Owen Courreges: Three years later, how far has O.C. Haley come?

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Owen Courreges

Three years ago, on November 11, 2011, I published a column entitled “The O.C. Haley Non-Commercial District.”

Within that piece, I criticized the notion that O.C. Haley Boulevard, a noted commercial street in Central City, was ripe for private investment.  Led by Councilwoman Stacy Head, it had become a common trope that any business afflicted with zoning issues should simply move there, where City Hall wanted them to be.

In response, I suggested that the use of O.C. Haley as an example of an opportune destination for businesses crushed by obscenely unreasonable zoning restrictions was crass and, frankly, just added insult to injury.  The only virtue of O.C. Haley was that it was being pushed by government interests, which explained why only a handful of private businesses moved in.  The only major influx was the veritable cavalcade of nonprofit entities (i.e., non-taxpayers).

In the end, I was hesitant to believe that O.C. Haley, smack in the center of one of New Orleans’ more notoriously crime-infested neighborhoods, could become a thriving commercial corridor prior to the improvement of the surrounding neighborhood.

A lot of people objected to my piece as overly cynical or just wrong.  For all its manifest faults, the criticism went, I was wrong to pooh-pooh the O.C. Haley renaissance.  Instead, I should have learned to stop worrying and love the government program.

It is now, as of the publication of this column, just one day short of three years since that column ran.  Being a creature of introspection and self-examination, I had the crazy thought that it would be a smashing time to write a follow-up.

So here it is: I was right, all of you were wrong, neener-neener-neener.

Going down Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard three years later, it seems my appraisal was prescient.  Although there is a small smattering of new commerce along O.C. Haley, there has been vast nonprofit growth and scant commerce.  Nonprofits are on O.C. Haley like white on rice.  For-profit business is comparatively reluctant.

There are exceptions, of course.  A Mexican restaurant, Casa Borrega, has established itself with an iconic classic Chevrolet pickup out front.  Church Alley Coffee Bar is making a go of it, as is Adrian’s Bakery.  Charlie Boy, a men’s consignment shop, is also moving into the uncharted waters.  I understand there’s also a yoga studio, if you’re into that sort of thing (I am not).

However, the biggest growth industry on O.C. Haley remains nonprofits.  They’re everywhere – too numerous to list.  This is apparently why the leadership of the Oretha Castle Haley Merchants and Business Association doesn’t actually include any merchants or businesses.  For all the talk of an economic resurgence, the driving force of O.C. Haley isn’t actually commerce.

Indeed, some former for-profit businesses along O.C. Haley have actually been replaced by nonprofits.  Although something is better than nothing, presumably businesses are better than nonprofits.

This isn’t to say that O.C. Haley isn’t coming back.  There are major plans for the boulevard that are genuinely starting to materialize.  The Southern Food and Beverage Museum is a major grab and there are high hopes that it will entice tourists to throw caution to the wind make the sojourn to Central City.  Nearby, there are plans for another major tourist draw – the “New Orleans Jazz Market” to host the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.  There are also plans for an open-air food court called “Roux Carré, the Food Port of New Orleans.”

This is all going to be celebrated this weekend with the “Central City Festival” on Saturday, November 15, 2014, in the 1600 and 1700 blocks of O.C. Haley. Big Freedia is headlining.

Finally, at least one major for-profit venture is definitely in the pipeline – Jack & Jake’s Market, a new grocery store which is preparing to move into the newly-renovated  McDonogh 38 School building.  Jack & Jake’s has been operating as a wholesaler but is poised to go into retail.

However, Jack & Jake’s decision can hardly have been impelled by market factors.  Jack & Jake’s own website boasts how it “works to address the market failures that have resulted in the under-utilization of local farms and seafood producers in the southeastern U.S.”  Setting up shop in a dubious location in a noteworthy “food desert” seems to fit with their business model.

It remains to be seen whether these new ventures will actually draw businesses to O.C. Haley or not.  I’ve heard some grumblings that O.C. Haley really needs an “anchor” business to forge the way for others, the way the bar “Cure” did on Freret Street.  It’s certainly possible that Jack & Jakes or the Southern Food and Beverage Museum could accomplish that, although neither of those would replicate the night life that played a major role in bringing back Freret.

New Orleans chef Adolfo Garcia, who previously staked a claim to Freret Street, has vague plans for a new restaurant on O.C. Haley.  However, there aren’t even wisps of plans for private bars and entertainment venues, which are the backbone of commercial districts like Freret and Magazine.

As before, I still have hopes for O.C. Haley.  Obviously, it would be better for properties on O.C. Haley to be renovated and occupied, and beyond that it would be better to see more economic activity in Central City.  Given practical realities, I’d prefer that a dubious effort succeed than the prospect of all of us suffering by virtue of its failure.

Alas, my general opinion remains the same.  The whole effort seems forced.  Instead of trying to raise up Central City or promote commerce in general, we’re just talking up a single boulevard.  We aren’t generating sustained commerce, and we’re not thinking of the needs of those who currently live in Central City.  Rather, we’re trying to boost real estate values and create a tourist destination, and we’re doing it primarily with nonprofit entities.

O.C. Haley is coming back, but we need to understand that it isn’t by virtue of commerce or the fruit of efforts to raise up the community.  There’s little reason for existing businesses to flock there, and it’s a major gamble for new ones.  The few new businesses that are opening there are going for a more affluent clientele, altering existing residents of Central City that the plans from on high don’t include them.

Ultimately, although the city seems to be achieving the goal of a restored O.C. Haley, it has shown the limitations of its ability to herd commercial development.  The underlying problems remain, and generally only nonprofit entities are willing to overlook them.

Were the real estate market less suffocated by restrictive zoning, we wouldn’t be discussing the merits of these kinds of government-driven schemes.  That’s the real takeaway here.

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.

25 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: Three years later, how far has O.C. Haley come?

  1. I’ve lived off of OC Haley for 5 years, and I’m heartened by the progress in populating the avenue/reducing vacant storefronts. I think more development is possible, but it pays to think about which types of development are likely to thrive in that area. Coffee shops, bakeries, dry cleaners, hardware stores, small markets with reasonable prices–those are what the neighborhood needs, and they don’t seem out of place.

    OC Haley is not the new Freret, it’s true. I find it extremely unlikely that there will ever be a dense stretch of nightclubs on the same stretch of road as the Mission.

    One former business that opened and closed was Velvet Espresso. I walked there one weekend to get myself a cup of coffee in the neighborhood–and when I got there, its hours were embarrassingly limited–weekdays only, closed by 2 p.m.

    • There are reasons why that business opened and closed, including a menu with no prices on it ($12 sandwich), not allowing internet/laptops, and no business experience. That’s the problem with someone has too much money and takes on a business as a hobby.

      • I’ll be honest, their food was good, the one time I stopped by in the middle of the day on my way to the airport. But it was clearly not for the neighborhood.

  2. Well Owen, it can at least be said that you are a man of your convictions. As someone who was involved in the redevelopment of Freret Street long before CURE was even a twinkle in the eye, I would say that an important role for the nonprofit sector to play in community redevelopment is to be the first ones in with capital, investment and energy to begin to change the dynamic of a neighborhood. That was the case on Freret Street when NHS first began working in the 90’s. NHS as a nonprofit laid a foundation through the acquisition and redevelopment of vacant properties as well as changing the street’s negative perception with initiatives like the Freret Street Festival. It took those efforts more than a decade to bear fruit with the attraction for profit businesses like CURE, Hi Hat and all the other wonderful restaurants, coffee shops and entertainment venues that have made Freret Street a destination. O.C. Haley has been blessed to have strong nonprofit anchors like Ashe and Cafe Reconcile that do attract thousands people to come into the neighborhood from across the region, this is exactly what will encourage more investment. Those are assets that Freret did not have to build upon in its early stages of redevelopment. So Owen, please give O.C. Haley more time and rather than criticize the nonprofit sector and local government, cheer them on for paving the way and creating a strong foundation for this community’s redevelopment. I look forward to your blog three years, six years from now to see if your observations today remain true in the future. I predict that what we will see is a healthy mix of commerce along the corridor. And I am willing to bet on oyster poor boy, are you game?

    • Lauren Anderson was the leader who planted the seeds with NHS that grew Freret, so when she comments on OCH we should all listen…

      Renaissance ain’t reality TV- and more time and TLC is needed to flip your neighborhood, than to “flip this house” and get families to invest back in.
      + Tad Mondale and Adolfo Garcia trying to buy in,

      https://uptownmessenger.com/2014/08/chef-adolfo-garcia-eyes-o-c-haley-boulevard-for-next-restaurant-venture/

      so OCH will hopefully get these same leaders who invested on Freret years back. Get more like them, cut the red tape, get all to invest in CCTV cameras and expose what makes folks not feel safe- and we all win…
      Best from 5110 Freret,
      Andy Brott

    • Lauren,

      >>…I would say that an important role for the nonprofit sector to play in community redevelopment is to be the first ones in with capital, investment and energy to begin to change the dynamic of a neighborhood.<>[P]lease give O.C. Haley more time and rather than criticize the nonprofit sector and local government, cheer them on for paving the way and creating a strong foundation for this community’s redevelopment.<> I look forward to your blog three years, six years from now to see if your observations today remain true in the future. I predict that what we will see is a healthy mix of commerce along the corridor.<<

      Fair enough. I'm not making any bets, though, because I'm really not certain how it will play out. As you might have guessed, I think it's been slow going and I don't like how it's being managed either way, but I'd say the scheme shows a chance of succeeding under its own terms (again, at least if real estate trends hold).

      My main point is that OCH has been a massively hard sell to for-profit businesses. The "resurgence" thus far is really just a collaboration between nonprofits and city government. We are starting to see a few businesses take the risk, but they're gambling on the combination of the real estate market and municipal policy forcing gentrification of Central City. Existing residents aren't really on anybody's mind.

      Even if you're right about how things will be six years from now (and it's at least somewhat likely you are) I'm just not seeing the brilliant success story.

  3. As long as the New Orleans Mission is there, you can forget about Private For-Profit “Tax Paying” Businesses….Just like the rest of Orleans Parish….

    I would love to know how much PROPERTY TAX all those Non-Profits on O.C. Haley pay to the government?

  4. Is “restrictive zoning” a redundancy? I like zoning as a method of land use control, and I assume it is restrictive, although an anything goes zone could be interesting. Is there room left on O.C. Haley for private development? The amount of public and non-profit activity has been astounding.

    • Deux,

      I’m more talking about a matter of degree. The term “restrictive zoning,” as I’ve seen it employed, generally refers to a more onerous system of zoning. As for OCH, there’s plenty of room, but you’re right insofar as public and nonprofit projects have taken up a lot of properties.

  5. The fundamental problem in this opinion is that it assumes that Magazine and Freret are the models for every corridor. There is nothing wrong with non-profits clustering in particular places.

    • Quint,

      There’s nothing wrong with it, but I don’t think it’s a natural trend. I think the whole thing is largely a creature of government policy.

  6. “The whole effort seems forced. Instead of trying to raise up Central City or promote commerce in general, we’re just talking up a single boulevard. We aren’t generating sustained commerce”

    It may seem forced, but the changes or the lack of changes are ultimately driven by economics, as is usually the case. Central City as a whole and commerce in general are areas too vast to impact meaningfully without massive amounts of capital, and so what capital there is, both public and private, is allocated to manageable areas. OCH is a good choice for the city to focus on, since as it rises so does a large part of Central City, even though without a push from the city OCH would have caught the attention of deep pocketed investors. Among a number of valuable attributes the street has a couple of unique ones: roomy straight shot access to/from high income population centers, particularly the toney new South Market development; and a concentration of buildings with large floors, an important feature for attracting major retailers. So why is the pace of development on OCH so slow compared with commercial corridors like Freret St. The scores of garden variety investors, the ones necessary for spreading out development and nudging it to the tipping point, view the high violent crime rate in the vicinity as too big a risk for betting their limited capital. The fear of crime scares off the tenants, clients, shoppers, diners, and other consumers who must come and spend in ever increasing numbers for sustained growth to be realized. The control of crime is an effort that only the city can lead. Right now OCH has the potential to fly or flop to an extreme degree, and the outcome is in fact greatly dependent on the city’s focus.

    • Gaston,

      I think you’re correct that OCH would eventually redevelop either way, but I also think the city has prevented it from redeveloping organically and is now putting its thumb on the scale in favor of touristy projects and higher-end businesses (the latter of which still seems pretty skeptical). Don’t you think that if the city took a less restrictive stance on commercial development, that perhaps OCH would have more businesses to serve the local community (i.e., the type of businesses that serve poorer patrons)? This is what I mean when I say that all of this seems “forced.”

  7. Interesting comparison can be made with the Baronne St. corridor soon to be anchored by the Martin WIne Cellar. The adjacent block has had some restoration and new tenants, including Cleaver & Co. at 3917 Baronne. Obviously much smaller scale than OCH, but better integrated with surrounding community and real for-profit businesses.

  8. I believe the revitalization of Freret has created an unrealistic barometer to which we are judging neighborhood growth. Freret was aided by post-Katrina trends, Lusher’s expansion (as Owen mentioned), years of ground work by NHS and more than a bit of luck. The opening of Cure was not the start of the Freret renaissance.

    OC Haley’s progress over the last 3 years has been amazing to see and I am confident it will continue for years to come. Here are a few highlights from the last 3 years:

    The 38,000 sq. ft. McDonogh 38 School underwent a renovation into a fresh market, Jack and Jake’s.

    The NORA headquarters and King Rampart Senior Housing moved into a brand new 84,000 sq. ft. building.

    The former Gator’s department store is being renovated into a 360-seat performance venue for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.

    The 30,000 sq. ft. Dryades Market was renovated into SoFaB and the highly-anticipated restaurant Purloo.

    Café Reconcile underwent a $5.9 million renovation and expansion.

    Casa Borega and Mais Arepas, both well-reviewed restaurants, opened, and construction started on a new Adolfo Garcia’s restaurant.

    The Tulane City Center moved to the street. In fact, they already outgrew their space and moved into a larger building.

    The Ashe Cultural Center expanded into the newly renovated Polybar Building on Baronne Street.

    The Franz Building underwent a $2 million renovation and now houses Adrian’s Bakery, a Chase Incubator space and the Good Work Network. There are also plans for an adjacent food truck food court.

    The majority of these spaces were vacant and blighted 3 years ago, and are now a part of a revitalizing corridor.

    There has also been significant growth on the other side of the highway that improves the quality of life on the Boulevard. Those projects include Rouse’s, South Market District, the Loyola Streetcar line, the Auto Exchange building and more.

    Doesn’t this represent significant progress?

    • Those are all good indicators of progress, but how is their significance determined. If in terms of improvement over OCH’s recent past then the progress is undoubtedly significant. If in terms of economic sustainability then the progress is actually not significant at all. A clear sign of economic sustainability is strong participation by garden variety investors as opposed to institutional and public entities like Chase and NORA. The three newly opened businesses you named that fit the profile of ordinary investors are a start, but it is certain that they worry mightily about the same single issue that worried other entrepreneurs who considered OCH but decided to do an about face: violent crime. More than any other commercial corridor OCH is vulnerable to the fallout from bad publicity were there ever to be a very unfortunate incident there. The general perception of the area has long been one of an irredeemably dangerous place to avoid, and now that OCH is increasingly in the spotlight, one or two incidents involving newcomers would be extremely damaging. A look at a map will explain why crime is going to be an intractable problem for businesses and residents on or near OCH for many years to come. Because of the sheer scale of the poverty it is doubtful that the area adjacent to OCH can inspire enough of the active plot-by-plot renewal that occurred around other rising commercial corridors and is a requirement for buffering and sustaining those corridors. The scores of ordinary investors (if not hundreds in the case of Central City) needed to fix houses, open businesses, and spread out and fill in the cracks of development are modestly capitalized, and they simply cannot afford to risk a venture where a capricious turn of events could indefinitely tie up or even wipe out their investment.

  9. Great discussion. A key aspect of OCH in comparison to Freret and Magazine is housing. Central City has some of the worst housing conditions in the city, and despite some recent residential investment stretching from St. Charles, it hasn’t quite reached OCH. Additionally, the area has many vacant lots. This doesn’t make for a good critical mass of residents and specifically residents with disposable income to support greater commercial development.

  10. Thanks for mentioning Casa Borrega Mr. Courreges, stop by after 7 pm tuesday to saturday to see by yourself why Tad Mondale and Adolfo Garcia decide to invest at the boulevard… By the way Gaston, I’m not afraid of crime, but I get little bit nervous when my customers call for a cab and they are waiting for one hour and nobody shows up, the same when I have to tell them there will be a 45 minutes to an hour wait for a table because I’m packed.
    I observe the course of development in Nola for the last 25 years, Frenchmen, Magazine, Oak,Maple, Freret, St.Claude, I have no doubt OCH will happen, I AM.

  11. Much of this discussion is not informed by on the ground information about what is happening on the boulevard, and has been happening over the course of the last 15 years. Every neighborhood does not have to “evolve” in the same way as other uptown corridors that have gentrified to the detriment of the quality of life of nearby residents, regardless of their income level. Community development takes time and needs to balance the needs of many–not just businesses in the case of a neighborhood commercial district. We get calls every week from people seeking retail space, office space, art venues, restaurant space, medical office space, etc. There isn’t enough inventory to meet the demand. Plans are underway for about a dozen properties, and there are really only a few vacant or underutilized properties. What is evolving now has been years in the making, and is not simply the result of city advocacy. People want to come to the neighborhood because of its character, not in spite of it. And in terms of crime on this corridor, check with the sixth district. It’s unfortunate that a crime problem is perceived, because it’s not a reality. About 40,000 people attend events and films at Zeitgeist and Ashe Cultural Arts Center each year, and thousands of people live in the immediate neighborhood without fear. The businesses and social enterprises (yes, they are businesses too) are thriving. Anyone who wants more information about the neighborhood is welcome to contact us!

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