The Oakwood Center area may not be the first place that leaps to mind when you think of “smart growth” or “new urbanism,” those favorite buzzwords of planners eager to free American cities from their dependence on the automobile.
It’s anchored by a mall, lies in the shadow of an elevated expressway and is dominated by the stream of stop-and-go traffic that filters steadily through its intersections.
But Jefferson Parish planners and the Regional Planning Commission see a number of positives when they look at Oakwood: its proximity to downtown New Orleans, a busy public transit station, a mall that’s actually posting sales gains, a budding hotel development and a mix of businesses that could benefit from some well-considered tweaks and enhancements.
So next year, the RPC will gather stakeholders and try to hash out a strategic plan for making the most of what’s there through better land use, transportation planning and urban design.
“The idea is to capitalize on some of the advantages in the area,” Jefferson Parish Planning Director Terri Wilkinson said, noting that possible recommendations could include enhancements to the busy Gretna bus terminal under the expressway and better landscaping, sidewalks and crosswalks to make the area more walkable.
The study area includes some of the residential neighborhoods east of the West Bank Expressway and south of the Holiday Inn, plus the hotel development underway on 11 acres annexed by the city of Gretna earlier this year.
“There are a lot of pluses to build on for that area,” Wilkinson said.
The study, which was approved by the parish earlier this year along with one focusing on the area around Metairie Road and Causeway Boulevard on the East Bank, is similar to one underway for the Fairfield area on the West Bank side of the Huey P. Long Bridge and to the one that set the stage for the 2010 rezoning of Fat City.
The Oakwood and Metairie Road studies are expected to split the $60,000 allocated for both projects, $12,000 of which was contributed by the parish.
The RPC, which did not return calls for comment, will hire a consultant and assemble a group of stakeholders to meet and discuss what they think would help improve the Oakwood area.
Wilkinson said leaders of Gretna, Oakwood Center and the Terrytown Civic Association likely would be among those providing input to the plan, which ultimately will go before the parish Planning Department and the Parish Council before becoming part of the parish’s master plan.
Councilman Ricky Templet, whose district includes Oakwood, said the mall has been bucking the downward sales trends that are plaguing many suburban malls.
The large department stores that malls depend on to draw traffic have been struggling, and malls have been victimized by shifting demographics and industry trends that long ago began favoring outdoor “power centers” and, later, town center-style developments, as well as shoppers’ growing use of the Internet.
But parish sales tax figures show spending at Oakwood increased by 3.3 percent in the most recent three-month period, compared with a year before. While that may not be a blockbuster figure, many malls are failing to post sales gains at all, Templet said.
Rising from the depths
Oakwood Center’s relative good fortune has its roots in the depths to which it sank after Hurricane Katrina, when looters reportedly got into the building through the skylights, stole merchandise and set fire to piles of clothing.
Almost a third of the mall was badly damaged by the 2005 storm, and even though two anchor stores managed to reopen the following year, most of a major employer and tax revenue generator was closed for about two years.
But in 2007, owner General Growth Properties invested tens of millions into the 1960s-era mall, not only repairing the damage but giving it a makeover it otherwise probably would not have gotten.
Oakwood reopened that October with a fresh look and a renewed sense of optimism, but it did so just in time for a financial crisis and major national recession.
Katrina recovery helped the New Orleans economy weather the national downturn, but frozen credit markets and weak consumer demand had national retailers in no mood to expand. Mall operators and national retailers faltered; General Growth filed for bankruptcy protection.
But General Growth emerged from bankruptcy in 2010, and with the economy out of recession, things began to improve. Dick’s Sporting Goods, a new entrant in the Louisiana market, opened a store in 2013 where the Mervyns anchor building had sat empty since Katrina. The restaurant Bucca di Beppo opened on the site as well, and several stores — Old Navy, Dress Barn and Rue 21 — were given exterior entrances along the western part of the mall, opening up the development to the street a little more.
Oakwood General Manager Jayne Petipren said that today, 92 percent of the square footage available for lease is taken, though she could not say how much of the mall is considered offline and not leasable.
“Overall, we are increasing,” she said of the mall’s total sales figures.
Commercial Realtor Don Randon said Oakwood has the built-in advantage of being the only mall on the West Bank, and that when New Orleanians need to visit the chain stores available only in the suburbs, a quick trip across the bridge often is a better option than fighting traffic in Metairie or Elmwood.
He said Academy Sports is one of many national retailers on the West Bank that find a significant portion of their sales comes from visitors from the East Bank.
“It’s so easy now that I consider it to be the most accessible suburb of New Orleans because of the two bridges and the fact that it’s toll-free,” Randon said.
He acknowledged the river still represents a psychological barrier for those who don’t make the trip that often, “but I think that’s slowly going away.”
Randon said he thinks Oakwood needs to push for more large, destination retailers and that it may be in a good position to do so because of the available land on the property.
“It’s well-positioned to progress, but a key element is going to be putting a couple more big retailers on the property to draw the traffic. But from a location standpoint, I think it’s excellent,” he said.
Petipren, however, said the mall management is focusing right now on the space inside the mall, and signs at some spaces declare new tenants are coming soon.
Templet said figuring out how to improve the urban context around Oakwood Center is crucial to ensuring the mall continues to grow.
“Most of the studies show that people want more places where there’s a sense of community, more places where they can walk to,” he said.
Wilkinson said the state has bicycle and pedestrian paths underneath the expressway, along with benches and some landscaping that can be built upon.
She said there is some blight to be addressed in the neighborhoods between Hector Avenue and Stumpf Boulevard, and dead-end streets pose some connectivity issues.
“My hope is that the consultants will take a look at that,” she said.
Wilkinson said the parish owns a small, vacant building just north of Hector Avenue that used to house the West Jefferson Family Doctors clinic.
“That’s a potential site the plan could address and suggest some possible uses for,” she said, noting that the parish also would like to work with the mall to bring future development in the form of liner buildings along the streets.
The Terrytown Civic Association could not be reached for comment, while Gretna Mayor Belinda Constant said the city couldn’t say much until the planning process gets underway.
Petipren also said she wasn’t sure exactly what ideas Oakwood might contribute to the planning process, which likely will begin in earnest next year, but that its goal is a shared one.
“We’d like to see more people come to the mall and see (what we are),” she said. “There’s an old perception of the mall, and if they come and shop here, they would find it’s not what they think it is. They’d see that it’s better.”
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.