Perking Up Retail In Baton Rouge
With the first building topped off, local developer JTS Interests is less than 2 years away from unveiling Perkins Rowe, the most exciting, one-of-a-kind mixed-use project ever to hit Louisiana’s state capital.
Katie Foxworth

The heart of Perkins Rowe, located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, will be centered around the movie theater and town square.
Cruising toward Interstate 10 on Bluebonnet Boulevard, one of the key retail corridors in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, you see strip center after strip center, the landscape dotted with gas stations, grocery stores and apartments, nothing out of the ordinary for the suburbs. But what comes next — the major intersection of Bluebonnet and Perkins Road — commands your attention. Should you glance left, you’ll see CC’s Coffeehouse, a popular hangout for Louisiana State University students. But, to your right, rising six stories out of the ground, is the sturdy backbone of a building centered on a vast expanse of cleared land. Activity bustles, dirt moves, the hard hats are on. It’s in the air: something special is being created here.

It’s about time, too. Promising to provide a much needed central live/ work/play destination for the city of Baton Rouge when it opens in fall 2005, Perkins Rowe is the 1.7 million-square-foot brainchild of Tommy Spinosa, president of Baton Rouge-based JTS Interests. Taking what he learned in 1996 from integrating retail and office at CitiPlace (Baton Rouge’s first mixed-use center) and expanding on it, Spinosa enlisted a stellar team of collaborators — Baltimore-based Development Design Group; Coconut Grove, Florida-based Retail Estate; and Denver-based Milesbrand, among others — to conceive an entire small town complete with a town square, mid-rise condominiums, offices, movie theaters, new-to-market restaurants, both lifestyle and necessity retail, health clubs, spas, a hotel and a premier medical facility. It’s everything one could possibly want or need, all at one’s fingertips or within easy walking distance.

And to think, the entire project was born largely by accident.

In 1975, former property owner Jimmy Swaggert re-zoned his parcel to A5, which provided higher residential density at 88 units to the acre. He planned to construct high-rise student dormitories on the site, but the plans fell through. The special zoning, however, remained. Years later, the city of Baton Rouge phased out A5 and other specific zoning categories and implemented Planned Unit Developments instead, which requires municipal involvement in any future high-density developments.

When Spinosa bought the site, he inherited this special zoning. “Two things make this project work: this residential zoning and the fact that it is on the best vacant retail parcel in East Baton Rouge Parish,” Spinosa says. “Those two combinations made it a killer site.”

Perhaps equally important, Spinosa doesn’t foresee being one-upped by a similar project on the next street corner, either. That’s because the site, already boxed in by retail, is almost like an urban infill or redevelopment location. It’s not a mixed-use urban village built out in the middle of nowhere, hoping that people will drive 2 hours out of town to get to it. Perkins Rowe will be located right in the middle of town, on a hard commercial corner, with the added benefit of being only a half-mile down the street from Jim Wilson & Associates’ Mall of Louisiana, a true destination location in its own right.

“The location [of Perkins Rowe] speaks for itself,” Spinosa says. “The demand’s there; we didn’t have to create it. It would have been retail, whether I did it or somebody else. It’s a huge infill site, that’s all it is.”

Clay Peterson, director of acquisitions and development with JTS Interests, says it’s virtually impossible to achieve this level of property type mix and density under any circumstances, anywhere. “This project is unique by anybody’s standards across the country,” he says. “We visited a lot of similar projects and rarely do you find one that sits on a hard commercial corner and allows you to inject so much residential into what’s already the best commercial corner in the city.”

Retail: Bringing It All Together

The development team views Perkins Rowe’s proximity to The Mall of Louisiana as a plus, not a negative, in terms of retail tenancy. For it’s unlikely that people will drive to visit the mall and not also visit Perkins Rowe, and vice versa. Tad Templeton, a partner with Retail Estate, the exclusive retail leasing agent for Perkins Rowe, predicts customers will come and make a day of it at both destinations.

“Because [The Mall of Louisiana] is truly a regional mall, people come from all over and it’s an event,” he says. “The Perkins Rowe experience is now going to be part of that.”

Peterson agrees that the two centers complement each other well, from targeting the same demographics to diversifying customers’ selection of retailers. “We’ve got a very good demographic here, given that Baton Rouge is a college town and the state capital,” he says. “There are some high income demographics — $88,000 annual household income in the immediate trade area — and the vast majority is college educated professionals. We’re sitting right where you’d want to be.”

Perkins Rowe will be a small town complete with a town square, mid-rise condominiums, offices, movie theaters, new-to-market restaurants, both lifestyle and necessity retail, health clubs, spas, a hotel and a premier medical facility.
From a retail diversity standpoint, The Mall of Louisiana is a blessing in disguise. With radius restrictions on many of the mall’s tenants preventing entry into second locations at Perkins Rowe, this same barrier has allowed Retail Estate to approach different retailers and restaurants, as well as smaller local operators.

“We’re not going to have the same old, same old,” Templeton says. “There are tremendous local and regional retailers in Atlanta, Birmingham, Dallas, Houston and New Orleans that we are talking to — and those are the kind of tenants that makes this place special. If you take X percentage of a project and dedicate it to local and regional tenants, that’s really what differentiates yourself. Why replicate what’s already existing down the street?”

Retail Estate has garnered letters of intent from some of the highest quality national and local tenants, and is in lease negotiations with many others. Three restaurants, all new to the market, have committed to the project. A gourmet epicurian market, also new to Baton Rouge, will help to anchor the necessity retail portion of the project, with a national drugstore and coffeehouse fronting Bluebonnet Boulevard. A 14-screen cinema also will help anchor the center.

Retail awnings will adorn the ground-level façades of the $40 million, 180,000-square-foot medical facility, which, as the first building to be erected at Perkins Rowe, has topped off at six floors and will house a two-story neurosurgical center and medical office space. The four main residential structures, which will be home to 800 condominiums, loft apartments and brownstones, also will offer street level retail.

“There’s been a real learning curve from when we first started doing these kinds of projects,” says Templeton, who has also leased similar live/work/play developments like CocoWalk in Coconut Grove, Florida; Destin Commons in Destin, Florida; and Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio. All three also involved the design genius of Development Design Group.

“Incorporating residential is one lesson we’ve learned,” Templeton continues. “People really do want to live in an environment like this. In the past, there may have been a gesture to put a few units in and see how it worked. Now, [residential] is a major component of this 1.7 million-square-foot project.”

Peterson notes, however, that it is the retail that serves as the glue to hold the other components together. “As much effort as we’re putting into the residential and office components, the retail component provides the foundation and the dynamic to make the whole concept work,” he says. “No question about it. When the retail’s plugged in, that’s what really makes the thing take a life of its own.”

Templeton agrees. “The retail portion’s only 400,000 square feet, yet it really becomes the signature for the whole project.”

While the retail portion is interspersed throughout the project, from occupying ground floors of the medical facility to wrapping around the base of the residential buildings, everything was designed specifically to provide continuity and a sense of belonging to each building involved. Even though the medical office building is modern-looking and uses a lot of glass, Spinosa didn’t want it to seem out of place or like it was part of a suburban office park. So ground floor retail with awnings was added to soften the building’s appearance and attract pedestrian activity. Each separate component of Perkins Rowe can stand on its own and survive, but the retail makes each component that much better.

If one stylistic element stands out among the rest at Perkins Rowe, it’s the beautiful wrought-iron balconies and columned porticos found on most of the buildings. Charlestonian verandas, elegant terraces à la New Orleans’ French Quarter — any charming phrase of the Old South used to describe it, Perkins Rowe has it. Again, the design is a direct nod to promoting pedestrian mingling, social gathering and the simple joy of being outdoors and basking in the bayou breezes of Baton Rouge.

“It’s going to have a lot of what I’ll call ‘New Orleans flavor,’” Spinosa says, “but I intentionally didn’t want it to be New Orleans-looking. It’s got a lot of the good side of New Orleans, though: the balconies, the high canopies, the big columns.”

The Local Connection

If everything about Perkins Rowe has a homey, inviting feel to it, it’s no accident. JTS Interests got its start developing residential when it was founded in 1978. After building 1,200 multifamily units between 1980 and 1986 when the Tax Act hit, JTS Interests spent the next several years, much like other developers in Louisiana and across the country, trying to weather the real estate depression as best it could.

“From 1986 to 1990, all we were doing was licking our wounds,” Spinosa says. “The economy here really didn’t turn around until about 1993.”

Teaming up with GE Commercial, JTS next decided to try its luck at office development. “Between 1990 and 1994, GE and JTS acquired a $65 million to $70 million portfolio of office buildings,” Spinosa says. “So we developed strong office experience. Over the years, we’d get a retail piece here and there, but CitiPlace [in 1996] was really our first entry into retail, and that worked out beyond our expectations.”

Not only does JTS Interests have across-the-board experience, it knows Baton Rouge like no other developer. “Talk about understanding the market,” Templeton says. “Tommy [Spinosa] is from here and is committed here. This isn’t somebody who’s blowing in here from Houston or Dallas or wherever. He has the sensitivity to do the right thing here; you just don’t see that in a lot of places.”

In 20 years, Templeton says he’s hard pressed to find comparable levels of commitment and vision from a developer. This, in turn, attracts retailers to the project. “The commitment level that Tommy has had from Day 1 gives the retailers the confidence to know that this project is going to happen and be incredibly successful,” he says. “There’s a lot to be said for somebody developing something that’s in their back yard.”

Templeton adds that, for retailers initially wary of locating in a so-called ‘secondary’ market like Baton Rouge, seeing the commitment of Spinosa and his team helps to assuage any doubts they may have. Now Baton Rouge is on the radar screen for many retailers, for this reason and because they are able to come in and dominate the entire market, not just chop up a few pieces of a much larger market. Baton Rouge is also a consistent, stable economy, not seeing the extreme highs or lows experienced in other parts of the country. It’s also a diverse economy, with the state government, Louisiana State University and a high presence of petrochemical, engineering and legal professionals.

Peterson says retailers can look to the success of CitiPlace if they need another reason to give Baton Rouge and, specifically, Perkins Rowe a try. “We know by virtue of developing CitiPlace that people here want this,” Peterson says. “This United Artists theater here runs some of their best numbers in the region, and this Barnes & Noble has seen escalating sales since the day it opened, which is atypical. Perkins Rowe is almost like a CitiPlace pulled in tighter, with a lot more thought put into the pedestrian-friendly aspects. We know from the success of CitiPlace that this is going to be a slam dunk, for sure.”

Spinosa is a self-professed doer, not a talker. He doesn’t mince words, and he’s reluctant to announce things before they happen. He does venture to make one prediction, however: “I’ve got a high level of comfort that this is something that’s going to turn out very well,” he says. “For the retailers, for the residents and for us as investors. We’re ready to go.”

And Baton Rouge is ready for it.

©2004 France Publications, Inc. Duplication or reproduction of this article not permitted without authorization from France Publications, Inc. For information on reprints of this article contact Barbara Sherer at (630) 554-6054.

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