For a city that had all but abandoned its downtown a generation ago, the notion that $200 million in private-sector investment has come to the center of the city is remarkable.
But that’s the figure from Davis Rhorer, of the Downtown Development District, about investment that is centered on Third Street.
Old-timers remember downtown Baton Rouge as a shopping district and then as a place of decline, an area that was only an office park during the day. The not-so-old-timers can remember a basically failed effort in urban revitalization known as “Riverside Mall.”
At last, a riverside mall has arrived. Sometimes, too much so: runners in shorts can mingle with prom-night dresses to the point that traffic can be held up on busy evenings.
The boom on Third Street is now encompassing not just the renovation of old storefronts into restaurants and clubs but large-scale residential development and hotel projects that are underway or on the drawing boards, as well as those already open.
These include more than 100 residential units, in addition to those already opened in the old Hibernia bank building, now the 440 on Third mixed-use development. The old Commerce building next door will add 90 or so apartments, and another 28 units are on Third Street at the site of the old Onyx building. Two hotels on Third Street directly include a Courtyard by Marriott and a Watermark hotel renovation of the former state office building, one of the city’s original skyscrapers. Other hotels are nearby.
Rhorer told the Press Club of Baton Rouge that eight new merchants will be announced in the coming months for the Third Street corridor.
“Residential is so key,” Rhorer said. “It spills over into the market in so many different ways.”
The activity of downtown hotels is also a central contributor to after-hours activity, the “24-7 downtown” that seemed an impossible dream when Rhorer was forming the DDD in the late 1980s. More than 80 restaurants and bars, including several with regular live music for patrons, have been part of the transformation of the area.
There is also a generational shift, as a cadre of younger entrepreneurs and developers has invested in downtown, because “they came first to party and then decided they wanted to live here,” Rhorer said.
Downtown is an economic bright spot for Baton Rouge where once it was a negative. What can keep the progress rolling? Along Third Street, what’s going on is amazing. What’s not so amazing is Third Street itself.
In a city-parish government that is struggling with the traffic and street repairs needed over a huge area, Third Street is easy to ignore. It’s working, even if it becomes a traffic jam sometimes on weekend nights. But if the city-parish is going to contribute to downtown growth, a major face-lift of Third Street is in order.
The more elegant pavement on Lafayette Street next to the Shaw Center for the Arts is an advertisement for what the city ought to be doing for downtown infrastructure.
It is going to be an expensive project. Lafayette grasped the need for a major upgrade to its major downtown street in the mid-1990s. The Jefferson Street “streetscape” project has amply justified the investment, even if the cost rose to about $9 million, well over the original estimates.
The same issues face a Third Street streetscape project. When you start digging up streets of that vintage, costs will be substantial.
Still, the city-parish government is a relatively small investor so far in downtown Baton Rouge. Even the Shaw Center streetscape, a city-parish contribution of less than 10 percent of the $53 million project, was initially controversial at the Metro Council. Cities such as Lafayette and Shreveport have invested more in their downtown main streets.
The drab streets and sidewalks of the old days won’t inspire new levels of private-sector investment, and, ultimately, it is city hall that is responsible for the city’s streets, just as the city-parish government benefits from the sales and property taxes of downtown’s growth.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.