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.