New Orleans Rebirth Full Speed Ahead Post-Katrina
Photo: © Habitat for Humanity International
In 2006, one year after Hurricane Katrina flooded much of New Orleans, city leaders banned organized tour buses from taking visitors through the city’s devastated Lower Ninth Ward. Officials said they needed to rebuild this part of the city without all the extra traffic, and local residents were not happy about tourists staring at and photographing their damaged shotgun-style homes. Mostly, no one wanted New Orleans to become the national symbol for “disaster tourism.”
Today, more than seven years after high water covered 85 percent of the city and 150,000 residents fled to Houston, Dallas or Chicago, some never to return, New Orleans need not worry about hurricane-damage gawkers or disaster tourism junkies. It has too much on its plate right now, with new residential and business development projects on the books for 2013 and beyond. “We’re tired of hearing about Katrina; we want to move on as a city,” said Tom Nagelin, president of the Tour Guides Association of Greater New Orleans, in a recent New York Times interview. “We want to focus on cuisine, art and architecture — not hurricanes.”
Although tourism and business travel to New Orleans slowed considerably in the year following Katrina, and many areas of the city have not been adequately rebuilt (less than 25 percent of the city’s 4,200 public housing units demolished by the storm have been replaced), there is no doubt the past several years have been economically and culturally robust, a surprising development considering the dire predictions about New Orleans’ future following the flood.
Visitor arrivals surged, reaching 8.7 million in 2011, an increase of 5 million from 2006; visitor spending that year totaled $5.47 billion, a record for the city. New hotels are popping up in every district, and flood-damaged properties have been renovated and modernized almost to the point of being unrecognizable. In many areas of the city, redevelopment started and includes new and architecturally innovative housing, schools, hospitals, office buildings and shopping centers.
In the hurricane-crushed Ninth Ward, a joint venture by Habitat for Humanity and two native New Orleans musicians, Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr., constructed 72 colorful, single-family homes for local musicians in 2006–2007. The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music opened in 2011, and the entire multigenerational Musicians’ Village project won several national awards.
In the Gentilly District, more than 100 new homes are being built through the financial support of Leonard Riggio — the founder of Barnes & Noble — and the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, which contributed $1.26 million. Called “Project Home Again,” a non-profit housing development organization, the new houses will sell for $150,000–175,000 and follow a first group of 100 homes in Gentilly constructed in 2007–2011, all of which were donated fully furnished to families who had lost their homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “We were so grateful that the Riggios kept their original promise to build 100 homes that we never imagined only a few months later they would step up and agree to keep the revitalization going,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu in October 2012, when ground was broken on the second set of homes.
More than 200 new residential apartment units opened in the Central Business and Warehouse districts in 2012, and more than 550 units are planned for 2013–2014, including new restaurants and bars, several hundred thousand square feet of retail space and a $2.5 billion investment in the downtown Biomedical District featuring a new LSU Medical Center and Veterans Affairs Hospital. In addition, a new Loyola Avenue streetcar line will make the downtown district more accessible for visitors and residents.
The Downtown Development District’s NOLA Place Branding project repositioned the nine downtown New Orleans districts as a major hub for new industries such as digital media, biomedical and arts-based businesses — all industries that attract young and creative employees. In the aftermath of the storm, thousands of young teachers, artists, lawyers and architects moved to the city, sensing an opportunity to help create a rebirth of a great American city. Last year, the national game development firm Gameloft released Cosmic Colony, its first full game project created in its New Orleans studio, which was established in the city in 2011, helping New Orleans to achieve the fastest-growing tech industry in the country.
Another shot in the arm for downtown New Orleans is the presence of the financial arm of General Electric, which signed a long-term lease for its new information technology center. The 60,000-square-foot space will bring in more than 300 skilled workers at salaries of $60,000–100,000.
Meanwhile, in the South Market District, a private developer, The Domain Companies, plans to build 500 luxury apartments and 170,000 square feet of retail space including Rouses, a 40,000-square-foot, full-service gourmet grocer, a much-needed venue in this food-obsessed city. The Dallas-based Howard Hughes Corp. plans a $70 million renovation and expansion of Riverwalk, a riverfront shopping and entertainment complex near the French Quarter. The Fresh Market upscale food chain opened a 24,800-square-foot property in a historic building on St. Charles Avenue; and Costco will open its first Louisiana store in the district, a $45 million project expected to open in fall 2013.
The Shops at Canal Place is expected to attract additional residents and visitors after bringing in several new national brands, including J. Crew, Michael Kors, French Soul, Allen Edmonds and Anthropologie.
New Orleans’ top attractions include the New Orleans Museum of Art, the city’s oldest fine arts institution; and the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, where a replica of an ancient Mayan city on the ocean floor is being installed, as well as a new fish tank with more than 5,000 false pilchard, a silvery herring-like species native to the Mayan reef off the Mexican coast. The National World War II Museum, opened in 2000, is the country’s largest museum devoted to World War II and offers numerous rotating and permanent exhibits.
The Queen City is known for its eccentric city neighborhoods, and perhaps the most funky, off-the-wall district is Marigny/Bywater, where historic houses, palm trees, crazy architecture and a diverse group of residents reveal the inner soul of New Orleans. Although some offbeat, die-hard hipsters say the area has become too gentrified since Katrina, there is still a great dance party at Mimi’s in the Marigny, a popular neighborhood bar; and the St. Roch Tavern offers a vegan menu within its creatively named O! Vegasm! restaurant. Magazine Street, which runs through Marigny, is a six-mile strip of unique clothing boutiques, antiques shops, art galleries and cafés. The gelato and pastries at Sucré (3025 Magazine) may be the best in the city, while Magasin Vietnamese Café (4201 Magazine) offers great Vietnamese cuisine, a food trend that has grown over the years as Vietnamese immigrants, who arrived in the 1970s, found a niche among the city’s food aficionados.
The redevelopment of New Orleans came from various contributors, including private architectural and construction firms, the city planning department and Tulane University’s School of Architecture, all of whom played a role in designing, building and financing hundreds of projects throughout the city.