A lot has changed in the Central Business District since Marcel Wisznia purchased a blighted Carondelet Street parking garage for $4.9 million in 2007.
But one thing has remained constant: Wisznia's plan to redevelop the 1950s-era former Buick dealership into a high-end apartment building, complete with a car elevator to let residents pull right up to their door.
"You can keep your groceries or whatever in your car until you virtually get to the front door," he said. "We've always called it the suburban lifestyle in an urban environment, and I think that's what's going to help distinguish it."
Now, more than a decade later, Wisznia is close to realizing his plans. The $49 million project, called the Garage, is under construction and is expected to be finished next year.
It's one of several developments underway in the CBD and Warehouse District aiming to mix high-end apartments or condominium units with expansive ground-floor retail space.
Several of them have been on the table for years but are now gaining new traction as downtown New Orleans has experienced a wider rejuvenation, thanks in large part to generous federal and state tax credits that have made it profitable to bring historic buildings back into commerce.
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Already, Wisznia believes, the bustling construction activity has made the CBD "a highly, highly competitive urban center" where the real estate market could soon be oversaturated. But like many of the others who are backing their own projects, Wisznia, a local architect and developer, likes his odds for capturing a piece of the market.
"We firmly believe the unique features of this building, the way we handle the automobile and just the design of the dwelling units themselves, will distinguish it from plenty of the other apartment buildings or condominium buildings in our downtown," he said.
Most of the activity is near the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line or in the vicinity of the half-billion-dollar South Market District, which transformed an area between Loyola Avenue and Baronne Street once known for blight and parking lots into five blocks of boutique shops and high-end apartments and condominiums.
Within a few blocks of Lee Circle, hundreds of new rental units and condos are expected to come online in the coming years, surrounded by tens of thousands of square feet of new commercial space.
A stone's throw from the Garage, Wisznia plans to build a 203-suite co-living development called Two Saints, which is expected to cost $35 million. The co-living concept features clusters of rental units that share certain common areas, like a kitchen and living and dining areas, while affording individual privacy.
And nearby, construction work is underway at 730 Julia St., a $40 million mixed-use development being built by Woodward Interests and Boston-based Audubon Capital Partners, which will include 198 apartments and 17,000 square feet of retail.
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That's on top of 1,000 new apartment and condo units tied to the South Market District itself. Construction is scheduled to begin next month on the 29-story Odeon, a $105 million, 271-unit apartment building that will have 12,000 square feet of retail.
"It was a project that was way ahead of its time, especially in that part of the Warehouse District, where we were," Wisznia said of the Garage, which will have 51 apartments, 11 condos and 21,000 square feet of retail. "We saw things before others did, saw the potential of that neighborhood, but we always had all but one piece of the financial puzzle in place."
The onslaught of new, high-end housing is certain to drive prices up beyond what the neighborhood has experienced.
At the high end, the Garage's one- and two-bedroom apartments will rent for about $3 per square foot; condos likely will be priced in the range of $600 to $800 per square foot.
At 730 Julia St., one- and two-bedroom apartments will rent for about $2.50 per square foot. Many rooms will have balconies.
"I think it's that old proverb you hear about in real estate: location, location, location," said Bill Hoffman, president of Woodward Interests. "This project is right in the middle of the Warehouse District, with the streetcar running down Carondelet Street and running up St. Charles Avenue."
Real estate experts and developers see the spate of construction activity as confirmation that more people want to live in New Orleans' historic center, a trend that has picked up steam among younger renters, second-home buyers and others relocating from the suburbs.
The CBD's population reflects that, growing from about 1,800 residents in 2000 to more than 2,600 today, according to recent census figures compiled by the Data Center. The largest demographic: residents aged 18 to 34, who make up nearly one-third of the district's total population.
That population growth comes as no surprise to many observers.
"There's a belief that living in the 24/7 core of New Orleans will remain a highly popular destination," said Wade Ragas, who has tracked the metro area's real estate trends for decades.
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Many of those upcoming condo sales are likely to shatter the market's recent sales history.
In the 70130 ZIP code — which includes the CBD and Warehouse District — 189 condos were sold last year, averaging roughly $363,400, according to Ragas' data. By comparison, the 70116 ZIP code — which includes the French Quarter and Marigny — saw 73 condos sales, averaging roughly $431,800.
Those numbers will pale compared to the prices that the Four Seasons Hotel is expected to command for its 90 luxury condominiums, which observers say are destined to be among the city's priciest.
After being stalled by years of litigation, the project — which will transform the former World Trade Center building at the foot of Canal Street into one of the world's most prestigious hotel brands — will soon begin interior demolition and remediation work. It's scheduled to open in late 2020.
Progress on the roughly $460 million development will become more obvious when a construction elevator is erected in coming weeks to allow crews access to the top of the 33-story, 1960s office building.
"We think that this is a very unique site and a very unique building, and that what we're offering is something that is not being offered in the city," said Woodward Design + Build President and CEO Paul Flower.
With Virginia-based DXC Technology opening a Poydras Street office that will eventually employ 2,000 people, many developers are hoping that other technology firms will follow its lead and set up a presence downtown.
If they do, workers will follow. And when they do, William "Bo" Reily IV thinks he has just the place for them.
Wm. B. Reily & Co., the parent of Reily Foods Co., is developing a mixed-use project called the Kalorama. Located at the intersection of Magazine and Girod streets, Kalorama will include 33 apartments and 44 condo units in different buildings, as well as retail space and a parking garage.
After Reily Foods Co. relocated its offices to Poydras Street, Reily saw redeveloping the family's long-held property as a generational opportunity, calling the corner "a microcosm of what is great about New Orleans."
Reily declined to disclose the project's cost, saying only that it was "a significant investment."
The condos will be a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units, averaging about $700 per square foot, he said. They should hit the market by the fall.
The apartments, largely one- and two-bedroom units, will begin renting this summer; Reily said the rates are still being finalized.
"It's appropriate for the folks who are living, working and enjoying being in the Warehouse District," he said. "Younger professionals are going to think the location is just what they're looking for."
Meanwhile, the South Market District, which many credit with spurring the CBD's broader residential rejuvenation, recently opened the Standard, a 15-story luxury condominium building in the 1000 block of Julia Street.
Through March, the developer, the Domain Companies, sold more than $37 million worth of units, according to its principal, Matt Schwartz. The building has 89 one- to three-bedroom condos, along with 24,000 square feet of retail.
Condos were not part of South Market's initial plan, which was aimed at building high-quality rental housing. But the plan evolved as the neighborhood did.
"We saw a significant demand in the market, for not necessarily just condo product, but a type of product that didn't exist in the market at all," Schwartz said.
The Standard’s sleek exterior and interior were designed by internationally renowned architect and New Orleans native Morris Adjmi. Condo prices range from $575,000 to $3.2 million — from the low $600s to high $800s per square foot.
One penthouse has earned the distinction of the Warehouse District's highest-priced condo sale: $3.22 million.
Now, with the downtown real estate market going strong and more amenities in place, Schwartz is optimistic that office pricing will be lifted next.
"The profile downtown has really changed," he said, "and I think the next thing we're going to see is that it's made it a much more attractive place to live, but it's also a more attractive place to work as well."