economic development and revival, say planners.
“One of the real advantages of Midcity - and Old South - is it has a great transportation system,” Fregonese said. “It is so well-connected that you could put growth in that area, and get no congestion.
“And in a sense one of the ways Baton Rouge can enhance its city and enhance its economic viability - and reduce congestion - is to encourage growth in these places that have a great street system,” he added.
Midcity is laid out in a traditional grid network. That grid is basically an extension of the downtown grid, which means moving through any of these areas can occur via a variety of routes.
But in many other parts of town, moving from one community to another means driving to a feeder road like Highland Road or College Drive, or you name it, and then enduring glacial traffic.
The challenge, Bruce noted, will come when new streets have to be built through these areas.
“But the hard lift is gridding existing streets. That is the elephant in the room,” Bruce said.
Talk of new streets going through neighborhoods need not get homeowners unnecessarily nervous, Fregonese said. The elephant may take a bike path rather than a boulevard - another connectivity proposal to be found in Future BR.
“Neighborhood connectivity is basically trying to get bike and pedestrian connectivity where you have cul-de-sacs,” Fregonese explained.
Even these modest linkages can come under fire from neighbors who worry about increased traffic whizzing by their homes, say planners.
“I think most folks understand the idea of connectivity, but when infill projects are proposed adjacent to some of the older neighborhoods, the surrounding neighbors are reluctant at first to want more roads tying into their neighborhood,” said Bill Reich, a Baton Rouge landscape architect and one of the lead planners behind Rouzan, a 120-acre mixed-use neighborhood planned for an area off of Perkins Road and Glasgow Avenue.
This protective tendency could be a textbook case of what planners, developers and even some neighbors bemoan as NIMBY, otherwise known as not-in-my-backyard.
“Ten people are happy, but now 10,000 people are now daily living with worse traffic because of that decision,” Bruce said.
“When connecting an infill project into what are basically the one-way-in/one-way-out newer subdivisions … those neighborhoods seem to want to resist the connectivity a bit more,” Reich said, albeit more gingerly.
That resistance could be based on perceptions of safety and a squeamishness by developers to take risks, said Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas, director of the Center for Planning Excellence in Baton Rouge.
“The biggest reason, I believe, that developers build gated communities is that the general public thinks that one-way-in-out are much safer - therefore the developer is trying to build to the best market,” she said. “Even if the developer or planner believes that gridded streets are best, they will still build the product that will sell the fastest and make the most money. Our American way, of course,” she said.
Somewhat ironically, planners and developers are now looking to the past for clues about how to depart from conventional subdivision development styles.
Reich makes a point of advocating for what’s now known in planning parlance as “smart growth” or “traditional town planning,” a philosophy of design that generally calls for a more urban development pattern and a more deliberative mix of land uses. There is little about traditional town planning that’s radical, but it is somewhat of a departure from how cities and their suburbs have developed through the last half-century.
“Those older neighborhoods had the neighborhood parks, corner grocery store and shops and neighborhood schools all within walking distance,” Reich explained. “Somewhere along the line the move to develop cheaper land outside of the city limits and the two-car garage led to most of the sprawl, spreading infrastructure costs to greater heights.”
Networks of gridded streets - a chief component of smart growth and traditional town planning - are fine, but they have to be connected to surrounding neighborhoods to have true connectivity, the planning experts said.
“I think the traditional town planners definitely agree that the grid street system must be a part of their design, but these developments rarely have the connectivity that Midcity, the ‘dales,’ and all of Southdowns have,” said Thomas, making a reference to the popular, leafy neighborhood along Lee Drive and streets like Ferndale, Cedardale and Glendale avenues near University Lake.
Future BR stories
This series looks at issues and problems that plague Baton Rouge and how Future BR aims to take them on.
• Connecting streets and relieving traffic congestion .
• ‘Complete’ streets for cars, pedestrians and bikes.
• Making the plan work.
(Go to http:// www.2theadvocate.com)
• The task of Future BR.
• Battling blight and encouraging ‘infill’ development.
• Public transportation and regional transit.
• Rail transportation.