This time next year, Marigny and St. Roch residents won’t have to travel far to make groceries.
After years of delays, construction is beginning this week at the former Robért Fresh Market store at St. Claude and Elysian Fields avenues, which did not reopen after it was badly damaged during Hurricane Katrina, city and company officials announced Wednesday.
The $9.5 million project, which will include about 26,000 square feet of space for the grocery plus room for as many as seven other businesses, will help fill a void for nearby residents, who have long bemoaned the lack of a big-box grocer in their part of the city.
Plans to redevelop the vacant and blighted storefront will fill a missing piece in the area’s recovery from the 2005 storm, locals say.
“It has been anxiously awaited for a long time for that to reopen,” said Allen Johnson, the head of the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association. “People would just be excited by the smallest glimpses of hope, so this will be very welcome news to the neighborhood.”
Noting the recently finished streetcar line along North Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue from Canal Street to Elysian Fields Avenue, city officials said the new store would make it easier for residents to have access to fresh food and produce.
“This homecoming is significant because it gets us a step closer to bringing the high-quality amenities that every neighborhood deserves,” said Rebecca Conwell, the mayor’s senior adviser on economic development.
The store is expected to employ about 30 full-time workers and 50 part-time workers, officials said.
Construction is expected to finish by the end of 2017, Robért Fresh Market CEO Marc Robért II said Wednesday.
He said tenants are still being selected for the other retail spaces, which could include three to seven businesses, a mix that’s likely to include a veterinarian. “We’ve had a lot of interests from professionals, restaurants, all kinds of interest, and we’re just starting to work through the process,” he said.
The price tag for the grocery store is about $7 million, while developing the other retail space will cost about $2.5 million, Robért said. The project is expected to utilize federal and state historic rehabilitation tax credits.
Ryan Gootee General Contractors LLC of Metairie and Trapolin-Peer Architects of New Orleans are in charge of the work.
Across the country, concern over access to healthy foods has sparked increased discussion in recent years about so-called “food deserts” in poor urban areas. New Orleans is no exception: The lack of grocery stores in some neighborhoods was often viewed as an indication of how uneven the post-storm recovery has been.
That problem started to ease by 2014, according to a study by the Tulane Prevention Research Center, which found that the number of supermarkets in New Orleans had by then rebounded to pre-Katrina levels.
The study, which was published in 2015 in the Journal of Urban Health, found that many of New Orleans’ predominantly black neighborhoods had nearly the same level of access to front-line groceries as white areas.
The study offered some credit to the city’s Fresh Food Retailer Initiative, a 2011 partnership with the Food Trust and HOPE Enterprise Corp. that offers low-cost, flexible financing to vendors so they can open, renovate or expand retail outlets in areas of the city that lack access to fresh food.
The Robért expansion received a $1 million grant from the initiative, half of which is forgivable, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Wednesday.
Long before it was a Robért store, the property originally opened as a Schwegmann Bros. Giant Supermarket in 1946, serving as the flagship location of the local chain's 18-store empire. It became a Robért Fresh Market in 1999.
For years after the 2005 storm, the Schwegmann family maintained ownership of the property and ultimately engaged in a legal battle with the Robért family over responsibility for paying for the building's repairs. The dispute was resolved in 2013, when the Schwegmanns handed over ownership of the building and insurance proceeds related to the damage.
“We always wanted to be back in the neighborhood,” Robért said. “It was always a very good neighborhood.”
The building is included on the national and state registers of historic places.
A lot has changed in Marigny since Robért’s was last open there: Real estate prices are up, buoyed by the area's recent vogue as a tourist destination, including numerous short-term rentals.
Now, after a lengthy absence, residents are eager to regain the convenience of being able to pick up groceries without driving 15 minutes to Mid-City or the Central Business District, or heading across parish lines into Chalmette.
“The neighborhood will be overjoyed if they’re really starting construction,” said Julie Jones, president of Neighbors First for Bywater, another residents group. “This has just been a constant problem for people.”