With all the civic drama and pretty renderings surrounding the fate of the Convention Center's big open fields by the old power station, it's disappointing to see the typical development approach of throwing vast sums of money and effort at a wager that we know exactly what to do with all that land, all at once.
Instead of master planning entire blocks into shiny, expensive steel and glass beasts, built and occupied by giant conglomerates, many of which will necessarily be from out of town to pull together sufficient resources to build and occupy such massive construction, what if we simply replicate the development pattern that made our most memorable, marketable neighborhoods, e.g. the French Quarter, possible for a minuscule fraction of the cost? Just split up the blocks into 32-feet wide by 130-feet deep individual, mixed-use lots.
With smaller lots, you have a lower bar to entry for entrepreneurial citizens, with the best ideas succeeding, and bad ones failing without taking down the whole block. With smaller lots, you have more variety and more value per square foot, especially if parking requirements are relaxed or removed.
Sure, these lots would be less attractive to national chains, who are much less familiar than the average New Orleanian with how to get the most out of a skinny lot, but is that really a bad thing?
You'd have a gumbo of a neighborhood full of a variety of local investments next to a hotel teeming with conventioneers anxious for a taste of something local. People might decide it's a nice place to live, too.
But wouldn't any apartments just turn into short-term rentals? Sure, but for each one, that's one less in your neighborhood.
Maybe this is all wishful thinking, and a neighborhood that far from the Warehouse District and the Quarter wouldn't ultimately be as great a success as we predicted. Then we'd say to ourselves, "OK, so, that didn't work. How much money are we out?" A bad answer to that question is hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.
This small developer approach has a name, Incremental Development. It’s not unique to New Orleans, and it’s not new. You see it in all of our favorite urban places from the French Quarter to the East Village to Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina. But the people of all those places are unique, and the end result, when you invite the locals to build, to benefit, to shape incrementally, is a place that is collectively as unique as its citizens. And the universal, marketable appeal of New Orleans citizens is an undeniable asset that has already proven itself continuously for 300 years. That’s a pretty good track record for an investment.