Growth Potential?

Now home to an influx of refugees from New Orleans, Baton Rouge—and its new planning agenda—is being put to a very real test.

Before Katrina sent hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians into indefinite exile, there was no love lost between the cosmopolitan Crescent City and its upriver country cousin, Baton Rouge. Louisiana’s Baptist-leaning capital city had long tsk-tsked New Orleans’s decadence and inefficiency—not to mention the baroque corruption of its political power structure.

In contrast, the government of the consolidated city-parish of Baton Rouge governs as little as possible, which is especially evident in planning. Because the city is otherwise utterly dys-functional for north-south traffic, locals have taken to using the interstate to travel in those directions. Development is permitted on a project-by-project basis, with little consideration of broader impact. The city-parish’s zoning code contradicted its pro-infill master plan; and in any case, the Planning Commission and the Metropolitan Council routinely ig-nore existing plans. In a metropolitan area with barely one percent population growth, new housing development has charged unabated into the fringes.

But the influx of New Orleanians to Baton Rouge is hitting at a moment of promise—and uncertainty. The new mayor-president is the first African American to hold the job. He is a liberal Democrat, but his chief administrative officer, Walter Monsour, is a Republican with a real estate-development background. Meanwhile, a well-funded local smart-growth movement has put urban-planning issues on the public agenda for the first time. Hal Cohen sat down with Monsour to talk about his city’s sudden growth and more populous future.

What are Baton Rouge’s population numbers now?
It’s hard to get a handle on. Traffic counts are now the best proxy we have. We did a traffic count the day after Labor Day [one week after Katrina] and found about a 40 percent increase. The four-parish metro area has approximately 700,000 people, so that’s nearly 300,000 more. We will have a better handle on things once people start moving out of shelters and friends’ and families’ homes, and finding housing. For the long term we are hearing directly and anecdotally that many of these people are here to stay, particularly in the service sector. A larger permanent population is obviously the road we are going down.

How do you plan for that?
We look at where our human and physical assets are, and then think about them at one and a half to two times the population. We have done some long-range planning over the years. The planning commission and all of those other stakeholders have said, “Here’s where we see Baton Rouge in the next ten years or twenty years.” Now that’s been compressed into two weeks.

But the city-parish’s master plan is 13 years old and has never been updated. And the planning commission’s long-range planning department does not even do master planning. What’s the next step?
We will hire an outside urban-planning team. Simply put, we will say, “Show me what the city-parish is going to look like with 700,000 people instead of 413,000. Do we keep the airport here? Where does a bigger jail go? Show me an interstate loop. Show me a rapid-transit system.”

How has traffic here changed since Katrina?
We’ve gone from 15-minute drive times to an hour. That’s nothing to a New York commuter, but it’s very strange for us. Some of that will never go away. Baton Rougeans need to accept that and find alternate routes, or get up earlier, leave work later, or whatever the case may be to accommodate it.

To mitigate new traffic, among other things, Baton Rouge has asked for $11 billion from the federal government—$6.4 billion for local and regional roads and two bypass systems, and $4.2 billion for transit.
The loop is the biggest ultimate solution to the interstate problems. Interstate 10 has been our Main Street. We have to alleviate that. I-10 is one of the most traveled southern interstates, from Jacksonville to L.A. They’ve got to bring relief to I-10 where it runs through Baton Rouge regardless of what happens. Katrina is a more compelling reason to do it.

And transit? You want expand conventional bus service and add bus rapid transit and a light rail?
We would like to move to a more robust transit system that will accommodate not only those in need but those who find it more expedient.

But transit in Baton Rouge is now used mainly by the very poor. What will change that?
Our lives here have changed. People are going to have to consider alternatives to what they’re used to. If Baton Rouge is going to be a major city—and if the population stays, it will be—then people are going to have to understand how you live in a big city.

It looks a little like you’re asking the feds to fix all of Baton Rouge’s problems. The voters here have not passed a transportation bond since the 1960s.
First we have to take care of our own business. We were in desperate need of solutions before Katrina. Things that we were planning to take care of—we can’t throw that in. That was why we had already come forward with a major road program [$460 million for improvements on arterials], which will be decided in a vote on October 15. But with what Katrina has brought us, it has to be expanded.

New Orleans is a far denser, more urban-feeling city than Baton Rouge. Does the new population present an opportunity to reshape the city?
Urbanism is coming back across the country, and it’s not just that it’s in vogue: it’s more functional. If you can create a city in which people have all of their necessities—retail, churches, offices—within a confined area, that allows them to walk and use transit. The residential areas in New Orleans—or at least a significant portion of them—are very close to the Central Business District, and during the last couple years the Ware-house District [between the CBD and the Garden District] has been converted into some very nice condos. So if people here work downtown, they might also come back near downtown to live, whether it’s purchasing a high-rise condo or buying a house and redoing it.

So infill is a high priority?
Yes. It accomplishes three things: it cuts the costs of infrastructure, brings people back into the city, and refurbishes run-down neighborhoods. We have already discussed at length with FEMA that as we move from temporary to permanent housing, we want to do infill. And though it’s different from what they have done in the past, they loved the concept.

You mean to put people in neighborhoods rather than just in trailer parks?
Right. We want to refurbish the sections of the city where there has been a population decrease and blight. This gives us a wonderful opportunity to bring back areas that have become run-down. That keeps the workforce in and creates urbanism.

Baton Rouge has historically not offered any incentives to encourage infill, so nearly all development is at the fringe. Is that going to change?
To a large extent developers have dictated how the city grows. Now the government is squarely faced with the charge to take back control of the city. I’ve been a developer, but it’s incumbent upon the government now to dictate where the growth will be—rather than having it dictated to us—because we have to use the city’s assets more efficiently. In order to generate the rapid-transit system that we need to alleviate the traffic, all the components have to work together. There is going to be a shift in that paradigm.

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