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Civic Leaders: Owners pushing urban trail to link Perkins Road Overpass area

Sara Bongiorni

Leaders of a project to create an urban trail are, from left front row, Jenni Peters and Adrian Owen-Jones with, from left back row, Misti Broussard, Brumby Broussard, Al Moreau, Chad Hughes, Carl Stages and Julie Becnel.

A handful of scrappy business owners are leading the push to build a safe and beautiful way for pedestrians and bikers to navigate the dicey Perkins Road overpass.

Their idea: Develop a paved multi-use trail beneath the overpass to improve community connectivity and create a distinctive public space in a Baton Rouge neighborhood like no other. The 2023 start of the I-10 widening project is expected to create still more traffic in the busy bar-and-restaurant district.

The first goal of the proposed Perkins Road Underpass is giving cyclists and pedestrians a safe way to move along a narrow stretch of Perkins when they reach the 85-year-old railroad overpass. Walkers and bikers have two options now, both dangerous.

They can go up and over the tracks via the 35-inch-wide overpass sidewalks, a route that requires whistle-past-the-graveyard moxie as cars whir by dizzyingly close. There is no room here for error by drivers, cyclists or pedestrians.

The second option is following a dirt trail that runs beneath the overpass from Christian Street to Reymond Avenue. Unlit, uneven and often muddy, it passes abandoned equipment and trash-tangled brush. People who use the isolated trail must step across or haul their bikes over the railroad tracks.

Design by Carbo Landscape

“People are using the path anyway,” said Misti Broussard, who with husband Brumby Broussard opened the restaurant BLDG 5 under the overpass in 2019.

Al Moreau of Moreau Physical Therapy points out that the dangerous routes represent the daily commute for people who bike or walk to work along Perkins. “Getting this done is going to make our city safer,” Moreau said.

Broussard and Moreau are part of the informal group of four small-business owners that for years has worked to get the pathway built. The others are Jenni Peters of Varsity Sports and Chad Hughes of Ivar’s Sports Bar & Grill and Unleaded BBQ on Perkins, which is under construction.

The group has met often with elected officials and planners and organized walking visits to the site to explain their vision. They’ve sought advice from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, the BREC Foundation and the Center for Planning Excellence about how to get the project done and funded.

Significantly, they’ve also spent about $40,000 of their own money for site surveys and a conceptual master plan that shows details like landscaping, lighting and ADA-compliant entry points at Christian and Reymond.

“Our common bond is that we’re impatient business owners,” Peters said.

Plans for the $2.2 million pathway—the group also paid for the cost estimate—tackle safety and connectivity with artistry and imagination that play on the neighborhood vibe, and the structure completed in 1937.

The design by CARBO Landscape Architecture shows a paved 8-to-10-foot-wide path from Reymond to Christian. It includes new shade trees along Perkins, a railroad crossing, low-maintenance plantings heavy on natives and a small plaza where people could gather for pop-up events.

The project would reconfigure the chaotic gravel parking lot along Christian and add storm-water management features to improve drainage. Pedestrians, cyclists and other users could access the path at either end of the overpass and either side of Perkins.

Distinctive lighting would enhance safety and add ambience along the 1,000-foot pathway. Neon way-finding signs, electric bollards and colored lighting to illuminate the path after dark are ideas in the mix.

Commissioned public art, maybe even on the underside of the overpass itself, is also part of the plan for what resembles a linear park.

In time, the pathway could connect to additional trails and park-like elements along and near Perkins that will be built in connection with the I-10 widening. A striking and useful trail under the overpass could set high expectations for the look and feel of those new public spaces and others across Baton Rouge.

“It could be a source of ‘wow factor’ for the city,” Misti Broussard said.

U.S. Census data offer insight into how many people might use the trail. Some 42,000 residents live within a two-mile walk of the overpass, including 2,021 who already walk or bike to work, according to a Baton Rouge Area Chamber analysis for the Foundation. The project also would enhance walkability for the nearly 10,000 college students who live within 2 miles of the overpass.

Broussard is confident more people will use the trail to get to work, stores and restaurants like hers, more than offsetting the small loss of parking spaces, down from 75 to 68 if the path is built.

“I see people bringing their kids to it as an activity,” Broussard said. “I have customers tell me they’d use it to walk or bike here to eat.”

Looking to the city-parish to pay for the project is logical, since it would own and maintain the trail and because multi-use trails are a key feature of its long-term infrastructure plan. The underpass trail would boost connectivity to new multi-use trails that will be built as part of the restoration of the lakes near City Park and LSU.

There is also some cause for optimism on the question of funding for the path. Fred Raiford, city-parish chief of public works, has committed to covering the $750,000 to $800,000 for a railroad crossing for the path.

Raiford, who spoke at the March public meeting where its design was unveiled, also vowed to look for more money to build the path, possibly to include federal grants. He called the project “super great,” but also said he wants a process that shows buy-in from the surrounding area.

“The business owners taking the lead is amazing from my standpoint,” Raiford said.

Any final decision on funding rests with the Metro Council. Council members Carolyn Coleman and Jen Racca—who represent two of three council districts that converge in the overpass district—voiced support at the March meeting.

Other funding options are under consideration, including private donations and public and corporate sponsorships. Meanwhile, the trail’s champions will keep working.

“It’s been a long process,” BLDG 5’s Misti Broussard said. “We think this is something all our residents deserve.”