Rebuild New Orleans Experience

By Angela Trinh
University of California — Los Angeles

I am grateful for the opportunity to have assisted the City of New Orleans Office of Recovery Management in the Fall of 2007 through APA's Planning Foundation. While I was at the city's recovery office, I helped to market the city's Target Areas. Target Areas are redevelopment areas in the city that are receiving priority for redevelopment in infrastructure, public facility repairs, and business attraction. The goal is to repopulate parts of the city around these Target Areas, which were created with community input.

My primary work dealt with attracting business, retail, and investor interest in the Target Areas through  

  • collateral development,
  • Target Area tour organization primarily for the business community,
  • recommending a market analysis software purchase to create collateral, and
  • analyzing social and demographic factors that influence retail site location.

The challenges in marketing our Target Areas were that, being in places worst hit by the hurricane and flood, they appeared raggedy or were in such small or segregated parcels of land that it would be difficult to get new developer interest. Some were ripe for the fighting because they had large vacant parcels, but most were made of vacant lots or buildings in between non-vacant residences or businesses, which would be difficult to develop on a wide scale without acquiring the occupied properties. Some had odd-shaped lots that did not fit with the rest of the Target Area. And some Target Areas were definitely "in the hood," as one co-worker put it. But even that "hood" had rebuilding businesses, local entrepreneurs, and many residents, unlike some other Target Areas, which was yet another marketing challenge — trying to show that there was a market that was returning.

By September 2007, the parish population had climbed to 69 percent of 2005 pre-Katrina numbers. New Walgreens were popping up all around city corners. While this was seen largely as a positive addition — a new business in New Orleans — Yay! — it was obvious that there was a big void for major retail within the city. Retail leakage numbers showed that, like me, many New Orleaneans shopped for many general goods in the parish next door: Jefferson.

Jefferson Parish is a suburban parish that my friend, a former Jefferson resident, accurately describes as "Anywhere, U.S.A." It has most major retail chains that you can think of, commercial corridors that resemble highways, and intersections with wide turning radii. Jefferson was clearly doing something Orleans Parish (a.k.a. New Orleans) wasn't doing. I wasn't advocating for highway-like corridors in Orleans Parish, but I wondered why couldn't we get the same kind of major retail activity that Jefferson had (and always had)?

The answer lay in some facts that would be important to retailers. While Orleans was in the news for getting to 69 percent of its pre-storm population, Jefferson was up at over 98 percent during the same time! They did suffer some flooding and wind damage from Katrina, but almost everyone came back. Further, Jeffersonians generally make more money than New Orleaneans parish-wide. These two facts alone are golden to retailers.

While I couldn't compare traffic counts between the two parishes, I suspect those wide-turning radii in Jefferson are indicative of a more consistently favorable traffic count in that parish by trade area (or a given market area). In New Orleans, the highest traffic counts occur in the a.m. and p.m. peak hours when people come in and out of the central business district. Higher traffic counts mean more potential customers.

Potential revenue (based on population, income, and traffic counts) is only part of the equation. Cost is another part, which includes taxes and building costs. One large cost discrepancy between Orleans and Jefferson Parish is that Orleans's millage rates from property taxes are much higher than Jefferson. It helps businesses in Jefferson, too, that sales taxes are a quarter percentage point lower than in Orleans. That may not mean much for small purchases, but for expensive items, Orleaneans could be swayed to purchase them in Jefferson — aside from the fact that most expensive items, like new cars, electronics, and furniture, are largely unavailable in New Orleans. Additionally, new businesses are having to face the prospect of elevating their structures on slabs, which is much more expensive due to a local shortage of dirt.

Many of these factors — population, income, and traffic counts — are difficult for a local government to affect directly without organized and willful leadership. They can influence the factors by making many aspects of the city easier to move back into (public school availability, better financial assistance availability, safety, housing, etc.) but even influencing these factors points to larger problems that existed in the city before the storm. However, some solutions to increasing population, income, and traffic counts are in their infancy. The Office of Recovery Management is making certain infrastructure repairs a priority. Downtown traffic signal timing will be coordinated for the first time in the next few years by another agency. And a new biomedical complex is being planned downtown, hopefully, as part of a more varied economy that isn't reliant on tourism and hospitality. Fortunately, these initial steps are not for the primary purpose of attracting retail, but they are meant to resuscitate the city and elevate the quality of life in New Orleans.

While my work was on redevelopment in the Target Areas, I could never shake the fact that the return of New Orleans would require much more than bringing in some stores. It requires a vision of how to physically protect the city from not just natural disasters, but also heavy rains and poor roads so that people will feel safe and comfortable enough to settle there. Realizing that vision will call for strong, focused, and coordinated leadership to secure the resources needed to protect the greater metro area. Until then, the city will retain the big easiness that belies its troubles, and its hopeful return will amble along on faith.