After Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans and the levees failed in August 2005, 80 percent of the city was flooded and 70 percent of all occupied units suffered damage, including the already distressed St. Bernard public housing development in the Gentilly neighborhood.
With an Atlanta mixed-use, mixedincome development as a model, partnerships formed with the vision to transform the neighborhood into a sustainable community with a mix of housing types enhanced with amenities, schools, a health clinic, retail, and recreation.
The first phase of that vision is Columbia Parc at the Bayou District, and it is this year's overall winner in AFFORDABLE HOUSING FINANCE's Readers' Choice Awards. It also was selected as the best family project by the magazine's readers.
Columbia Parc's story started in the months after Katrina, when a group of civic-minded residents formed the Bayou District Foundation. Their vision was to assist in the rebirth of New Orleans by helping to restore the areas in and around New Orleans City Park.They were invited to visit East Lake, an Atlanta public housing revitalization that transformed a blighted neighborhood into a mixed-income, mixed-use community with a public golf course, a swimming pool, and tennis courts.
As businessmen Gerry Barousse, Gary Solomon, and Mike Rodrigue got on the plane to depart Atlanta, they knew if they could do something comparable in New Orleans, it would be a “game changer," says Barousse, chairman of the Bayou District Foundation.
Looking for a venue that was close to the 1,300-acre city park where the components could come together, the former St. Bernard site was the logical spot.
The foundation brought Atlanta-based developer Columbia Residential on board and worked with the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) on the redevelopment plan. But it wasn't without obstacles.
“It was a very controversial thing to tear down the St. Bernard development," says New Orleans Councilmember Cynthia Hedge-Morrell.
St. Bernard, one of New Orleans' Big Four public housing developments, was built in the 1940s and consisted of 1,400 units. At the time of Katrina, only 900 of those units had been occupied, but many of those families had roots there and didn't have a high level of confidence that what was promised would be delivered because of their past experiences.
“As a resident and now a representative, I knew after Katrina that it wasn't habitable [and needed to be demolished]," says Hedge-Morrell.
Many also were skeptical of the mixedincome model, which wasn't one that had been tried before in the city. The foundation worked hard in 2006 and 2007 to get former residents from the public housing community and city leaders to see the model firsthand at East Lake.
Hedge-Morrell was one of the city leaders to visit East Lake, where she was able to talk with several former St. Bernard residents who had relocated there after Katrina. She says they provided a different mind-set of how a mixed-income, mixeduse project could work for New Orleans.
When it was time for the City Council to make the final decision in the latter part of 2007, the vote was 7-0 in favor of demolition.
However, financing the first phase of housing was another hurdle the team had to overcome.
The nation's financial meltdown hit its peak in September 2008. With a substantial closing deadline to meet amidst the financial crisis, Jim Grauley, president and COO of Columbia Residential, says AEGON USA Realty Advisors, Inc., honored its commitment to the project and allowed it to close in December 2008.
The $124 million phase was financed through a collaboration of local, state, and federal agencies and the private sector. It was awarded a $7.4 million allocation of Gulf Opportunity Zone tax credits from the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency, which were sold to AEGON for $65 million in tax credit equity. Other financing included a Community Development Block Grant loan through the Louisiana Office of Community Development's Disaster Recovery Unit, acquisition and construction loans through HANO and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, along with private debt provided for construction and bridge financing by Regions Bank and a permanent first mortgage through Oak Grove Capital and Freddie Mac. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and HANO also provided funds for the demolition.
Columbia Residential brought in Dallas-based JHP Architecture/Urban Design as the schematic design architect as well as Broadmoor Design Group as the architect of record and Krebs, LaSalle, LeMieux as the civil engineer, both out of New Orleans. Design for the units was inspired by the Louisiana Pattern Book, which was created to inspire redevelopment post-Katrina. To help the project blend into the surrounding neighborhood, the team varied the architectural details to create the individuality of single-family homes. In addition to that, it hired local painting consultant Louis “Mr. Color" Aubert to select the color palette for the new neighborhood. Ten new city blocks also were created since the old development was boxed off and didn't have streets that integrated into the neighborhood.
“It's a makeover for an important neighborhood,” says David Gilmore, the administrative receiver of HANO. “The place is just stunning."
Completed in November 2010, the 466-unit Columbia Parc at the Bayou District is comprised of 157 units for public housing residents, 160 low-income housing tax credit units for residents earning less than 60 percent of the area median income, and 149 market-rate units.
Extensive outreach was put in place to contact the families who had been living at St. Bernard at the time of Katrina. As of October, 64 former St. Bernard resident families have returned to Columbia Parc.
“One of the high points is that there is such a demand, not just residents returning from the former housing development, but young working families who want to live there,” says Hedge-Morrell. “It is the best example of what mixed-income housing should be."
Grauley agrees. “It really is a fresh start. It allows for fresh thinking about mixed-income in communities."
The development received its LEED for Homes silver certification and features many green elements, including highly efficient building envelopes, low-flow water fixtures, low-VOC building products, Energy Star appliances and lighting fixtures, a high-efficiency irrigation system, and drought-tolerant landscaping.
Amenities include a community center, a theater, a pool and a splash park, playgrounds, and a fitness center. On-site social services are provided by Kingsley House, a 114-year-old nonprofit, which also coordinates with other local nonprofits to provide workshops, such as job training, computer literacy classes, fitness classes, and afterschool programs, for the residents.
“We feel a tremendous sense of pride and that we've been blessed to have the opportunity to impact this community in such a positive way,” says Columbia Residential Chairman and CEO Noel Khalil.
Columbia Parc at the Bayou District is just the start for the overall neighborhood revitalization. A second phase of family housing will feature 97 units, with the first 49 units completed and expected to be fully leased by Thanksgiving. The remaining units will be completed in summer 2012. A seniors phase will consist of 120 units and is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2013. Also in the plans are single-family homes, an early learning center, a K-8 charter school, a high school, retail, and a golf course in the city park, which can help to bring revenues back into the community.
And a game changer it has been. “It should be a model for any city for looking at a different way to do public housing," Hedge-Morrell says.