On a recent Wednesday evening, Kermit Ruffins was performing for a packed audience at Lafayette Square. A couple of blocks toward Loyola Avenue, Kristi Husher and Mike Winters were having an after-work drink at the CellarDoor on Lafayette Street. Reggae music pulsed in the background as patrons trickled into the chic, dimly lit lounge.
Husher and Winters are lawyers for Morris Bart, LLC, and Husher, originally from Bernice, Louisiana, came to New Orleans from Dallas this spring. Initially, she struggled to find an apartment. Winters came to the rescue, offering her a room in his apartment in the 900 block of Poydras Street.
“We did have mutual friends that are attorneys, but we did not know each other,” said Husher, 37. “I found out I got the job at Morris Bart’s office when I was still living in Dallas and working. It was a very stressful time, but he helped me out.”
Winters, who is single with three grown children, has lived in the building in the 900 block of Poydras for nearly five years.
“It’s a close-knit neighborhood, with easy access to everything,” said Winters.
The roommates could quickly walk to their office at 820 Baronne St. And it’s not uncommon for residents in the building to gather for a barbecue on the ninth floor, which boasts an outdoor pool area. After a long day at work, lawyers from the firm may stop at a nearby bar, like Walk-On’s Bistreaux & Bar, for a happy hour drink.
Winters, along with other downtown residents, receives special treatment when he frequents neighborhood restaurants.
“Even though (the restaurants) are slammed, if you walk in without a reservation, they’re going to squeeze you in,” he said.
With sleek restaurants, art galleries, retail shops and a full-service grocery store, the downtown area — especially the South Market District — is attracting renters and buyers. Residential buildings like The Paramount are satisfying the demand with high-end perks such as an art-filled lobby, espresso bar and concierge service.
Kurt Weigle, president and CEO of the Downtown Development District of New Orleans, does not see the influx in residents slowing down any time soon.
“As you create more amenities, this becomes an attractive place for people to live,” he said, noting that 98 percent of the residential units are occupied.
“What has happened with the strong demand is that rents have increased and the sales price of condominiums has increased,” he said. “As that happens, it becomes an even more attractive environment for developers.”
A new dynamic
Richard Campanella, a geographer and author with the Tulane School of Architecture, believes that the residential appeal in these neighborhoods began in the mid-1980s and is still growing today.
“In the case of the Warehouse District and the so-called South Market District (both neologisms, by the way, particularly the latter), I think it’s fair to say that developers started the trend in a ‘top down’ fashion, based on a confidence (not to mention support from the city) that downtown living would appeal to certain demographics, and they proved right,” he said in an email.
It’s a different dynamic than the much-discussed gentrification taking place in traditional residential neighborhoods, he noted.
“Contrast this with the sort of transformations ongoing in the lower neighborhoods over the past few years, which I would argue is more of a bottom-up phenomenon: young people, particularly newcomers, seeking historical and walkable neighborhoods, and developers responding by renovating old buildings to satisfy this demand.”
Although it seems as if the downtown area is most conducive to young professionals, the demographics are surprisingly diverse.
Along with young professionals, empty nesters and small families have moved into the collection of neighborhoods.
Weigle, who raised his daughter while living downtown, is working to meet the needs of these families. The DDD plans to construct high-quality parks, he said, along with dog-friendly areas, both important to families.
‘There was a huge boom’
That’s promising news for Martine Chaisson Linares, owner of the Martine Chaisson Gallery at 727 Camp St.
Linares and her husband live above the art gallery, beneath a space reserved for special events. The young couple has a son who is nearly a year old and a chow mix named Baxter.
Linares is originally from Destrehan, but moved into The Lengsfield Lofts in the Warehouse District in 2005.
“No one was here. It was pretty much empty,” she recalls. “There was no place to eat and no place to go. And, all of the sudden, there was a huge boom when Cochon opened.”
A few years later, Linares opened her gallery and moved into the same building. Her typical morning usually begins with coffee, possibly at HARO or Bittersweet Confections, and a stroll in Lafayette Square with her baby and dog. Linares, like Weigle, has noticed that there are indeed more mothers in the area. Years ago, she felt as if she was the only one.
A positive impact
The residential and commercial growth of the neighborhood has made a positive impact on her business.
“There’s much more traffic, especially now that the Riverwalk and Convention Center have been fixed,” said Linares, adding that pedestrians often stop by her gallery.
She believes the growth has come in the right way, without comprising the character and historical significance of the area.
“We shouldn’t have progress for the sake of progress,” she said.
Linares looks forward to seeing what the area will be like in 10 years, predicting that it will resemble New York City’s West Village. Regardless, she plans to witness the ongoing changes from her Camp Street home, even if a second baby comes along.
“We’re going to make it work,” she said. “We’re going to stay where we are.”
As for lawyer Husher, she found an apartment for herself and her two teacup Yorkies, Alex and Laci, in the new Paramount development in the South Market District.
“They have cool amenities, like a gym with a fitness class, and it’s convenient, since it’s right across from Rouses,” Husher said. “I like the newness of it.”