More than two dozen elected officials, candidates and civic and business leaders took a tour of north Baton Rouge on Tuesday, highlighted by visits to several residential and commercial developments under way north of Florida Boulevard.
But the tour itself can be seen as a small part of a much larger initiative, one that could take decades if it’s successful at all — the revitalization of a vast swath of the city left behind by years of disinvestment.
State Rep. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, told the group that her teenage daughter told her one day years ago that when she grew up she would move out of north Baton Rouge.
“When she looked out, everything looked dismal,” she said of rundown neighborhoods and dilapidated storefronts. “When she said that it made me wonder how many other people feel that way.”
Barrow’s response after being elected to the state Legislature was to create the Greenwell Springs-Airline Economic Development District, which put on Tuesday’s tour with the help of the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority.
State Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, D-Baton Rouge, said there is “a great constituency here in north Baton Rouge” but noted, “Sometimes it looks like a tale of two cities within one.”
The group started by passing by two 1960s-era low-income apartment buildings slated to be torn down by the East Baton Rouge Housing Authority and replaced by townhouse-style developments — each at $10 million — by the end of next year.
Richard Murray, chief executive officer of the housing authority, told the group that Hospital Plaza Apartments behind LSU Earl K. Long Medical Center and nearby Colonial Place will be reborn as Willow Creek and Autumn Place. The complexes will have fewer units but will have more space and be more appropriate for families, with two-, three- and some four-bedroom units.
The bus stopped at 2687 Amarillo St., a model home in Urban Gardens, a 21-home development north of Hollywood Street built by the Urban Restoration Enhancement Corp. and designed by the Southern University School of Architecture.
The homes, which are about 1,500 square feet, will sell for $134,000 and be marketed to families making 60 percent to 80 percent of median family income. Qualified buyers end up with financial assistance in the range of $60,000, which can put them into homes they could not otherwise afford, Metro Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards said.
Edwards pointed out this area has not seen this level of investment in 50 years.
“This is what qualified affordable housing is supposed to look like,” Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker said as she boarded the bus. “You shouldn’t have to leave the neighborhood and go out to the suburbs.”
Shervisa Sullivan, who owns the VIP Daiquiri Café on Airline but is looking for a site to start a talent development center focusing on modeling, acting, dance and music lessons for teens, said she was encouraged to see high-quality residential development replacing the run-down apartment complexes of the 1960s.
“The ones I’ve seen today are actually livable,” she said.
Will Campbell, director of Southern University’s Small Business Development Center, said he was also encouraged at the amount of development, but wanted to make sure local subcontractors — electricians, plumbers and roofers — are getting the benefit of development in their own neighborhoods.
The group also looked at Hooper Springs, a $7 million, 48-unit senior housing development from an Idaho-based affordable housing developer and heard of plans for nearby Cypress Springs, a $16 million, 144-unit senior housing development.
“We do have some successes under our belt,” said Courtney Hunt DeVaull, of the Greenwell Springs-Airline district.
Edwards pointed out that a shopping center the bus went by at Airline and Plank Road has not had a vacancy since it was rehabilitated by a private developer two years ago.
Still, there is much more to be done.
Edwards and Broome talked about the importance of attracting quality grocery options to north Baton Rouge, generating applause from the bus.
“It’s definitely at the top of our priority list,” Broome said.
Other sites the bus passed was a stretch of Ford Street in Zion City that the city-parish overhauled to include sidewalks, a boulevard and curbs; Cedar Pointe, an subdivision of affordable housing; a storefront-improvement grant recipient’s business; three neighborhoods the RDA targeted earlier this year with its community improvement plans; new residential development along Wooddale Boulevard; the new YMCA at Howell Place; and Smiley Heights, a proposed mixed-use development north of Florida Boulevard that is now primarily vacant land.
“Hopefully,” said Johnny Robertson, who sits on the board of the Greenwell Springs-Airline district, “when you’re looking at north Baton Rouge in five or 10 years, you’ll be looking at a better sight.”
North Baton Rouge is the area of the city traditionally bounded by Airline Highway on the north and east; the Mississippi River on the west; and Florida Boulevard on the south.