The section of Old Metairie's main thoroughfare that is sometimes known as upper Metairie Road has long seemed a "poor cousin" to the rest of the street that curves eastward through Jefferson Parish toward the 17th Street Canal.
The one-mile stretch that starts at Severn Avenue, crosses Causeway Boulevard and runs past modest homes and small businesses has never achieved the cachet enjoyed by the rest of Metairie Road, which cuts a retail-rich swath through one of the area's highest-priced neighborhoods.
But two years after parish officials tweaked the zoning rules to encourage a more neighborhood-like feel for this western end of Metairie Road, they are starting to see some results.
"Our goal was to develop a set of standards that could apply to older roadways and create a more pedestrian-oriented, traditional streetscape," Jefferson Parish Planning Director Terri Wilkinson said.
Noting that Metairie Road was laid out many decades ago atop a curving ridge of high ground, Wilkinson said the two-lane street remains one of the most heavily traveled in the parish, and past zoning laws maintained a focus on vehicular traffic.
The deep setbacks of many buildings from the street, coupled with broad parking areas in front of them, have made some areas uninviting to people who enjoy strolling past storefronts, Wilkinson said. The lack of pedestrian access is at odds with the rising national popularity of "walkable" neighborhoods that encourage interaction among residents, she added.
In late 2015, the Jefferson Parish Council adopted a zoning change, called a "commercial parkway pedestrian overlay," that altered the design requirements for new developments along a mile of Metairie Road between Severn Avenue and Arlington Drive.
Under the new rules, instead of a minimum 20-foot setback from the street, newly built or renovated structures can be no more than 10 feet from the street, and no parking is allowed in front of them. Buildings must also include a minimum number of windows along the street front.
Parish Councilwoman Jennifer Van Vrancken, whose district includes Old Metairie and who helped enact the new rules, said her aim was to give Metairie Road a feeling similar to Oak or Magazine Street in New Orleans — streets with numerous small businesses close to the roadway. And she said the plan "has worked out beautifully" on upper Metairie Road.
Since the new rules were enacted, seven construction proposals have gone through the plan-review process and received approval. Projects completed or under construction include Club Pilates, a two-story studio with a balcony above the street; Loft 18, an indoor golf and social club; and Old Metairie Commons, a three-story building that will have retail and office space on the lower floors and residences on the third level.
A three-story building being built in the 2500 block also will offer a mix of retail and office space, and national retailer Shipley Donuts has signed on as its first tenant.
Recently completed projects also include some renovations, such as the revamp of an old gas station into a new Rock-n-Sake Bar & Sushi restaurant in the 2900 block, and a makeover of the Cabral Law Office building nearby.
Van Vrancken said some of the owners had to adjust their plans to comply with the new zoning requirements, but the rules have been so well received that the parish is widening its target.
"We have extended the overlay (on Metairie Road) all the way to the Orleans Parish line," she said, noting that the change, which applies to new construction and major renovations, is in effect on an interim basis until the rules become final.
There's no question that property values are on an upswing in Old Metairie, according to Richard Juge, president of RE/MAX Commercial Brokers Inc. in Metairie. But whether the new zoning rules have anything to do with the market's strength is another question.
From a developer's standpoint, Juge said, any type of overlay can present challenges. Zoning amendments often add time and cost to a project and "sometimes can limit the overall usability of the property," he said.
But he doubts that the overlay in Old Metairie will deter growth. "Metairie Road is so hot that you can layer on a lot of restrictions, and if they are somewhat palatable and developers can get a return on the dollar, they'll tolerate it and go forward," he said.
Juge said upper Metairie Road is heating up in part because the remainder of the street is so packed with tenants that developers are simply chasing any available property. And if some of them actually get the prices they are asking for new properties, it would certainly demonstrate the area's strength.
SRSA Commercial Real Estate has begun pre-leasing of the three-story Old Metairie Commons building and is seeking rental rates ranging from $21 a square foot for residential space and $25 for office use to an eyebrow-raising $40 a square foot for ground-level commercial space.
"That $40 figure is a high-water mark," Juge said.
The proliferation of commercial developments on upper Metairie Road has the potential to enhance home values as well. Real estate analysts say the existence of high-quality services and amenities — such as Café B, which restaurateur Ralph Brennan opened on the street in 2011 — tends to boost the surrounding area's residential appeal.
Meanwhile, owners of property along upper Metairie Road are jumping on opportunities presented by the rising demand.
Liam Grace, with Beau Box Commercial Real Estate in New Orleans, is marketing the largest tract of vacant land currently available on Metairie Road. He said the 78,000-square-foot parcel, which the owner is offering for long-term lease, could accommodate commercial, medical or governmental uses. With an asking lease rate of just over $4 per square foot, the property is not cheap. But Grace thinks developers will see a lot to like.
"Metairie Road sites are highly desirable, the area's demographics are some of the best in the city, and property is limited in supply," he said. Limited availability is the main driver of growth along Metairie Road, Grace said, and when developers find something, they scoop it up fast.
Just across the street from the tract he is marketing, a revamp of the former Garden Gates Nursery is under way to create a large new Oak Oven pizza restaurant. The eatery is expected to open early next year.