Five years ago, as he drove down Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, Michael Grote saw a building that was “rotten and falling in on itself.” Fire had caused the roof on the abandoned structure to cave in.
He wanted to figure out how to save it.
“I really felt like, ‘Wow, this is a beautiful, beautiful building. What is going on with it? Why isn’t anybody doing anything with it?’ ” Grote said Monday. “You don’t get buildings like this back.”
On Monday, Grote, director of building programs for Alembic Community Development, stood in front of the same building as its final roof bracket was hoisted into place, one of the last pieces of major construction on the renovated site.
The building, the former Myrtle Banks School at 1307 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., will reopen in the fall as a grocery store, Jack & Jake’s Public Market, plus office space for small enterprises.
The three-story building was constructed in 1910 as McDonogh 38 School. It was renamed in the 1980s after Myrtle Banks, a civil rights activist and former principal of the school.
The school closed in 2002. A major fire in 2008 caused the building’s roof and third floor to collapse onto the second floor, leaving it unusable.
After the fire, “most people thought that this revered landmark might have seen the end of its story,” said Jonathan Leit, director of the New Orleans office of Alembic Community Development, a real estate development company that focuses on underserved neighborhoods.
Alembic acquired the property from the Orleans Parish School Board for $660,000 at a 2011 auction and began construction in 2013 with plans to convert the building into a mixed-use development.
Alembic said it chose the old school because of the opportunity to restore a historic building, promote economic development and increase access to fresh food in the Central City neighborhood and beyond.
“As much as anything, though, what we’re really hoping to accomplish here is to return this building to its place as a community anchor and a focal point for Central City and the city as a whole,” Leit said.
The renovation maintains many of the building’s original details. The McDonogh 38 name remains carved in the masonry on the exterior wall facing O.C. Haley. More than three-quarters of the original windows are intact. Inside, exposed duct work and brick walls give the space the look of a modern loft.
The grocery store will occupy the first two floors of the renovated building, or about 23,000 square feet. The remaining 9,300 square feet, on the third floor, will be used as office space for creative industries, nonprofits and small businesses.
Alembic partnered with the Eskew+Dumez+Ripple architectural firm and Gootee Construction on the project.
Major construction is expected to wrap up in about a month. The building then will be handed over to Jack & Jake’s to begin installing shelving and other equipment necessary for a grocery store.
The $17 million renovation is being funded through a mix of public and private dollars, including partially forgivable loans of $900,000 from the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority and $1 million from the city’s Fresh Food Retailer Initiative.
The project also received historic-renovation and new-market tax credits and investment from First NBC Bank and the Foundation for Louisiana.
The grocery will be operated by Jack & Jake’s, a New Orleans company that bills itself as a conduit for getting affordable fresh food to underserved communities. This will be the firm’s first retail location.
Founder and CEO John Burns said he plans to partner with farmers in Louisiana and Mississippi to stock the store with vegetables, meat, seafood and other goods.
Burns said the store will be “very reminiscent of the public markets that were so prominent here in New Orleans throughout the years.”
The store, named after two mules that worked the farm on which Burns’ father grew up, is expected to open in October.
The redevelopment project is another major step forward in the gradual redevelopment of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. The corridor, once a bustling Central City thoroughfare filled with small businesses, has stutter-stepped toward revitalization for more than a decade. The grocery store will join neighbors such as the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, Good Work Network, Café Reconcile, Casa Borrega and New Orleans Redevelopment Authority on the stretch.
The Southern Food and Beverage Museum also is planning a move to the boulevard.
“It’s starting to be a place where you can do all these wonderful things,” Good Work Network founder and Executive Director Phyllis Cassidy said. “It’s not quite there yet, but it’s getting there.”