N.O. to target blight in Central Business District 

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The New Orleans City Council aims to update laws that deal with blighted and vacant property, particularly in the Central Business District.  Three buildings listed in the Downtown Development District's database of vacant and unde-utilized properties include, from left, The Karnofsky Tailor Shop, Iroquois Theatre and Eagle Saloonin the 400 block of South Rampart Street on Thursday. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The New Orleans City Council aims to update laws that deal with blighted and vacant property, particularly in the Central Business District. Three buildings listed in the Downtown Development District's database of vacant and unde-utilized properties include, from left, The Karnofsky Tailor Shop, Iroquois Theatre and Eagle Saloonin the 400 block of South Rampart Street on Thursday.

Throughout the Central Business District there are sights and sounds of progress alongside sights of blight and decay.

Now the New Orleans City Council hopes to replace the latter with more of the former as it prepares to update city laws that concern blight mitigation with an emphasis on the CBD.

Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said Wednesday that the CBD is at a “tremendous crossroads” with businesses expressing interest in locating in the area and people wanting live there. But, she said, there remain too many abandoned or blighted buildings that are hindering the CBD’s transformation into a vibrant neighborhood.

“We can either roll back or move forward,” Cantrell said.

In an effort to move forward, Cantrell said she and Councilwomen Stacy Head and Kristin Gisleson Palmer are working with the Landrieu administration to rework the laws regarding code enforcement and blight mitigation, while adding a health-threat provision that would determine when a blighted building should be demolished.

Kurt Weigle, president and CEO of the Downtown Development District, said that the CBD has seen $4.4 billion in new investment since Hurricane Katrina.

But, he said, investment lags in some areas since blight has been a fact for decades in some instances. Some owners, he said, are resistant to doing work and would rather let buildings fester.

“The trajectory is up downtown ... but at the same time all our grandmothers told us it only takes a few bad apples to spoil the barrel,” Weigle said. “I think it’s time for us to start focusing on those few bad apples.”

There are about 30 buildings that have been chronic blight problems — for up to three decades in some instances — that Cantrell said are in parts of the CBD that are experiencing spurts of investment. Those buildings are where the city will initially focus its efforts.

While her office could not provide that list, the DDD’s database of vacant and under-used properties includes everything from prominent buildings on the skyline such as the Rault Center, which has been vacant and gutted for years, to lesser known buildings such as Factors Row in the 800 block of Perdido Street.

A wall of Factors’ Row, a series of buildings built in 1858 in an Italianate style, collapsed onto a neighboring building last month. The wall that tumbled down has yet to be repaired, and that part of the building remains open to the elements.

Cantrell said the pending updates to the city’s blight laws would increase fines for owners of derelict properties and would limit the ability of LLC’s to transfer ownership of blighted buildings in an effort to prevent them from changing hands without work being completed.

“They are not only blight but a health hazard, an environmental threat,” Cantrell said. “People not only work but live in our downtown area, and they deserve a better quality of life”

Cantrell made her announcement about the city’s blight fight inside the dark, dusty lobby of one abandoned property at 225 Baronne St. that is about to undergo a massive rehabilitation by HRI Properties.

When work is done, the 29-story building, constructed in 1965 and boarded up for the last several years, will include a 350-space garage, a 188-room hotel and 192 apartments.

Josh Collen, vice president of development for HRI, which recently completed a renovation of the nearby Hibernia Tower, said work on 225 Baronne will cost about $100 million.

“We’re excited to get the restoration of another of New Orleans’ great icons under way,” Collen said.