The work underway in and around the North Boulevard Town Square amounts to a transformational event that will help use green spaces to tie together attractions, offices and hotels, supporters say.
When the first phase of the project is completed early next year, North Boulevard between River Road and Fifth Street will be a public park featuring a large stage and Town Lawn for concerts and events; pedestrian friendly streets and walkways; high-tech amenities like free wi-fi and electrical outlets at benches and tables spread throughout the park — there will be seating for at least 250 — so people can plug in their laptops; a digital screen and a sound system so people can watch movies or even LSU football games; LED lighting embedded in the ground and overhead; and a tree-lined promenade that stretches from one end of the park to the other, said Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District.
The promenade, framed by live oaks, will provide pedestrians with “a fabulous view,” Rhorer said.
Designers will add 81 trees to the park over both phases of the project, giving the park a total of 142 trees.
“We think it’s going to be a real statement for the city,” Rhorer said.
The Town Square was one of the suggestions in the 2003 Downtown Visitors Amenities Plan, which envisioned a kind of urban park that stretched from the State Capitol to the River Center.
The Amenities Plan morphed into 2008’s Riverfront Master Plan, where it grew more detailed, Rhorer said, before being incorporated into Plan Baton Rouge II, the master plan for downtown which came out in 2010.
The project’s cost, which includes two phases, is around $9.6 million, Rhorer said. The $1.9 million second phase could begin this year and will involve sidewalk and street work on the north side of the square and the river side of the Old State Capitol, and street work on the east side of the Old State Capitol; and a second transit shelter.
Funding for the project includes $4.5 million from the city-parish general fund; $2.5 million in state sales tax rebates; $1.9 million for Phase II through the state Department of Transportation and Development; and around $737,000 from the Federal Transit Administration.
The Town Square work would not have been possible without the support of Mayor Kip Holden and the Metro Council, Rhorer said.
It’s all part of a bigger plan that planners call “the Central Green” or the greening of downtown, Rhorer said, where green spaces link all the civic and cultural spaces.
The idea is to continue the square with one green lawn all the way to the River Center so that everything flows together, Rhorer said. People will be able to get everywhere by walking, from their hotels — Lafayette Street will have three when the Hampton Inn is completed — to attractions such as the Old State Capitol or events like the Live After Five concerts to conventions at the River Center and any number of restaurants.
“That’s all by plan and all by design so it makes for a great experience,” Rhorer said.
Rhorer said he has been vigilant when it comes to planning.
“These projects … you get one opportunity in your life so you’ve got to do it right,” he said.
Rhorer, who began working for the Downtown Development District 24 years ago, said he is even more excited now than he was then.
“When I started out, the Old State Capitol was closed. The old Governor’s Mansion was closed. Catfish Town was closed. The Arsenal Museum was closed,” Rhorer said. “You had so much you just had to work to get back open again, and there was no plan.”
There were too many spaces downtown that weren’t used because they hadn’t been planned or designed correctly, Rhorer said. That’s not the case with the Town Square.
A lot of thought and effort has gone into the details of making the park easy to use, whether people are just hanging out and relaxing or attending an event, he said.
The attention to detail is evident in everything from the seamless transition from the street and sidewalks and the inlaid design on North Boulevard, which includes tactile, detectable warnings for the visually impaired, to the soil under that lies beneath the Town Lawn and the structure in what’s being called Live Oak Plaza.
The soil is “structured” so that it can withstand heavy use and lots of foot traffic, said Chad Danos, a principal in Brown + Danos landdesign inc. and one of the square’s designers. The same kind of fiber used to strengthen concrete has been mixed into the soil to a depth of about a foot.
“After they lay the sod, you can essentially really come in and drive a vehicle on top of the grass and you won’t rut it up,” Danos said.
The sod itself will be the same type of Bermuda grass used in Tiger Stadium, Danos said. The grass is durable and can handle the heat and foot traffic.
Live Oak Plaza includes a gathering place, a structure that lies beneath a canopy of three oaks, Danos said. The structure rests on piers to protect the trees’ roots.
The design includes an irrigation system and mulch, allowing the air and moisture to mix so that the roots can be nourished and the trees kept alive, Danos said.
“You can have thousands of people on the structure without damaging the roots,” Danos said.
Rhorer said the square design will also take advantage of four sculptural elements.
The first two are the large existing pieces by Frank Hayden: the Oliver Pollock Monument and Fountain, which consist of a large bronze head and a bronze and concrete relief sculpture around the fountain.
“They will be highlighted. They will be lit,” Rhorer said. “It’s going to be a joyous celebration to acknowledge that.”
The third element is a ringlike, stainless steel-plated structure that is part of the Galvez Stage, and Rhorer said he believes it will eventually become a symbol of the city.
The form will sweep up and draw the eye to the Old State Capitol, he said.
The final piece will be the transit shelter, a $200,000 glass and steel structure, with beautiful, digital signs that will let riders know how much time remains before a bus or trolley arrives, Rhorer said.
The end result is that something resembling a sculptural park will emerge, Rhorer said.
The park will also feature Beacon Plaza, anchored by a 35-foot high multimedia tower at the entrance to Third Street. The tower will have seating at its base and be surrounded by an interactive water fountain, something like the ones in front of the Shaw Center for the Arts.
The tower will have two high-resolution screens facing east and west that will show televised events such as LSU and Southern University football games and news programs. The low-resolution screens will show weather, transit schedules and other information.
The tower will be programmable, with themes including ambient sound and visuals; information geared toward visitor-heavy weekends like conventions; or information or music for festivals and special events.
The user-friendly features don’t end inside the park, Rhorer said.
There’s also the downtown library, a focal point highlighting learning and knowledge that portrays who the parish’s residents are, Rhorer said. The library’s programming activities will be able to spill right out into the square.
A major office building, the new 19th Judicial District courthouse, an ice cream shop, three restaurants and a coffee shop lie just across the boulevard, Rhorer said. Another restaurant is at City Plaza, and a jazz club with a new marquee entrance is set for the Shaw Center so there are lots of things that can spill out into the square.
“It’s all about connections,” Rhorer said.
Downtown is disjointed right now, Rhorer said. The Downtown Development District and the city-parish want to “green and connect” as much as possible instead.