Developers are turning their attention to Mid City. Can they overcome the challenges of infrastructure and crime, and maintain the neighborhood’s roots?
As an architecture student some 15 years ago, Joshua Hoffpauir worked on a senior project focused on Government Street, the main artery of Baton Rouge’s Mid City.
“There was a ton of potential,” he says. “But there was nobody willing to take a chance on it.”
Crime was high, facades were crumbling, and block after block was severely underused. But there were plenty of charming old buildings, not to mention a functional street grid, a rarity for Baton Rouge. That grid ties right into downtown, which was emerging from its own death spiral.
With perhaps $2 billion in private, public and nonprofit investment (counting projects still in progress) since 1987, downtown is well into its resurgence. Mid City might be next.
Hoffpauir is developing Square 46, a mixed-use project at the former Giamanco’s restaurant site fronting Government, Mouton and Moore streets. His plans include residences, dining and shopping.
“There’s something about this generation that’s coming up that want to have a more urban lifestyle and see this as an opportunity,” he says.
As anyone who makes the bumpy drive down Government Street can attest, the problems Hoffpauir saw as a student have not disappeared. But artists have embraced Mid City, and it boasts a diversity of class, race and culture not often found in Baton Rouge. Millennials and younger Gen-Xers in particular are showing interest, rejecting both the suburbs and the high cost of downtown.
Mid City has potential, as Hoffpauir suggests. But it’s still waiting for a spark.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
In 1991, Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas, currently president and CEO of the Center for Planning Excellence, was part of the team developing the Horizon Plan meant to guide development in East Baton Rouge Parish over the following two decades. She focused on the area now known as Mid City.
“It wasn’t even called Mid City then,” she says. “We gave it that name.”
They delineated Mid City by the interstate on the west and south, College and Foster drives on the east and North Street on the north. While the area is defined in various ways, it’s perhaps useful to think of the Government and Florida Boulevard corridors (including adjacent neighborhoods) from downtown to Lobdell Avenue as the core of Mid City.
Thomas says Baton Rouge General Medical Center spent more than $40 million upgrading its Mid City facility, but was disappointed when it didn’t spur improvements in the surrounding community. Hoping to make a sustainable difference, the General started the Mid City Redevelopment Alliance, hiring Thomas as its first director.
With backing from the General, the alliance spruced up existing homes and built new ones, helped eliminate blight and offered classes for first-time homebuyers. Mid City was a very different place then.
“My friends would take me to see some houses, and they would say, ‘I just don’t think you should be driving in this neighborhood by yourself,’” Thomas recalls. “Now it’s totally fine, and it’s getting better every day.”
Samuel Sanders is the current executive director of the Mid City Redevelopment Alliance, now an independent nonprofit with the freedom to lead its own development projects or partner with organizations that have greater resources. For example, the MCRA helped the New Orleans-based Gulf Coast Housing Partnership on a project at the former site of an Olinde’s furniture store called The Corona, collecting a $100,000 development fee.
“That’s serious business for us,” Sanders says with a laugh.
Sanders, who has been with the alliance since 2003 and took over as director in 2006, says he has been fielding more calls from people interested in Mid City since FuturEBR was ratified in 2011. The parish’s current master plan, among other objectives, seeks to promote infill development.
Those callers often ask about economic incentives, of which there aren’t very many. Much of Mid City is in a state-recognized cultural district, which means original art can be sold without sales taxes. Tax credits are available for renovating historic buildings, and businesses can apply for tax abatements in the low-income census tract between downtown and Acadian Thruway. The MCRA offers small grants for façade improvements.
Sanders says downtown’s revitalization is important for Mid City, and says the latter could be a “bedroom community” for downtown workers.
“The buzz is real,” Sanders says. “We felt like we were beating the drum, and no one was listening. Now, it feels like we don’t have to beat as loudly, because others are beating it for us.”
-- David Jacobs
Originally posted by the Business Report