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The Echoes of Rebuilding

Five years after Katrina, where is opportunity knocking for new construction and renovation?

Cheryl Gerber

New Orleans is one of the few cities in the struggling U.S. economy where the tap-taps of hammers still echo across the rooftops. It’s the sound of rebuilding and new construction, the sound of insurance proceeds and federal rebuilding dollars hitting the neighborhoods. It’s also the sound of homeowners chipping away at a massive blight problem.

Not every part of New Orleans, however, is a rebuilding hot spot. So where are the hammers making the most music?

new construction

Although I don’t live there, I’ve lately indulged in driving the streets of Lakeview to monitor its progress. Every time I do so, I notice another new home under construction and signs of reconstruction aplenty. As long as I can avoid punishing my car on one of those moonscape-like side streets, the drives offer me a promising vision of the future. It must be a thrill for those who are building new houses to see their castles in the air gradually take form on earth.

Realtor GiGi Burk is the owner of Burk Brokerage in Lakeview, and her husband is a home-builder. She has listings across the northern part of town — the areas among the hardest hit when the levees broke in 2005. Five to 10 years from now, she says, Lakeview’s commercial spaces will be filled to capacity and in most sections, the empty lots will be few and far between. The housing will be a mix of large and modest-size houses. Everything will feel new.

Back in my car, passing along the north edge of the city where the Lakefront neighborhoods are thriving again, that sense of promise continues to build. Areas such as Lake Vista are almost fully built back. These neighborhoods are in their last phase of rebuilding, Burk says. “It’s pretty much a normal market.”

But doubling back southward through the Gentilly area, the view through my windshield tends to sober me up. Certain areas seem to be on a longer road to revitalization. Parts of Gentilly are “just struggling,” Burk says. “They don’t have the momentum.”

She notes exceptions, such as the areas alongside Bayou St. John, where she lives. And she believes that other areas of Gentilly will begin to pick up within the next five years as more shopping opportunities come on line, as neighborhood groups grow stronger and as blight-remediation efforts pick up. But she says the area’s revival so far has been hindered by the fact that Gentilly’s population in 2005 contained a heavy dose of golden-agers who had paid for their houses long ago and perhaps didn’t carry flood insurance. Now, Burk says, many of those properties are under the stewardship of their children. “A lot of those people don’t want to let go,” she says. “But they don’t live there anymore.”

There are broader fundamentals slowing the full return of some neighborhoods. To begin with, New Orleans holds about half the population it held 50 years ago, and even Jefferson Parish is somewhat off its peak. As the city builds back, home-buyers are after neighborhoods with a critical mass of population, shopping and amenities, says Realtor Ricky Lemann of Keller Williams Realty Uptown. Flood risk is a factor in the market as well, he says.

The advantage of these factors goes to those interested in building new homes without spending a lot on land. In the northeastern parts of the city, it’s not difficult to find lots for less than $40,000.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, both Lemann and Burk say parts of Old Metairie offer good deals at the high end of the market for vacant lots. This is particularly true for Metairie Club Gardens, where a lot can fetch $450,000. That’s down significantly from the going rates before Katrina, Lemann says.

But from behind the wheel of my car, one thing is clear: Those lots are out of my price range.

renovations

Flood risk is a factor but far from a deal-killer in the local market. Lemann points to such areas as Broadmoor/Fontainebleau as higher flood-risk spots that nonetheless are thriving. He cites its central location, quality housing stock, favorable per-square-foot prices and resurgent population. “Broadmoor has a very strong spirit,” Lemann says. “They have a die-hard group over there that just refuses to give up.”

Lemann is particularly bullish on the neighborhoods flanking Freret Street, just downtown from Loyola and Tulane universities. That stretch of Freret received light flooding in 2005, but it’s coming back strong with new restaurants and other amenities, Lemann says. “Freret is hot, hot, hot.”

And Lemann says he loves Mid-City, pointing to the higher elevation areas near Bayou St. John as particularly thriving. But he also sees vigorous renovation activity in areas of Mid-City that received some flooding. Overall, however, Mid-City poses a challenge to buyers: “Nobody sells,” Lemann says. “Once people settle there, they really don’t want to leave.”

Lemann also sees a lot of potential in the areas of New Orleans that are highest and driest. In the coming years, he foresees continued revitalization of the Uptown neighborhoods between Tchoupitoulas and Magazine, from the Irish Channel through the neighborhoods upriver. Although some of those areas are rough around the edges, he says, in the long run, they’re blue-chip investments.

Given how far our neighborhoods have come in the past five years, the next five would seem to hold a lot of potential. Let’s hope the view through our windshields keeps improving.
 

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