Managing Principal Mike Bruce is quoted regarding long-term planning for Nicholson Drive
For decades, Baton Rouge has had the equivalent of an old, beat-up welcome mat.
Thousands of visitors to the city each year head straight to LSU, whether to the admissions office or a sports venue. Often, their first impression once crossing the Interstate 10 Mississippi River Bridge is Nicholson Drive, an oak-shaded boulevard lined with 1950s-era ranch homes and intermittent, shabby, concrete buildings.
But that lackluster gateway now is among the hottest properties in the city.
Some of south Louisiana’s biggest developers have quietly acquired land along the corridor and are waiting for the financial markets to ease up in hopes of remaking the historic Old South Baton Rouge neighborhood into a thriving residential, commercial and entertainment district. If they succeed, they would build a bridge between two of the city’s biggest economic drivers and destinations: downtown and LSU.
The prospect is a dream for smart-growth disciples: mixed-use construction, not in the distant suburbs, but in the urban core, redeveloping what already is developed. The 1.8-mile stretch, from I-10 south to the intersection of Nicholson and Skip Bertman drives, also is being studied as a possible incubator for mass transit, involving light rail or New Orleans-type streetcars.
And if the Nicholson corridor makeover proves lucrative for investors, it’s predicted to set off a domino effect in the neighborhood, with subsequent revitalization along Highland and River roads.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity,” says John Fregonese of Fregonese Associates, a Portland, Ore.-based land-use planning firm that is producing a comprehensive master plan for Baton Rouge. “The two biggest concentrated destinations in Baton Rouge are downtown and LSU. The area between is situated between two strong magnets, so any development will be able to draw from both.”
Tremendous opportunity or not, it realistically might be years before any of the projects get off the ground. Walter Monsour, president and CEO of the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority, says the current state of the financial markets definitely will be a factor in how quickly the Nicholson corridor is transformed. The developer of one project already has indicated he might not move forward for as long as five years.
“The financial world has a new model,” Monsour says. “Their credit analysis is much stronger than it’s ever been. Lending institutions have the money; it’s not a problem of liquidity. The issue is the creditworthiness of the borrower. There’s going to be a lot of pressure being put on projects themselves and their performance.”
Nicholson Drive is one of the primary north-south roadways through Old South Baton Rouge, a neighborhood that once was a thriving center of the city’s African American culture and leadership. Urban flight, however, has left the area troubled by crime, blight, a lack of investment and absentee landlords.
Aside from being a main gateway into LSU, the boulevard perhaps is best known as the home of Magnolia Mound Plantation, the 1791 French Creole home that’s now a landmark tourist attraction. The reinvention of the Nicholson corridor has its roots in the 2005 Old South Baton Rouge Strategic Plan, a blueprint for revitalizing the community. RKG Associates and a team of consultants envisioned the boulevard as an ideal locale for multi-family, student and senior residences and mixed-use commercial or entertainment establishments.
The Baton Rouge Planning Commission has since designated the corridor an urban design overlay district, which is intended to preserve and enhance the character of a neighborhood by imposing additional requirements for green space, landscape, walkability and architectural features in any new construction.
“Nicholson has been identified as a major economic asset and opportunity in this community,” says Susan Ludwig, director of redevelopment for the Center for Planning Excellence. “With that in mind, a lot of focus has been put into what it should look like to redevelop it. This is also a huge opportunity for Old South Baton Rouge, something we want to see happen to catalyze reinvestment and attract new developers to the area.”
“You have a growing downtown area and a critical mass with the student body of LSU. It only makes sense to fill in the gap with commercial and residential offerings.”—WALTER MONSOUR, president/CEO, East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority
Based on those strategic plans, what’s already been built, and what others are contemplating, Nicholson appears headed for a fate similar to corridors in other cities where a university lies in close proximity to downtown.
The gap between the destinations will be filled in with upscale housing for students, faculty and young urban professionals who work downtown, with all the conveniences nearby: a grocery store, retail shops, a hotel, restaurants and entertainment venues such as pubs and a theater. It might include a mass-transit system—either light rail or streetcar—to carry travelers from campus to downtown and back along the Nicholson corridor.
“You have a growing downtown area and a critical mass with the student body of LSU,” Monsour says. “It only makes sense to fill in the gap with commercial and residential offerings.”
The challenge for Nicholson or any corridor like it, says Michael Medick, an architect and planner from Baltimore who recently joined the architecture and engineering firm CSRS, is to get the right mix of urban development going.
People don’t want to live in a community that becomes a ghost town at night, but retailers won’t build in a community until the residents are there.
“It’s a matter of which comes first, the chicken or the egg,” Medick says. “All these different things need to come together, and that’s why these mixed-use projects are so important. If you build a complex with a funky restaurant with outdoor tables that stays open until 10 p.m., and you have some street life and a place to pick up groceries or the necessities of life, then those things feed off each other. You need a certain mass to make it work.”
The first ones on the block, so to speak, were Chris Eddy and Marion Joffrion, who bought what was once a two-acre trailer park next to the Chinese Inn. There, they built Red Stick Lofts, a 37-unit gated townhome complex with a steel facade, in 2005.
About the same time, Alabama-based Capstone Companies also began work on The Fieldhouse, a French Quarter-style condominium complex across the street from the Nicholson Drive gates to LSU and just several hundred yards north of Tiger Stadium. Two of the buildings with Nicholson frontage include retail on the first floor: VooDoo Grill & BBQ and Tailgate-2-Geaux.
Across Nicholson, Michigan-based developer Quadrants Inc. introduced in early 2008 Victory Commons, which bills itself as an upscale, gated condominium complex just footsteps from Tiger Stadium and a short bicycle ride from downtown.
Another critical development came in 2007, when LSU began its $34.5 million relocation of Alex Box Stadium. That left the university with a 37-acre blank slate from West Chimes Street to Skip Bertman Drive, a stretch that includes 578 units of deteriorating graduate and married student apartments dating to the late 1950s and mid-1960s.
Nearly two years ago, a study by Economic Research Associates recommended a mixed-use development that includes retail, restaurants and 630 apartment units for graduate and married students and faculty. Additional proposals for the development included a campus bookstore, office space or a hotel. The total cost of the development was pegged at nearly $43 million.
“Nicholson has been identified as a major economic asset and opportunity in this community. With that in mind, a lot of focus has been put into what it should look like to redevelop it.”—SUSAN LUDWIG, director of redevelopment, Center for Planning Excellence
Nothing has been finalized
In the past year or so, the section of the corridor from the I-10 bridge to West Johnston Street has been a magnet for big-name developers.
Several weeks ago, Brickyard Properties, of which Chad Ortte is the managing partner, purchased the building at the foot of the bridge currently occupied by the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
The 18,398-square-foot building, which at one time housed Montalbano Produce, sold for $475,000. Brickyard Properties hasn’t announced any plans for the site, but Ortte, who recently opened the development and consulting firm, says the building lends itself to a grocery store, entertainment venue or restaurant.
The city-parish Planning Commission already has approved the site plan for the River House, which is scheduled for the southwest quadrant of Nicholson at Oklahoma Street, where the Prince Murat Inn stood until it was demolished in 2006. The 8.3-acre site, which is being developed by Marc Blumberg of Atlanta-based Palmetto Partners Inc. and Manny Organek of Boca Raton, Fla.-based Continental Realty Corp., is expected to have 224 apartments, 30,000 square feet of office space and 16,000 square feet of retail space. Construction is expected to begin this fall.
A four-story building will house the apartments; a mix of efficiencies and one- and two-bedroom units that will cater to students and downtown employees. A clubhouse and fitness facility will be included. A three-story building with Nicholson frontage will house offices.
Monsour expects construction will begin fairly soon on this project, which was announced in April 2009. The developers have requested allocations of new-market tax credits from multiple community development entities.
“The market seems to be in their favor for their financing,” he says. “They seem to now be in gearing-up mode.”
“With the development going on south of campus along Nicholson, the potential is there that Nicholson could become a larger corridor of transit.”—MIKE BRUCE, managing principal, ABMB Engineers
Just south of River House, William McGehee and Charles Caldwell are brewing something big. They are leasing part of the former Sears warehouse at Wyoming and McClung streets from developer Mike Wampold and are opening a microbrewery. Tin Roof Brewing Company is set to to introduce three beers in mid-September: Voodoo Bengal Specialty Ale, Perfect Tin Amber and Second Line Light.
And across Nicholson, developer Donnie Jarreau already has utility connections up for what he’s calling Coterie Rowe, a collection of 11 upscale cottages in a gated, green community. Prices start at $190,000.
“It’s going to fit in with the connection that’s going to happen between LSU and downtown,” he says.
Lafayette oilman Mike Moreno is sitting on 30 acres on both sides of Nicholson, where he eventually wants to build a New Urbanist development tentatively called River District. Bulldozers have already demolished 37 homes, and plans are to dismantle the sewer treatment plant between the railroad track and River Road, giving Moreno’s property access to the Mississippi River.
Stephen Keller, the developer behind the hugely successful Towne Center at Cedar Lodge, also is involved in the project. Renowned Lafayette smart-growth architect Steve Oubre initially was brought in to design the development, but apparently he has been replaced by Trey Trahan, who is a member of the board of directors of the Friends of Magnolia Mound.
Those involved in the project repeatedly have declined to comment about their plans. But it became clear last month, when Moreno Properties filed a request with the Planning Commission to turn the site into a music venue called Magnolia Pavilion, that it could be as long as five years before River District gets off the ground.
“My concern is that we are looking for those who left this community to come back. We don’t want a new group to come in and take over. I think that’s some of the plan.”—SHARON TERRANCE, president, South Baton Rouge Civic Association
Moreno wants to erect a temporary stage, with concessions and parking, for Friday night concerts during LSU’s football season. The concerts are expected to attract between 2,000 and 6,000 people.
The size and location of River District make it a critical component in any effort to reinvent the Nicholson corridor.
“The development itself is of such scale that it’s one of those catalytic projects that will transform the corridor and give it a new face,” says Rachel DiResto, vice president of the Center for Planning
Excellence. “We were very pleased that early on [the developers] saw the significance of the historical Magnolia Mound and the canopy of trees along Nicholson Drive and made sure that was incorporated into it.”
Even Magnolia Mound is undergoing a transformation. Sue Turner and her family members have donated $750,000 to help fund a welcome center, which would include exhibit space, a gift shop and offices.
Also in the works for the Nicholson corridor is some sort of mass-transit plan. Mike Bruce of ABMB Engineers confirms he is studying the feasibility of either light-rail or streetcar service between LSU and downtown.
LSU currently runs the Tiger Trails bus system for students, faculty, staff and visitors, but only during the daytime. A public transit system likely would offer transportation to the downtown entertainment district at night.
But Bruce says the potential could be even bigger, possibly extending from LSU into Ascension Parish, if funding were to become available.
“The idea is to make downtown more accessible to LSU, whether you’re talking about faculty or students,” he says. “But with the development going on south of campus along Nicholson, the potential is there that Nicholson could become a larger corridor of transit.”
Not everyone is thrilled about all the new plans for the corridor.
“This corridor is in transition right now. But I do think that once it’s settled, it’s going to make downtown and LSU a lot more accessible and appealing to everybody in the region.”—DAVID TRUSTY, director of commercial real estate, Gully, Phelps & McKey Commercial Realtors
Sharon Terrance, president of the South Baton Rouge Civic Association, has concerns about whether the redevelopment efforts are aimed at restoring Old South Baton Rouge to its roots or making it attractive for another type of resident.
She left the community and moved to north Baton Rouge before returning five years ago.
“My concern is that we are looking for those who left this community to come back,” she says. “We don’t want a new group to come in and take over. I think that’s some of the plan.”
Although there might not be signs advertising it, plenty of additional property remains available for sale along the corridor, if the price is right.
David Trusty, the director of commercial real estate at Gully, Phelps & McKey Commercial Realtors, is representing a number of clients, including the law firm of Sumpter B. Davis III and Stephen Roberts, homeowners at Nicholson and West Johnston Street and one of the churches.
Trusty, who in 2006 began talking to homeowners along Nicholson about selling their property, says it’s important that potential developers be in sync with one another to ensure the corridor grows as it should. “Everybody is trying to decide what should happen, should they sell,” says Trusty, who once called the corridor home while living in the Prince Murat Inn. “They want to know what their neighbor is going to do. There may not be a big for-sale sign, but you have to be creative and go in with an idea. That’s why everyone is moving so slow. It has to be done right.
“This corridor is in transition right now. But I do think that once it’s settled, it’s going to make downtown and LSU a lot more accessible and appealing to everybody in the region. There are going to be great places to eat, great places to work and great places to sleep.”