Future BR: Infill development vital for EBR, planners say

Originally Posted on The Advocate

Construction crews finished pouring concrete last week on the roads and alleys that will wind through Perkins Lane, a 4-acre townhouse development along a busy stretch of Perkins Road between Lee Drive and Standford Avenue.

Amid the current real estate slump, sales of condominiums and townhouses have been particularly weak, but Brian Dantin, who is developing Perkins Lane with Ross Bruce, isn’t worried.

For Perkins Lane will offer something Dantin and Bruce believe will appeal to young professionals and empty nesters: smaller, more efficient, hassle-free living in a central location surrounded by retail, dining and entertainment options.

“It’s a true urban infill site,” Dantin said, noting he has a list of 30 interested buyers for 21 townhouses and three live/work units.

“It’s kind of nice because you can hit a lot of markets with this product,” he said. “And the location is a big reason why I’m excited about it. This is where I feel these types of developments need to be built.”

The architects of Future BR — the $1.9 million proposed revamp of the city-parish’s land-use and development code that will go before city officials for approval later this year — couldn’t agree more.

Infill development of areas bypassed by developers and revitalization of abandoned properties is a major component of the plan.

Lead planner John Fregonese said making sure East Baton Rouge Parish captures its share of future population growth — 56 percent to be precise — will be a key goal.

For if the trend of the last 20 years continues, the Fregonese team’s models show the parish will suffer financially through lost construction value, lower tax revenue and declining economic competitiveness, all while traffic congestion worsens.

“If people continue to locate outside the parish, congestion rises to unacceptable levels and it ultimately effects your economics,” Fregonese said.

Capturing that population share, he said, “brings vitality — if people don’t live here, they won’t spend money here.”

Fregonese said reversing the trend will require East Baton Rouge Parish to find ways to revitalize the underpopulated neighborhoods within its existing developed footprint. Doing so will help make Baton Rouge a more attractive place for young people entering the workforce, a rapidly growing portion of the population.

“I think Baton Rouge has a lot of potential to make more of that,” he said. “Certainly there are some areas where that is starting, but it has the potential to be much greater.”

And infill development — building on empty lots in areas that are already built up — should continue to be encouraged because services such as roads, sewer lines, lighting and public safety are already in place, said Ellen Miller, the city-parish’s assistant planning director.

“There’s very little, if any, downside to infill development,” she said.

Miller said a better transit system, more flexible zoning categories and small area plans that focus on specific areas — all components of the Future BR plan — will help encourage more infill development.

“We’ve got some really great parts of Baton Rouge that would benefit from focused development on infill — around downtown, Midcity and Old South Baton Rouge,” she said,

Future BR is also expected to streamline the permitting process and get government agencies working together more closely.

A draft document released earlier this year noted two key elements to improving the parish’s housing mix: affordable housing for people making less than $15,000 per year and a mix of owner and renter units for households making between $35,000 and $100,000 per year.

Since most of the housing in East Baton Rouge is single-family, the team believes there are opportunities for condos, townhouses, cottage homes, lofts and live/work spaces.

The draft cites an Urban Land Institute study that found the groups that will drive the new housing market in the coming decades are baby boomers, so-called Generation Y and immigrant families, all groups receptive to housing closer to the city center.

Baton Rouge has often promoted itself as “a great place to raise a family,” but Fregonese said the demographic realities now and in the coming decades won’t favor this stereotype.

“I bet not one out of five or four (homes) is new houses with children,” he said.

In addition to aging boomers and younger people getting married and having children later, the fastest-growing housing segment is the single-person dwelling. The stereotypical mom, dad and three kids “is something that was true during the period I was growing up, but that is changing,” Fregonese said.

“It’s a huge shift nationwide and … I can’t believe that Baton Rouge is any different,” said Boo Thomas, president and chief executive officer of the Center for Planning Excellence.

Thomas and Fregonese said surveys show people are willing to trade a large lot in the suburbs for a more convenient lifestyle and a shorter commute.

Dantin agreed that young professionals, empty-nesters and people looking for a second home closer to the city center want shorter commutes and freedom from the yardwork that comes with a large lot.

“The market is trending to not building (houses) as large as in the past,” Dantin, the townhouse developer, said.

Future BR’s concepts must contend with traditional factors that encouraged sprawl from the beginning: among them schools and cheaper land costs.

John Fetzer, who has developed houses and apartments in and out of the parish, said land and construction costs make difficult infill development that is affordable to the average couple or family.

Still, Fetzer agreed with the trend toward smaller lots, noting his current project, Longwood Village at Bluebonnet Boulevard and Highland Road, is using smaller homes emphasizing quality and retail amenities.

And, he said, there are opportunities for infill, particularly around Goodwood and along Jefferson Highway.

There, he said, “you could do some small developments that have 10 or 15 lots or even five or six lots with quality-built homes.”

It’s worth noting that Dantin credits location — near LSU and Southdowns — for his confidence in Perkins Lane.

“These types of properties, they have to be in the urban areas, the center of town (and) close to all the restaurants and amenities,” he said. “It’s not like you can do these all over town. This is a niche market.”

But Fregonese and other planners point out that people’s definition of a desirable part of town is changing, and Baton Rouge has made strides since the 1990s in revitalizing its downtown and parts of Midcity.

Oscar Shoenfelt, a local attorney who owns two rental houses on Perkins Road near the popular overpass area and is building a third next door, said the revitalization of downtown and the emphasis on the arts has made many parts of the center city a more desirable place to live.

He said the city-parish’s construction of new sidewalks and the local retail and restaurant options in the area make it a magnet for young people.

“There’s so much art, so many things to do every week, music venues … I just think it’s a great place to live,” he said.

Updated 5/17/11 to correct for location and size of Perkins Lane development. Perkins Lane is a 4-acre townhouse development on Perkins Road between Lee Drive and Stanford Avenue.