A city transit trolley followed by a few vehicles squeezed down narrow Paige Street Saturday morning, ferrying about 40 people through Zion City as part of a tour meant to highlight the need for residential development, business investment and other improvements in areas along Plank Road.
As the tour group rolled by, a dog dozed in the open doorway of one of the many abandoned houses with broken windows along a street dotted with vacant, overgrown lots.
A few blocks east of Plank Road, the tour convoy finally stopped at a bright spot in the neighborhood: a handful of new two-story single-family homes built by LaFleur Industries and the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority.
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It's the type of project Redevelopment Authority leaders want to see more of in low-income parts of Baton Rouge. Under the umbrella of the recently launched Plank Road Project, they're focusing on cleaning up blight and boosting commerce on Plank Road and in surrounding neighborhoods — once a hub of business activity.
The Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority has raised nearly a quarter-million dollars to rejuvenate the Plank Road corridor, RDA President Chris…
"Plank Road is one of the oldest commercial corridors in the city-parish," said Chris Tyson, president and CEO of the Redevelopment Authority. "It is the heart of north Baton Rouge, the heart of (ZIP code) 70805. It's where many people still live, play and work. It is a vibrant community, but it's been neglected. It's a disinvested community, and accordingly, one of our most blighted corridors in the city-parish."
Tyson's agency has acquired about 85 vacant properties along Plank Road and is studying the best ways to put them to use. Meanwhile, efforts are afoot to seek federal funding to help develop a bus rapid transit line connecting downtown and north Baton Rouge via Plank Road.
Saturday's tour had three stops. The first was at the intersection of Plank Road and Duke Street, where people had a chance to look over maps of the rapid transit route.
"Mobility is an important part of redevelopment, particularly on Plank Road, where we have our highest concentration of zero-car households and one of the highest transit usage routes in the city-parish," Tyson said.
Transit leaders have decided on a route for the express bus designed to connect north and south Baton Rouge, and one major thoroughfare on the…
Giving north Baton Rouge residents an easier way to get around the city is important, said Metro Councilwoman Erika Green, whose district includes a portion of the Plank Road Project target area and who also sits on the board of the Capital Area Transit System. While some of her constituents wish the proposed route would go all the way to Harding Boulevard near Southern University instead of ending at Airline Highway, she said, it's still a good first step.
"My friends in Houston park their cars and ride the bus every day to work," Green said. "If we can start getting the mindset of that, then we develop a better ridership, and it would help the traffic. ... Hopefully we get millennials engaged, and then if they get engaged, then their families will start riding the bus."
Other infrastructure upgrades are sorely needed, said Herbert Moore, president of the Istrouma Community Improvement Association.
"We need a sidewalk to get to the bus," he said, and to keep people from walking in the street and risking their safety.
He also would like to see leaders organize a job program to complement the redevelopment efforts.
"They need a part where they're going to hire people out of the community," Moore said. "That's a must. People need jobs."
The tour later headed toward Weller Avenue to the former R&B Cafe, an empty brick building that is one of the properties the Redevelopment Authority wants to put back into use. Participants tossed around ideas for what they'd like to see there: an urgent care facility, a grocery store, a community center with amenities for children, or even a cafe, as it once was.
The last stop was at the newly built homes on Paige Street.
"We want to make sure that whatever happens on Plank Road and the surrounding neighborhoods, there is an opportunity for everyone to live here through rental opportunities and through home-buying opportunities," Tyson said.
A $100,000 planning grant that will be used toward revitalizing the Plank Road corridor has been awarded to the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment…
He said input from residents will drive the project as his agency considers "what the community needs and how to use the vacancy and the blight, to turn that around into something productive and useful."
Pat McCallister-LeDuff, who lives in the nearby Banks neighborhood, applauded the effort. As an established corridor through north Baton Rouge, she said, the Plank Road area already has a lot of desirable scenery — it just needs to be freshened up to stimulate economic activity and community pride.
"To enhance that without having to create that is a plus," she said.
Moore, the president of the Istrouma group, said he's eagerly waiting for the project to bear fruit.
"Any improvement in this community is a plus for us, because this community's been down so long. ... We're always on the back burner," he said.