The historically neglected Baton Rouge corridor west of Lobdell Boulevard that includes neighborhoods like Melrose East and Smiley Heights has seen a few signs of improvement in recent years, with additions of a technical high school and an automotive training center.
But a group of city-parish officials have their eyes trained on a $30 million federal grant they say could trigger new housing and commercial development to make the long-hoped for “Ardendale” concept a reality. They will submit their grant application in mid-September and asked around 20 residents Thursday evening for feedback on the plans and maps during a meeting at New Hope Baptist Church.
“We’re here today because we’re at the tipping point in our neighborhood,” said J. Daniels Jr., the interim executive director of the East Baton Rouge Housing Authority.
The ideas for Ardendale — roughly a 2-square-mile area on either side of Ardenwood Drive between Choctaw Drive and Florida Boulevard — are ambitious. They come from a collaboration of city-parish agencies and philanthropists that includes the Housing Authority, City Hall, the Redevelopment Authority and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.
And the ideas are split into three concepts: people, neighborhoods and housing. Each portion details plans to, among other things, lower crime, boost homeownership and increase employment. Rather than simply spruce up the neighborhood in an industrial and impoverished area, the project leaders want to turn Ardendale into a mixed-income and mixed-use mecca.
The $30 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would be one piece in a hoped-for $200 million investment for the community, with the coalition trying to raise the rest of the money elsewhere.
Brian Brousseau, who owns a number of apartment complexes in the area, attended the meeting and is an example of someone who quickly saw the potential there. Brousseau started buying apartments around five years ago, once he heard that Baton Rouge Community College would build the McKay Automotive Training Center on Lobdell.
“I came to the conclusion that the area was on the turnaround, it was getting better, there was a lot of involvement in property owners,” Brousseau said.
He started upgrading apartments, became the president of the Melrose East crime prevention district and hired a private security company to patrol the neighborhood overnight. Brousseau said he’s already seen crime drop over the past few months because of the private security additions, and he said he wants to be part of the Melrose East transformation.
The plans being submitted for the grant say they would redevelop the Housing Authority’s Ardenwood Village apartments, develop a 168-unit housing community called Cypress at Ardendale, create housing demolition and neighborhood beautification initiatives and more.
Those planning the initiative envision the community having large-scale murals, community gardens, walking paths and bike paths. The community would have a neighborhood watch program, additional street lighting, additional fire hydrants and other features aimed at reducing crime.
That was an especially important component for many of the meeting attendees, who said they are fed up with shootings and blight in their neighborhoods.
“If you make it safe, everything improves,” Brousseau said.
Daniels, the housing authority director, said the additional educational opportunities they want to build in the neighborhoods should also help to cut down on crime because they will set children on the right track from the beginning.
Finally, the neighborhood would have a multitude of resources to improve the quality of life for those who live there. The plan includes additions of a YWCA early learning center, an elementary-level charter school, magnet programs in existing schools, and programs to teach children about dance, music and culinary skills. And educational resources for adults would be available as well, with job fairs and providers to help adults prepare for GED exams. For seniors, the community would have its owner senior center and Meals on Wheels programs.
A number of the meeting attendees asked about the lack of grocery stores and fresh foods in the area and said they hope the investment will result in one.
“You’ve heard a lot about people transforming the neighborhood,” said Marvin Nesbitt, one of the consultants for Integral Group, which is helping to write the grant application. “Let’s be clear, this is about changing the lives of people.”
The community plan would be implemented over a 10-year span. Daniels told the group that the team will try to convince HUD that Louisiana — known for its resilience — is worthy of the investment. The expect to hear back from HUD by early 2019.
Daniels assured the group that even if Baton Rouge does not win the award, they would keep applying for the grant until they were successful. And he said even without the grant, the work to improve the neighborhood will continue.