Over the past year, a lot has changed on Government Street: New, trendy businesses like yoga studios and coffee shops moved in, some dilapidated buildings received face-lifts, and a few developers arrived with plans to build.
But what hasn’t changed is the actual roadway itself — despite plans that have lagged for more than 20 months to transform the famous “stop-and-go corridor,” which cuts through the heart of Baton Rouge’s Mid City.
In March 2014, Mayor-President Kip Holden said the project would be finished by the end of 2015.
He described it as a “road diet” where the four-lane thoroughfare would be reduced to two lanes and a turning lane in the middle, with bike lanes and sidewalks along to attract more pedestrians and cyclists. The improvements were intended to create an energy more like Magazine Street in New Orleans.
But there has yet to be a groundbreaking.
Baton Rouge architect Joshua Hoffpauir said he had expected his own mixed-use development, Square 46, at 4646 Government St., to be finished by now. His announcement for the development came a few months after the Government Street project was announced, but the uncertainty of the construction schedule for the road has held up his project.
Hoffpauir said Square 46 will be a 25,000-square-foot development at the old Giamanco’s restaurant site that will be a mix of residences, retail, restaurants and office space.
The developer said he was concerned that if he built infrastructure in front of his buildings, like sidewalks or parking, it could be ripped out once Government Street construction began. For several months, he said, it’s been difficult to get answers about how to proceed, so he was forced to put his project on hold.
“We’d hoped to be finished by now. We had an aggressive plan to pull the trigger after the first of this year,” Hoffpauir said. “The city-parish was supposed to have everything bid out, but it completely stalled. We were told we’d have information in March, then it was May, then it was October, and now we’re in November.”
But Hoffpauir said he finally received some answers from officials that confirmed his project wouldn’t be negatively impacted by the road construction, and now he’s ready to move forward with the project.
William Daniel, chief administrative officer for the mayor, acknowledged that the pace for progress on the project is “much slower” than anticipated.
“We got our initial dates from the (Department of Transportation and Development) and the project is funded, but they have been kind of mired in traffic analysis,” he said. “But we want to get it right. It’s important.”
Anna Hanks, DOTD’s project manager, said progress on Government Street is being made behind the scenes. DOTD officials rejected the idea that the project is taking longer than expected, noting that any project using federal dollars endures a meticulous process bound by red tape.
Hanks said the agency’s staff has been collecting data and studying traffic patterns.
She said they are preparing to hold public meetings to let neighborhood residents and commuters weigh in.
But DOTD has only just started the environmental phase of the project, which is part of the requirement for federal dollars.
“Generally, the environmental phase takes about six months, but this isn’t a typical project,” said Maria Reid, DOTD environmental coordinator. “This is likely to be longer because of the additional coordination with the historic properties.”
Reid said buildings like Baton Rouge High, Dufrocq Elementary School, among other businesses along the road, have historical designations that require closer review.
“Government Street is one historic district after the next,” Reid said. “We are looking at each one and going through state historic preservation to make sure construction wouldn’t impact any of those.”
DOTD officials declined to offer any revised timeline about when construction would start or when the project would be finished. But agency spokesman Rodney Mallett said a public meeting to explain the proposed changes would take place before the end of the year.
Officials say the funding is not at issue. The project is expected to cost between $10 million and $13 million and is fully funded by federal dollars designated for safety projects.
Marsanne Golsby, who lives in Ogden Park near Government Street, has been a proponent of the changes. She said she understands the sometimes slow pace of government projects but hopes some movement will be made before the current city leaders leave office.
“I’m not going to get worried about it unless the new mayor’s administration comes in and they haven’t broken ground yet, and a new mayor could change their mind,” she said.
Holden, who is term limited, leaves office after December 2016.