What if…

Editor’s note: In June developer Donnie Jarreau announced plans to redeploy the fire-damaged Perkins Road Hardware building into shops, restaurants and residential space. In a timely coincidence, Douglas Thompson recently completed an LSU master’s thesis in landscape architecture in which he proposed a bold re-invention of the space in and around the Perkins I-10 underpass. This is a summary of his findings.

The restaurants, bars, shops and other businesses in and around the Perkins Road underpass represent a unique and vibrant neighborhood, the kind of a multi-use development urban planners often dream of creating.

But this neighborhood’s character was not planned or engineered. Rather, it has developed organically, and in spite of being bisected by Interstate 10 and its entry and exit ramps, the railroad and the Perkins Road bridge.

The Perkins Road underpass area for years thrived with markets, a hardware store, a yoga center, a drug store, several hair salons and some dry cleaners. It has a thriving nightlife with several restaurants and bars that are local favorites. It’s the ending point of a Mardi Gras parade and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. More recently it has fostered an emerging art scene with art galleries and the recent addition of a small art festival. The underpass area is a point of destination and has tremendous potential as a cultural center for Baton Rouge. In short, like downtown, it’s one of the few places in the city where you can park your car then walk around for a fulfilling, interesting and diverse experience.

Yet the area remains a hodgepodge. The public space is haphazard, confusing and ill-connected. This, along with the barriers posed by the criss-crossing elevated roads, prevents the neighborhood from reaching its full potential. But with some careful, deliberate interventions, the neighborhood around the underpass could become a thriving cultural and activity center and a place of identity for the city.

Through my research, I identified some remedies to help resolve the connectivity problems and strengthen the area to make it an even more dynamic, satisfying and attractive place for both visitors and residents.

To begin with, despite the neighborhood’s accessibility to pedestrians, the actual places where people can walk aren’t clearly defined. In many areas the line between where cars can drive and people can walk is indistinguishable. This is not only confusing; it can be dangerous. Establishing defined walkways and spaces for pedestrians would improve safety and be a unifying element for the neighborhood. It also would open up opportunities for a lively street life in which neighbors and visitors could interact.

Along with clarifying the pedestrian spaces, improving their aesthetic treatment would help create a more attractive place for people to stroll and enjoy the outdoors in the city. Improvements that reflect the unique and eclectic character of the neighborhood could be designed, and they would help to further unify the neighborhood and strengthen its distinctive character.

Improving parking would strengthen the area’s connectivity. One of its strengths is the fact many businesses share parking, especially the spaces under the highway underpass and the Perkins Road bridge. By expanding upon this idea, parking areas could be further consolidated and moved away from major pedestrian areas. As a result, more unified public spaces could be developed, making it possible for new features such as outdoor cafes, street festivals and other outdoor events.

The most visible obstacle to connectivity is of course the underpass itself, where I-10 bridges over Perkins Road. It’s a dominant structure and creates a strong division between areas to its north and south.

It’s easy enough to cross under the bridge, but the noise, darkness and aesthetic of the space under the bridge are unpleasant and discouraging. Despite the problems posed by the bridge, it’s also a defining feature and is a part of the place’s identity. Solutions to problems the bridge creates should be found without hiding its identity or trying to alter what it is. Solutions can, however, redefine what it will be.

The space under the bridge could become a pleasant place that connects, rather than divides. For example, noise-reducing materials and clever design could enable creative reuse, such as places for art studios and living spaces for young artists. We could create pleasant, green spaces to absorb rainwater runoff that tend to collect under the bridge. The division between the east and westbound lanes could become a pleasant walkway, and the bridge’s shared parking area could be better defined and expanded.

By building on the inherent character of the underpass neighborhood and improving its connective spaces, we could create something defining and authentic to Baton Rouge. Cities throughout the country pay a lot of money to planners and designers to try and create such places that provide human scale and social identity. We have the foundation for this kind of place already—we simply need to recognize and build upon it.