Pres Kabacoff has a vision of what a new New Orleans should look like. But instead of settling for a rebuilding of the city, he wants to usher in its renaissance. By Chris Price
New Orleans real-estate developer Pres Kabacoff has a plan to rebuild the Crescent City in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s destructive flood waters. But unlike the mayor, governor or president, Kabacoff has been developing his plan for the city for more than a year.
Kabacoff’s “new urbanism”-based Operation Rebirth is a comprehensive plan to revitalize metropolitan New Orleans by injecting people, education, residential property and commerce back into the city’s central Downtown area. His plan calls for simultaneous development projects in the neighborhoods below Claiborne Avenue between Jackson and Poland avenues, mainly along Canal Street.
Operation Rebirth includes updating the city’s medical district, refurbishing commercial and residential districts, and introducing new museums and entertainment locations to promote the region’s cultural capital.
Kabacoff has been involved in many of the region’s high-profile developments over the past 35 years. He worked with his father, Lester “Kabby” Kabacoff, in developing the Hilton Riverside complex, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and the Beau Chene subdivision in Mandeville.
With business partner Ed Boettner, Kabacoff transformed the Federal Fibre Mills building into an entertainment pavilion for the 1984 World’s Fair and transformed the Warehouse District into one of the city’s hottest addresses when he converted the pavilion into the neighborhood’s first residential complex at the fair’s close.
His company Historic Restoration Inc.’s work includes projects in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Houma, New Iberia, Shreveport and Hammond, La.; Fort Worth, Texas; Omaha, Neb.; and St. Louis, Mo.
But some of Kabacoff’s development ideas have not always been accepted as progressive. He was most recently involved in the controversial development of the River Garden neighborhood, a mixed-race, mixed-income residential and commercial development that includes a Wal-Mart on the site of the former St. Thomas housing project. Kabacoff’s plan was criticized for displacing St. Thomas’ residents and was chided by some for perceived callousness toward the urban poor for limiting the amount of subsidized housing in the neighborhood. But the conversion has been considered a success. In November, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alfonso Jackson said River Garden would be used as the model for all future public-housing developments in New Orleans.
Kabacoff declined a seat on the Mayor Ray Nagin’s rebuilding committee, citing a conflict of business interests but has met with the rebuilding committee and the Urban Land Institute to discuss integrating the concepts of Operation Rebirth with the mayor’s plan for rebuilding, which is scheduled to be released in January 2006.
Many people say New Orleans will come back bigger and better. Do you think that’s lip service trying to lift our psyche, or do you really believe the city can be bigger and better?
Kabacoff: I don’t see us getting bigger – not right away at least. A lot of it will be dependent on the federal government’s involvement financially. As time goes by, that interest is waning. I think it’s very important to know what’s going to happen with the levees, will small businesses get help, can we get tax advantages for affordable housing. I’m expecting to see a clearer picture of what’s going to happen at the beginning of the year, but I think the talk is a mix of some chest-beating and trying to exude the idea that we haven’t given up.
What will post-Katrina New Orleans look like?
Kabacoff: It will be debated for some time where you rebuild and don’t rebuild. Katrina didn’t hurt the high ground of the city. We’ve got to build on our assets – our culture, history, architecture and cuisine. I see a more concentrated New Orleans built on the city’s high ground. But it will be years before we have the population we had before the storm. We’re going to lose some poor, but we’re also going to lose young professionals and white-collar, service-industry jobs whose spending was flexible. We’ll have less of everything we had before for a while.
How would you define “new urbanism”?
Kabacoff: It is a push to revitalize the central part of a city by building strong, sustainable communities in urban areas. I believe it is important for the health of an entire community to have downtown revitalization. Without a strong central city, the entire surrounding region suffers.
What are the key elements of your Operation Rebirth concept?
Kabacoff: My initial notion was to revitalize Canal Street between Basin Street and the river. We heard the city, through the Downtown Development District, was going to plant palm trees and install new pavers on the sidewalk, but I thought we needed a bigger vision. We had worked on projects in the Warehouse District, in the French Quarter and all throughout the city. Canal Street runs through the center of our Downtown and is most important because it connects our city together.
I prepared a plan to redevelop Canal Street by revitalizing (the) Iberville (housing project), developing a theater district and a Louisiana music experience, establishing new museums and utilizing the upper floors of Canal Street stores. But people told me I was being too narrow in my thinking and should include the medical district as well. Then Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu suggested creating a plan that would transform New Orleans into a city like Paris that could have 50 to 100 blocks of walkable neighborhoods with interesting attractions, housing and commerce mixed in. I thought if we made a comprehensive plan that included all the projects the public and private sectors have talked about over the past 20 years and mix in some new concepts, we’d have a start in revitalizing the city.
Which areas of the city would you start on first?
Kabacoff: We’ve got to concentrate on Canal Street. Canal Street historically was the place where people met. It was the hub of commerce and entertainment. Through the 1950s the health of the street was on the upper end of Canal. When the streetcars and department stores left, the street changed, and today its health is on the riverfront.
But Canal Street could once again be one of the world’s foremost boulevards. The return of the streetcar was a major step forward in bringing Canal Street back. And we’ve made strides with the introduction of the casino and renovation of old department stores into premier hotels, but we need to go further.
Tourism was a nascent industry 30 years ago. We had about 1 million visitors a year, but the city focused on building tourism and attractions – the convention center, aquariums, etc. Today we get almost 7 million people a year, employing 90,000. We’ve got 7 million tourists who visit the city and flock to the riverfront, but they’re not going up Canal Street. We need to provide a destination on Canal to bring people into our city, not just on the fringe.
I’ve proposed introducing an entertainment district at the intersections of Canal, Loyola, Rampart and Basin, the area with the old Woolworth store, Saenger, State Palace and Joy theaters, which are almost all vacant buildings. The area could also house various cultural and science museums, theaters and venues. We should also include a Louisiana music experience that would showcase our jazz, blues, Cajun, zydeco, gospel, and rock ‘n’ roll music.
We’re going to have to rebuild or refurbish our medical complexes, including Charity Hospital, but let’s also look at building all of the projects we’ve been talking about with the LSU and Tulane medical centers – the New Orleans BioInnovation Center, Phase II of the Trial Clinical Sciences Research Building and the Regional Forensic Center/Public Health Lab – and boost an industry that supported 30,000 jobs to one that supports 40,000 or more.
We also have that same opportunity for job growth with our creative industries: music, arts, entertainment and the movie business. We have launched a successful movie industry in New Orleans, and now we can push it forward by developing a real “Hollywood South” by building sound stages and movie facilities between Iberville and the medical district.
How important is population density to the new urban concept?
Kabacoff: Density is very important. It’s what makes neighborhoods work. It supports restaurants, cultural opportunities and public transportation. New Orleans is a series of neighborhoods. Some of our neighborhoods are falling apart because they have pockets of nothingness going on. (If) we fill one neighborhood, it (should connect) surrounding neighborhoods.
What would be the first few phases?
Kabacoff: The revitalization of Iberville (project) is important. Upper Canal would be hard to revitalize if Iberville is left alone. Concentrated poverty in Iberville has been a killer for that neighborhood’s economy. Because of where Iberville is located, other areas of the city aren’t growing. The medical community is uncomfortable with expanding. When you look at the Quarter, it’s doing fabulously well from Bourbon to the riverfront, but from Bourbon to Rampart it’s not doing so well. Iberville’s relocation is so important to the successful rebounding of the community.
Before the storm there were 600 units that were concentrated poor. It’s all vacant today. The idea is to make the area more concentrated, but to clear the land, bring back a street pattern and build a mixed-income development with 500 market-rate units and 250 subsidized units, similar to River Garden.
Where would you move Iberville’s residents?
Kabacoff: We have to have a relocation plan for those former tenants. If we don’t have a relocation plan we won’t be able to make it work on political or moral grounds.
We do have the support of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alfonso Jackson, who said River Garden would be the model for all future public-housing developments in New Orleans. We also had 700 blighted or abandoned houses in New Orleans before Katrina. Those that weren’t structurally damaged could be renovated and converted into homes for people who have lived in our public housing. We’d have to use public money to fill the gaps in some financing, but it would eventually create an ownership society in which former Iberville residents could use a traditional mortgage or government assistance to buy their own homes.
Development projects in New Orleans often get caught up in battles that include preservationists, politicians, moneygrubbers and racial elements. Do you think post-Katrina New Orleans will have more of a spirit of cooperation?
Kabacoff: We ought to do what we can to preserve our history, so preservationists are right to fight that fight. In terms of large parcels of land, we may need to become denser and get some building heights to go from 10 to 14 stories. But we’re not going to put a high-rise next to a shotgun. There may become some preservationist fights, but we’ll have to have some flexibility to assure we have the housing to meet our needs.
We’re already seeing race entering the rebuilding question. It’s going to be sensitive. For the people who lived in the 9th Ward, Gentilly, Lakeview and eastern New Orleans, who lost everything in which they had their lives invested, there will be an intense discussion. I’m hopeful that if the federal government does not give adequate [levee] protection and says we can’t rebuild in those areas, that they’ll give some type of compensation so people will be able to start over.
I think the fear of corruption is exaggerated.
Where do you think New Orleans can be in its recovery five years from now? 10? 15? 20?
Kabacoff: I think we’re looking at five years minimum before we’ll get back to near where we were before Katrina, but some things will take up to 15 to 20 years to rebuild. We’ll be a more concentrated, more densely populated area built on our high ground. I think our tourism, port, chemical, oil and gas businesses will rebound quickly. I really don’t have a clear vision on where we’ll be five, 10, 15 or 20 years from now, but I’m hopeful.
Of which of your projects are you proudest?
Kabacoff: River Garden has really set out the possibilities for what we can do in the city. We created a diverse, vibrant and sustainable neighborhood in terms of age and race, commercial activity and residential need. It’s a successful mix and a project that confronted the fundamental issues we face in the city – mixing class and race.
What did you learn about development from your father?
Kabacoff: Make friends, work hard and if you can’t figure out the answer, make the problem bigger.
Have you ever tried the buffet at Kabby’s?
Kabacoff: Yeah, I eat there often.