05 October 2008

Urbanism in Baton Rouge, Part II: Downtown

The downtown area of Baton Rouge comprises the original settled area of the city, and is the region's traditional retail, office, governmental, civic, cultural, and commercial center. For most of the city's history, the settlement was not much larger than the current central core area (comprised of modern downtown, Spanish Town, and Beauregard Town). So in terms of history and importance, understanding downtown is critical to understanding Baton Rouge.

Though it still serves many of its traditional functions, in the past 40 or so years downtown Baton Rouge has experienced a marked and pronounced decline. As the central business district for a medium sized city, it shares the same fatal malaise as its counterparts in other similarly sized cities: evaporation of the retail and commercial base, which composed the basis of downtown as a living and vital part of the city, to suburban greenfield sites in an effort to follow the greater part of the middle class population. It goes without saying that greenfield sites also offered the requisite amount of space to accommodate the suburban paradigm of easy automobile access - which downtown could not readily offer, having developed in the pedestrian age.

So for the most part, downtown has evolved into an office and professional center. But it now shares this function with four other defined "office centers" situated in various readily automobile accessible suburban locales along Interstates 10 and 12. This leaves cultural, civic, and particularly governmental functions as downtown's current raison d'etre.

As Baton Rouge is Louisiana's seat of state government, the offices of the vast State bureaucracy are largely based in the downtown area and comprise a major downtown land use. As you will see, this has its positives and drawbacks. Otherwise, the major downtown land uses are professional offices (particularly law offices), offices for local government, cultural facilities, public spaces, and (most evidently) parking, with a smattering of retail (mainly restaurants) that cater primarily to the weekday lunch crowd. A tiny but growing residential sector has developed in recent years.

This lack of diversity reflects downtown's dilemma. Downtown resembles an 8 to 5 (weekdays only) office park, and most economic activity in the area occurs in that timeframe. Beyond this, downtown relies on its cultural and historical assets as well as its ample number of public spaces (for festivals and such) to bring in people "after hours." Without heavy promotion and use of these assets, downtown would be completely devoid of life outside working hours. There is simply nothing there in itself that does not already exist in the suburbs to keep people there. Such is the reality of a suburban age.

Though much effort has been expended to develop and expand the non-office functions of the precinct, the fact remains that the fruits of these efforts have largely been confined to a few blocks in the core area. I submit that this situation is because of the destruction of downtown's once-vibrant urbanism.

With the rise of downtown as an office park, it began to resemble its suburban counterparts, making concession after concession to the anti-urban paradigm, to provide access for automobiles. This perhaps saved downtown in the sense that without accessibility, the precinct may have economically withered. But at what cost?

The arid and stale air of the bureaucratic precinct defines downtown's northern edge. These office buildings were constructed in recent years, and have all the appeal of a junk pile. Teeming with thousands of state drones on weekdays between 8 am and 4:30 pm, they comprise gigantic dead spaces otherwise - which is to say, the majority of the time. These buildings certainly contribute nothing to street life, given their entirely bureaucratic function. Note the suburban paradigm of generous green space surrounding these structures, looking completely out of place in a downtown area.

On a Sunday afternoon, little street life - pedestrian, auto, or otherwise - is encountered. Probably all shopping at the mall.

The bane of modern medium sized cities' downtowns (BR and otherwise) is surface parking lots. The city regulations require buffering and green space at their edges to "beautify" these eyesores and perhaps render them less offensive. Yet I get the sense that this sight is not something that I would expect to encounter in the downtown area of a large city.

Main Street Market is an attraction intended to bring folks downtown to do something other than visit their cubicle. Note that it is attached to a parking garage - a far more intelligent use of street frontage space than the blank wall a parking structure would be expected to present to the street. The state was actually using some foresight here (this garage was built to store the autos of the State drones who work in the buildings shown above - can't forget the auto element, can we?).

Wish this place was open today. Attractions never seem to be open when you want them to be. Perhaps our solons, who want so much to attract folks to the urban center, could be apprised of this wisdom.

Main Street was historically one of the main downtown retail corridors, only second to Third Street. Many historic buildings line this thoroughfare today. Sad to say that most of them are vacant.

St. Joseph's Cathedral is a Baton Rouge landmark, an architectural anachronism of a more gentle time situated among modern office towers. Churches are an integral part of the downtown landscape, past and present, and even today there are several churches situated downtown.

The architecture of State power imposes its phallic visage upon Fourth Street.

The modern office tower (One American Place) located across from the cathedral occupies an entire city block. The use of this precious downtown land is hardly judicious, as the suburban paradigm of green lawns and trees (i.e. dead space) is subjected to the excess land not required for the tower footprint, appearing as a parklike scene markedly out of place in the downtown area.

Gotta love those beautiful blank walls.

On the other hand, the other State garage offers space for the downtown YMCA.

Third Street! This street once comprised the uncontested retail and commercial center for the region, but since the early 1970s and a failed pedestrian mall conversion (mercifully reversed in 1991) it has fallen on hard times. But a few developers have rediscovered the urban paradigm in recent years and have worked to restore some of Third Street's lost glory. The 400 block constitutes a real victory for urbanism as most of the historic buildings on the street's western side are under renovation, being restored to productive activity as mixed use properties.

Even here, the suburban paradigm has claimed a foothold, as the river (three blocks away at this point) becomes visible through the gaps in the structural firmanent where a parking lot moonscape has taken hold.

Third Street is the one remaining place in Baton Rouge where the urban paradigm exists in full form. The historic buildings continue to house businesses as they always have. Of course, today most of these establishments are open only during weekday office hours...

Lo, human activity! Some businesses, however, are committed to being active parts of downtown, which means being open at times besides the weekday lunch hour.

These establishments are quite popular. Too early in the day to be open, though...

At the south end of Third Street we enter the cultural precinct, anchored by the Shaw Center, which for a modernist building is well integrated into the urban fabric. This is the most vital part of downtown and the Shaw Center has much to do with this. Above we see a recent addition, the One Eleven Lofts, the first salvo in adding a much needed residential component to downtown.

At the corner of Third and North Boulevard, more renovation. This is an excellent location, well placed based on current levels of street activity, so whatever is going in here is sure to do well.

This bounty of downtown renovation is good to see. It would be nice to see it expand beyond the Third Street corridor.

Even here, auto storage is always a priority. This parking garage (also a State creation) is better for the urban fabric than the surface lot which it replaced. Also there are spaces for stores and shops at street level. Regrettably, they remain unoccupied. Must be something about being attached to a parking garage that is unattractive to businesses...

Moving to Lafayette Street, we encounter the Capitol House Hotel! Long in renovation, its opening last year provided downtown with much needed hotel space, and revived another historic structure into active, 24-hour commerce.

The 100 block of Lafayette has been converted into a tasteful and vibrant public space adjacent to the Shaw Center and the Old State Capitol. Here we see this space in active use for a special event.

This inviting space in the crook of the Shaw Center is one of the city's best public spaces, and is heavily used (though not quite to this extent).

In the summer, these ground spigots shoot columns of water; they are very popular with young children and their families.

Even in downtown's most vibrant precincts, there is still work to be done. The vacant Hotel King is situated opposite the Capitol House, and is slated for renovation in the near future.

As we leave the Third/Lafayette corridor, the urban landscape becomes more grim and uninviting:

Much of downtown east of Fourth Street is a moonscape of parking lots, peppered with a smattering of low rise buildings, of which some have historical value.

The Chase Towers, two of Baton Rouge's tallest structures, offer little to the urban streetscape:

This odd structure is (I believe) supposed to house the spotlight which illuminates the tower at night. To passersby it presents a strange and bleak addition to the urban landscape, and its primary use by actual people is as a ramp for skateboarders.

Interesting how people are left out when the primary goal is to impress traffic on the Interstate six blocks away.

Presenting a stark barren concrete wall to pedestrians on Laurel Street, the message communicated is inherently anti-urban, exclusionary, exclusive. This building offers no participation in the life of the city.

Many city blocks in this area are dedicated primarily to surface parking lots.

Bipping down Laurel Street, we encounter buildings of various types. Most are used for offices today. Some of these are historic structures that have been mercifully preserved...:

...some are bare modernist monstrosities:

Some more recent low rise buildings have thankfully incorporated a sense of streetscape into their design:

Some early buildings of the modern period are just quaint at first glance, proving that not all modern structures detract from the landscape:

Of course, not all recent additions are welcome:

There are far too many of these downtown. Seriously, how is it possible that downtown has come to house so many drive through banks?

It is evident that the suburban paradigm has been visited upon this most historic and urban of areas with a vengeance.

At the very edge of downtown, full fledged autopia has come to roost:

The hulking viaduct of Interstate 110 defines downtown's eastern edge by default, a concrete barrier which constitutes a demarcation of urban space in spite of itself. Historically speaking, "downtown" never included anything east of Fifth Street.

Florida Street is a key arterial into downtown, and has a wide pavement to accommodate vast amounts of automobile traffic. Florida comprises the main surface artery into the outer suburban wastelands to the east.

The land under the freeway is used for parking. It is not really usuable for much else.

Historically, the area today known as downtown comprised a significant residential element (since downtown was smaller than it is defined today). Some of this history is even today readily visible:

These graceful structures still serve as residences, in the shadow of the skyscrapers.

Above all else, Baton Rouge is a river city, and to that end downtown is situated directly upon the mightly Mississippi River. The river gave the city life and continues to be its most essential asset. Even today, it is a working artery of commerce:

...though most port functions have moved to the Port Allen vicinity opposite Baton Rouge. The river's main relationship to downtown today is to serve as a large natural ampitheatre, displaying the city's natural setting in grand fashion.

A levee walkway runs parallel to the river. Unfortunately, most riverfront functions are confined to the Catfish Town area south of downtown - where the city solons have seemingly decided to concentrate the riverfront tourist infrastructure - thus rendering the waterfront in the downtown area itself rather utilitarian and bare. Note the riverfront rail line and fencing associated with the Louisiana Arts and Sciences Museum, which pose further barriers separating downtown from its historic river connection.

The four lane asphalt expanse of River Road, another product of mid-twentieth century autopia, also poses a pedestrian unfriendly ribbon of moving metal machines which must be crossed to reach the waterfront.

So what have we discovered on our downtown tour?

As a repository for urbanism, downtown has lost much of its former luster, though at least in some places, the human scaled environments of our ancestors have been preserved to a degree. Efforts are being made in the most salvagable areas to reverse the long term trends of disinvestment and the encroachement of the suburban paradigm. However, it will take a considerable effort to return the whole of downtown to the vibrant center that it comprised for most of the twentieth century.

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