I learned long ago to never talk politics (not easy given my profession) or religion with people and I’m pretty good about upholding these credos. However, at the risk of offending the Taoists among us I do want to say that one of my favorite images is the Tao concept of Pu, the uncarved block, that will reveal it’s inner self and complexities through simplicity. The Taoists were always good at going with the flow of things and letting nature do its work to discover what the uncarved block had in mind. In a way, the concept of uncarving the block is reminiscent of how I like community planning efforts to unfold. I’m a big fan of organic planning, from the ground up, over time. To me that’s a great metaphor for what we’re doing in Kent right now. We’re trying to uncover another layer of the block to see what’s in store for the next stage of Kent’s history that is to be our future. Pretty deep stuff.
Ok, I’m not necessarily all that deep but I do like pretty pictures which is why the image of uncarving a block to reveal the beauty that lies within works for me when it comes to thinking about what’s next for Kent. I envision this enormous Neolithic block (think Stonehenge) called Kent that we all take turns chipping away it to co-create what was already there waiting to be discovered.
Like any good pilgrams on a journey we have enlisted a prophet to lead us to our promised land — ok enough with the religious metaphors. We’ve hired a professional consulting firm to work with us to figure out how the many things we’ve got started fit together to create something bigger than the sum of its parts. The firm is just getting started with us and they’ve made a couple of trips to Kent to start interviewing the local townfolk to begin to determine what we’re hoping our inner block is hiding.
It turns out that our consultant firm really is a bit of a prophet in the field, with the firm’s principles being former faculty members from Harvard who have helped dozens of cities successfully re-invent and re-discover themselves. The firm has done so well that they’ve simplified their tenets for downtowns into 8 concepts which were recently featured in the Baton Rouge Business Report.
Maybe it’s not stone tablets but it’s an insightful look at our fearless consultant leader. Here’s the article and our Consultant Chan Krieger Sieniewicz.
Eight is enough
By David Jacobs
Monday, July 28, 2008
Plan Baton Rouge, the downtown master plan led by renowned New Urbanist Andres Duany, turns 10 years old this year. Most of the projects suggested by that plan have come to fruition, including Main Street Market and the Shaw Center for the Arts. Our downtown is far more vibrant than it was in 1998, but it still lacks the buzz found in cities like Portland, Ore., Dallas, Colorado Springs, Colo., or Boise, Idaho.
Alex Krieger of Chan Krieger Sieniewicz in Cambridge, Mass., will lead the second phase of Plan Baton Rouge, assuming the contract is signed. Krieger, the former chairman of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, believes there are about eight common values all successful downtowns embrace. When one reviews these factors in the context of downtown Baton Rouge, it’s obvious there’s a lot of work left to do.
1. Cities are for living in
First, the good news. Downtown Baton Rouge has two charming historic neighborhoods: Spanish Town and Beauregard Town. But only about 2,300 people live in the 550 or so acres that officially constitute downtown, including both neighborhoods. Fewer than 100 live in the central business district, although that number should creep past 300 if a handful of announced condo projects come to fruition. It takes 5,000 people to reach the next level of market demand to attract retail and other amenities.
“Every developer I talk to, we make a pitch about incorporating residences,” says Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District.
The high price of real estate impacts nearly everything on this list. Developing in the city’s core is far more expensive per square foot than building in the suburbs, and that cost is passed on to potential residents. Part of the problem, some argue, is that owners are pricing their properties based on what they think those properties might be worth once downtown really gets rolling, as opposed to what they’re actually worth now.
So one of the key goals for the new Plan Baton Rouge team will be coming up with some sort of incentive program that makes downtown cheaper for residential development. Meanwhile, Rhorer hints an affordable downtown residential development might be announced soon, although he can’t discuss the details yet.
Then there’s River Park. As envisioned, the massive riverfront mixed-use development could feature 1,000 condos or more, to be built out over the next 10 to 15 years. But developer Pete Clements has not yet announced the project’s outside investors, and the development exists only on paper at this point.
“Compared to 10 years ago, downtown is very attractive for development,” says Rex Cabaniss of WHL Architecture, who assembled the Plan Baton Rouge team. “Our charge is to help plan for the next 10 years, to update a collective vision, prioritize selective enhancements and promote smart growth.”
2. Understand who cities are for
An urban residential lifestyle isn’t for everyone; many people, particularly families, like the suburban model just fine. Krieger says cities appeal to folks in their 20s and 30s, along with empty-nesters who prefer easy access to restaurants, museums and amenities over a golf course. By some accounts, one in eight people over the age of 50 doesn’t drive. So for seniors who want an independent lifestyle, living within walking distance of everything they need can be appealing.
The idea is not to try and replicate the suburban experience, but to enhance what only cities can offer, including a broad diversity of experiences and people.
“You’re probably not going to meet people unlike yourself in the suburbs,” says Rachel DiResto, vice president of the Center for Planning Excellence.
But can the demographic that actually wants to live downtown, particularly in the business district, really afford to do so?
3. Mixed-use environments
If you’re in downtown Baton Rouge, and you want to have dinner or cocktails, you’re in luck. But as for shopping or non-alcohol-related entertainment, the options are much more limited beyond occasional special events like Live After Five or FestForAll.
“You don’t want people to come downtown for one experience,” DiResto says. “You want them to be able to enjoy an entire day or evening.”
“Downtowns need a critical mass of housing, and you could liken it to the chicken and the egg riddle,” Cabaniss says. Homeowners want a range of services and amenities. Providers of those services want to know that residents are there to provide a customer base. So which comes first? Again, the Plan Baton Rouge team will try to come up with incentives to give those market forces a jolt.
4. Think compactly
Baton Rouge’s downtown is pretty compact by definition since it’s hemmed in by Interstate 10 to the south, I-110 to the east and the Mississippi River on the west, and ends just north of the State Capitol. The small area means it’s not hard to get from one side to the other on foot. At the moment, it’s not very pedestrian-friendly, as various work crews are blocking and/or tearing up the sidewalks.
The city has already put up what officials call “wayfinding signage” that helps visitors unfamiliar with downtown get around on foot. Intersection improvements on the way will include new curb cuts and pedestrian crossing signals.
5. Invest in culture
There’s no question major investments have been made, including the Shaw Center and the Louisiana Art & Science Museum, and the city has drawn borders for an official downtown arts and entertainment district. Krieger stresses a community can’t just build a cultural center, drop it in the middle of the city, and expect a thriving arts community to spring up around it.
In the late 1990s, three local photographers founded Oculus, a 6,000-square-foot studio and art gallery at Third and Laurel streets. They didn’t own the building, but photography paid the bills, which meant the gallery could provide space to young artists whose work might not be particularly commercial. It was exactly the sort of organic, grassroots outfit that gives a downtown some personality. But when downtown property values began to pick up a few years ago, the building’s owners decided to sell. Oculus could no longer afford the rent.
Duany warned us about this phenomenon. Artists move into an area, help make it cool, the yuppies move in, and suddenly the artists get priced out.
“Downtown is doing itself a great disservice in the cost of rental properties,” says Erin Rolfs, executive director of Culture Candy, a nonprofit that supports the local arts scene. Mid City is much more attractive to individual artists, largely because it’s cheaper.
Worrying about your carbon footprint isn’t just for hippie generation anymore, and Baton Rouge has a lot of catching up to do in this area. While the city-parish has a recycling program, participation by downtown residents and businesses is spotty at best. Three downtown projects are registered with the U.S. Green Building Council for possible LEED certification: the new Grace and Hebert Architects building on Government Street, a residential project at 232 Third St., and the Saltz Building on Main Street.
Green space is a big deal for many cities, even Houston, one of the world’s great monuments to urban sprawl and unchecked development. Everyone likes a little shade, and trees are prettier than concrete. But squeezing green spaces into an urban environment takes a little creativity. In Chicago, which also has an air-quality problem, green roofs are popular.
“Plants are incredibly functional in cleaning water and cleaning air,” says Dana Brown of Brown + Danos Landdesign Inc. Having a green roof extends the life of the roof and reduces the temperature inside the building, saving the owner energy and money, she says.
At the moment, walking and driving are the primary ways to get around downtown. We do have three trolleys, but they cover a limited area and largely serve to transport state workers on their lunch breaks. Rhorer hopes to see that service expanded, and says improved busing between the LSU area and downtown is also possible.
The levee bike path from LSU does provide an additional transportation option, which some families took advantage of for the July 4 fireworks on the levee celebration, Rhorer says. The concept of a light rail service gets tossed around occasionally.
“Downtown is compact enough that mobility is less of an issue,” Forum 35 president Jamie Griffin says. Future wins in this area could come from improved mass transit between downtown and the rest of the city, expanded service hours and usage for the public transportation we do have, and convenient bike access from the levee to downtown, he says.
8. Creative use of history
Some argue this is one of our greatest strengths. The Old State Capitol, Old Governor’s Mansion, Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center, Spanish Town and Beauregard Town are all testaments to historic preservation.
Baton Rouge’s most distinctive feature, the main reason the city is here in the first place, is the Mississippi River. Yet there are few opportunities for downtown visitors and residents to interact with the river. The proposed Audubon Alive, a $248 million nature-themed tourist attraction, would take visitors right to the river’s edge and create a new use for an underused resource. The project is part of a much larger capital improvements plan, and either the Metro Council or voters could balk at the nearly $1 billion price tag.