Gentrifying the Crescent City
by Darwin BondGraham
Monday, Aug. 07, 2006 at 8:41 AM
The post-Katrina cityscape is rapidly being reshaped by developers and real estate speculators in ways that favor affluent homebuyers, the tourist industry, and downtown property owners.
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The gentrification of downtown New Orleans isn’t strictly a post-hurricane Katrina phenomenon. Donald Trump’s high profile Trump International Hotel and Tower, a 67 story hotel/parking/retail space and condo mega-project had already been announced when the storm ravaged the city. Buildings like developer Tom Bauer’s 14 story luxury condominium tower facing Lafayette Square had already sold out its 49 capacious units to the “mostly 50ish crowd [of] judges and lawyers” who now call it home. By the time Katrina swept in the city was well into a period of change marked by the development of upscale condominiums and apartments in the CBD, warehouse district, French Quarter, and surrounding areas.
During the 1990s condos became hot property in the Warehouse and Central Business districts of New Orleans. Thousands of units were added by developers mostly by renovating older buildings into multi-unit low rises. Refill projects were also constructed on demolished lots. In the past 20 years the warehouse district alone added approximately 2000 condo units to the city’s housing stock. Most of these were built more recently.
Since August 2005 a spate of residential real estate projects have been announced or are in the planning phases for downtown New Orleans. Most are for condominiums or apartments. Many incorporate parking structures, hotels, retail space, event centers, or other tourist industry add-ons. And most will be priced at market rates, meaning they will sell to upper-income homebuyers. No major project has yet to be announced that will focus on creating low-income housing units. According to Greg Thomas of the Times-Picayune:
“About 2,200 new condo and apartment units in nine different projects have been proposed in downtown New Orleans. With the exception of the 400 that are part of the Trump International Hotel & Tower announced just days before Katrina hit, all the new units have been proposed since the hurricane. The wave of new high-rise proposals, developers say, could become one of the biggest housing trends in post-Katrina New Orleans. The projects promise to more than double the number of downtown high-rise residential units from 2,100 now to 4,300.”
Among the major post-Katrina downtown residential projects are:
Trump International Hotel & Tower New Orleans
Krauss Building apartment renovation
St. Louis Place or Nouveau Carre condo towers
Tracage condo tower
Woolworth Tower retail, condos, and parking
Felicity Place or The Residences at Felicity condo towers
Commerce & Girod Condo Tower
Poydras Home Apartments I & II
Plaza Tower or Crescent City Residences condo renovation
The One Hotel New Orleans
River Garden Senior Tower
River Garden Condominium Tower
Colonial Condominiums renovation
Audubon French Quarter Luxury Condominium renovation
La Belle Maison time shares and condos renovation
925 Common Street apartment renovation
American Bank Building apartment renovation
Saratoga Building apartment renovation
Thomas Bauer Development proposed condo tower
Texaco Building apartment renovations
(See map for location and other information regarding selected downtown developments)
Taken altogether these projects represent the gentrification of a large portion of central New Orleans. New and renovated housing for upper-income populations is being quickly added while affordable housing rots in disrepair, in both the downtown and city at large. Certain sets of projects within this larger pool constitute particular threats to specific low-income communities. The clearest example is the cluster of renovation and construction plans zeroing in on the Iberville public housing complex. Five major real-estate developments creating upper-income housing, parking, high-end retail space, and other intensified land uses have locked down upon the Iberville project like a vice.
To one side of the Iberville developer Tom Bauer has proposed building a 900 unit condo complex with 2500 parking spaces and retail shops. Bauer has not disclosed his plans in any detail, but he has also said nothing about creating affordable housing within this development if it wins approval by the City Council. The buildings would be constructed on the site of the former Winn-Dixie and the French Quarter RV Park. Adjacent to Bauer’s lot is the site of developer and hotelier Michael Valentino’s Basin Street Station, a refurbished visitor’s/cultural center that he hopes to use to funnel tourist fresh off the I-10 freeway to his hotels, or the hotels of competitors (for a fee of course). On the opposite side of the Ibverille three other major construction projects are already underway. Developer Elie Khoury’s KFK Group has purchased the former Krauss Department Store Building as well as the old Texaco building at 1501 Canal Street. He plans to renovate both into market rate apartments. Sitting in between Khoury’s two properties is the future home of the New Orleans BioInnovation Center, a biotechnology research and development campus.
As if this squeeze from three sides weren’t pressure enough on the Iberville community, Valentino has even begun to float the idea of redeveloping the Iberville projects into a mixed income community along the lines of the River Gardens. This isn’t the first time someone has proposed tearing down or seriously redeveloping the Iberville. In 2001 the owner of the Saints Football team proposed leveling the Iberville in order to build a new stadium for his team. He rationalized this as “economic development.” Christopher Tidmore of the Louisiana Weekly wrote of the proposal at the time that, “[t]ourism experts and advocates of downtown see the Iberville project as the one major stumbling block to restoring Canal to its status as the Crescent City's main street.”
Restoring Canal Street as New Orleans’ marquee boulevard is high on the list of many real estate capitalist in New Orleans. They also speak of revitalizing the Basin Street Corridor. The Iberville and Lafitte housing projects are key properties in this struggle over place. Over the years both have become extremely valuable real estate because of their proximity to the French Quarter and CBD. Developers currently see the Iberville and Lafitte projects as extremely costly properties. They fear that tourists and prospective tenants in the condos and office buildings they hope to build around the area will be scared away by the projects’ largely poor black residents. By acquiring the projects, by whatever means, and redeveloping them into “mixed-income” communities, condos, or whatever, not only do developers hope to make a nice profit, but to fit several of the final pieces of the downtown real estate puzzle into place. The payoff would be a manifold increase in property values and tourism profits. All of this rest upon the goal of purging the Iberville and Lafitte housing projects of their current population.
And Iberville and Lafitte are not alone in this game. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) decision to demolish 5000 total units of public housing contained in three other projects plus the Lafitte – St. Bernard, C.J. Peete, and B.W. Cooper – is part of a wider gentrification of the entire city. HUD secretary Alphonso Jackson has stated that HUD supports every resident’s right to return, but HUD policy will clearly not allow residents to exercise this right.
Many of the gentrifying developments being constructed downtown have been made possible with tax credits provided by the Gulf Opportunity Zone Act and increases in other federal subsidies. “historic tax credits now can cover 20 percent to 26 percent of a project's cost,” explains Greg Thomas of the Times-Picayune. “The amount of low-income housing tax credits available in the state also has leaped as a result of the GO Zone – to $65 million this year, up from $8.5 million a year ago. And low-interest loans and grants available to developers in the wake of Katrina are helping with financing.” The winning combination in this whole equation is that many of the properties eligible for historic tax credits are located in and around the downtown and few of them flooded severely in the storm. Damage to other sections of the city has created a market that is generally tighter and more focused on elevated areas.
As more and more major developments are announced and completed the coming months and years it will be increasingly clear how far gentrification will proceed downtown. It’s already apparent that areas like the Warehouse district, French Quarter, and much of the CBD will add or upgrade thousands of upper-income housing units. Whether or not the Iberville, Lafitte, Treme, and portions of the 9th Ward, Mid-City, and Central City that abut the rapidly capitalizing downtown will be redeveloped along these lines is an open question. But the trend is clear: the poor are being pushed out in favor of the rich.
Residents and activists aren’t sounding defeatist calls faced with this intensified post-Katrina push to rebuild a gentrified city. Groups like C3/Hands of Iberville and the Survivor’s Village have been opposing plans to demolish affordable housing, or to redevelop low-income housing into “mixed-income” communities. C3/Hands Off Iberville has been fighting this battle for several years now, succeeding in staving off past efforts to destroy the housing project of its namesake. But as the revved up real-estate market shows, the post-Katrina political landscape is presenting new threats to the working class communities (predominantly non-white) in downtown New Orleans.
A growing alliance between public housing residents, renters, and activists called the United Front for Affordable Housing organized a town hall meeting and potluck on August 3rd to discuss what the community would like to see for the future of the downtown cityscape. Invites went out to Mayor Nagin and members of the City Council, although only Nagin and Councilwoman Stacy Head chose to send representatives. Many of the residents spoke about the cutoff of basic services to their homes including gas, electricity, and water. Others complained about HANO demanding back rent for the months in which they were shut out of their homes. Still others talked about the need for HANO to reopen units in the Iberville, Lafitte, and other projects so that residents could clean up the properties themselves: it is generally understood among residents that the cleaning and rehabilitation of units could proceed exponentially faster if leaseholders were given the opportunity to work on the projects. So far HANO has chosen only to let contracts for cleaning services leaving many units to linger in disrepair.
But the biggest issue of all remains the future of the cityscape. Will the Iberville survive? Will the Lafitte reopen? Will HUD succeed in its plan to demolish Lafitte, St. Bernard, C.J. Peete, and B.W. Cooper? Residents and activists understand that powerful developers and city officials perceive these neighborhoods as enormous costs on the city because of the supposedly negative impact they have on the tourist industry and the willingness of upper-income, predominantly white populations to move into areas nearby lower-income black communities. Residents and activists also understand that many developers, financiers, hotel owners, and real-estate speculators stand to make an enormous profit, especially on downtown properties like the Iberville if they can successfully purge those who currently live there and renovate the sites into “mixed-income” housing.
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|This is the best thing that could happen to New Orleans
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