Monday, February 22, 2010

Baton Rouge also Planning for Greenways and Inspired by Houston's Buffalo Bayou

Right after posting a link to Buffalo Bayou's master plan, here's an article from Today's on how Baton Rouge is using it as an inspiration for connecting diverse destinations in their city with greenways and bike paths.

Connecting the City

Advocate business writer
Published: Feb 21, 2010
(click here for orignal)

"When planners, consultants and city officials put together the second phase of Plan Baton Rouge last year, goals included finding a way to link an increasingly lively downtown with neighborhoods to the south, east and north and creating more recreational space.

But it was an article in Landscape Architecture magazine last year that gave Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District, the idea he thinks could do both at once: a roughly three-mile “greenway” of bicycle and walking paths that would run from City Park, through Old South Baton Rouge, under the interstate and north to Memorial Park.

Rhorer had recently floated the idea of using sculptures and enhanced lighting to improve the area under the Interstate 110 overpass, which makes up the western boundary of downtown.

Overpasses are among the most challenging structures for new urbanist planning. They’re harsh, loud, concrete barriers that form a visual and aesthetic wall in the public mind. They are divisive and often avoided by people.

But on the city’s canvass workshop trip to Richmond, Va., in early 2009, Rhorer had seen what the city had done with lighting and sculptures under one of its major overpasses.

“They made a very negative space into a very positive space,” he said. “Around here, people perceive under the interstate as a very negative space.”

And on a trip up to Montreal, Rhorer noticed that the entrances to the city were often marked by sculptures, not signs.

He thought: “You know we need something more than just a ‘Welcome to Downtown’ sign … something more substantial.”

But it was a December profile in Landscape Architecture on Buffalo Bayou, a 15-year project in Houston, that got Rhorer to think about the greenway. Buffalo Bayou enhances 10 square miles of flooding wetlands, part of which cuts through the northern portion of downtown Houston.

Rhorer began to think about how the area under the interstate could be incorporated into a larger trail that could provide the kinds of connections to areas outside of downtown that planners were looking for.

So he and three colleagues at the DDD — Jake Holinga, James Andermann and Gabe Vicknair — set out on bicycles on a December afternoon to find out whether it could.

They started at City Park and headed down Louise Street, past Brooks Park and McKinley Middle Magnet School before turning north under the interstate. Passing through Beauregard Town and along Expressway Park (underneath where I-10 and I-110 meet), they headed west on North Boulevard into the central business district before turning left on Seventh Street. That brought them into Spanish Town to Arsenal Park and the Capitol Park complex and then took them along the Capitol Access Road to Memorial Stadium.

“I wanted to see if we physically could do it,” he said, “and, lo and behold, we could.”

Rhorer said two things struck him along the ride. The first was that the route links six BREC parks and a number of other green public spaces, including the State Capitol and Arsenal Park.

And the South and North boulevard corridors would connect the route to the bike path along the Mississippi River levee and the planned Town Square on North Boulevard, which should be completed next year.

What will be key, Rhorer said, is that the trail would need to connect to places where there are things to do. He noted that BREC is starting a public planning process to overhaul the 40-acre park around Memorial Stadium.

And spots along the route could include active elements, such as skate parks or basketball courts as well as passive ones like benches, lighting, greenery and sculpture.

“I wanted something that could have daily and weekend use,” he said.

The second thing Rhorer noticed is how the route links parts of Baton Rouge that people don’t often think of as being very connected.

“What people don’t realize is this Greenway is a total of 2.7 miles that connects communities together that you don’t think are that close, but they are.”

In addition to the parks, Rhorer pointed to residential developments and initiatives all along the route, from a condo development in Old South at Highland Road and Oklahoma Street, to the city-parish redevelopment authority’s nascent planning efforts in the Northdale and Standard Heights communities.

The Greenway, he said, could help make new development in the adjacent neighborhoods more attractive for developers, businesses and residents.

“This is important for who we are and getting more people to live together,” he said.

The DDD has gotten support for the concept from Mayor Kip Holden. BREC supports the idea as well.

“As a concept, we think it’s a good idea,” said BREC Superintendent Bill Palmer. “Anytime you can connect the parks and destinations together and allow people to access those sites without a vehicle, by walking or bicycles … that’s what many in our community have been telling us to do.”

Rhorer, Holinga and Andermann visited Houston for two days earlier this month to see Buffalo Bayou, bike its trails and talk to Ann Olson, president of the Buffalo Bayou partnership, about the city’s 15-year effort to create it.

The Buffalo Bayou project is far larger than the proposed Greenway for Baton Rouge. And one obvious difference is that the DDD’s idea doesn’t center on a waterway and acres of flooding wetlands.

But the part of the Buffalo Bayou project that attracts a lot of attention — and design awards — is the portion that runs under about a dozen different highways.

The Sabine Promenade is lined with bike paths and walking trails, is heavily landscaped and lit with lights that change from white to blue depending on the phases of the moon.

“What was really a problem for us is that Buffalo Bayou is below grade and under a lot of freeways, especially downtown, so visibility has been a big part of what we tried to address,” Olson said.

Olson said the project has won 12 local, state and international design awards.

“One of the things they (award judges) said is it shows how parks can be developed in very difficult locales,” she said. “They saw that it was pretty much an achievement that we could build something aesthetically pleasing under all these highways.”

The promenade portion cost $12 million, though it was originally budgeted at $15 million. It included $3 million raised privately by the partnership, plus state transportation funds, money from the city and the flood control district.

She said the lighting, which cost $500,000, was intended not only for its aesthetic beauty but to help make people feel safe; the promenade’s design created long sight lines for the same reason.

“The landscape designer,” she said, “wanted people to feel safe.”

Now, she said, residents of a nearby loft development use the trail to walk to work, and nearby theaters generate use of the paths at night.

Olson stressed the importance of public/private and inter-agency partnerships, master planning with public input and a lot of patience.

“This kind of work takes a really, really long time,” she said. “It doesn’t happen overnight, you have to be very patient, very persistent.”

Rhorer said the Greenway here may have to be done in segments, and that it could take years to complete. He noted, though. that much of the route is already publicly owned and the DDD’s experience with the its Wayfinding Signage program downtown was that there wasn’t a lot of difficulty getting rights of way.

Possible funding sources at this point are up in the air, but downtown projects have been successful in the past at pulling in funding from local, state and federal sources. Rhorer said private donations could also be solicited.

The cost, he said, would depend heavily on what kind of amenities the community decides it wants. A modest trail could be a couple million dollars; something more ambitious could cost far more.

The DDD recently took about $5,000 from planning funds under the Visitors Amenity Plan and hired ABMB Engineers to do an engineering assessment of the route, looking at what changes may need to be made along the path, what specifically would be the best route and where the project could be broken into segments.

Rhorer said he sees no reason why work couldn’t begin in the next two or three years."


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