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District Rx: better mobility

By Gary Perilloux
Broadway fans will remember the musical Fiddler on the Roof and the battle cry of Tevye the Dairyman: “Tradition.” Dairyman: “Tradition!” Yet tradition without change, as Tevye discovered, can bar growth.

In the early 21st century, Baton Rouge leaders recognized that truth. A 2011 master plan, FuturEBR, identified 11 million square feet of health care, commercial and residential structures squeezed into a dense 1,000 acres. Traffic data revealed 10 inter-sections engulfing the area with nearly a half-million daily drivers—enough people to fill a season’s worth of SEC sellouts at Tiger Stadium. Were Baton Rouge planners staging a musical, their theme might be: “Congestion!”

Today, they’re embracing change in the way people travel through a 1,000-acre Baton Rouge Health District created to capture the area’s promise. District hospitals, clinics and research campuses are magnets for economic development. Better mobility is a prescription for a healthier city center.

WHLC’s Rex Cabaniss | Photo by Tim Mueller
WHLC’s Rex Cabaniss | Photo by Tim Mueller

In December, the Health District turns 7, and projects rolling out in the coming months will bring the most visible signs yet of how better infrastructure can unlock the district’s potential and create a health care destination of world-class dimensions.

A visible brand

In 2015, the Health District completed its own master plan that identified a consensus No. 1 complaint: acute congestion on arterial roads. That 162-page plan by Chicago-based Perkins + Will triggered a second major work, the district’s Infrastructure Implementation Plan completed by Baton Rouge-based WHLC Architecture in 2018.

WHLC principal Rex Cabaniss reviewed that 137-page document on a recent morning and noted that roads are critical to good infrastructure, but so too are signage, lighting, landscaping, bike lanes, pedestrian paths and recreational and public-gathering spaces.

“Our charge was to look at the most meaningful, value-added and practical enhancements—to take what are now more standard city streets and develop more quality and character to them that are consistent with a district,” Cabaniss said.

Essential to the Health District’s identity, he said, are major signage and wayfinding elements that reinforce the district’s value to residents and help visitors reach their destination.

On that mobility score, the Baton Rouge Health District will be much more visible by year’s end, said Steven Ceulemans, who became the district’s executive director in 2019.

“We just finalized an agreement with the city to update all of the street signs across the Health District, so they will all have the same cohesive design,” he said. After summer production of the signs, installation of the 100-day project should be complete by the end of 2021.

Going into 2022, the Health District will feature consistent new signage, with white-lettered street names on a dark-blue background. At the top of the signs, “Health District” will appear in dark-blue letters against a swath of turquoise. Medical complexes will add “Health District” to their monument signs shortly thereafter. Early examples of the signage are installed at Ochsner Health’s Grove facility between Bluebonnet Boulevard and Siegen Lane.

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To establish district gateways with a wow factor, the infrastructure plan envisions strikingly landscaped berms, dynamic lighting and public art at the Interstate 10 overpasses for Essen Lane and Bluebonnet Boulevard. Ceulemans said external funds are being sought now for that high-priority project.

All told, more than 100 meetings influenced the infrastructure plan. Planners gathered ideas from the public, state and municipal agencies, stakeholder groups, and Health District institutional members: Baton Rouge Area Foundation, Baton Rouge General Medical Center, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana, LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center, Ochsner Health System, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center and Woman’s Hospital.

“That part was fascinating,” Cabaniss said, noting traffic patterns were never far from the conversation.

Roads and rail

A boon to the Health District’s infra-structure plan is Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome’s MovEBR, a $1.2 billion taxpayer-funded roadway program that’s the most ambitious infrastructure initiative in East Baton Rouge Parish history. In the Health District, an early milestone arrived in September 2019, when the city-parish dedicated the first segment of Constantin Boulevard, a four-lane artery connecting Essen Lane to the new $230 million Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital that opened a month later.

Since the Health District completed its infrastructure plan in 2018, health care institutions have added over $500 million in district facilities, which is helping drive faster completion of road and traffic solutions, Ceulemans said.

Part two of Constantin Boulevard will connect the new artery to Bluebonnet Boulevard, near the Ralph & Kacoo’s restaurant location, where the city-parish is negotiating right-of-way acquisitions, said Fred Raiford, the East Baton Rouge Parish transportation director.

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Including rights-of-way donated by Our Lady of the Lake and Baton Rouge General, the value of the Constantin project will reach $35 million.

Across the Health District, another significant road project underway is the four-lane Perkins Road-to-Picardy Avenue connector estimated at $40 million. Raiford said a new pumping station and a pair of bridges are being built before construction of a railroad underpass and the road itself, which essentially will connect Perkins Rowe with the Mall of Louisiana by early 2023.

That new rail underpass is critically important, he said, because MovEBR then will undertake the widening of Bluebonnet Boulevard to six lanes from Perkins Road to Picardy Avenue, in a project that will snarl traffic on that route’s rail underpass.

A third new rail underpass will be built on One Perkins Place—the dogleg extension of Hennessy Boulevard from Our Lady of the Lake. The Health District’s infrastructure plan not only prioritized more efficient movement of general traffic, but also identified swifter movement of emergency-response vehicles to hospitals as an ultimate priority. In consultation with DOTD, Raiford said state officials gauged an Essen Lane rail overpass or underpass as cost-prohibitive when that route was widened, but the availability of three rail underpasses nearby should foster much better traffic flow.

“We’re trying to provide multiple means to get to the facilities if you’re on the west side of the track,” Raiford said.

Other road projects in the Health District will include a new four-lane connector, dubbed Midway Boulevard, from Constantin Boulevard to Picardy Avenue at Baton Rouge General. That project could begin in 2022.

Ochsner’s $100 million Grove location; Our Lady of the Lake’s $230 million Children’s Hospital; an upcoming $28 million Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University anchor building; Baton Rouge General’s $50 million Center for Health and Critical Care Tower; a $19 million Breast and GYN Cancer Pavilion developed by Woman’s Hospital and Mary Bird Perkins-Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center; and establishment of the nation’s premier Bariatric & Metabolic Institute at Pennington Biomedical are recent projects demonstrating the demand for better infrastructure in a district that cares for more than 1 million patients annually.

“That’s the level of market response we anticipate,” Cabaniss said of the private development.

An underappreciated component of the Health District’s infrastructure—but one rising in importance with worsening rain events—is drainage. Raiford said conservation of 140 acres of the Ward Creek watershed that bisects the Health District, along with upstream drainage improvements, represents a $30 million FEMA-funded effort to mitigate flood hazards.

Part of a much larger parishwide stormwater plan, the Ward Creek project could include about two dozen retaining structures built to capture and release water as drainage structures can handle the flow. Dawson Creek, which crosses Staring Lane and Bluebonnet Boulevard on the lower end of the district, also will be part of the project.

“It’s a component we wanted to look at extensively,” Raiford said of flood mitigation, and one that by late 2024 or early 2025 will be complemented by automated barriers closing all three rail underpasses to traffic in the event of flooding.

Healthy trails

Ceulemans lists a partnership with BREC, the parish recreation authority, as one of the most important infrastructure initiatives. BREC Greenways is developing a 10-mile loop spanning the Health District along Ward and Dawson creeks and stretching from Pennington Biomedical to Siegen and Pecue lanes. With four miles already open, completion of the Health Loop trails will entail about $7 million in additional land acquisition and construction costs through 2024, said Whitney Hoffman Sayal, BREC’s assistant director of urban trails.

Included in the Health Loop plans are pending property donations of 5 acres on Dawson Creek, near Staring Lane, where an urban oasis is envisioned.

“It may be more naturalistic and ecological, with offshoot trails and foot-paths, a spot for interpretation and bird watching, and a place for respite,” said BREC Assistant Superintendent Reed Richard.

BREC, the Health District and health care providers also are focused on recreation at the 440-acre Burden Museum & Gardens at the opposite end of Essen Lane. In 1905, the year Fiddler on the Roof villagers sang about tradition in Anatevka, William Pike Burden Sr. consolidated ownership of the Burden site, then 600 acres, for $5 an acre.

Today, it’s among Baton Rouge’s greatest green assets and greets visitors at the gateway of the multibillion-dollar Health District.

Surveys consistently rank trails as BREC’s No. 1 recreational demand, while the Health District’s master plan recognizes that behaviors and the environment are responsible for 70% of health outcomes. Burden bulwarks both concerns.

Jeff Kuehny, who directs the LSU AgCenter Botanic Gardens at Burden, said a continuing conversation with BREC and the Health District is yielding great fruit: Engineering firm Stantec is designing a solution for the Health Loop to cross under Essen Lane and connect with the 440-acre Burden site; discussions are underway with Our Lady of the Lake and Mary Bird Perkins about other potential connections across Ward Creek; and Burden is completing its own master plan with Suzanne Turner Associates that will lead to a new $5 million welcome center and will enhance visitation for a green space that now welcomes over 100,000 people a year.

“It’s great that we finally are embracing our watershed,” Kuehny said. “For many years, we didn’t turn our back, but we kind of ignored it. We’ve got the opportunity now, with some of the stormwater issues that we’re experiencing, to use that connectivity and continue to educate our city about how we’re going to have to live with our stormwater.”

The Health District’s infrastructure committee, led by Mary Bird Perkins CEO Todd Stevens, continues to meet regularly and to mesh initiatives—from branding to roads to drainage to workforce—that ultimately can secure the Health District’s standing as a noted destination for care, careers and lifestyle.

“I think that’s where our infrastructure plan has especially done a good job of mapping what is there and what is the most practical growth,” Ceulemans said.

The Health District’s success can mean exponentially more for Baton Rouge, said Kuehny, who cites an example in the Greenway trails: Health Loop patrons could connect to Pennington Biomedical and Perkins Road Community Park, continue to the lakes at LSU and City Park, connect to the Mississippi River levee at LSU or downtown, then arrive on The Bluffs at Southern University along a fully realized path.

“At some point in time, we will have connectivity on walking and bike paths as good as other cities like Houston and Denver and Atlanta,” Kuehny said.

Now that’s a tradition worth fighting for.