New Orleans is in the middle of a housing crisis. Home prices and rents are skyrocketing in many neighborhoods. For my 2015 year in review, I decided to spotlight some exciting new housing developments in the city, all of which will focus on bringing some badly needed overpriced housing units to the hotter-than-hot real estate market!
5. THE ROCKPILE
Hangout for the punks to be converted into 260 apartments, two pocket parks, and an urban farm currently named “Hobo Farms.”
This is Sean Cummings’ new baby. Cummings is the developer behind the Rice Mill Lofts, the Bywater complex with exposed brick walls and preserved graffiti, where a one bedroom apartment with a river view costs $1,900 a month. The Rockpile is a colloquial term for the complex of warehouses, cement slabs, and piles of rocks along the train tracks on the Bywater side of Press Street. Over the years, it’s been the site for outdoor punk shows, meet- ups for bike rides and shopping cart races, and walking Krewes during Mardi Gras.
While I do mourn the increasing loss of open space for communal experiences, the much larger problem is New Orleans’ rapidly increasing rents. Cummings, in his letter to neighborhood residents, stated that some of the apartments will be “affordable.” But when the project went before City Planning in October, the truth came out. Nearly all units will be market rent, currently estimated to be around $1,100 per month for a one bedroom and $4,200 for a 3 bedroom. Cummings said that he wanted to make sure that the Bywater remains an “epicenter for creativity” and ease pressure on the downtown housing market. But studies show that increasing the stock of highly priced housing makes gentrification accelerate further, spiking surrounding housing prices and attracting further real estate speculation.
4. HUBIG PIES FACTORY
Former bake shop to turn into 8 condos called Baker’s Row; each condo will be priced between $500,000 and $700,000.
Fatty slabs of Hubig ’s Pies were once as common to New Orleans as Zatarain’s, available in their signature paper baggies at every grocery store, corner store, and gas station in town. I ate them before I realized that they weren’t vegetarian, since they were fried in lard, and I ate them after I realized that I couldn’t really be a vegetarian in New Orleans. Hubig ’s factory caught fire in 2012, and it remains uncertain if production will ever begin again. Right after the fire, you could buy Hubig pies on eBay for $500 a pop. Now you can own a piece of New Orleans culinary history for the low price of $500,000.
3. CONTI WAX MUSEUM
Campy Wax Museum to be replaced by 16 luxury condos.
Y’all, this one is just sad. C.W. Cannon, writing in The Lens, put it best: “The star of the Musée Conti was New Orleans history, not the latest Hollywood sensation. The exhibits showcased the spectacular and the creepy, as well as the merely odd scenes from the history of the city… it’s hard to avoid the symbolism in this particular change: a commemoration, however flawed, of the myths that form our collective identity is being bulldozed so that more retirees from Dallas can enjoy the sanitized ambience of a neighborhood that New Orleanians used to live in.”
2. MCDONOGH 31
Former elementary school in Bayou St. John slated to become 34 “high-end” apartments.
This particular development is more of a stand-in for a larger trend. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the Orleans Parish School Board owned roughly 120 properties around the city, 117 of which were schools directly administered by OPSB. Many of these schools’ buildings were damaged during the storm and subsequent federal flood. The early years of recovery were confusing regarding what level of public education was needed, since it seemed like New Orleans could be a permanently shrunken city. People actively worked towards securing a smaller footprint—proposals included the defeated Green Dot Map, where planners slated entire neighborhoods for future green space. Real neighborhood destruction also occurred via the demolition of all public housing complexes and the demolition of Lower Mid-City to make way for the University/Veterans hospitals.
These demolitions, along with the terrible difficulties faced by homeowners rebuilding, and challenges facing renters regarding lack of housing stock, made it hard to predict the size of the future school-age population. OPSB, strapped for cash and unable to repair many properties, figured that only 85 school facilities would be needed for the new, smaller youth population. They decided to put the surplus facilities up for auction to get a badly needed injection of cash.
Legally, the buildings would first be offered up to charter schools in a closed bidding process. If no charter school wanted to purchase the building, the auctions would be opened up to other government entities, and finally to the public. On the surface, this might seem like the best solution, except now, five years after the first few rounds of auctions, the population of New Orleans is growing, and the school system is a decentralized, fractured mess dominated by autonomous charter schools that are now competing over the limited number of facilities that could operate as schools. Charter schools are moving in and out of temporary spaces, playing a sort of musical chairs across the city. Many charters don’t have the budgets to rehabilitate school facilities, meaning it would be hard for them to purchase what remains of the auctionable school properties.
The most recent auction, scheduled for August 2015, was cancelled due to community pushback against the program. Many of the buildings up for auction were considered historically important, including the first school for Black children in the 7th ward, Valena Jones Elementary, and the first integrated elementary school in the Lower Ninth Ward, Louis Armstrong Elementary. Other properties on the block, such as Israel M. Augustine Middle School on Tulane and Broad, were considered too valuable as potential schools to auction off just yet. Meanwhile, tensions were growing over another property slated for auction, the shuttered Bell School on Ursulines. The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), who have long been interested in developing Bell into affordable and mid-range artists lofts, was growing increasingly upset that their project was being threatened by KIPP, who was interested in purchasing the property. KIPP, being a school, would have a trump card over HANO’s longstanding, but not quite finalized, agreement to purchase Bell. In addition to community pushback over the auctions and the growing competition between interested parties, school board officials are now concerned that there has not been a comprehensive review of the new demographics of New Orleans or a review of available school facilities, implying that there could now be a mismatch between how many children need schools and how many school buildings there are. As for McDonogh 13, which was sold back in 2013 for $920,000, the surrounding neighborhood is organizing against the development, but not because they’re concerned about children and the continued conversion of public goods into private space. No, they’re worried about how the new apartment building might affect parking in their neighborhood, and are asking for a reduction in the number of apartments allowed within the development.
1. CHARITY HOSPITAL
Bidding has begun on converting Charity Hospital into a massive mixed-use development.
I fucking cried when I saw Big Charity, a documentary about the post-Katrina fate of Charity Hospital. It is a damning testament to one of the worst legacies of the storm—the closure of the nation’s oldest public hospital that provided indigent care, and the state’s willful refusal to rehabilitate the facility into a hospital once again. Flooding was limited to the basement, and an architectural study commissioned by the Foundation for Historical Louisiana found that Charity was overall sound. It was also estimated that rehabbing Charity would save an estimated $283 million.
The most damning implication in Big Charity is that someone intentionally destroyed the hospital in order to increase the chances the federal government would pay out FEMA dollars to fund the new construction. The medical staff were kicked out of the building and forced to set up a temporary triage center that operated out of an abandoned and rat-infested department store. The state chose to erect the new Veterans/ University Medical Center, declaring eminent domain over Lower Mid-City, a working class neighborhood that was struggling, but succeeding, to rebuild. The new VA/UH opened millions of dollars over budget and months behind schedule. Many of the historic homes moved from the footprint in order to preserve them were left neglected in Treme and Hoffman Triangle, and were eventually demolished. Homeowners were offered buy-outs that were too small for them to afford to relocate in Mid-City, pushing many into Gentilly or the suburbs. Charity Hospital was left padlocked and rotting for ten years.
The state recently opened the bidding process for Charity’s redevelopment, and the front runners are all planning on some sort of mixed-used development, with offices and shops on the bottom floors and apartments in the upper levels. It’s likely that a handful of these apartments will be affordable housing, but the issue again is the terrible process: the recovery dollars wasted to rebuild houses in Lower Mid-City that were ultimately demolished, the restriction of healthcare access for the poor and underinsured, and the continued fattening of developers’ pockets and the loss of public goods. I hope the thousands of souls who passed away at Charity haunt the hell out of the overpriced condos that rise in its place.
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