Mid City redux
By Mukul Verma
Dyke Nelson and David Weinstein are winning at calculated gambles. They have profited from redevelopments in challenged areas. Seeing the promise in Mid City, for instance, Nelson moved his architecture practice into a warehouse he converted on 14 Street. The duo is redeveloping the Entergy warehouses around the corner from Nelson’s office. They won the right to do so from the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority. The six acres will include an entertainment venue, bowling lanes and a restaurant in one of the two main buildings. Apartments, more restaurants and shops will be on the site in future phases. We asked Nelson a few questions about the future of Mid City.
What made you interested in first locating your offices to Mid City and now investing in the transformation of the Entergy site?
Having worked and developed several projects in Downtown Baton Rouge, Mid-City was the logical progression in my mind. We can still find fair value, and it is one of the most—if not the most—convenient locations in town. The physical infrastructure, the buildings and the people are all great. It is a true cross section of all the good things that make Baton Rouge wonderful.
There seems to be a surge of interest in Mid City. What types of businesses and people are interested in moving there and why?
It is a wide variety of business that seem to be taking a second look at Mid City. There are the obvious entertainment venues, restaurants and art stores, but now we are seeing tech companies, designers, architecture firms exploring Mid City. I believe it is for the same reasons that we moved here four years ago. Because of the new projects coming on line, it has become a much safer investment.
Are areas toward the north side of Government getting interest from developers as well?
Absolutely. For the record, we are on the north side of Government Street. The wonderful thing about the people that are looking at Mid City now is that they embrace and even seek out diversity. Government Street is not a divider. As new projects come on line, the progression and positive impact will be to the north and the south.
What things are standing in the way of speeding up Mid City redevelopment?
The challenges for Mid City are the same as they were for downtown, and or any other area in any other city. We have to combat perceptions about safety, and people have to get comfortable with being around people who are not like themselves. The other inevitable problem is property owners waiting to sell or develop because they are waiting to see what happens. Many times the train just passes them by. There are still people sitting on property in downtown to see what happens. Guess what? It has already happened.
Given those challenges, I think that there is the opportunity for Mid City to develop much more quickly than people think. There are a lot of young developers who are not waiting for anyone to tell them that it' OK to be in a diverse neighborhood with a different character than they are used to. They are seeking those things out and putting real money behind it. As long as those guys are encouraged to continue pushing boundaries, Baton Rouge really does have the chance to become something really special. That intangible element is really what people are looking for today.
Picture Government Street in 10 years. What does it look like to you?
In five to ten years, I expect Government Street to be a thriving hub of business that remains diverse and a lot funky. A lot of people say that they want it to be like Magazine Street, but I think it should be something better. With the state Department of Transportation renovations of the street coming this summer, we are making great strides to make Government more walkable and much safer. With the beautification efforts that we will make after DOTD is done, it will be a unique example for the folks in New Orleans to look at and start thinking about how they can make Magazine Street better. We have a ridiculously good opportunity, and I am optimistic that we will not squander it over NIMBY politics.
How does the development in Mid City help the entire parish?
Infill development is always good for a community. By utilizing existing infrastructure and by creating new jobs, the entire parish is made better. Giving people transportation options reduces traffic, and additional tax dollars without the cost of new infrastructure is always a good thing. The last intangible is the coolness factor. It is not something that can be fabricated. It has to happen organically. That is what is happening and hopefully will continue to do so. This helps greatly with tourism and employee retention. It is a quality of life issue, and people, particularly young people, are looking for exactly that.