Things are looking up in New Orleans these days.
With housing in short supply and federal rebuilding money pouring into the city, developers increasingly are proposing high-rise residential complexes in downtown New Orleans. Building up, they say, is efficient and makes it possible to open a large number of units quickly. And in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, high-rise proposals don’t seem to be meeting the same scrutiny and resistance they faced before the storm.
“Pre-Katrina, density was a dirty word around here,” said Yolanda Rodriguez, executive director of the City Planning Commission. “Post-Katrina, people are looking a lot different at density and where they want to go.”
About 2,200 new condo and apartment units in nine different projects have been proposed in downtown New Orleans. With the exception of the 400 that are part of the Trump International Hotel & Tower announced just days before Katrina hit, all the new units have been proposed since the hurricane.
The wave of new high-rise proposals, developers say, could become one of the biggest housing trends in post-Katrina New Orleans. The projects promise to more than double the number of downtown high-rise residential units from 2,100 now to 4,300.
A number of the projects involve the conversion of existing office buildings into residential complexes.
The 925 Common St. office building, for example, is being converted into 107 furnished corporate apartments. The long-dormant American Bank building on Carondelet Street will become 202 affordable apartments. And the former Plaza Tower office building on Howard Avenue is being converted into 197 condominiums.
Other projects call for completely new construction, such as the 270-foot residential tower proposed for the corner of Girod and O’Keefe, a 316-foot residential tower slated for the site of the old Woolworth’s building on Canal Street, and the massive new residential tower proposed by New York real estate magnate Donald Trump.
Doris Koo, senior executive vice president of Enterprise Community Investment Partners, a group that finds development opportunities that could qualify for low-income housing tax credits, said that under the right circumstances, high-rises are a smart — and quick — way to grow.
“Density with the right design respectful of the neighborhood character and the right income mix is a good and efficient way of restoring housing as quickly as possible in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast,” Koo said. “But I stress the three: the right income mix, the right social services (and) open areas.
“Particularly for the elderly, the groundswell in high-rises can provide opportunities for amenities that they will be very appreciative of,” ones that are hard to put into conventional two-story complexes, Koo said.
Reasons for interest
TWI Development LLC’s Anthony Iarocci III and Roth Walsh, who are developing a $50 million condo project on a Warehouse District lot bounded by Calliope, Annunciation and John Churchill Chase streets, both said there are several reasons for the spate of proposed high-rise residential living.
Among them are:
— Gulf Opportunity Zone Act incentives, especially increases in historic tax credits for conversion of buildings that are 50 or more years old.
With the increases, historic tax credits now can cover 20 percent to 26 percent of a project’s cost. The amount of low-income housing tax credits available in the state also has leaped as a result of the GO Zone — to $65 million this year, up from $8.5 million a year ago. And low-interest loans and grants available to developers in the wake of Katrina are helping with financing.
Iarocci and Walsh say their project will rely on conventional financing, but they are researching GO Zone regulations for potential financial help.
— The fact that both the Urban Land Institute and the American Institute of Architects have recommended upper-floor living on Canal Street and in vertical towers as the city’s footprint shrinks to stay within the confines of higher ground.
“There’s a reason Bienville settled the French Quarter where he did,” Walsh said.
— Updated construction codes, which mean that newly constructed buildings are better able to withstand wind and, as a result, better able to attract the city’s returning population.
Downtown structures built since 2000 fared better during Katrina than office towers built in the 1980s.
“The downtown of New Orleans needs to become more vertical,” said Marcel Wisznia, the architect and investor behind the conversion of the Saratoga building into 150 high-rent apartments. “It’s really the only thing to give comfort (to residents) and not have them run away every hurricane season.”
High-rise apartment units may be even more in demand than high-rise condos at the moment, Wisznia said. That’s because displaced residents need housing immediately and are more likely to gravitate toward apartments. Furthermore, the fact that buildings qualifying for historic tax credits must remain rentals for five years means developers are partial to building rental apartments as opposed to condos for sale.
A “high-rise” can be somewhat of a misnomer in New Orleans, Wisznia points out. In most cities, structures that are 20 stories or more qualify as high-rises, Wisznia said. But in New Orleans, with its penchant for two- and three-story 19th-century commercial corridors, a 12- to 15-story building is usually called a high-rise, though it pales in comparison to the 51-story One Shell Square building or the 700-foot proposed Trump tower.
The wave of projects on the drawing board promises to change the face of New Orleans by introducing more urban living.
New Orleans has lagged the nation in vertical living, says Shaun Talbot of the Talbot Realty Group. The Warehouse District emerged following the 1984 World’s Fair. But outside of the French Quarter, downtown New Orleans still has only limited residential options.
Peter Trapolin, a preservationist who has served on the Historic District Landmarks Commission, said the new mid- and high-rise complexes give the city an opportunity to develop urban living options as well as accompanying neighborhood retail sites.
“It’s the density and urban living that makes an urban corridor work,” Trapolin said. “It’s the opportunity to build on high ground that is allowing urban planning ideas to build on these urban corridors.”
Stacy Head, newly elected Councilwoman from District B, where at least one of the projects is located, said she sees the trend, if done properly, as a way of creating a positive urban lifestyle that already exists in other cities.
Rodriguez, of the City Planning Commission, agrees that the return of urban living could be positive for the city.
“That’s a good thing,” said Rodriguez, who describes the rash of high-rise activity as the most since the hospitality sector boom in the early 1990s that led to such projects as the Lowes Hotel New Orleans and the Marriott Convention Center.
The Planning Commission is swamped with potential builders, architects and others researching potential projects, many with the expectation that tax credits and grants from the federal government may apply to their projects. The Planning Commission’s docket for zoning variances and project approvals is backed up to November, she said.
Keeping to scale
Support for the concept of urban living doesn’t mean all high-rise proposals will automatically skate by.
Pres Kabacoff, chairman of HRI Properties Inc., said that going vertical is a solid solution for the city. But he is adamant that high-rises abutting the historical area be in scale.
Kabacoff said he sticks by his decision to fight a plan in 2000 for a 400-foot Marriott Hotel at the site of the old Halpern Furniture factory on Convention Center Boulevard.
Preservationists and hotel developers, including Kabacoff, criticized the height of the project, which was located close to the Crescent City Connection. The developer eventually dropped the height to 250 feet, but the project stalled when the City Council allowed a height of no more than 183 feet.
Camille Strachan, attorney, preservationist and trustee emeritus of the National Trust of Historical Places, has never been known to keep quiet about projects that threaten the historic architectural fabric of the city.
“I guess the real question is whether or not there is a market to fill these (buildings) without draining the market from the historic fabric (buildings)” now, whether condos or rental property, she said.
It’s homes that are needed, and to date Strachan has not seen a high-rise proposal near a historical area that is out of scale.
While not supporting every project, Strachan said most of the deals so far fit the urbanism that so many cities have turned to in creating or recreating neighborhoods. New urbanism emphasizes pedestrian-friendly, neighborhood-like living.
“In general, I’m in favor of re-densification,” she said.
In 1960, when the city was at its peak population, it lived on the historic footprint of the city. “If that can be accomplished by vertical re-densification, well, the city was healthier then than it has been for a long time,” Strachan said. “I support getting people to live in New Orleans.”
Patty Gay, executive director of the Preservation Resource Center, said that while she has her concerns about the proposed 300-foot-plus height of the Woolworth’s project on Canal, she has no objections to some of the other new construction projects.
“Preservation benefits our city tremendously. When building new buildings, we need to make sure they relate and enhance rather than detract.
“There’s ways to make things work,” she said, asking that developers approach the PRC for its advice on new construction near historic areas.
This article was reproduced with permission from Greg Thomas of the Times-Picayune (New Orleans). Originally published June 11, 2006. Copyright 2006 The Times-Picayune Publishing Company. To contact Greg Thomas click here.