Along with assuming leadership of all things New Orleans when she takes office on May 7, Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell will come under pressure to address the looming issue of several large, blighted properties whose condition has hampered economic progress in surrounding neighborhoods.
Solutions for some city-owned properties that have stood vacant and deteriorating since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005 are still wanting, and Cantrell will also be expected to help get some privately owned properties on track toward redevelopment.
The good news for Cantrell is that the local real estate market is looking more robust than it has in decades, and that strength could bode well for certain projects.
For instance, plans to renovate the long-blighted Loew's State Palace Theater on Canal Street have been on hold for years, which city officials have blamed for stalling broader development in that area. But the building's owners just last week filed plans to demolish part of the structure and put up a nine-story hotel.
Officials are likewise hopeful about one of the most prominent unused properties in the city: Charity Hospital.
"I don't think we're going to find a better time to revitalize Charity Hospital and its neighborhood," real estate developer James "Jimmy" Maurin said, referring to the 20-story, 1 million-square-foot structure that has stood vacant since Katrina.
The founder and former chairman of Stirling Properties Inc., Maurin chairs an LSU foundation that helped bring a national urban think tank to New Orleans to study the future of the state-owned Charity building.
The Urban Land Institute panel released its report on the Charity complex in February, and on April 16 the LSU Real Estate and Facilities Foundation issued a formal request that developers interested in tackling the "creative revitalization" of Charity submit their qualifications.
Maurin expects LSU will follow up with a request for proposals from qualified developers in June, and preliminary redevelopment steps could begin fairly soon thereafter.
"The private real estate market is very good right now and developers have good access to money," Maurin said. "Just look at all the (construction underway) in the Warehouse District and downtown. And development has been moving from there up toward the medical district."
LSU's involvement in the process reflects a strong feeling in the local medical community, including the LSU Health Sciences Center, Tulane Medical Center and others, that if the huge investments made in the new University Medical Center and adjacent Veterans Affairs Medical Center are to pay off, the medical district that reaches from Mid-City to the Central Business District needs more services and amenities to support it.
Noting that thousands of people work in the hospitals and medical offices within the district, Maurin said key things lacking in the immediate area are housing and restaurants, and he hopes that redevelopment plans for Charity and its neighborhood will incorporate both.
"Whatever you do with Charity needs to be complementary to the medical district," Maurin said.
The Urban Land Institute recommended mixed uses for Charity, and its suggestions were broad, including the possibility that the city's municipal offices and civil courts could be housed there — an idea previously touted by Mayor Mitch Landrieu that failed to catch fire.
Other potential uses the institute panel identified included education and workforce training; retail and neighborhood services; technology development and research; and workforce housing.
The cost estimates for various scenarios included in the report range upward of $260 million, and all would make use of federal and state historic rehabilitation tax credits.
Road to redevelopment
While progress on Charity and a number of other blighted sites has been slow or nonexistent, some observers note that in the years immediately after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was so consumed with recovery that it was difficult to focus on visionary new developments.
It fell to Landrieu to put the recovery years and the public corruption trial of his predecessor, Ray Nagin, in the city's rearview mirror, and real estate sources say that, with help from a much-improved private investing climate, the effort largely succeeded.
"The city has made incredible strides in the last six to eight years," said Rich Stone, a senior sales associate with NAI/Latter & Blum, pointing to a plethora of new residential and commercial construction in and around the Central Business District. "The whole downtown area is in a much better state now," he said, adding that the progress has extended beyond the city's business core.
Construction of the big new University Medical Center and VA hospital in Mid-City would have seemed a pipedream before Katrina, but with a huge injection of federal dollars and cooperation among the state, the LSU Health Sciences Center, the city and other entities, a new medical services hub arose, generating ripples of new business in the surrounding area.
A new attempt to redevelop the former Charity Hospital building in New Orleans is moving a step closer to reality as officials seek firms inte…
Elsewhere, Landrieu spearheaded the biggest local construction project in a half-century, the revamp of Louis Armstrong International Airport. Construction of a new 35-gate terminal is under way on the north side of the airport, and the nearly $1 billion project is slated to open early next year.
Meanwhile, the city recently concluded a major property swap with the Port of New Orleans that gave the port control of the Public Belt Railroad while the city took over the river cargo wharves at Gov. Nicholls Street and Esplanade Avenue. The deal has opened the way for redevelopment projects that will greatly increase public access to the riverfront.
New Orleans also has made substantial progress in revamping its aging public housing and stimulating new commercial activity along corridors including Freret Street, Oak Street and Carrollton Avenue.
More recently, the city saw the end of two years of litigation over the proposed redevelopment of the former World Trade Center. Landrieu finally was able to sign a long-term agreement with developers who will convert the 33-story 1960s office building into a Four Seasons Hotel and luxury condominiums. The developers say the $400 million project, expected to open in 2020, will become a centerpiece of the downtown riverfront while generating some $10 million annually in tax revenue.
Since 2010, the city has completed some 200 capital projects, such as streets, with a total investment of $350 million and set in motion nearly $400 million of additional projects slated for completion in the next three years, according to information from Landrieu's office.
While the city prevailed over many challenges of the Katrina recovery, some projects have stubbornly resisted progress. The Municipal Auditorium, for instance, still awaits an environmental cleanup and stabilization as the city negotiates for receipt of federal funds designated for the purpose. Redevelopment proposals can't be sought until this work is complete.
And the long-running challenge of what to do with the former Six Flags New Orleans theme park in eastern New Orleans continues. A giant rollercoaster and many other rides still stand, rusting, in the 140-acre park, and though proposals for redevelopment have occasionally surfaced, no viable plan has emerged.
Real estate analyst Wade Ragas said the site is riddled with challenges. "For one thing, the market here is already blessed with lots of tourism-related activity, and that site is not close to where the tourists are," he said.
In addition, whoever attempts to develop the site will have to remove all of the equipment that stands there. That could cost at least $1 million, by some estimates.
"The site has a wealth of issues, including that its location has not historically been identified with any successful recreation project," Ragas said.
Eastern New Orleans is also home to another property that has challenged several mayors — the site of the former Lake Forest Plaza shopping center. The mall had fallen on hard times even before Katrina nearly finished it off. Now owned by a group headed by Ashton Ryan, the former CEO of the failed First NBC Bank, much of the tract remains empty and fenced-off following the 2007 demolition of the buildings.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration has not been able to find anyone to redevelop the site of the old Six Flags amusement park in New Orlean…
A new Lowe's Home Improvement store now occupies about 12 acres of the site, and attorney Stephen Dwyer, who represents the owners, said they are working with "a very distinguished" developer to create a plan for bringing the rest of the tract back to life, but no agreements have been signed.
"The site is in a great location if we could get job growth going east of the Industrial Canal," Ragas said.
He noted that recent steps by the Port of New Orleans to expand container cargo-handling into St. Bernard Parish bode well for new jobs and increased demand for services in eastern New Orleans. "It's imperative that the new mayor stay the course and cheer on the port for going into St. Bernard Parish," he said.
Cantrell, who has largely reserved comment on specific redevelopment efforts, may begin weighing in on them after she takes office. Many privately owned sites that have been targeted for redevelopment certainly will seek support from the city in the form of tax and economic development incentives that could help defray their project costs, and it appears that Cantrell understands that need.
Mason Harrison, a spokesman for Cantrell, said stimulating development activity and business growth are priorities of the new mayor.
"A great deal of opportunity exists in returning vacant buildings to commerce, generating tax revenue," he said. "Businesses, however, must be offered the kinds of incentives that will make that possible, and the mayor-elect believes that we are losing to other parishes on that front."
An example may lie just across the river, in Jefferson Parish, where the former Avondale Shipyard site could eventually become home to a major intermodal cargo terminal.
The property has languished since the shipyard closed in 2014, but parish officials continued to work with a private company that now is under contract to buy the site. A final deal is not done, but if one is concluded, a substantial number of new jobs could result.