Coming soon: design guidelines for Kenner’s Rivertown district _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Kenner's Rivertown on Williams Boulevard.

Kenner may not have developers beating down its doors to build high-rise condominiums in Rivertown just yet, but the city is nonetheless taking steps to preserve the district’s charm.

The Tulane Regional Urban Design Center has a $15,000 contract with the city to come up with design guidelines by the end of the year for renovations and new construction projects in Rivertown, which lies at the southern end of Williams Boulevard at the Mississippi River levee.

The idea is to further protect the historic district’s scale and proportion and to define architectural styles and colors both for the buildings already there and for those that could be built in the future, said Grover Mouton, the center’s director.

For years, exterior additions and renovations in Rivertown have needed approval by the city’s Historic District Commission, but it has made those decisions largely by using the judgment of its seven board members, with help from a nonvoting architectural adviser.

But the need for more systematic guidelines became evident earlier this year, when a Rivertown property owner came to the commission to get permission for the color of paint he had already used on his building.

The blue-green hue wasn’t exactly in keeping with the surrounding neighborhood’s aesthetic, but the board felt it wasn’t really in a position to tell the man he had to repaint because it couldn’t point to anything that said he had used the wrong color.

“Currently, they have nothing to fall back on to use as a measuring stick in determining whether the alterations are consistent with the architectural characteristics of the buildings there,” Planning Director Jay Hebert said.

Hebert said a coherent, professionally determined set of guidelines not only solves such problems but does so at a time when the city hopes to foster interest in the district.

Earlier this year, the state granted Rivertown an official Main Street designation, placing it among several dozen areas throughout Louisiana that are part of the national Main Street program, aimed at promoting and reinvigorating urban corridors. Officials said the designation can help the city attract grant money and tap into urban planning expertise.

Hebert said the city has access to $400,000 in state Department of Transportation funds to improve the sidewalks, crosswalks and lighting on Williams between Third Street and Kenner Avenue.

He also said the dozen applications that have come before the Historic District Commission in the past two years match the number it saw during the previous 12 years.

While those applications don’t all equate to new businesses, the city sees increased requests for new signs and paint jobs as a sign that Rivertown’s private property owners are stirring.

“We think word has gotten out to the local property owners,” Hebert said.

He noted that Gendusa Family Delights, an Italian pastry and coffee shop, is getting ready to open in Rivertown, as is The Crossing, an event and reception hall in the former toy train museum near the railroad tracks.

It’s worth noting, however, that there aren’t as many private stakeholders in Rivertown as one might assume by counting lots. The city itself owns much of the property due to failed redevelopment efforts under prior administrations, and Mayor Mike Yenni has said his goal is to try to put many of the city’s holdings into private hands.

Nick Jenisch, an architect with the Tulane center working on the new guidelines, said Rivertown’s chief asset is its uniqueness.

“It’s different from everything around it,” he said. “Just the fact that you wouldn’t experience that anywhere on Williams Boulevard and Veterans Boulevard — you wouldn’t park and walk through a several-block area.”

Other assets are its proximity to the river, the Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, the Kenner Planetarium and Space Science Complex, and the presence of municipal services to draw visitors, such as the state Office of Motor Vehicles location.

Mouton noted that design guidelines, unlike incentive programs, aren’t a potent stimulus for economic development. But he said they can ensure that any development that does occur is high-quality, and that people looking to open new businesses “will know they’ll be treated fairly and know what to expect.”

Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.