A blighted firehouse on Louisiana Avenue could be transformed into affordable housing and an early childhood center, if plans submitted to the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority are granted final approval.
The proposal was presented Wednesday evening (July 27) at a public Zoom meeting to inform the community about ongoing plans for renovating and repurposing the disused firehouse at 2314 Louisiana Ave.
Mid-July marked the close of NORA’s solicitation for the development proposal period, and the organizations Home by Hand and Alembic Community Development presented their joint plans for the site. Their proposal would see the old firehouse renovated to become an early childhood education center on the ground floor and seven affordable rental units on the two floors above.
“One of the requirements of the program is that any development that arises from the [NORA-run] program must create either affordable housing units or economic development opportunities in the form of jobs,” said NORA project manager Kyle Gilmore.
The city is leasing the property to NORA for a 99-year term; NORA will then sublease it to a development partner that administers the overall process of putting the building back into use.
According to NORA, an award for the sub-lease will be granted Aug. 8 to the winning applicant for redevelopment. Though many groups reportedly expressed interest in the property, just two organizations applied for the sub-lease. The proposals were then evaluated by a team of NORA and city employees.
“Three people from NORA and two from the city of New Orleans did the scoring, and Home by Hand had the highest score. And that’s why we’ve asked them to come present their plan,” Gilmore said.
Home by Hand is a local nonprofit that develops newly constructed energy-efficient homes for low- and moderate-income residents. It has developed more than 200 homes throughout the city while also providing financial coaching to help clients build generational wealth.
Alembic Community Development, its partner for the project, focuses on redeveloping historic buildings as affordable housing, commercial space and community facilities. Its projects include the H3C affordable housing and community health-care complex under construction on the former Brown’s Dairy lot on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.
“We’re really, really excited to share our collective vision of the firehouse property, which includes seven permanently affordable apartment units that will operate with cohesion with the ground floor, which we are looking at as an early childhood learning center,” said Oji Alexander, executive director of Home by Hand.
The renovations would mean completely remodeling the interior, restoring the building’s façade, and landscaping about 1,500 square feet of outdoor space.
“[The] early childhood learning center will be utilized not just by the tenants in the affordable housing but also for the surrounding community,” Alexander said.
In April, voters in Orleans Parish passed a city-wide millage aimed at funding 1,000 additional spots in New Orleans’ City Seats program, which helps fund early childhood education. Providers say the program has allowed for greater professional development and increased salaries for workers as well as greater resources for children.
The proposed early childhood education center would be wheelchair accessible and will potentially have the capacity for 50 children to attend the programs offered there. Jonathan Leit of Alembic noted that there is a desperate need for affordable early childhood education in New Orleans.
The New Orleans-based organization Agenda for Children, which administers City Seats, states on its website that “an estimated 70% of low-income children under four don’t have access to high-quality early-childhood education.”
“We know what the impact of that will be, the impact is that [lack of early education] perpetuates racial inequity over generations,” Leit said.
“During this RFP [request for proposal] process, we’ve been talking to people and providers. We’ve been talking to whole networks that are involved in supporting these child-care operators. What we learned is that they’re supposed to create new facilities or expand and improve the existing ones,” Leit continued.
The No. 1 concern for the operators is zoning. Early childhood centers are not permitted in many areas around the city. However, the firehouse’s zoning does permit a child-care center.
And the No. 2 concern is the lack of affordability in the local real estate market, Leit said.
Leit said that Alembic has been talking with potential operators for the education center, but as their team has not officially been granted the space, these talks have been preliminary. Leit declined to name specific organizations.
All the upstairs apartments would be earmarked as affordable units for residents making below an income threshold based on a percentage of the area median income (AMI).
There are four one-bedroom units planned, with one designated for a renter making below 50% AMI, or about $31,400 per year for a two-person household, and three marked for renters making below 60% AMI, or $37,680 a year for a two-person household.
There will also be three two-bedroom units, two marked for below 60% AMI, or $42,360 per year for a household of three, and one for a renter below 80% AMI, or below $56,480 a year for a three-person household.
The early plans for the space show two-story apartments with kitchens and living areas on the building’s second floor and loft bedrooms on the top floor. The planned units will not be wheelchair-accessible.
The development team has named Studio Kiro, based in Central City, as the project architect. Studio Kiro is also the architect on a nearby high-profile project, the Dew Drop Inn on LaSalle Street. CDW Services will be the general contractor.
After the presentation, the meeting hosts opened up the floor for questions.
“Can you describe the application process for eligible tenants?” meeting attendee Brandon Surtain asked. Alexander replied that the application process would be “in-house,” created by Home by Hand.
Other questions focused on parking. While the property does not have off-street parking, the development team plans to work with the Department of Public Works to create reserved frontage for deliveries as well as child-care drop-off and pickup.
On Aug. 8, NORA’s board will make the final decision on awarding the property to the winning proposal.
The development team will then work through the fall on securing financing for the project, which will likely include federal and state historic tax credits and low-income housing tax credits, along with funding from the city and philanthropic sources.
Construction is set to begin sometime next year, with a planned completion date in 2024.
Reporter Jesse Baum can be reached at email@example.com.