Businessman Sidney Torres plans large, upscale development in underused Mid-City tract _lowres

 

New Orleans businessman Sidney Torres IV has purchased a large swath of land near Bayou St. John in Mid-City, saying he plans a “massive” and “high-end” residential and commercial development on 9 acres of mostly underused land.

The sale is the largest real-estate transfer in the neighborhood in decades, Torres said, calling it a “sign of the pace of development” in the city as the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches.

He announced his ambitious plans as finishing touches are being put on the nearly completed Lafitte Greenway, a 2.6-mile green space and bike path that ultimately could extend from the French Quarter to Lakeview.

“When I first saw this property, I was amazed by its beauty and centralized convenience,” Torres said of the land he has bought, 380,000 square feet of space adjacent to the Greenway. “It’s going to be a wonderful place to live and visit.”

The strip of land, which public records still show as owned by New Orleans Terminal Co. and Alabama Great Southern Railroad, is now home mostly to old warehouses. It’s bounded by North Jefferson Davis Parkway, the Lafitte Corridor, Conti Street and North Scott Street.

Torres declined to say how much he is paying for the property.

Torres said he hopes to convert the property to a high-end, mixed-use residential and commercial community. In an interview, he compared his vision to Alys Beach, a luxury seaside town on the Florida Panhandle with vacation homes, parks and pedestrian paths.

“They’ve really perfected a way of living on bayous,” Torres said about the Florida developments. “It’s basically a different way of living. There’s not really anything like that around here.”

To that end, Torres envisions apartments and houses on the top floors of the buildings facing the Greenway, with views overlooking the bayou. Below the apartments would be commercial retail space hosting a gymnasium, a café and even a boutique hotel.

In the middle of the property, he said, an area closed off to outside traffic would feature children’s playgrounds, community fire pits and bike paths.

The development, which he proposes calling “Bayou St. John,” includes a single parcel of land located along the actual bayou near the post office. There, Torres envisions a paddleboard and kayak rental shop, where residents could eat lunch or dinner on the water’s edge.

Ultimately, he added, the development would support “high-end living” on the bayou near the city’s burgeoning medical district, where the new University Medical Center and Veteran Affairs Medical Center are getting ready to open. He also envisions the property acting as a residential connector between downtown and City Park.

“When people ride their bikes from the French Quarter to the bayou, or even to Lakeview, I look at this as the welcoming point,” Torres said. “It would really help revamp that area of Orleans, where it’s lacking in development.”

So far, Torres’ plans take in only 3 or 4 acres of the 9-acre property. He’s looking for proposals for the rest of the land, along with partners Joseph Jaeger, owner of MCC Group, and Hicham Khodr, the man behind Camellia Grill.

Torres is adamant about the development fitting in with New Orleans’ historic architecture, with Victorian-inspired façades facing the Lafitte Greenway. He said the rest of the property design, however, is a “blank canvas” and open for input.

“Usually, you buy property with a set idea of what you’re going to do and then ask city officials if it fits in,” Torres said. “This property was a totally different approach. … I want to listen to other people’s ideas and have community involvement.”

Torres said he’s giving would-be investors a couple of months to come up with ideas and suggestions, which he and his partners will vet before making a final decision in the next six to eight months.

“Everyone who has an interest or idea should email us, and we’ll give it some thought,” he said. “It’s important that it’s done carefully … that it fits within the fabric of what we want to do.”

In the meantime, financing is in place to begin design work, he said, and he hopes to start construction within the year.

Although the project has raised alarm among some Mid-City residents and on social media, Mid-City Neighborhood Organization President Graham Bosworth said he is cautiously optimistic about what the project could bring to the neighborhood.

“They got land without having plans in place and are asking for input, and so I guess that’s a good thing,” Bosworth said.

He said he would welcome development in the 9-acre area, which has long been an industrial eyesore.

“He is taking abandoned, dilapidated, run-down warehouses in an area that in my lifetime no one has lived in,” Bosworth said, adding that some residents worried that Torres would be tearing down residential areas. “He’s not going to tear down houses.”

But Bosworth also expressed concern about how well the new property would fit into Mid-City. He said a generic property, similar to plans for a CVS-anchored development in the old Home Depot site on North Carrollton Avenue, would be unwelcome.

At the same time, Bosworth said, local residents would likely balk at a design that greatly increased density, especially if the development affected traffic and parking.

“We don’t have the same kind of urban development that New York or Chicago has,” he said. “Nobody wants three, four, five stories; nobody wants skyscrapers or high-rises in Mid-City. I guess it’s a narrow line to walk, not being suburban but not having an overly urban design.” Torres hasn’t said how high he wants to build.

Roux Merlo, a member of the board of directors of the Mid-City Business Association, was much more enthusiastic than Bosworth.

“We’re excited about this project. It’s been a dumping ground,” Merlo said about the old warehouse area, long marred by graffiti and litter. “I think it’s great to finally have a development there. It’s all part of the development of the Lafitte Corridor.”

Merlo added that the project appears to fit in with the city’s master plan, and it could provide the sort of financial boost for Mid-City that many residents and business owners have been hoping for.

“The fact that he is investing a significant amount of money into Mid-City, that is a positive thing,” Merlo said. “I’ve been excited about that all weekend.”