New Orleans Blues

Retail Traffic special to NREI

In two days, hurricane winds and broken levees took what now seem certain to be thousands of lives. As the fetid waters begin to recede in New Orleans, revealing unprecedented levels of property damage, it is clear that it will take years to rebuild.

During a week in which few politicians distinguished themselves, House Speaker Dennis Hastert set some kind of record for insensitivity by declaring that it would not make sense to rebuild at all and that much of the city "could be bulldozed." Hastert was quickly shushed, but he raised a relevant question: What will happen to New Orleans?

In his belated visit to the area last Friday, President Bush stopped short of promising that the city would be restored to something like what it was two weeks ago. And a CNN poll released today says most Americans believe the city will never recover -- despite disaster relief that is expected to top $100 billion, according to news reports.

This is not to say that a city called New Orleans won't exist. But it may be far different in character and demographics than the Crescent City of the past. That town, with its notorious party spirit, legendary jazz and great cuisine, thrived on tourism -- and those aspects may be preserved, albeit in a renovated, possibly Disneyfied way. What is in doubt is the future of the city that tourists don't see, but which the tragedy has revealed: a community with a 25 percent poverty rate, nearly twice the national average, a place where the median family income was $32,000 -- more than $10,000 below the national median.

Even before the bodies have been recovered from the low-lying, low-income areas, the rebuilding effort is attracting the attention of developers who assume that the demographics have no place to go but up. Absent a government program to create vast swaths of affordable housing, it seems most likely that the new New Orleans will be a more upscale, gentrified place.

"It's like a forest after a fire," says Doron Valero, president of North Miami Beach, Fla.-based Equity One Inc., who says his 14 Louisiana properties were on higher land and suffered little damage. "There will be devastation, but then the government is going to build it back and billions and billions of corporate dollars will flow into the city."

One key player in the rebuilding of retail property in New Orleans will be General Growth Properties Inc. The company is one of the largest retail landlords in the city and, at this point, is not commenting on the damage its malls have sustained or on its plans for rebuilding. However, a recorded message on the company's employee hotline reported that Oakwood Center in Gretna, La., just south of the Mississippi River from New Orleans, sustained "major fire, smoke and water damage. " A spokeswoman declined to say how the fire started.

Riverwalk Marketplace, right on the Mississippi in New Orleans, apparently suffered more damage from looting than from flooding; it is sited on higher ground than the rest of the city and the National Guard is using it as a staging center for emergency operations

Riverlands Shopping Center, about 30 miles west of the city, also suffered extensive damage. All three malls were deemed "unsafe to enter," according to the hotline. A fourth General Growth property, Metrocenter Mall in Jackson, Miss., also in Katrina's path, lost its power right after the hurricane hit, but has since reopened for business.

The reconstruction of New Orleans could give General Growth an opportunity to reshape its strategy there. And clearly, a more upscale population would make the challenge easier. Riverwalk, a festival mall favored by tourists that was among the Rouse Co. properties that General Growth acquired last year, has been an under-performer. Even before Katrina, the company was looking at how to reposition the property to make it less reliant on tourism and more appropriate for national retailers. "When Jim Rouse invested in the festival marketplace, it was unique; very forward-looking," General Growth CEO John Bucksbaum told Retail Traffic in an interview late last year. "Over time, not all have worked out economically the way they were envisioned." Bucksbaum was unavailable for comment this week.

Valero, meanwhile, remains optimistic and is considering buying more properties in the area -- a shift from the company's earlier decision to exit the Louisiana market for areas with less competition. "For us, it's an opportunity," he says. "I have no doubt in my mind it will come back stronger."

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