Plank Road Progress: Master plan to revive corridor is being implemented

Plank Road Progress: Master plan to revive corridor is being implemented


By Maggie Heyn Richardson
Last year, residents of Baton Rouge’s Plank Road corridor were invited to do something they’re rarely asked to do.


The inaugural project of the Plank Road master plan will be an $8 million building with apartments, a YWCA early learning center and headquarters for Build Baton Rouge. A BREC pocket park will be a block away, as will a Bus Rapid Transit stop. | Ren…
The inaugural project of the Plank Road master plan will be an $8 million building with apartments, a YWCA early learning center and headquarters for Build Baton Rouge. A BREC pocket park will be a block away, as will a Bus Rapid Transit stop. | Rendering courtesy of Build Baton Rouge

What if, asked planners, their neighborhood, long beleaguered by disinvestment, poverty and crime, was reimagined? What if it featured better housing, new businesses run by neighbors, attractive parks and improved public transportation? What if the cultural relevance of the area could be magnified, not overshadowed by urban decay? What if the goods and services that make life easier were close at hand? What if Plank Road became a place of opportunity?

Those dreams, recorded in the Plank Road Master Plan, have made steady progress this year, says Chris Tyson, president and CEO of Build Baton Rouge, the organization behind the effort.

Designs for the plan’s inaugural projects, a pocket park and an $8 million mixed-use development, are now underway. Meanwhile, a $45 million Bus Rapid Transit project is unfolding apace with the master plan, serving up a real shot at social change.

“Things are on track for the Plank Road plan,” says Tyson. “This is a year where a lot of intense planning and important raising of capital is happening.”

The Plank Road Master Plan focuses on a 4.3-mile stretch of Plank Road and is widely seen as a catalyst for economic development in North Baton Rouge.

The Plank Road Investment Corp., a community-based development organization, or CBDO, is the developer for the mixed-use project, located on Plank Road between Calumet and Oswego streets. Architects are at work on the design for the development, which includes 15 modern one-, two- or three-bedroom apartments—badly needed housing in an area short on affordable quality properties.

The site will also have an Early Head Start center run by the YWCA of Baton Rouge. Early Head Start provides free childcare for children from birth to age 3, as well as wrap-around services that help low-income parents struggling with work or to finish school.

A block away from the new development, which will also house the administrative offices of Build Baton Rouge, lies a future BRT stop, one of several planned for Plank Road. The new bus line will transport residents with improved comfort and efficiency.

“This is true transit-oriented development,” says Tyson.

Planning firm Asakura Robinson completed the Plank Road Master Plan late last year after Build Baton Rouge coordinated a series of community stakeholder meetings. For the last several months, Build Baton Rouge has led meaningful, behind-the-scenes progress on the plan’s inaugural projects.

FOUNDATION FACT: The Baton Rouge Area Foundation has supported redevelopment of disinvested areas for more than 25 years, including underwriting revival master plans for downtown Baton Rouge and Old South Baton Rouge. With city-parish government, we formed Build Baton Rouge, the redevelopment agency for the parish.

Along with the mixed-use development, the design for a pocket park is underway at Plank Road and Myrtlelawn Street. The vacant lot where the park will be installed is part of Build Baton Rouge’s land bank. Small-scale by nature, pocket parks are intended to bring passive green space to a neighborhood to improve property values and to provide a hub for community gathering. Tyson says LSU College of Design students have helped draft ideas for the space, while BREC is working on the scope of work required to transform it. BREC will maintain the park once it’s completed.

“This is an opportunity to take a vacant lot and turn it into something attractive along the corridor,” says Tyson. “It could feel like a plaza with public art, and host things like food trucks.”

Several blocks south of the pocket park lies the location for the mixed-use development. The ground floor will include the Early Head Start center, a key component in helping rebuild the neighborhood economy, says YWCA CEO Dianna Payton.

“For low-income families who are trying to work or go to school to better themselves, one of the biggest burdens is childcare,” says Payton. “The cost of childcare is like paying college tuition.”

The only Early Head Start provider in East Baton Rouge Parish, the YWCA currently has capacity across three sites for 174 children and 24 pregnant women. The new Plank Road site will add space for another 60 children—placing a badly needed dent in a waiting list that has swelled to 200.

Like other Early Head Start centers nationwide, the site will provide free childcare, a full-time nurse, a case manager, developmental disability services, parenting support and other services for young families, including free diapers and formula. It will also include a safe outdoor playground.

“I’m looking forward to creating a state-of-the-art, progressive center for children as part of a larger effort to revitalize Plank Road,” Payton says. “I think it’s going to bring a lot of energy and hope to the neighborhood.”

If childcare is a key component in helping neighborhood families build stability, so is transportation. The Plank Road Master Plan has been deliberately timed with the forthcoming BRT line, which will connect Plank Road to downtown Baton Rouge and LSU via Mid City and Nicholson Drive.

After years of planning and securing about $45 million in local and federal funding, the project entered a federal environmental study phase earlier this year. Capital Area Transit System CEO William Deville says the study has been completed for the 9-mile project, which will ultimately add nine BRT buses and nearly two dozen stops, including one located within walking distance of the mixed-use development at Plank and Calumet.

Deville expects the line to open in 2022. Designed for efficiency, BRT lines play an important role in building neighborhood economies. “These buses will have signal priority, and they offer modern, up-to-date amenities, electronic fares and protected crosswalks,” says Deville.

“The stops will have rideshare and bike-share partnerships, which have become very popular around town and are the new normal.”

A second mixed-use development planned for Plank Road and Mohican Street is intended to address another neighborhood impediment: food insecurity. The vision for the site is to include housing, a grocery store, pharmacy and food incubator for micro-entrepreneurs.

While planning for this project will come later, Tyson says the food incubator component was recently accepted into JP Morgan Chase’s Service Corps, a professional services volunteer group in which JP Morgan Chase employees help nonprofit partners on specific projects over a three-month period. The Service Corps will help create a business plan for the Plank Road food incubator, says Tyson.

Over the last several months, Build Baton Rouge has been working to attract and leverage the funds required to pull off the first projects, focusing first on the $8 million development at Plank and Calumet. Tyson is splicing together complex funding comprised of public and private streams, including city and state Community Development Block Grants, foundation grants, possible Opportunity Zone funding and others.

“It’s a challenge because it’s a true public finance project,” Tyson says. “There’s a lot of careful planning that goes into creating the capital stack.”

Build Baton Rouge also recently received a Wilson Foundation grant to fund additional research for establishing a community land trust, which would merge with the organization’s existing land bank to establish a mechanism for expanding neighborhood housing stock and home ownership.

“We see this as an opportunity to increase the capacity of the community,” says Tyson. “This project is not just about redevelopment, but empowerment.”

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