New Orleans streetcars are transit options that also contribute to the city’s ambiance. But as the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) prepares to begin a new expansion of its streetcar system, it’s becoming clear that they can serve as a powerful economic development tool as well.

One year ago, the federal government awarded the RTA a grant totaling $45 million that the local agency will use on a new streetcar line stretching along Loyola Avenue in the Central Business District. The route is planned to connect the bus and train hub at the Union Passenger Terminal to the existing Canal streetcar line. Construction is expected to begin this spring with completion projected for mid-2012. Already, however, a string of major construction and revitalization projects have been announced in the area along the route. Combined with other nearby projects now taking shape, it’s generating new momentum in a corner of the city that has not gotten much attention in recent years.

In December, the local development firm the Domain Cos. announced plans for its South Market District project. The project would transform four blocks now covered by parking lots along Loyola Avenue into a cluster of new buildings holding some 450 apartments and 125,000 square feet of retail space. The same company has been building mixed-use developments along Tulane Avenue and in Mid-City at the site of the former Baumer Foods plant. South Market District is intended to provide upscale housing for people expected to work and live downtown as the city’s adjacent biomedical district develops.

“What we felt made this site ideal was the streetcar expansion,” says Matt Schwartz, a principal with the Domain Cos. “The most exciting development opportunities are really converging on this area.”

Nearby, the newly dubbed Benson Tower is returning to commerce with 26 floors of office space adjacent to the Superdome, where a new sports and entertainment district is also being crafted. Meanwhile, the Saratoga office building at 212 Loyola Ave. is being converted into the Saratoga Lofts with 155 new apartments, and in the fall the Hyatt Regency hotel is scheduled to reopen for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. After a $243 million renovation, the hotel will have nearly 1,200 rooms and 200,000 square feet of meeting space. Its entrance and ballrooms will overlook Loyola Avenue, where soon streetcars will soon be part of the view.