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After The Flood

Lamar Cos., doesn't own any real estate in Mississippi, Alabama, Texas or Louisiana. Yet there they were, one of the few developers with a booth at ICSC's Gulf South show held in late February in New Orleans. The Morristown, N.J., company was frank about its mission: It had come to find distressed assets it could profitably turn around.

Lamar, like Equity One Inc., seem eager to get their square feet on the ground in the areas most affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Both companies' presence at the show was in stark contrast to developers better known for their presence in the region. Although professionals from General Growth Properties, Stirling Properties and Jim Wilson & Associates were in attendance, none opted to set up booths in the Dealmaking session, which itself was only open a brief two hours. In fact, the bulk of the properties on display were those in the broader Gulf States, primarily in regions unaffected by the killer storms.

The picture underscored the deep uncertainty surrounding redevelopment of the most affected areas. Developers are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“Everyone wants to develop,” said Lewis Stirling III, executive vice president and partner with Stirling Properties, at the conference. “But projects take 12 months, which means you have to go in and out of two hurricane seasons before you even open. … To come back, it requires answering the insurance questions first.”

Developers and insurers are waiting for FEMA to publish updated flood maps of New Orleans, which aren't due until June. (FEMA recently printed updated maps for Mississippi.) The specificity of the flood maps remain a big factor in how insurance claims will be interpreted. Premiums have skyrocketed in the wake of Katrina (much as they did after September 11). No developer wants to commit to building or rebuilding until they know where their project lies on the new flood maps, since the location will greatly impact premiums.

“The issue is what are the elevations that should be built to?” said Michael Olivier, secretary of Louisiana Economic Development. “We haven't determined that. People are coming back within a 75-mile radius now. … But we don't know what the population of New Orleans will ultimately be.”

Developers are also waiting to see just how juicy the incentives will be as Louisiana figures out how to dole out the more than $10 billion in federal money it has lined up through the Gulf Opportunity Zone (or GO Zone) and other programs.

So far on offer: Developers will be eligible for their choice of tax credits for job creation or they can take advantage of 50 percent bonus depreciation. Experts expect developers to largely opt for the latter. It will enable owners to immediately write-off much of the value of their property, resulting in reduced property taxes. The program is similar to the one offered to owners in downtown New York City after September 11, only here the benefits are even larger.

In the mean time, developers and retailers are adjusting to the new reality in New Orleans. The population in the metropolitan area has dropped by between 300,000 and 400,000. And many of the residents that have returned to work don't live in Orleans parish any longer.

St. Tammany Parish, to the north, has seen its population rise to 300,000 from 200,000 pre-Katrina. The 50 percent jump is what the parish had projected for its 10-year growth plan. Instead, it's had to absorb that many residents in less than six months. The demographic shift has upped car counts on roads leading into New Orleans by 90,000 autos a day, creating traffic jams and long commutes where none existed before.

With this as the backdrop, developers are largely sitting on the fence. If people don't return as full-time residents, development will move outward, along the interstates rather than return to the city's core.

For example, Colonial Properties is moving ahead with its planned 1.1 million-square-foot Pinnacle Nord Du Lac in Covington, La. — just north of New Orleans — which is scheduled to open in fall 2007.

TAGS: Development
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