Largely spared by Hurricane Katrina, metro Baton Rouge has seen its pre-storm population of 720,000 swell by an estimated 5% to 8% a year and a half after the catastrophic event wreaked havoc along the Gulf Coast. Suburbs like Livingston Parish were thriving prior to Katrina, but an influx of both refugees and businesses has helped kick off an unprecedented wave of mixed-use development throughout the metropolitan area.
Juban Crossing, the $750 million, 471-acre mixed-use community being built in Livingston Parish by local developer Creekstone Cos., is but one example. Its huge parcel is adjacent to a new interchange nearing completion on the busy Interstate 12 corridor. Last August, daily traffic counts at the site reached 119,683. Even prior to the storm, from 2000 to 2005, the population in Livingston Parish grew by almost 20% to 222,064 today, says Creekstone co-founder Stephen D. Keller.
Other developers also are racing to deliver new product to this market. In December, the combined city-parish planning commission gave the green light for Longwood Village, a 520-acre mixed-use community on Bluebonnet Boulevard, envisioned by Baton Rouge-based Wampold Cos.
At the same time, local developer Robert Day announced plans to build an 800-acre project on I-12, a main artery running through the heart of Baton Rouge, that could include two film studios as well as office, hotel, retail, residential and other uses.
All told, developers are working on at least a dozen new mixed-use projects in Baton Rouge, says Troy Bunch, planning commission director for the city-parish. Many more, he predicts, are headed for the market.
Some of the same dynamics that have made mixed-use popular elsewhere in the country, such as renewed interest in urban living, are fueling the trend. But in Baton Rouge, experts say several factors have provided extra impetus: population growth resulting from the storm, development incentives created by the federal Gulf Opportunity Zone Act of 2005, and a new mixed-use zoning category.
According to Loren C. Scott, a Baton Rouge-based consultant and former LSU economics professor, the permanent population influx pales by comparison to the 34% spike Baton Rouge experienced in the months after the storm, when 234,000 evacuees sought temporary shelter in the area. But the growth has driven up real estate prices and created waiting lists at apartments once plagued by vacancies. “Katrina certainly made the numbers look even better because it drove more people up here,” Scott says. “That is a real key to these mixed-use developments.”
Juban Crossing's first phase — a 1.4 million sq. ft. retail component that is a joint venture with Birmingham, Ala.-based developer Jim Wilson & Associates — will break ground in late summer with a spring 2008 grand opening.
“We feel like there is a definite [retail] void,” says Will Wilson, vice president of development for Jim Wilson & Associates. “Several retailers had called us and asked us to go down to Baton Rouge and find them something.”
Juban Crossing will be constructed over five to seven years and include 625 single-family homes, 524 multifamily units, 385,000 sq. ft. of medical and office space, as well as cinemas, an amphitheater and four hotels. Residential units will range in price from $200,000 to more than $1 million, Keller says.
If Juban Crossing ultimately thrives, according to Scott, its success may owe more to the high quality of Livingston Parish's school system than to population shifts caused by the hurricane.
Clearly, however, the horrendous storm has yielded a silver lining of sorts for Baton Rouge. “Whenever you have catastrophes like this — Katrina or Rita — if you look just on the outer edge of them, quite often there are areas that actually gain,” Scott says. “If you look at Hattiesburg [Miss.] and Mobile [Ala.], the same thing has happened. Their experience has been what I would call a ‘Baton Rouge Lite.’ ”