Business Honors for July 13, 2014 _lowres

Elizabeth "Boo" Thomas, Center for Planning Excellence

Today, there is no shortage of websites devoted to intelligent urban planning, and one of them — Planetizen — listed the 100 most important urbanists. Some of them are of course gone to the Great Charrette in the Sky, such as Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted as well as No. 1, Jane Jacobs, who died in 2006.

Among the living, though, are a great many names that will be familiar: They have been part of the remarkable transformation of downtown Baton Rouge over the past few decades.

Such “top 100” names as Andres Duany, Bob Gibbs, Chris Leinberger, Jeff Speck and Peter Calthorpe have been personally involved as consultants or intellectual leaders of parts of the original 1998 Plan Baton Rouge and its subsequent initiatives.

Others have consulted with the Downtown Development Authority during its 30 years of often uphill struggle against the notion that downtown was finished by 1970. Now, of course, it is a vibrant center and there is even DDD envy: Candidates for mayor said Baton Rouge needs DDD-style transformation in other areas.

We don’t need to consult the living urbanists to know that this notion is pretty silly. The urban fabric of downtown is profoundly different from neighborhoods and suburban subdivisions across the city.

More broadly, though, the New Urbanist conceptions pushed by Duany and others nationally, and the Center for Planning Excellence locally, are no longer the radical notions of the 1990s but the standard for urban design. That includes suburbs as well as the inner cities. Baton Rouge needs new ways of thinking everywhere, not just in the center city.

“New Urbanism has become so mainstream that it’s hard to think of it as a separate movement anymore,” wrote William Fulton in Governing magazine this month.

Perhaps, but here? Baton Rouge is a long way from urban paradise. Today’s infrastructure leadership includes Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, who says she is on board with national trends; her key appointment, Fred Raiford, was a voice of reluctance if not outright opposition to smart growth projects during his previous tenure in city hall.

Darryl Gissel, the new chief administrative officer, is a downtown property owner who was an urban pioneer during the area’s rebuilding. Frank Duke is the parish planning director, who works for the Planning Commission, not the Broome administration directly; he is leading the drive to upgrade the 1970s-style laws and standards for the entire parish.

This is not a discouraging lineup, necessarily, but it is one that is going to find how difficult it is to achieve improvements in concrete, but above all financially. Voters are reluctant to approve millages for needed projects; the Metro Council balked at Broome’s proposal for a small millage for roads — this, in one of the most congested cities its size in America.

All this suggests that it is particularly important that CPEX is holding its 2017 Louisiana Smart Growth Summit downtown Nov. 7-8. Speakers will include Louisiana public officials like Broome, state community development director Pat Forbes, New Orleans Deputy Mayor Jeff Hebert, Lafayette Mayor-President Joel Robideaux. But it is the national speakers such as the Kresge Foundation's Carol Coletta (No. 66 on Planetizen list) and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke — from a city that re-imagined itself from 1980s economic disaster — whose spark is needed as Baton Rouge tries to untangle the mess of traffic, infrastructure and land-use disasters that erode the quality of life daily.

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