Important now: A first step for any city redevelopment project should include engaging with the local community to understand who they are and how the project can fulfill their needs too.
After a generation of powering homes and businesses when it was built in 1916, the lights went out in the Baton Rouge Electric and Gas complex in the 1930s. At that time, a population growth spurt in the area required the company to move to a larger space with more capacity.
Left behind was a six-acre complex draped in five historic buildings totaling 60,000 square feet. They sat empty for about 10 years adding more blight to an already deteriorating area and often serving as shelter for the homeless.
Then in 2013 Entergy, owner of the plant, gifted the property to the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority now called Build Baton Rouge (see related story on Build Baton Rouge in this edition of CityRevive). Visions for how to revitalize the property began emerging. It was a risk, but eight developers stepped up to the challenge and bid on the redevelopment.
The winner was Weinstein Nelson Management Company (WNM) whose proposal hit on several points important to the city, including preserving the historic character of the buildings and a plan to keep rents low on a portion of new apartments for lower income families.
Now appropriately known as the Electric Depot, the $20 million project has transformed the complex into a central gathering place with a chic vibe and ample activity. Shops featuring local artisans, restaurants offering gourmet cuisine, and even a bowling alley, beckon visitors throughout the complex.
Needless to say, COVID-19 has inflicted instability on all tenants but Dyke Nelson, architect for WNM, says he and his team have been creative and are working closely with tenants to minimize the negative effects of the pandemic.
“We are fortunate to have a lot of open space to allow for proper social distancing. However, it has put particular strain on the businesses such as restaurants that have limited capacity,” says Nelson.
The state has graduated to Phase 2 of COVID which limits occupancy to 50% for shops and restaurants.
“We have not requested, nor have we received any support from the city related to COVID. However, Build Baton Rouge has provided a good deal of support.”
Chris Tyson, president & CEO of Build Baton Rouge, the city’s rebranded Development Authority, says it entered into a forbearance agreement with tenants, so they didn’t have to pay rent for a few months (see related interview with Tyson in this edition of CityRevive).
“The Electric Depot is a signature project of our city and it is the single, largest revitalization on the Government Street corridor which has been the focus for a number of different improvement projects currently underway,” says Tyson.
The $11.7 million Government Road project began two years ago and is still under construction. In addition to reinvigorating the area, the goal is to make the street more pedestrian-oriented and multimodal to deemphasize cars.
The Electric Depot is located off Government Road in an area once considered a “red light” district where disorderly revelry was largely ignored. The complex is nestled within one of the most popular residential neighborhoods and takes up a small strip of area that was left alone in the midst of urban sprawl.
At first there was a concern about opposition to the project by local residents, but Nelson says he was pleasantly surprised when the community responded positively during reach out efforts seeking their input.
The area where the Depot is located had been neglected for so long the biggest challenge was to find funding and financing and go through the environmental cleanup process. Some money came in the form of a state grant but the bulk of it came from private investments which includes local investors interested in long term growth.
“The team we have is made up of seven local investors …they are the best people in Baton Rouge getting together to do this, says Nelson. “They put in real capital and we were able to use state and federal tax credits and dispensation from the city on property taxes.”
It was important to BBR to begin the planning process by gauging public opinion. To understand the local viewpoint, they met with regional church parishioners, local businesses, and several residential organizations, as well as the East Baton Rouge city council.
“It was a very personal experience connecting with residents,” says Tara Titone, chief operating officer of BBR. “During the planning process we met with the community several times and found they wanted mixed income, affordable housing, and a place where they could go to meet friends. Plus, it needed to be pedestrian friendly.”
There were also concerns about rising real estate prices. “Everybody’s goal was not to inflate housing prices. Area businesses and residents wanted to make sure that down the road they would not be kicked out,” says Titone.
Part of WNM’s proposal included a provision for keeping rents affordable for people meeting 80% of area median income level (AMI). To date 20% of the units have been allocated for this purpose. So far, a total of 16 apartments are located on property with one hundred more to be built in Phase two, again with 20% of the new units reserved for low income tenants.
Design and Feel
The former epicenter of the old power plant is now a vibrant multi-story complex where the shops, restaurants and bowling alley are located. The 40,000 square foot facility opened in April 2019 and was meeting revenue expectations until the pandemic hit. Now, like all businesses, the tenants are awaiting a deeper emergence from the pandemic to gauge what to do next.
It was important to WNM to preserve the character of the 100-year-old warehouse and maintain its early industrial feel. This required costly and time-consuming historic renovations. WNM took advantage of the historic tax credit which gave them 20 cents for every dollar they spent to apply as credit against their taxes.
“It is a fortunate position to be in and to have buildings like these…it is nearly impossible to build to a level like this,” says Nelson. “It was very important to us from a sustainability standpoint and to preserve the texture of the community.”
WNM retained the building’s industrial bones exposing its original raw brick walls and concrete beams with soaring ceilings that create a breathtaking expanse as guests enter the space.
Now many local artisans, food operators, and entertainment areas grace the building attracting destination traffic to the renewed area as well as new business. In the last several months four properties have been purchased and are under construction, adding more value to the district and an extra dose of confidence for the success of Phase 2 already underway.
Phase 2 will bring 100 more apartments on the north end of the site. Construction drawings, financing, and other details of the next phase are being worked on with a goal of starting construction in the first quarter of 2021, according to Nelson.
He says it has been an advantage to be situated at major crossroads in the city because the multiple benefits that brings. “Our tag line is, ‘where the city meets.’ There is a socioeconomic cross section of all types of people in a neighborhood that has been historically underserved. It is an opportunity for economic growth in a community that desperately needs it,” he says.
For more information contact Raeleigh Joshlin at firstname.lastname@example.org
Or, go to the Electric Depot site at: http://electricdepotbr.com