Housing isn’t enough

Housing isn’t enough


By Maggie Heyn Richardson
The 50-year-old Baton Rouge public housing development Ardenwood Village is slated to eventually be decommissioned, but what will replace it is unlike any other public housing experiment to date in the Capital City.

Ardenwood Village’s 93 families will move in phases into four newly built clusters of modern, mixed-income housing. The new Ardendale development will be interlaced with greenspaces and outlined in sidewalks. Children will play safely in outdoor “tot lots,” neighbors will enjoy a centrally located community park with a rain garden and a bikeshare station, and everyone will have access to free wireless.

Welcome to Baton Rouge’s first Choice Neighborhood, an experiment soon to be underway and funded by a $29.5 million award from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Baton Rouge was one of four cities to receive a highly competitive Choice Neighborhoods Grant last year, the planning for which began in 2013.

J. Daniels, EBR Housing Authority | Tim Mueller Photo
J. Daniels, EBR Housing Authority | Tim Mueller Photo

Choice grants are distinct in two ways. First, they relocate residents of aging public housing developments to new mixed-income developments that hold both market rate and affordable housing. Second, they require significant community investment to develop or expand human services programming in the surrounding neighborhood. In this case, that means an approximately 2-square-mile jigsaw swath bordered by Choctaw Drive, Lobdell Avenue, Ardenwood Drive, North Foster Drive and Florida Boulevard.

From a new early childcare center run by the YWCA, to community gardens run by the Walls Project’s Baton Roots program, to real estate investment opportunities facilitated by the East Baton Rouge Parish Housing Authority and Build Baton Rouge, a significant amount of energy is being aimed at the Ardendale area, which, along with Ardenwood Village includes the neighborhoods of Smiley Heights, Melrose East and East Fairfields.

“To really transform a community, you have to focus on building resiliency in families, and the Choice grants give us the best chance to do that,” says J. Daniels, CEO of the East Baton Rouge Parish Housing Authority, the Choice grant’s lead convener. “This is about so much more than housing.”

HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods Grants launched in 2010, part of national reckoning about how to break the generational poverty cycle in public housing. At their core, the Choice grants pay for updates to aging housing developments that need to be decommissioned.

But rather than raze old buildings and replace them with new public housing, the grants reassign families to affordable units within market rate developments. It’s an effective way to leverage ongoing private investment using public funds, says Daniels.

Meanwhile, community partners collaborate to spark neighborhood improvements in job acquisition, education, health, public safety and other quality-of-life measures. Baton Rouge was able to show $335.5 million in existing or planned projects in the target area to match the nearly $30 million in grant funds.

Daniels says HUD’s award will be distributed over four cost centers: People, $4 million; Housing, $20 million; Neighborhood, $3 million and Demolition, $2 million.

Within the next nine months, the Housing Authority will acquire a 25-acre parcel of land south of Ardenwood Village from Build Baton Rouge for Phase 1 of the project, which will see the construction of 172 mixed-income units. Forty of the 93 families currently living in Ardenwood Village will take residence here, while other units in the development will be rented at market rate.

“Having market rate housing allows for more private investment in the neighborhood,” says Daniels. “And you’ll see a lot of variation of housing types in the design including duplexes, quadruplexes and townhouses.”

Three additional phases will follow, each completed within a year of the last. Phase 2 will see the construction of a senior facility that will face Ardenwood Drive. Phase 3 includes a 95-unit building, and Phase 4, a 97-unit building. Each phase absorbs a portion of the remaining public housing families. Once all families have been moved, Ardenwood Village will be decommissioned and demolished.

The Atlanta-based Ascent Project is managing the human development arm of the project, a key component in helping the 93 Ardenwood Village families, 92% of which are led by African American female heads of household, find the services and opportunities they need to become self-sufficient.

Ascent Project staff will interview each family and help them set goals about where their lives need the most support.

Childcare, health care, educational opportunities and job training are all part of the compendium of resources being made available to Ardendale residents. For example, a new $11 million YWCA Early Head Start facility will be built on the east side of the development, a short distance from the Phase 1 development. It will offer free childcare for children from birth to three years old, and will include parenting classes, mental health and disability screening, and educational referrals for children who exhibit learning challenges.

An arts district is planned for Renoir Drive, led by the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge, Forward Arts and other arts organizations. Daniels says an application was recently submitted to the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism to designate the area a Louisiana Cultural District.

“We want to see this become a kind of Magazine Street,” Daniels says, “where you would have affordable studio spaces for artists along with community arts programming.”

Connectivity to the surrounding area is a major grant objective. A high percentage of the residents of Ardenwood Village and others in the neighborhood don’t have cars, so the project captures opportunities for multi-modal transportation, including a planned Bus Rapid Transit line for Florida Boulevard and a new two-lane road with sidewalks and bike paths connecting Ardenwood Drive and Lobdell Boulevard.

The .3- mile Ardenwood-Lobdell connector is part of the MovEBR program, a $3 million Complete Streets project that will connect the east and west sides of Ardendale, giving residents better access to assets like Melrose Elementary, Capitol Middle, the McKay Automotive Technology Center, Baton Rouge Community College, several charter schools, the Eden Park Library and many others.

The budget for the connector, as well as a wetlands mitigation study for the area it traverses, will be completed in the next few months. “Linking residents to neighborhood amenities is a big priority,” says Daniels. “This is part of how we will see transformational change in the area.”

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