Note: This is the second in a series of articles on city redevelopments in Louisiana. Read this article for specifics on Lake Charles and then read this article covering the recent updates to Hammond, La’s bustling downtown area.
On a warm Friday evening, the outdoor tables at 1910 Restaurant and Wine Bar in downtown Lake Charles are filled with chatting patrons. They’ve just come from the Downtown at Sundown outdoor concert series around the corner, where live performers play in a street fair format on spring weekends. Now it’s time to enjoy some craft cocktails, modern Southern cuisine and good conversation at Restaurant 1910, a hip eatery situated in the historic Phoenix Building, also home to several thriving businesses.
Up and down Ryan Street, downtown Lake Charles’s main thoroughfare, hundreds of residents are milling about well into the evening, visiting artists booths and table-top galleries and catching up with friends, old and new. The energy in downtown Lake Charles these days is electric.
“Historically, the downtown has been the hub of parish government, many law practices and other ancillary business, but in the last 20 years or so, it has seen significant private investment,” says Lori Marinovich, executive director of the city’s Downtown Development Authority. “This, along with public policy changes and new special events, has really helped it transform.”
The story of Lake Charles’s downtown tracks with that of similar cities nationwide. Once home to mom and pop businesses, downtown Lake Charles experienced disinvestment after the interstate expanded in the area. Throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties, more residents relocated from the urban core to suburban areas to live, work and play.
In the early 2000s, however, key business leaders decided to reinvest in downtown Lake Charles, bringing back anchor properties that could serve as catalysts for additional investment. The Phoenix Building, home not just to 1910 Restaurant but also to more than a dozen other businesses, was one of many projects completed by businessman Oliver G. “Rick” Richard.
Richard’s Empire of the Seed company has spearheaded numerous development projects, including the restoration of the Noble Building on Ryan Street, now home to the modern Italian restaurant, The Villa. Another project is the former Calcasieu Marine National Bank, originally built in 1928 and restored as a stunning event facility for weddings, parties and special occasions.
Building on an already strong presence of government buildings, the City of Lake Charles also invested in a new transit hub downtown for public buses, as well as a new city court building.
“There’s been a concerted effort for Calcasieu Parish government to be centralized in downtown,” says Marinovich. “It makes it very convenient for anyone who needs to interface with the public sector to be able to come to one place.”
Public policy changes, including the use of the federal Historic Tax Credit (HTC) and the state’s Restoration Tax Abatement Program (RTA), have also helped incentivize responsible development and inspire projects that develop downtown in a meaningful manner.
“We had vacant buildings, and with developers being able to improve their facades, it led to attracting a very favorable tenant mix,” says Marinovich. “And as one property owner accomplished significant projects, it has inspired others to do the same.”
In addition to new retail and commerce, downtown Lake Charles also has new housing stock. The historic 1913 Muller Building, which held Muller’s Department Store, is now home to 42 lofts. Another $42 million project is underway that will soon bring 272 apartments to Lake Charles residents, guaranteeing a flurry of young professionals will move to the area.
In addition, Ryan Street has experienced significant streetscape improvements, including traffic calming measures, new lighting and banners, which create a more robust experience for visitors and residents.
“There has been a lot of cross pollination including beneficial public programs and new investment,” says Marinovich. “That’s exactly what it takes to restore a downtown.”
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