Plan to convert former Treme schoolhouse to artist apartments gets zoning approval

The sprawling Treme campus of the former Andrew J. Bell Junior High School, anchored by an imposing Gothic structure, moved a step closer Tuesday to becoming a place for artists to live and work.

The city Planning Commission granted approval of a zoning and use change for the abandoned school at 1010 N. Galvez St. that would allow a Minneapolis company to convert it into mixed-income apartments and studios for artists and their families. The final decision is up to the City Council.

The company, Artspace, has proposed a $40 million, two-phase redevelopment of the campus, which stretches for two city blocks and includes eight buildings. The school has been vacant since Hurricane Katrina.

Six of the buildings will be redeveloped and two demolished under the plan for Artspace NOLA.

In the first phase, the two largest structures — the grand Gothic-style St. Joseph building facing Ursulines Avenue and the Ben Franklin building facing Dumaine Street — will be turned into 73 multi-family apartments for artists of low to moderate income. In the second phase, four other buildings will be renovated into office space, a community center, artist studios, a workshop and a theater practice facility.

The Artspace plan also includes the addition of 45,000 square feet of green space to be used for community recreation, marching-band rehearsals and open-air markets.

Construction on the first phase is scheduled to begin early next year. The entire project is due to be completed in 2015.

Artspace is developing or has completed similar projects in 34 cities across the country.

The zoning and use change was requested by the Orleans Parish School Board, which owns the property but intends to transfer it to the Housing Authority of New Orleans sometime next year. Artspace will either buy or lease the property from HANO.

“We understand what that two blocks means to the fabric of that community,” said Artspace project manager Joe Butler. “It is our intention, as a nonprofit developer, to return this to a public asset, one of the prized possessions of that community before the storm.”

The Bell redevelopment is part of the larger HANO effort to transform the area surrounding the Iberville housing development. The housing complex is being demolished as part of a $600 million attempt to revitalize what has been dubbed the Iberville-Treme neighborhood into a mixed-income community with links to schools, transportation and jobs.

The initiative covers 300 blocks bordered by Rampart Street, Tulane Avenue, Broad Street and St. Bernard Avenue.