A Live After Five concert at the Galvez Plaza stage. Photo courtesy Downtown Development District.

Urban renaissance

The downtown area of Baton Rouge has come a long way in the last 25 years.

When realtor Darryl Gissel first moved to Spanish Town in the early 1980s, he couldn’t get a pizza delivered to his house. Pizza delivery guys didn’t go downtown back then. But then, no one else did either, really, unless the Legislature was in session.

Few people lived downtown. Fewer, still, played downtown. Third Street, once the heart of a bustling city center, had withered and was dying.

Gissel and a few other downtown pioneers–attracted to the area because of its authenticity and historical architecture–lived side-by-side with a handful of remaining old-timers and an even bigger group of washed-up hippies and homeless people.

“You’d be afraid to go walk the dog at night past 10 p.m,” he says. “You’d see needles and all sorts of other things in the bushes you didn’t want to find.”

Downtown has come a long way in the 25 years since then–so far, in fact, it astounds even those like Gissel, who have been part of the transformation, witnessed it from their front porches and played an active role in it. Since 1987, the year the Downtown Development District was created, downtown Baton Rouge has experienced a rebirth that has far surpassed the expectations of those who first envisioned it.

Today, downtown is home to six new state buildings, five hotels, the Shaw Center for the Arts, more than 60 restaurants and nightclubs, several cutting-edge green spaces, and some 2,500 residents, who live in more than 700 apartments. Nearly 400 additional units are under construction or will soon break ground, and later this year the first full-service supermarket in more than half a century will open its doors downtown.

“The supermarket is a huge deal,” says Gissel. “It’s a game-changer because it will bring a whole new level of services to downtown.”

Like so many Southern cities, Baton Rouge saw the decline of its urban core through the 1960s and 1970s, when residents fled to the suburbs for socio-economic reasons. Those who stayed behind were either elderly or low-income. As a result, downtown began a slow and seemingly inexorable decline. By the early 1980s, visionaries realized something had to be done.

In 1983 Mayor Pat Screen’s administration commissioned a master plan, Baton Rouge 2000, that outlined ideas for the economic revitalization of downtown. Perhaps the single most important element of that plan was the creation of the DDD, a special taxing district that would be charged with the management and promotion of the downtown area. In 1987 the DDD hung out its shingle and Davis Rhorer became its first executive director, a position he still holds today.

Rendering of the new IBM Tower on the Mississippi River. Photo courtesy Downtown Development District.
Rendering of the new IBM Tower on the Mississippi River. Photo courtesy Downtown Development District.

Over the years, Rhorer has been a tireless advocate for downtown, working closely with key stakeholders in the redevelopment process–namely, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, the state and the city-parish–and helping to implement the many plans that have provided an essential blueprint for getting downtown where it is today.

The first of those plans was the update in 1987 to Baton Rouge 2000. It proposed consolidating state government downtown through the construction of multiple new state office buildings. Over the next two decades, construction would be completed on five new state office buildings, the Louisiana State Museum, and three state parking garages that brought 2 million square feet of parking space.

“It was incredible and resulted in the return of 3,000 employees to downtown streets,” Rhorer says, who credits Gov. Mike Foster’s administration and, specifically, then-Commissioner of Administration Mark Drennen with making much of it happen.

“He was an advocate of the plan and really believed in the vision,” Rhorer says of Drennen.

In 1988 the DDD also launched its Restoration Renaissance Program, which sought to revitalize its two historic neighborhoods–Beauregard Town and Spanish Town. Rhorer would gather architects, landscape architects and designers in an open-house setting to market different properties in the two neighborhoods and run shuttles between them to generate interest. The program continued through the mid-1990s, by which time it was no longer needed because the neighborhoods were stabilized and once again in demand.

In the early 1990s the DDD tackled improvements to the riverfront, with a plan that led to the development of the promenade and tiered stepping on the levee. In 1991 riverboat gambling was legalized in the state, clearing the way for downtown’s two floating casinos. In 1993 the dock was built and the River Center expanded. In the late 1990s the LASM added the planetarium, which has become one of its most popular attractions.

Perhaps the most defining moment in the recent history of downtown came in 1998 with Plan Baton Rouge, the master plan produced by Andres Duany that affirmed the many positive developments already underway in downtown and proposed ways to take the neighborhood to the next level. The plan was based on the principles of New Urbanism and came out of ideas proposed during a week-long planning charette that involved hundreds of city residents determined to turn downtown into a live-work-play district.

The plan led to the creation of institutions many now take for granted: the Main Street Market, for instance, and the Shaw Center for the Arts, the latter of which was key in revitalizing the Third Street corridor. The Shaw Center opened in 2005, bringing more arts and culture back to downtown, with the Manship Theater, the LSU Museum, and a chic, rooftop restaurant called Tsunami that alone played a key role in creating a downtown nightlife.

Once the Shaw Center opened, downtown’s revitalization was on a trajectory that seemed boundless. In 2008 BRAF’s Commercial Properties completed its renovation of the former Capitol House Hotel building, opening a new Hilton hotel. In the years since, Hotel Indigo and Hampton Inn have also opened, and construction is soon to begin on a Holiday Inn Express.

“The Hilton project was significant because we came up with creative ideas about how to do other projects,” says Rhorer. “It was our first TIF [tax increment financing]. It was also when we introduced the use of state historic tax credits to rehab old buildings.”

In 2008 the DDD launched Plan Baton Rouge II, which focused on downtown living and how to develop residential units in the area. In the six short years since that plan, nearly 400 apartments have been developed, either in new buildings or in renovated older buildings. Among the most significant residential projects are the renovation of the former Capital One Bank building, which will result in nearly 100 new apartments; the redevelopment of the old Commerce Building, which is supposed to begin later this year; and the construction of the new IBM Tower on the Mississippi River, which will add another 95 apartments to the downtown mix.

Plan Baton Rouge II also called for incentives to bring retailers back downtown, especially a pharmacy and a grocery. In the past three years, that pharmacy has opened and so has a corner grocery, both of which are on Third Street. Later this year, Matherne’s will open a 15,000-square-foot, full-service supermarket on the ground floor of the renovated Capital One building, which will be known as 440 on Third.

“It’s significant because it opens the door for more multigenerational living downtown,” says architect and developer Dyke Nelson. “Instead of just young professionals, you will be able to attract older people and families with children,” thereby enhancing the dynamic fabric of the neighborhood.

Along the way, dozens of restaurants, bars and nightclubs have opened downtown–not just lunch places, which 25 years ago were the only food-service vendors around. Today, downtown bustles with a variety of high-end, casual and ethnic establishments, live music venues, and even a Raising Cane’s, the popular chain’s first downtown restaurant anywhere.

“We wanted to be downtown because this is the heart of Baton Rouge and we believe in it,” says Cane’s founder Todd Graves.The past quarter century has also seen the development of several downtown green spaces: Capitol Park, Town Square, Galvez Plaza, Repentance Park and Riverfront Plaza. These are areas where residents can walk, exercise, relax or gather for festivals, events and live music. Live After Five, the series of free Friday evening concerts in the spring and fall has become hugely popular since it started in 2005.

Third street
Twenty-five years ago, Third Street saw little traffic downtown after weekday businesses closed for the evening. Now it is bustling both day and night with restaurants, bars, a pharmacy and even a corner grocery.

When Rhorer looks back, he says it’s hard to believe how much has been accomplished–yet there’s still so much more expected. The development now underway of the Water Campus and the Nicholson Corridor promises to link downtown with LSU–in a very real and physical sense. Plans are even in the works for a trolley to connect the university all the way to the State Capitol.

“You look at all we’ve done–and we’re way ahead of where the plans say we should be,” he says. “I feel so good that we’re developing a new downtown that will have such permanence and make Baton Rouge a better place, for the next 25 years and beyond.”