Owen Courreges: The O.C. Haley (non-) commercial corridor

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Owen Courrèges

The mere mention of the words evokes fear in the minds of many New Orleanians: “Central City.” With a violent crime rate among the highest or New Orleans neighborhoods, the words are virtually synonymous with poverty, crime and seemingly insurmountable social disorder.

This being the case, one would think that nobody would be rushing to become Central City’s lead cheerleader. However, District B City Councilwoman Stacy Head has embraced the role wholeheartedly.

This past Saturday, various local groups organized the Central City Tour of Homes and the Oretha Castle Haley Art Market. Head disseminated a news release in advance of these events proclaiming: “Central City is New Orleans’ next great rediscovered neighborhood.”

Central City’s one major commercial artery, which has definitely seen better days, has become Ms. Head’s go-to subject of discussion when confronted with disputes over commercial development. Head famously suggested to Greg Sonnier, in rejecting his perfectly reasonable request to reopen his noteworthy Gabrielle Restaurant on Henry Clay Avenue, that he instead reopen on – you guessed it – O.C. Haley.

Head boasts that $75 million in investments have already been made along O.C. Haley, and suggests that the street is in the infancy of a spate of commercial redevelopment akin to that recently experienced nearby on Freret Street.

Alas, Head’s optimism is misguided. With apologies to the departed Lloyd Bentsen, ‘I know Freret Street, Freret Street is a favorite destination of mine; Oretha Castle Haley, ma’am, is no Freret Street.’

What has occurred on Freret Street is truly marvelous, I have no doubt. After Hurricane Katrina the street was a virtual ghost town, replete with flooded, moldering commercial buildings. However, some brave entrepreneurs started setting up shop, and today the movement has snowballed into a thriving commercial corridor.

Oretha Castle Haley, on the other hand, is still largely moldering, and is largely bereft of any commercial development. Instead, O.C. Haley is chock full of nonprofit entities. Driving down O.C. Haley from the freeway gives the distinct impression that “profit” is a foreign concept in Central City. One first notes the fire-gutted McDonogh 38 School, which is slated to be redeveloped into a non-profit entity. Next is a continuing cascade of nonprofits, including Cafe Reconcile, the Zeitgeist Multidisciplinary Arts Center and the Juvenile Justice Project.

With all due respect to non-profit entities, they are not an indicator of a healthy economy. Most survive largely on donations and government grants (the Zeitgeist is an exception, but only because it fears government control over the films it screens).

What a neighborhood like Central City needs is good, old-fashioned commerce. I’m talking about businesses that make no bones about wanting to earn profit, first and foremost. Central City needs to generate wealth, not just shift money around.

Right now, commerce is what Central City is sorely lacking. The old businesses that lined O.C. Haley back when it was Dryades have gone and have not returned. Nonprofits are a poor substitute.

This is not to say that Head is wrong to try to encourage commercial development along O.C. Haley, because that is exactly what it needs. However, let’s not go overboard.  Comparing O.C. Haley to Freret is ridiculous, and proposing that a fine restaurant like Gabrielle move to Central City is patronizing. Her cheerleading, frankly, has degenerated into comic relief.

In saying this, it is not my intention to kick Central City when it’s down. I actually lived on the edge of central City in the 1700 block of Toledano Street for two years. I was never the victim of any crime, and I saw firsthand that some of Central City’ s reputation is unfair.

The point is that Central City needs to improve from the ground up, and it needs to do so by solving its crime problem and promoting business sensibly.  Local government won’t be able to force a renaissance, and neither should it try.

The efforts of the Central City Renaissance Alliance and like-minded groups are praiseworthy and must continue, but until we answer the question of why O.C. Haley has few for-profit businesses left, Stacy Head’s PR campaign will fall on deaf ears.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

36 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: The O.C. Haley (non-) commercial corridor

  1. Now now Owen you are just being contrary just to be contrary.

    Councilmember Head is trying to assist businesses that may want to invest in OC Haley. I worked on Freret with her office, and she helped assist and guide business through City Hall bureaucracy to facilitate development along Freret. Go ask the business owners along Freret, especially Troy Rhodies at the poboy shop.

    Wrong again Owen. Sorry, I had high hopes that you had turned the corner!

    • Elizabeth,

      I’m not maligning Head’s efforts, mind you, I’m just saying that she’s writing checks O.C. Haley can’t cash. It isn’t Freret, and pretending it is won’t make it so.

  2. I live in Central City now and very near OC Haley. I used to work at one of those non-profits (City Year 2007, now relocated to Howard just off of Lee Circle).

    Anyway, this is only to say that in my short time in New Orleans, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the area. I think it’s a little narrow to say that Head’s ‘cheerleading’ is ‘comic relief’. I find her outspoken support for the corridor to be encouraging. I agree that there should be more commerce on the corridor, but I don’t think that local government will have nothing to do with it when happens and that local government and other renaissance orgs shouldn’t try.

    Civic engagement, eyes on the streets and advocates for the area in general can help to make Central City safer, more walkable, and a destination point for visitors from other cities (hell, visitors from other neighborhoods). If the people and their money are there, won’t the businesses follow? Maybe that’s too ground up…

  3. While OC Haley is its own unique condition, pessimism about its prospects for revitalization serves no one. I had the pleasure of working for a non-profit organization that had a vested interest in both the Freret and Central City neighborhoods, and I can tell you that your impressions of both are misguided. As recently as 2008, Freret was just as empty as OC Haley is now with little more than a Domino’s and a scattering of non-profits as anchors. OC Haley is more conveniently located for commercial development and has much better architectural infrastructure than Freret had. What has been missing is a community push to bring outsiders into the neighborhood (like the Freret Street Festival and Friday Night Fights did). Miss Head is championing the beginning of just such a push and she should be commended for it.

    • Colin,

      Freret at least had a handful of businesses in 2008. It had more businesses than non-profits; O.C. Haley has virtually no commerce at all. It even lost the Gator’s discount store.

      Look, I’d love it if O.C. Haley could support a thriving business cooridor, but right now it can’t. Head is going around acting as if it has already turned a corner, but omits that it has only become a small nexus of non-profit activity. It’s condescending to suggest to high-end business owners that they bankrupt themselves by moving to O.C. Haley.

      The message I want to hear is not some sugary fantasy about O.C. Haley being the same as Freret, but the truth: that O.C. Haley is becoming a center for non-profits and could someday see a commercial revival if we can solve the problems faced by Central City. Head’s rhetoric is skipping a step.

    • Colin,

      It’s not pessimism to not want to hear some sugary fantasy about O.C. Haley being the same as Freret. In 2008, Freret had some commercial activity; it certainly had more businesses than nonprofits. O.C. Haley has virturally no commercial activity. Even the Gator’s discount store is now gone.

      I just don’t think it’s particularly helpful to pretend O.C. Haley is something its not. It avoids the problems rather than solving them.

  4. Owen, I don’t think you’ve thought this one through.

    You want Central City to generate wealth, not just shift money around? Are we sure it doesn’t now?

    Is there a better example of generating wealth anywhere in the city than Cafe Reconcile, which graduates a new class of young people into the restaurant labor market every 6 weeks with wealth-generating skills most couldn’t have imagined just weeks before. The graduates — and the community — profit from the investment of time and talent by low-paid staff and volunteers. And I’m fairly sure from grants, some perhaps governmental grants traceable back to you, me and our fellow citizens.

    Over on Freret Street (which incidentally I also support every chance I get) we have business owners and entrepreneurs who have generated wealth partly from their own effort and ideas, but also partly from paying labor sufficiently low wages to have some profit left over. They too are supported by the public enterprise — the efforts of Councilperson Head and her staff, grants the city is leveraging to rebuild the street, as well as city staff and services we all pay for and benefit from.

    Which of the enterprises is the greater net wealth generator? Not clear. Both? Neither? Not the one the simple-minded analysis would predict? I’m not sure and neither should you be, unless you’ve accounted for the fact that the labor now generating profit in the Freret St restaurants might have been prepared for the labor market on OC Haley, and also polished by an investment (an internship) supplied by another profit-making restaurant, which may or may not have made money on the labor, which may or may not be generating wealth, and which to some extent benefits from government support. And on and on.

    I’d love to see public policy guided by the kind of analysis that recognizes that the little pieces of this city depend on each other in ways that may not be obvious.

    In the meantime, this time I’m with Stacy Head. Let’s make sure Freret St, OC Haley, and any other area with something positive going has as many resources as we can give them to thrive.

    • spicewood,

      I like Cafe Reconcile, but it is a nonprofit and it has not led to other eateries opening up on O.C. Haley. While we’re patting ourselves on the back for entities like Reconcile, the street is devoid of commercial development. Why don’t we admit that there’s a problem, that Central City is not in a position to support a major commercial district, and then ask ourselves what we can do to change that? We need to be honest with ourselves before we can change things. Head is overstating O.C. Haley’s appeal and acting like it’s already the “it” district when it isn’t. I don’t think that aspect of her campaign is helpful.

  5. Owen,

    I think your portrayal of Freret Street’s evolution:

    After Hurricane Katrina the street was a virtual ghost town, replete with flooded, moldering commercial buildings. However, some brave entrepreneurs started setting up shop, and today the movement has snowballed into a thriving commercial corridor.

    is a bit simplistic. The entrepreneurs had help from Stacy Head, according to this article:

    Freret business owners credit City Council representative Stacy Head for spurring development by getting the neighborhood rezoned as an arts and culture overlay district, which helps ease the permitting process for new businesses.

    “I think she’s directly responsible for the development of” Freret, Bodenheimer said of Head, echoing many of his neighbors. “She put in the pro-business legislation that let business thrive.”

    The same article notes that crime was prevalent in the area and that by 2005 Dunbar’s was the sole remaining restaurant in the area.

    I find many more similarities between Freret and OCH than differences. Your insistence otherwise (and denigration of Councilwoman Head’s efforts) is puzzling.

    • Rob,

      Seriously? Are you proposing that I credit government for economic development when all it does is streamline its own bloated bureacracy? I’ll give Head her due (she deserves it) but the primary credit goes to entrepreneurs and economic factors driving development. All government did was make itself slightly less suffocating. It should do that all the time and everywhere.

      Moreover, Freret did not undergo major visible infrastructure improvements. It still has the same lights, sidewalks and pavement from 30 years ago. No, the main credit goes to those who established businesses in the district.

      • Neil, I don’t believe I proposed that you should do anything. However, when one of the primary Freret business owners (Neil is a board member of the Freret Business and Property Owner Association) credits Councilmember Head for Freret’s re-vitalization I’m more inclined to take his word for it than yours.

        The main thrust of my comment was that I think you’re overstating the differences between the two corridors.

  6. Thing is, even with its advantages, people worked long and hard to establish Freret’s potential and viability before it took off. And it took a lot of work for folks around there to sell that neighborhood’s potential. What has looked like spontaneous success story over the past 18 months is just the payoff.

    What you see as condescending or patronizing behavior from Head is what I see as a serious and planned marketing strategy. That office has worked with the area to put some work into OC Haley, and they have some credibility based on the Freret success. No one is actually expecting Gabrielle to open up in Central City, but by talking about it in such a public forum with a lot of eyes on it, someone else (with a more fitting business plan) might. Especially someone else who is tired of dealing with kissing the rear ends of neighborhood associations elsewhere in the city.

    • If you plan on getting assistance from Stacy Head, you’d better get your lipstick out and get ready to get cozy with the neighborhood associations.

        • That is a dopey reply. I pointed out to Cousin Pat that Ms. Head is not going to be of any help in magically getting a person past the neighborhood associations. Plenty of caboose smooching is going to be expected.

          • To get anything done in this city, you’ve got to be down with the “caboose smooching.” But not all NA’s are created equal. The whole purpose of marketing OC Haley in this way is to tell entrepreneurs that there is a place where the lipstick investment will go further.

            Greener pastures and all that.

    • Cousin Pat,

      You might be right, but I don’t like the facade Head is putting on. She shouldn’t hash out her marketing strategy by lying to business owners. She knew telling Sonnier to move to O.C. Haley was a stupid suggestion, but did it anyway. She also knows that O.C. Haley is full of nonprofits but has no real commerce – which would be a great opportunity to advertise that she’s working to change that – but instead she acts as if it’s already Freret.

      Maybe it’s more the rhetoric than the substance, and perhaps my column didn’t give her enough credit for the credibility she’s built up from promoting Freret. However, unlike with Freret, this campaign has me shaking my head at times.

      • There ain’t a single business owner that’s going to invest anywhere based solely on the boosterism of a city council member. But maybe someone looks at a piece of property and gets and idea. Maybe someone does a market study and talks to their friends. There isn’t a much better way to get people talking than to suggest a tony Uptown cafe get back to serving meals by moving into Central City, and nobody was really looking at the viability or economic dynamism of OC Haley before.

        And here’s this post, with 22 comments at the time I’m writing this. It tests the “any publicity is good publicity” theorem. And Ms. Head strikes me as someone who isn’t afraid to use a rhetorical bludgeon to see what she can shake up.

        • Cousin Pat,

          There isn’t a much better way to get people talking than to suggest a tony Uptown cafe get back to serving meals by moving into Central City[.]

          Head did it in the context of voting against Gabrielle, which looked anti-development to me, and given the context and the reality of the situation I would argue that she hurt her cause more than she helped it. Hearing that from her left a bad taste in my mouth.

          As for Head’s chances of success, as I’ve said elsewhere here, I’d really love to proven wrong. I don’t disagree with what she’s trying to do – far from it – but taking care of blight and crime in Central City need to take a front seat.

          • Blight and crime thrive off neglect and misuse of neighborhoods. For Central City, getting that key investor on OC Haley (as Villere mentions later in this thread) is the needed component. If you turn the corner and get more businesses coming in, building a more dynamic economy and putting “eyes on the street,” then blight and crime are reduced in a natural cycle.

            There’s only so much police and neighborhood watches can do.

  7. In fact, the transition from non-profits to commercial entities is already under way:

    One first notes the fire-gutted McDonogh 38 School, which is slated to be redeveloped into a non-profit entity.

    This is false. The Myrtle Banks building was purchased by the Alembic Development Company and they are currently seeking a retail client (Jack & Jake’s.)

    The pending relocation of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum is encouraging as well.

    Finally, I know of one restaurant that is slated to open on OCH (pending completion of construction.)

    • Rob,

      Correction noted. I had understood that the school was going to be used for some nonprofit purpose (I think I had heard a museum being floated), but apparently that has changed. Thanks for the heads up.

    • patty,

      True enough. I generally support Head, and though I think her intentions are good I see some poor execution here. If what Rob says is true, though, Head might still be achieving some success. I’d love to be proven wrong.

  8. Oretha Castle Haley has incredible potential to be the next Freret. Let’s not forget it’s only 3 blocks from St. Charles. Zeitgeist (very popular) and Reconcile are not anchors enough? Reconcile’s non-profit status does not change that it brings tons of hungry people in at lunch. You have not sufficiently compelled me that the comparison is absurd. Why does the ratio of businesses to non-profits matter? A Dat Dog or a Sarita’s Grill could move into OCH tomorrow and like Freret, we would probably see a snowball effect. Easing bureaucracy encourages growth. How is that not a legitimate point? All we really need to do is ease the permit requirements, throw some liquor licenses out, and invite everyone to the party. Economic factors and entrepreneurs… even better! But do not underestimate the power of an entrepreneurial councilwoman.

  9. I’m pretty sure the Southern Food and Beverage Museum is renovating a building on OC Haley to move in by 2013. This is supposed to house a restaurant and bar, as well.

    Also, NORA is apparently building a rather large headquarters building on OC Haley with room for other commercial tenants, as well.

    Yes, Central City is not exactly a go-to spot right now. But, because Freret has had so much success it gives hope to other dying retail strips. Also, Freret is a small street and a good spot for neighborhood restaurants and such. OC Haley, on the other hand, is extremely close to the CBD, has much larger buildings, and has more room for development IMO. If done properly, this could create a viable, walkable neighborhood on the fringe of the CBD, creating a larger, denser urban core.

    Sure, people like me are just wishful thinkers, but isn’t that something we’ve all learned since Katrina? That we should dream of what our city can be and not give in to the perceptions that some neighborhoods will just never make it? OC Haley is no Freret Street…yet. And frankly, Freret is no Oak Street. Oak, no Magazine. But if we have leaders who push for development in areas that most would never set foot in, I think we’re doing something right.

    • Rene,

      I see nothing to disagree with there, except to note that the surrounding neighborhood will need to improve somewhat before you can really see commercial redevelopment.

      I’m really not trying to rain on anyone’s parade, but I think the expectations for Freret were reasonable while O.C. Haley is being over-promoted and its problems understated. I think the prospects for redevelopment would be better if we stay realistic and confront the difficulties facing Central City.

      • You really believe that the neighborhood improvement should, or even can, precede commercial development?
        By that measure, none of the Freret success would have occured…..

  10. The biggest hurdle OCH has is in fact an anchor that will bring night time traffic and higher end retail / food dollars. No, the present inventory of business and non-profit are not going to accomplish the goal; if it were, it would be evident by now. Two prime examples of this in city are yes, Freret and Cure, and – – – Oak St. No one talks about Oak. Oak 10-15-20 years ago was NOT a destination. And it had nothing to do with Batt, Midura, or Guidry doing ANYTHING. It’s business plain and simple. And it’s Jacques-imo’s. Jacques-imo’s is to Oak as Cure is to Freret. Successful, higher dollar, evening eventful food and drink. It does help that The Maple Leaf is next door but it is not the reason for Jacques-imo’s success. Cure and Jacques-imo’s could do what they do ANYWHERE and be successful, and that’s what OCH needs. A business from some one that it isn’t there first rodeo. Jacques-imo’s and Cure each did what they do somewhere else previously, and they did it well.

    The potential for OCH is AMAZING. I applaud Head and her efforts. And maybe without them a potential business like Jacques-imo’s or Cure would not consider OCH. Measuring the results of her efforts today is ridiculous. She’s planted the seed and put the call out which is half the battle right there – a positive outlook. It helps that OCH is on dry land and close to St Chuck, and yes the housing inventory is a veritable gold mine of real estate.

    OCH is the next Freret as Freret was the next Oak. New Orleans has never had more positive investment in my lifetime. OCH will happen; the question is which business will have the balls to do it.

  11. Hi all,
    thank you for all of your comments! this is a great forum!
    As a homeowner and business owner on Freret since Jan 2005 I have a few additions/clarifications:

    1. Two months ago Freret had all new street lights installed. This was from a grant from Entergy that Councilmember Head spear-headed.
    2. Freret will get a mini face lift with some beautifications starting in the next weeks. This was a large chuck of money promised and dwindled down to $500k over the past 4+ years.
    3. Oak St post-K received a Main St Grant for $100k. That allowed them to hire a full time person to brand and market the corridor.
    4. Freret St won a $25k grant in 2010 from Markham Vineyards to brand and market. Hence the new website (thenewfreret.com), banners on the corridor and press releases going out continually. This is a 100% volunteer effort.
    5. The Arts + Cultural overlay + tax free artwork on the corridor opened the “door” for this 8 block area to attract investors. Head was key in this zoning.
    6. While non-profits can do a great deal for a neighborhood…they don’t pay property taxes and Freret currently has several that don’t contribute to the kitty.
    7. That said…a strong tax base is needed. Once the corridor is stabilized, the surrounding neighborhood can flourish.
    8. We can’t deny that Lusher Charter School has made a solid, positive impact in the immediate area.
    9. The Council member and her staff have been key to Freret. We still have a number of blighted properties on the corridor and Head facilitates with the administration to ensure our demands for enforcement are heard.
    10. What makes New Orleans unique is the fact that each neighborhood is not a “cookie cutter” template. What works on Oak, Freret, Magazine and OCH is what gives them the vibe we all crave and seek.

    Finally, it is thrilling to be a part of something positive. I teach at Loyola and my students that are now seniors have witnessed how civic engagement can actually work over their 4 years living in a community.

    Kellie Grengs
    Volunteer Board Member
    The New Freret

  12. It was kind of funny and sad for me to hear all the City Council people invite me to set up another food service establishment in their own district. I guess they forgot that I already invested a lot of money into a building that pre-dates the City`s zoning laws and has been continuously used for commercial purposes since 1890. Despite what a very powerful person would have you all believe, we bought the Uptowner at 438 Henry Clay Avenue in good faith, because it had permits that stated the address is permitted to pursue a restaurant (table service) and it was a non-conforming (commercial) use building. After we bought the place, we were informed by the city of New Orleans that they were changing the permits to a business classification that wasn`t yet adopted into Law. Those rules for the business would be signed into law a year and half later. I would be willing to bet that we are the only ongoing business to experience such an event. Unfortunately, until we can at least break even on our current investment at 438 Henry Clay Avenue, we won`t be setting up another business in Central City.

  13. There once was a time when Magazine Street was non-profits (remember the Salvation Army shelter?) and a lot of boarded up buildings. For years, the area of Jefferson and Magazine had only a few businesses, a VFW hall, and abandoned bus barn. Unfortunately community and economic development revitalization requires time and the infusion of capital that generates economy is the promise of profit. I think there is validity to all the points being made here. But OCH will require a bit more than a campaign led by volunteers or one anchor. The scale of disinvestment will require interventions such as NMTC and other CED incentives to bring in concentrated effort to restore, recruit, and promote to bring NPOs and profit into balance.

  14. Have been on Freret since Jan 05-
    When we re-opened http://www.brottworks.com in spring 06 in our temp studio, it was just us and Freret Hardware store.
    Cure was still years away.
    and Renee Gill Prat drove a shinny Red SUV.
    Damn was that a bleak time…
    But as a out of town real estate expert reminded us as we explored rebuilding on this Freretian landscape-
    the first, second, third and bay far most important rule of real estate is:
    so we went all in- (+ it took a while, especially when non profits like “Make it Right” made it more difficult+expensive for anyone to build sustainably-) and I/we now live and work in what we designed and built:
    life is good.
    OCH can be the same- and those folks can make groceries at the new Rouses is in the CBD… Go get em STACY!!!!
    Andy Brott

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