While city touts grant, Melrose East business owners say neighborhood drives own improvements

While city touts grant, Melrose East business owners say neighborhood drives own improvements
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POSTED: Tuesday, November 26, 2013 - 6:00am

UPDATED: Tuesday, November 26, 2013 - 6:04am

Baton Rouge is getting money to provide a new look for Melrose East.

The city won a grant from the federal government to finish a redevelopment plan for the neighborhood. But some people in Melrose East think the grant will not change anything. Instead, they see progress coming from within.

"When I first got here," Carlos Vargas said Monday, "there was a bunch of trash back in the back, they had a lot of vandalism in this area."

Vargas has seen a lot of change in Melrose East since he opened Diagnostics and Transmission Specialists on Renoir Avenue eight years ago. A dangerous neighborhood is safer; rundown streets are more appealing.

Baton Rouge wants to continue redeveloping Melrose East, and Monday it announced the receipt of a $500,000 planning grant from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development do just that.

"We're not only transforming a physical site, but we're transforming a mental attitude towards how we're addressing problems in Baton Rouge," Mayor Kip Holden said at a press conference announcing the grant.

"When we looked at the neighborhood there, we saw assets," added Art Wells, director of HUD's New Orleans field office. "We recognized that the people a vision for the future. In addition, there's a great potential for economic activity. In short, the community should be defined by its potential, not its problems."

Baton Rouge was one of nine cities to receive the grant, out of 52 that applied. Melrose East was chosen based on criteria such as the poverty rate and the quality of nearby schools. The grant is to allow Baton Rouge to draft a plan to redevelop a 500-acre area bordered by Florida Boulevard, N. Lobdell Boulevard, Greenwell Springs Road, N. Foster Drive, Renoir Avenue, and N. Ardenwood Drive.

The area includes the proposed Ardendale development, which was announced in September. Plans for that mixed-use project include 1,000 housing units, retail businesses, a public school, and an auto-repair school.

"The revitalization of that area is crucial to our city," said Richard Murray, executive director of the East Baton Rouge Housing Authority.

While Vargas is glad to see the city fight for grant dollars to improve Melrose East, many people there say they are the ones making it better. The Melrose East Community Association, which was not aware of the grant until told by a reporter later Monday evening, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for added police protection and landscaping.

Vargas believes MECA's efforts have spilled over into the community at large.

"So you try to keep [your property] beautified, and then when people come by, if I do it, my neighbors do the same thing, too," he noted. "So everybody keeps their little area clean."

Among the examples he cited were the lines he painted for his parking lot and the fence he put up to hide from the street the cars he is fixing.

Voters in Melrose East recently approved a ten-year tax to fund a crime prevention district, so that everyone shares the expense of added police patrols. And with the help of MECA and Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis, they are taking care of abandoned cars and neglected property. Vargas claimed that property values and morale have both risen concurrently.

"Back then," he said of his first years in the neighborhood, "I wouldn't come back here at night. But now, you can drive through, pretty much, you don't have as many problems."

 

Baton Rouge has two years to present a finished plan for Melrose East to HUD in order to obtain a much larger implementation grant, but city leaders expect to have the plan completed before then.

One member of MECA, on the condition of anonymity, told NBC33 he doubts the grant will lead to change based on the East Baton Rouge Redevelopment Authority's history with the neighborhood. He said it has studied the area multiple times in the past, receiving similar grants, without ever acting on those plans.

Walter Monsour, President and CEO of the RDA, called the grant, "a great opportunity for East Baton Rouge Parish, that all of us have been involved in for such a long time. I would hope that that was part of the reason that HUD chose Baton Rouge and chose this particular project."

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