The Iberville housing complex is set to get $589 million renovation


July 5th, 2011

The Big Four may soon become the Big Five.

July 04, 2011
Katy Reckdahl, The Times-Picayune

Iberville Housing Development
Iberville Projects is a neighborhood of the city of New Orleans and one of the Housing Projects of New Orleans. A subdistrict of the Mid-City District Area, its boundaries as defined by the City Planning Commission are: St. Louis Street to the north, Basin Street to the east, Iberville Street to the south and North Claiborne Avenue to the west. It is located in the 4th Ward of downtown New Orleans on the former site of the famous Storyville district Monday October 4, 2010.

Having finally broken ground on all four of the massive public housing redevelopments envisioned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Housing Authority of New Orleans has set its sights on a fifth: the Iberville on the edge of the French Quarter, the last traditional public housing complex in HANO’s portfolio.

The agency and its partner, the city of New Orleans, are among six finalists for a major federal grant, and HANO has sent the federal government a detailed plan that calls for investing $589 million to revitalize the historic but blighted neighborhood, creating dozens of ground-floor spaces for stores, cafes and offices and building a total of nearly 2,500 new apartments — more than HANO pledged to build after the demolition of the so-called Big Four.

It would be the most ambitious redevelopment HANO has undertaken, one that goes well beyond the boundaries of the old complex and takes in the surrounding neighborhood.

If HANO wins the grant — and local officials are optimistic they will — it could cover roughly 5 percent of the authority’s investment. Regardless of the grant, HANO officials say the project is a go.

“I’d love to have it. Expect to have it,” said David Gilmore, the federal fix-it man brought in to run the troubled authority. “But it’s not essential.”

Construction on-site could begin as early as next fall.

A much bigger scope

The Iberville plan has a much bigger scope than the Big Four redevelopments.

Roughly one-third of the new apartments will be built on the grounds of the current Iberville complex. But the remaining 1,533 will be built within what HANO has dubbed the Iberville-Treme neighborhood, a 300-square-block area bordered by Tulane and Broad avenues and St. Bernard and Rampart streets.
graphic-iberville-070411.jpgView full size

One-third of the total apartments will have public housing-level rents, replacing each of the Iberville’s 821 apartments. Another third will be market rate and the final third will offer a middle tier for those with more moderate incomes.

Along with bricks and mortar, the plan calls for targeted services to help put Iberville’s children into high-quality schools and child-care while their parents secure better jobs, further education and regular medical care.

The total money going toward housing construction is $589 million, more than all of the Big Four construction under way. Other social services and neighborhood improvements bump the total up to $663 million.

A neighborhood transformation

The agency’s nearly 1,000-page proposal, developed in conjunction with the city, also catalogs all simultaneous investments planned for the area by private investors, the city, school system and other public entities, bringing HANO’s so-called “neighborhood transformation” to roughly $1.6 billion.

While HANO has demolished and rebuilt dilapidated public housing complexes since the mid-1990s, most of its new developments have became islands of brightly colored buildings within troubled neighborhoods with underperforming schools, sporadic bus routes, no grocery stores and little access to health clinics.

By broadening their investment and expanding their social-services focus, HANO’s administrators, like their federal counterparts at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, believe that they can revitalize entire neighborhoods.

HANO is vying for as much as $30.5 million of the first pot of money handed out in a new HUD program called “Choice Neighborhoods.” The initiative is a favorite of HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, who has said he believes it “has the potential to revitalize and transform communities across the country” and that it would improve upon the HOPE VI model, which paid for many of New Orleans’ earlier redevelopments and which was largely confined to rebuilding the complexes themselves.

Unlike its past efforts, HANO’s plans for the Iberville don’t rely almost entirely on demolition. The agency plans to preserve and completely rehab 22 of the Iberville’s 74 brick buildings and include several other existing structures in its off-site plans, including the Texaco Building on Canal Street and three historic schools: Israel Augustine, G.O. Mondy and Bell.

Preservation is pricey

The historic preservation comes with an additional price tag, however. Total development costs for each apartment on the Iberville site will run an estimated $208,000, while off-site apartments in historic buildings will run $321,837 each, significantly more than the $229,000 per-apartment estimate for new off-site structures.

While some of those costs are only nominally higher than the $200,000 per-unit average for the Big Four, public housing redevelopments have drawn fire in recent years for being more costly than other residential construction. Those estimates are double what private developers would expect to spend per apartment, said Geoffrey Lutz, a developer who teaches real estate at Tulane’s School for Continuing Studies. “I agree that we need the housing. But let’s get more bang for our buck,” he said.

Len Henry, HANO’s acting director of real estate planning and development, said more infrastructure work is required for a “super-block” site like Iberville, where HANO must reconnect street grids, create sidewalks and roads, and upgrade antiquated electrical and plumbing. Henry also noted that the Iberville’s costs are only estimates at this point and that the construction side of it will be competitively bid.

Some “green construction” requirements for governmental construction also add costs, as do federal standards for handicapped units, which must make up 5 percent of all apartments. Also, the developers must pay workers more than they might on a non-governmental job because of federal prevailing wage rules. Further, the developers need to give preference to hiring public housing and low-income workers for the construction jobs, who sometimes require more training and monitoring.

A cooperative effort

Of the hoped-for $30.5 million from Choice Neighborhoods, $24.4 million would go for housing construction. The remainder of the nearly $589 million will come from a variety of sources: $276.7 in tax-credit equity that HANO hopes to get through several federal tax-credit programs, $98.3 million in debt that HANO will finance through bonds, $97.4 million in federal block grants and piggyback money from the state of Louisiana; $65 million in HUD capital money, $10 million from FEMA; and $16.9 million from the city in federal block grants HOME funds and donated property.

It’s a cooperative effort by government at all levels, Gilmore said. “And I don’t think anyone can beat us.”

Meanwhile, in the Iberville, there’s skepticism among residents who have seen previous redevelopment plans come and go: The Saints stadium proposal of 2001. The demolition proposal of 1987.

“The idea keeps coming up,” said lifelong Iberville resident Ingrid Thompson, as she sat on her stoop at the end of a recent workday.

But there’s a sense that this one might just happen.

“There’s not much talk about it; it just seems inevitable,” said Thaddeus Delay, who helps to run Iberville’s popular summer camp for the regional Boys & Girls Club.

Residents are wary, hopeful

Some residents fret about demolishing the bricks they’ve called home, or worry that they might be displaced to a hinter region like the West Bank or Kenner. Most know very few details. But last week, residents’ initial skepticism seemed to wane as they heard that HANO has proposed keeping 22 of the traditional “bricks” — and that phased construction would allow 40 percent of Iberville’s 441 households to move directly to revitalized apartments.

Construction of 114 one-bedroom apartments for elderly residents has already begun at the Texaco building, which will also include 3,600 square feet of ground-floor retail space in an effort to bring shopping, restaurants and vibrant sidewalks to that part of Canal Street, a block away from Iberville.

Unlike other revitalized sites, where few original households have returned to the new development, nearly three-quarters of Iberville’s current households could return to one of the 300 public housing units planned for the site. Those units make up one-third of the 913 apartments to be constructed on the 23-acre Iberville site.

Over four-and-a-half years, HANO promises to track each original Iberville household and increase good health, education and employment opportunities by specific, quantifiable goals.

Hearing the specifics of the larger plan made even lifelong residents like George Bryant feel more reassured, although he and most other residents would prefer to leave the buildings as they are now. Like everyone else, Bryant also has questions.

While the grant proposal includes a community center on the first floor of a building, Bryant wondered if the new site could include a basketball court. “This is busy from the a.m. to the p.m.,” he said, gesturing toward a court bustling with children that was built by former New Orleans Hornets star Peja Stojakovic.

Bryant also is worried about where he and his father will end up.

“My biggest concern is, where are they going to place me?” he said.

Grant to be awarded in September

In September, HUD will divvy up $124 million among the best of six finalists: housing authorities and city governments from New Orleans, Boston, Seattle, Tampa, San Francisco and Chicago.

If HANO doesn’t win the federal grant, Gilmore acknowledges the plan will have to change in certain ways.

Residents who have to move temporarily wouldn’t automatically receive Section 8 vouchers, he said. Construction may also take longer than the 54 months specified under the grant, he said.

Final plans to tackle Iberville came just as Gilmore’s team found a way to jump-start the last of HANO’s Big Four redevelopments: B.W. Cooper, C.J. Peete, Lafitte and St. Bernard.

The furthest along are St. Bernard, now called Columbia Parc, with 466 finished apartments, 157 of them public housing-level rentals, and C.J. Peete, now called Harmony Oaks, with 460 completed units, 193 of them public housing.

The other two are badly behind schedule, meaning HANO has replaced only 1,000 of the 3,077 apartments that were occupied when Hurricane Katrina hit, about half of what was promised by the end of last year.

Cooper is the worst off, with no new apartments. But after losing a few potential investors, it finally closed a $158 million deal last week and is gunning to complete 250 apartments by year’s end.

Lafitte — several blocks down Claiborne Avenue from Iberville — suffered a series of early delays, because of investors wary of the looming deadlines for tax credits issued post-Katrina.

But earlier this year, exiled Lafitte families lined up to fill every one of the new 134 public housing units opened. Developers are scrambling to finish 142 additional on-site rentals by the end of the year.

Ingrid Thompson has relatives in Texas who lived in Lafitte when Hurricane Katrina struck. They’ve now waited nearly six years to return, she said, questioning whether it’s too early for the wrecking ball to swing again.

“HANO needs to focus on those people still displaced before they mess with what they have here in Iberville,” Thompson said.

But Gilmore, though he can be one of HANO’s harshest critics, believes that the agency can begin work on Iberville without jeopardizing its continuing work on Cooper and Lafitte.

“HANO has learned to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said.

Katy Reckdahl can be reached at kreckdahl@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3396.

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