The Fab Five

A look at five Southeast Louisiana communities that have been reborn.

A combination of commercial and residential real estate growth is transforming communities across Southeast Louisiana. Whether it’s a new option for affordable family living or the growth of a commercial corridor, these five neighborhoods are experiencing a rebirth.

Fourteen years following the devastation of Lakeview from Hurricane Katrina, the neighborhood has experienced a renaissance. GiGi Burk, owner of Burk Brokerage, says residential properties in Lakeview lost 75% of their value after the storm — but now, thanks to local builders who took a chance on an investment, that value is back.

“We courted a bunch of builders from the Westbank and LaPlace,” Burk says. “We told them how lucrative it would be for them if they were willing to take the risk and they did very well; a lot of builders that got in in the beginning did very, very well.”

Lakeview has developed as a high-value, affordable alternative to Uptown and Old Metairie. In the past 10 years, the area has attracted a younger generation of residents — buyers in their mid-to-upper 30s and early 40s — which has pushed development of schools and commercial options.

“There’s a sports bar and restaurant, Azul, that’s getting ready to open on the corner of Pontchartrain and Harrison; a brand-new, state-of-the-art toy store; and a new Cookie Dough Bliss, which is the only one in the area,” says Burk.

Adding to the viability of Lakeview is the fact that the Harrison Avenue corridor and parts of Robert E. Lee Boulevard, have been rezoned from residential to commercial.

“There was always a shortage of commercial properties out at the Lakefront,” Burk says. “For years, people would try to open businesses out there and they didn’t have enough commercial space to facilitate growth,” Burk says. “So, after the storm, [the city] rezoned Harrison Avenue.”

Burk says that rezoning was key. In the case of Lakeview, the commercial development drove residential. “We learned after the storm very quickly that a community comes back because of commercial space,” she says.

The story is different across Lake Pontchartrain in St. Tammany Parish, where Chris Combs, owner of CM Combs Construction, says steady residential growth is attracting commercial development.

“The Northshore is kind of removed from the hustle and bustle of the city, and as more people come over here, the need for more infrastructure is growing which is turning us into a little city,” he says. “But it’s sprawling and spread out; there’s more elbow room.”

St. Tammany Parish has shown steady population growth — between 1-2%, for the past eight years — and is projected to increase by 5.7% in the next five years. The St. Tammany Parish Hospital is currently undergoing a $54 million expansion to keep up with that growth.

Combs says in addition to the hospital expansion, the population growth is driving other development in the area.

“There is constant change due to the growth — new homes, new restaurants, new businesses,” Combs says. “There’s a lot of investment, a lot of employment. People have faith in the economy.”

A significant investment is coming from multi-national financial services firm Raymond James, which Combs says is consolidating its satellite offices into a new headquarters in Mandeville.

“My company did a design/build with them for a large two-story building on West Causeway,” he says.

Add in a mix of small businesses and big box stores, Combs says, and the transformation is clear.

“I grew up in Madisonville. What used to be country roads are now highways, and the growth shows no sign of stopping.”

Along the riverfront in New Orleans, the site of the former L.A. Frey & Sons meat packing plant in Bywater is now a 75-unit condominium called The Saxony.

“The building that was there before was large and had been abandoned for many years,” says Shelley Lawrence, a realtor with Latter & Blum. “It wasn’t good to have in your neighborhood.”

The Saxony fits in with the increased development of Bywater condominiums in recent years, specifically taking the place of older, abandoned commercial buildings.

“It was all brought up to date with hurricane standards — a steel-frame building with hurricane-standard windows,” says Lawrence. “Every unit will have at least one parking place inside, so we’re not putting a big building there with a bunch of cars that need parking on the streets.”

Six units on the ground floor are zoned for residential or commercial use, in accordance with the Historic District Landmarks Commission, and designed to be used as either a small residential studio or retail space. “It always was a mixed-use area,” says Lawrence.

And that mixed-use area is attracting a mix of residents as well.

“We have quite a few people who may be empty nesters, coming from other local neighborhoods or other cities, [who] want to scale down,” says Lawrence. “And we have second homes, and young professionals as well, so it’s actually a really good cross-section — like a true New Orleans neighborhood.”

Downriver in St. Bernard Parish, Jacques Alfonso of St. Bernard Realty says property values have gone up 20% in Arabi over the last two years. “It’s unheard of to grow that fast in such a short amount of time,” he says.

Alfonso says Arabi is attracting transplants from areas like the Marigny and Bywater looking to cash out on their investments.

“They bought seven or eight years ago when the property value was low, and now it’s doubled in those locations, so they’re coming here and buying a brand-new house with a yard with very similar New Orleans-esque architectural styles, and they’re buying cash,” Alfonso says.

Alfonso was born and raised in St. Bernard Parish, and says he feels like the community is finally starting to hit its stride.

“We have great schools, great infrastructure, an excellent police department and an excellent fire department,” Alfonso says. “Our recreational facilities are extremely beautiful, and it’s an excellent community to raise a family in.”

Additionally, Alfonso says, land is inexpensive in Arabi. Combined with the city’s “buy and build” program — in which you buy an inexpensive lot from the parish and have a home built within a year — Alfonso says, “no matter what street you turn down you’ll more than likely see a house being built.”

The Achilles’ heel in St Bernard Parish, says Alfonso, is the lack of commercial real estate — something he attributes to the low population. But he hopes the 2020 census will show steady population growth, and, he says, the commercial growth will follow residential.

A few miles away in New Orleans East, Latter & Blum agent Hilda Venson-Markey says houses are selling fast and that residential growth has driven commercial investment.

“Most businesses have done well out here since they have opened,” Venson-Markey says. “Home ownership has been back in New Orleans East, so you have the people with the income” to support those businesses.

Dixie Brewing and Cajun Fire Brewing Company will be opening in New Orleans East, and there are grocery stores, restaurants and successful small businesses — but Venson-Markey says some more business investment would really be a catalyst for growth in the area.

Meanwhile, residents are drawn to New Orleans East for its affordable living — priced right for first-time home buyers to get into the market, with potential for investment growth.

“You can buy in New Orleans East and get in a nice neighborhood, get a nice living space with a yard, and a home at a reasonable price,” Venson-Markey says. “People are looking for that.”