A few weeks ago, a short video made the rounds on Twitter heralding the “amazing turnaround” of Freret Street, calling it “a great New Orleans success story.” It’s impossible to deny that the street has changed tremendously, and it now has some of the most popular restaurants in the city. For some, it HAS been a massive success. But that largesse has come at a steep cost for others, particularly long-term Black residents and business owners, many of whom have found themselves priced out of the area. What sparked this radical transition? Zoning changes. In particular, a series of zoning changes called an “Arts and Cultural Overlay,” which ostensibly was created to turn Freret Street into a potential hub of the visual, performing, and culinary arts, but largely just allowed people easier access to alcohol when they were dining out. It turns out, people in New Orleans really like to drink with their meals. A lot.
The most recent era of Freret Street began 15 years ago, in 2007, when then-Councilmember Stacy Head successfully championed re-zoning of the street from Napoleon and Jefferson avenues to create the aforementioned “Freret Street AC Arts and Cultural Overlay,” an idea that was developed by a combination of area neighborhood and business groups during the post-Katrina planning process. Without getting too deep into the minutia of the zoning code, the overlay did create some opportunities to open cultural businesses—art galleries and artist studios, museums, and “multi-discipline arts centers” were now allowed on the street, as were theaters, which could also sell alcohol, but only an hour before and during a performance, with alcohol sales afterward strictly prohibited. Bars, which were limited to two per block (one per “blockface”) and were subject to a “conditional use” process—which allowed neighbors more input and potential veto power—could now host live entertainment, but only until midnight on weekdays and 2 a.m. on weekends at the latest, with DJs and go-cups not allowed. Because of the conditional use process, bars were also often subject to “good neighbor” agreements and other additional limitations on a business-by-business basis. On balance, the overlay created some possibilities for visual and performing arts but kept strict limits on any business that both served alcohol and hosted live entertainment, which were tightly controlled by the surrounding neighborhood associations.
Restaurants, on the other hand, had much more leeway. In fact, the overlay made Freret Street one of the best places to open a restaurant in New Orleans. Not only were there no limits on the number of restaurants that could open per block, any restaurant in the overlay could apply for a liquor license without first getting permission from the City Council, a privilege unheard of almost anywhere else in the city. Because of this, restaurants were also then spared much of the oversight and additional limitations from the neighborhood associations bars found themselves subject to. And, as anyone in the restaurant business will tell you, liquor is where the money is. And so restaurants began to flock to Freret.
In 2008, the City Council sweetened the pot even further, recommending the creation of the Freret-Claiborne Cultural District, one of over a dozen districts in the same cohort taking advantage of the newly created Louisiana Cultural Districts program. The program offered two incentives—an exemption on state sales tax for all one-of-a-kind artwork (this excluded performing arts and was ultimately rescinded completely in 2018), and the real prize—eligibility for tax credits for the restoration of buildings deemed “historic.” These tax credits, coupled with the ease of getting a liquor permit, and bolstered by a series of buzzworthy businesses like Cure, Dat Dog, and Company Burger, quickly drew significant investment in the corridor and, according to New Orleans CityBusiness, property values grew by an average of $50,000 between 2011 and early 2013. What it didn’t do though, is facilitate much in the way of art or culture. Gasa Gasa opened in 2013 and has, despite a change in ownership, managed to keep booking shows. Publiq House closed at the end of 2015 after only a few years, and La Nuit, which had been operating since before Katrina, closed in 2017. No other regular performance spaces have opened to take their place. Several galleries have appeared over the years, but it is clear Freret Street is primarily a culinary destination, not an artistic one.
Five years ago, a decade after the Arts and Culture Overlay’s creation, the writing was on the wall. Village Coffee closed and was converted into a Starbucks. Freret St. Poboy & Donut Shop, owned by a local Black woman, was priced out. The same building (bought by a white man from out of town a few years after the business opened) now hosts Kolache Kitchen, a small regional chain also owned by a white man from out of town. Freret Street might be a success story, but it is also a cautionary tale. From the beginning, programs should have been in place to ensure greater equity of opportunity, particularly for Black and other business owners of color; protections should have been built in for area residents most likely to be impacted by rising property values; and more consideration should have been given to the needs of live performance venues. But it’s not a stretch to imagine that for some, the overlay is working exactly as envisioned. After all, they promised arts and culture, but were really selling booze and tax credits. And as it stands now, what we all ended up with was another Starbucks.
The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO) is a broad-based coalition and registered 501c3 non-profit corporation that collaborates with, organizes, and empowers the New Orleans music and cultural community to preserve and nurture the city’s culture, to translate community vision into policy change, and to create positive economic impact.
This space is provided to MaCCNO as a community service and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or editorial policies of ANTIGRAVITY.