It’s a fixture now, the centerpiece to a downtown blossoming socially and economically. At one time, though, the space that is now the Shaw Center was the old brick “auto hotel” and a collection of other mostly abandoned buildings and parking lots — a problem that could almost come out of a textbook of urban design and how not to do it.
Ten years later, it is a remarkable contribution to the resurgence of the Baton Rouge metropolitan area.
When then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco spoke at the opening of the Shaw Center, she called it a jewel of the efforts to make Baton Rouge a city of which the entire state can be proud. That is only getting more true.
The hip restaurant Tsunami continues to be a hit, the Baton Rouge location — with a spectacular sixth-floor view — of the restaurant that helped to lead restoration efforts in downtown Lafayette years ago. The center is the home of the LSU Museum of Art and its galleries. Like the larger downtown dining experience, formerly almost nonexistent, one can find almost any dish in restaurants in the “arts block” itself, not to mention the many other places nearby. There is the Manship Theatre and the smaller Hartley-Vey Theatre in the Shaw Center.
More residences on that block are in the works, with the Baton Rouge Area Foundation’s real-estate arm, Commercial Properties Realty Trust, building at the corner of Convention and Third streets. The $7 million Onyx Residences will have 28 apartments and 5,600 square feet of commercial space.
The Shaw Center is particularly important because of the collaboration involved in getting such a huge project done. The people who pulled together state and local government, LSU and the private sector ought to reflect on that experience today.
The complexity of the arrangements made the Shaw Center a difficult project, but it remains both a success and an indicator of potential not only for downtown but for the region — if we work together.
When it opened early in 2005, there was a new mayor-president (Kip Holden) who had worked as a legislator with his predecessor (Bobby Simpson) to make key investments in the Shaw Center and the critical Hilton hotel across the street. The leadership of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation made the project possible, but it took years; town planner Andrès Duany had outlined a new urbanist vision for downtown in 1998, and the Downtown Development District had been beavering away in an adverse economic climate for years before the big payoff. Private fundraising was critical to making the Shaw Center possible.
But a big payoff it is, a showplace for a city that is not only growing but raising the bar for its ambitions as a city. The Shaw is a great urban place at the center of the city but not the upper limit to its future.