Rebirth in reach, panelists say Leveling of hurdles of the past possible

Sunday, April 01, 2007 | Times Picayune | New Orleans, LA | By David Hammer

For all its devastation, Hurricane Katrina may have wiped the slate clean for a new wave of retail and residential developments in the New Orleans area, efforts based on strong neighborhood planning and less tied to the political favors of the past At least, that was the hope expressed Saturday at a panel discussion during the annual Home and Garden Show in the Louisiana Superdome.

The diverse panel – which included several retail and residential developers, planner, a real estate broker, a former federal Housing and Urban Development undersecretary, a banker and an architect – told an audience of mainly community group leaders that it was time to seize on recently released city government plans to implement the city’s rebirth.

However, to see the silver lining of a New Orleans, local and business leaders need to break with some past practices, the panelists said. Chief among them is the tendency to pit neighborhood leaderships and developers against one another.

"This is a new opportunity to look at each other as partners, to overcome the pre-Katrina acrimony," architect Ray Manning said.

Saturday’s forum came on the heels of news about a potential major retail development by Victory real estate Investments LLC in Mid-City. But panel member Don Schwarcz, a real estate broker focusing on shopping centers, encouraged neighborhood groups not to wait on such blockbuster deals and take their own initiative.

"Retailers want to know how many people are in the area, but what used to be available at a click of the mouse is difficult to come by now," Schwarcz said. "if you want developments in the area, this is essential information."

The panelists said that to woo national retailers, it’s critical for neighborhood leaders to form a united front and have good coordination with city government. Part of that involves good residential planning to show retailers and other investors that there is a stable customer base, several panelists said.

Local inner-city developers Tara Hernandez and Pres Kabacoff said neighborhood groups and developers could benefit from better communication. Community leaders could ease typical concerns about mixed-income housing if they understood that it promotes retail diversity, and investors could get a clearer picture of neighborhood character and goals, they said.

Former HUD Undersecretary Roy Priest said that community groups need to take a more proactive attitude about redevelopment. One way to do that would be to use he arts to bring neighbors together, and then shops, restaurants and other retail investment would follow.

Many of the panelists said the city’s recent designation of 17 development zones would provide a strong signal to investors but it still would be up to community groups to meld their own plans with the city’s.

Peter Aamodt, director of development for a regional commercial management company, said many larger companies were scared away from New Orleans development projects before Katrina by ever-changing rules of engagement in which a contract or a permit would depend on special favors for well-connected people.

Saundra Reed, who came to the forum representing the Central City Renaissance Society, wanted to know how neighborhood leaders could persuade potential investors and builders that such a "shakedown effect" would no longer exist.

"I call it neighboring, a new kind of "relationship-building," she said.

Manning suggested better coordination with city government so developers would see a predictable path to completing a project. Schwarcz agreed, but warned that community leaders also needed to guard against some of the old pay-to-play elements creeping back into the discussion.

"If we believe the storm blew away all the problems, we’re being very naive," he said.





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