New Orleans: A Future by the River?

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Not far from the madness that was Mardi Gras in downtown New Orleans, developers are hoping to start a frenzy of their own—in real estate along the Mississippi River. The French, it turns out, knew what they were doing when they built the Vieux Carre at the bend in the river. That section of the city didn't flood after Hurricane Katrina, even after the levees broke, because it was on higher ground. Now, while homeowners in suburban New Orleans worry that neighborhoods will be bulldozed for parks and greenways, the moneymen are hoping to lure people back into the city to live nearer the waterfront.

A half dozen developers, including Donald Trump, are eying high-rise condo projects downtown that would offer stunning views of the mighty Mississippi. The Port of New Orleans just signed an agreement to open up four miles of riverfront for development, including a one-mile-long park replacing wharves. Nearby, developer Pres Kabacoff's $318 million plan to transform the St. Thomas housing project into River Garden—a mixed-income neighborhood with Creole cottages, Victorian doubles and Greek Revival houses—should get back on track this month. And a few blocks away, KB Home, one of the nation's largest builders, will turn dirt this spring on 58 lots for Orleans-style homes. With $50 billion in private insurance payouts and government help on its way to the region, Mayor Ray Nagin is predicting an "explosion of growth," especially downtown.

Nagin, who is up for reelection April 22, is finalizing the rebuild plan prepared over four months by his Bring New Orleans Back Commission (see plans at www.bnobc.com). The final release is expected next week. Some 70 neighborhood groups, divided into 13 planning districts, attended a meeting with the mayor last month and have until late May to submit rebuilding plans in each area of the city. Already, neighborhood associations from heavily damaged areas like the lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly and Lakeview are tracking down residents, finding out who is returning and what services are needed. (For a complete list of neighborhood meetings, go to Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans at www.prcno.org.)

Developers, however, are clearly hoping hurricane-wary residents will take a look at neighborhoods nearer the city’s original roots—along the waterfront, where there was no flooding. Sean Cummings, executive director of the New Orleans Building Corporation, a public development agency, says the port deal alone would open up riverfront for as much as $1 billion worth of development such as hotels and shops, perhaps performance spaces or a planetarium. "This is a giant step in a city that understands what its core business is—food, music, the riverfront, culture, architecture," says Cummings. A riverfront park, long championed by the non-profit Trust for Public Land, is expected to take shape over the next five years, attracting new condo and housing development. "The riverfront is the cornerstone to the renaissance of our city," says Larry Schmidt, who runs the New Orleans office of the Trust, which seeks to conserve land for parks and historic sites. Already, the nearby Glidden Paint building is slated to be converted into 100 condos and the next phase of Kabacoff’s River Garden development is in the works.

Developing high-rise living on the riverfront—mixed with single-family housing—means the population of pre-Katrina New Orleans could fit on about half the land it covers now, according to Tulane School of Architecture dean Reed Kroloff. He notes that Washington, D.C., quickly turned around its inner core by offering tax incentives and other inducements for people to return. Inner New Orleans is ripe for a similar rebirth: It has the highest number of blighted and derelict houses—over 30,000—that could bring homeowners and developers back to neighborhoods like Treme, a rundown version of Uptown. "New Orleans has many historical neighborhoods with fantastic houses on high ground. We could make it richer architecturally on less land without displacing anybody involuntarily," says Kroloff. Downside? "People in New Orleans may have to trade their ranchburger lifestyle for an urban lifestyle," he says.

Some fear these ambitious plans may rob the city of its soul. "I like driving around and seeing all the different neighborhoods," says Ivan Neville, junior member of the city’s famous Neville Brothers band. "You can walk three or four blocks in either direction on either side of the Garden District, and you're like in the 'hood. And that's what makes New Orleans New Orleans." But New Orleans is already changing. In the 7th Ward, east of downtown in an area that got little flooding, Latoya Crump is overseeing work on her mom’s shotgun house painted a pale minty green with dark green gingerbread trim. But she’s heard that most of the African American residents, who rented their homes, aren’t returning, and she worries that the neighborhood will be gentrified by those with more money. "They keep saying come home, rebuild, but there are no resources—outside of your family, that is," says Crump, 29. "My mom? I’m not sure she’ll come back."