BIZ: BUSINESS STIRS IN LAKEVIEW

Hope and optimism may be staples of personal recovery from disaster, but making a comeback in business requires more. The decision to pick up the pieces of a business and begin anew generally arises not from emotions or nostalgia, but from a cold analysis of facts.

A series of perspective drawings contained within the Neighborhoods Rebuilding Plan, developed by Bermello-Ajamil & Partners, Inc. of Miami, Fla., working in partnership with Jim Amdal of UNO and under contract for Lambert Advisory.

That’s what makes the recent stirring of business activity in the Lakeview area encouraging. Business owners are re-establishing themselves in the neighborhood, and their activity has important implications for the city at large.

Lakeview was a major casualty of the Katrina disaster. The neighborhood that stretches from Lake Pontchartrain to City Park Avenue, between City Park and the Jefferson Parish line, was home to more than 10,000 households before the hurricane. The great majority of homes were seriously damaged by the storm and flood, and most still remain empty.

The slow recovery of the 70124 ZIP code has been worrisome for many reasons, not the least of which is the relative affluence of the population. Lakeview long housed a major portion of middle-class New Orleans. Its residents constitute a significant chunk of the city’s tax base, and they are responsible for a hefty amount of entrepreneurial and business activity.

Like residents of other devastated areas – such as eastern New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish – many Lakeview residents have struggled with insurance and rebuilding issues post-Katrina. A few intrepid homeowners scrambled to put their houses back in order following the storm, but most Lakeview folks took a long pause. The sluggish pace of the state’s Road Home program – that’s supposed to assist owners of flooded homes – along with concerns about future flood protection, kept many from diving into the work of rebuilding.

The fact that many Lakeview residents had the means to continue their lives and lifestyles elsewhere while deciding whether to return home also may have slowed recovery. Like their counterparts elsewhere, Lakeview people have been wary of repairing and rebuilding without knowing whether their immediate neighbors would also come back.

In the context of so much uncertainty, recent commitments to the area by some local and out-of-town businesses send a powerful signal.

Robert Lupo, chief executive of Lupo Enterprises – which owns some 400,000 square feet of commercial space in Lakeview – says at least 90 percent of the company’s pre-Katrina tenants are returning to the area. The repopulation of commercial sites has been anxiously awaited on one of Lakeview’s most important corridors, Harrison Avenue.

“The great thing is, we’ve got both national and regional companies showing interest,” Lupo says.

He notes that large, deep-pocketed businesses go a long way toward stabilizing the environment for smaller companies that hope to operate in the area. Starbucks Coffee Co. is one of the big names involved in Lakeview’s resurgence. The company has committed to taking over the Harrison Avenue space formerly occupied by a local coffee house, Lupo says.

In addition, national boating and recreation retailer West Marine Inc. soon will re-occupy the space it formerly held just across the street. Although Lakeview Fine Foods will not return to its former quarters adjacent to West Marine, Lupo says several major grocers have shown interest.

Meanwhile, local children’s retailer Little Miss Muffin Children and Home opened its doors in November to showcase its much-expanded quarters on Harrison.

Gulf Coast Bank & Trust pioneered the return of commerce to Harrison, re-opening the branch that was ravaged by Katrina less than a year after its ribbon-cutting. Both JPMorgan Chase and Whitney National Bank also have restarted their branches on Harrison, in temporary quarters.

Touché Restaurant (in the site of the former Charley’s Deli) brought food service to Harrison Avenue months ago. Parlay’s Dream Lounge began quenching thirsts around the same time and Lakeview Veterinary Hospital returned to the area via a doublewide trailer next to its former site.

In addition, Lakeview Harbor Restaurant is expanding, and Tastee Restaurants (formerly Tastee Donuts) is soon to begin renovations on its Harrison space. The expected return of a pet supply store, sneaker shop, frame shop, insurance agency and snowball stand will flesh out the corridor, Lupo says, restoring important activity in the heart of Lakeview.

There’s action elsewhere, too. A regional bank  is taking the place of a former Rally’s restaurant near West End and Robert E. Lee boulevards, another important commercial anchor for Lakeview. Lupo says the West Lakeshore Office Building at the site now is fully occupied, including the return on the ground floor of Fidelity Homestead Association and Chateau Café, which is expanding into space formerly held by Smoothie King.

Meanwhile, a short hop to the east on Robert E. Lee Boulevard, at Canal Boulevard, the awakening continues. Joining a BP service station and The Rockery/ACE Hardware – which have been open for months – Capital One Financial is expanding the branch it operated after acquiring Hibernia National Bank in 2005.

In the same commercial center, Latter & Blum Inc./Realtors“ will soon open a new office to handle both commercial and residential business. Latter & Blum Cos. President Arthur Sterbcow says he hopes it will send a message about Lakeview.

“We will make it one of our premier real estate offices,” he says. “We’re going to make a statement to the Lakeview and Lakefront area that businesses will be returning. We are making a big investment in it.”

The importance of these commercial centers to the future of Lakeview is clear in the neighborhood rebuilding plans compiled by professional planning teams working with the Lakeview Civic Association and other area neighborhood groups. The recovery plan targets the Harrison Avenue retail district and the Robert E. Lee Boulevard shopping center as “early action” projects. It also contains architectural renderings and suggestions for increasing areas allotted for commercial activity and integrating them with residential blocks in new ways that include ample green space.

The activity and plans reflect growing optimism about the future of Lakeview, but a key test may be the viability of a grocery store. In that regard, grocer Marc Robért offers good news. At press time, the owner of several local Robért Fresh Markets said he is close to beginning a massive renovation leading to the reopening of his popular supermarket at Robert E. Lee and West End boulevards. Robért said he hopes to have the store open by March.

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