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O.C. Haley Avenue: The New Freret?

Alex Woodward on the long-anticipated renewal of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in Central City

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Construction on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard last week. The new businesses that have moved there or are moving include a boxing gym that was formerly on Freret Street, as well as the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Longtime anchor Cafe Reconcile is expanding. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Construction on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard last week. The new businesses that have moved there or are moving include a boxing gym that was formerly on Freret Street, as well as the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. Longtime anchor Cafe Reconcile is expanding.

Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard is by no means bustling. But on any typical weekday, a lunch crowd files inside Café Reconcile, the restaurant anchoring the nonprofit's five-story beige brick building. A few hours later, across the street, more than a handful of filmgoers, or jazz or punk rock fans, empty the warehouse-sized moviehouse Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center after a screening or concert.

  That same block also houses the Ashe Cultural Arts Center, home to live performance, community events and a boutique. It's run by the nonprofit community development and arts organization Efforts of Grace. Several other nonprofit offices, some defunct, fill many of the street's otherwise vacant spaces. Neighborhood organizations and city officials readily admit the street suffers from blight.

  Along with a reputation for violent crime, blight and decay have been the street's reputation for the last several years, following the area's gradual return to something resembling normal after Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods, when home occupancy in the neighborhood sat below 14 percent. And Central City's reputation for violent crime isn't without merit — the area saw waves of shootings in 2011, and it had the city's highest murder rate in 2007, when the city's overall murder rate climbed to 64 murders per 100,000 residents.

  Now, developers, from nonprofit housing to retail to entertainment, are investing more than $40 million on the street.

  Lee Stafford runs the monthly OCH Art Market and works closely with the neighborhood, where he lives and works, running Saturn Screen Printing. "It's really quiet," he says. "It's quieter than most neighborhoods."

  The area's reputation for violent crime, blight and homelessness, he says, is a matter of "perception."

  "That doesn't cross anybody's mind when they're here."

Born in 1939, Oretha Castle Haley was a civil rights activist and founder of the New Orleans Chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. Two years after her death in 1987, the city renamed Dryades Street from Philip Street to Howard Avenue in her honor.

  At the turn of the 20th century, black-owned businesses thrived throughout that Dryades corridor, and dozens of Jewish businesses followed, including the Kaufman's department store that now houses the Ashe Cultural Arts Center. The area at one point was the city's largest black commercial district. But integration in previously white-only commercial hubs abandoned the area, and economic depression sunk into the neighborhood and its businesses by the 1970s, forcing closure, vacancy and blight.

  In 2006, Louisiana's then-Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu designated the street one of the city's four Urban Main Streets (along with St. Claude Avenue and Oak and North Rampart streets). The city also recently dedicated a $900,000 Community Development Block Grant for streetscape improvements. A series of improvement pushes engineered by the Oretha Castle Haley Merchants and Business Association and New Orleans City Council District B councilwoman Stacy Head, with support from businesses and residents, helped usher in additional interest to the area. (Meanwhile, Urban Impact Ministries, Youth Empowerment Project and the Juvenile Justice Project, all anchored on O.C Haley, have spurred community development focusing on Central City.)

  Head is O.C. Haley's self-described cheerleader (and "trash pick-upper and neighborhood clean-upper"). She has dubbed Central City as "New Orleans' next great rediscovered neighborhood," and it remains one of the areas on which she'll focus (as well as the Claiborne Avenue strip). "I believe in leveraging the market. The government's job is to leverage the market," Head says. "We're not the end-all-be-all of commerce. What we should do is go in and figure out how to spur it and get out of the way."

  The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) opted to relocate its offices to O.C. Haley, spearheading development of an $18.5 million, four-story, 84,000 square foot mixed use property, with senior living apartments and commercial spaces. (It also includes the Gulf Coast Housing Partnership, which developed the Muses apartments on the corridor's edge in 2010, and the building that houses the Ashe Cultural Arts Center.)

  The Good Work Network is developing the Franz Building, a 6,800 square foot, $1.6 million small business incubator with space for four small storefronts. It received a $250,000 NORA grant for its expansion. Other recipients of NORA grants include Mexican restaurant Casa Borrega, as well as retail, music venue and restaurant developers.

  Head helped boost Freret Street's much-publicized "comeback," where a dozen new bars, restaurants and cafes have opened between Napoleon Avenue and Soniat Street since 2009. Developer Peter Gardner met with Freret business owners and residents in 2006 to help start the Freret Business & Property Owners Association, and, later, the booming Freret Market and the street's popular annual festival. Gardner also developed the 8,000-square-foot retail space housing Freret Street Yoga, Anytime Fitness and The Company Burger.

  Gardner now has his sights set on O.C. Haley, specifically a 12,000-square-foot retail space at 1029 O.C. Haley that formerly was a car parts store and a leather wholesaler.

  "O.C. Haley has some of the most beautiful architecture, in terms of commercial space," he says. "The buildings are grand, though mostly abandoned. ... Freret really took off. I think it can be the next Freret."

  Gardner says he'll restore the building's façade, divide the structure into four or five retail and restaurant spaces, and develop an adjacent space for up to 25 parking spaces, all to be completed by August.

Developers anticipate Freret and Magazine streets' overflow will trickle to O.C. Haley — Gardner's not the only one expanding. Mike Tata's Freret Street Boxing Gym, home to Friday Night Fights, relocated to 1632 O.C. Haley last month, a $50,000 move across the street from Café Reconcile (which is scheduled for a $5 million renovation).

  "It's still got some challenges, but I really think it's going to take off," Gardner says. "The tipping point was when (cocktail bar) Cure went in (on Freret). ... One of these could do that for O.C. Haley."

  The Southern Food and Beverage Museum plans to move to 1504 O.C. Haley with its $350,000 library moving to the 1600 block. The museum, founded in 2008, currently is housed inside the Riverwalk Marketplace and looked to expand — director Liz Williams says it outgrew its current space. "When we opened we had aspirations for a restaurant and bar and kitchen auditorium," she says. "We're moving to that particular space because it's affordable, and in an area that's in the process of renaissance."

  The museum's new space on O.C. Haley is the former Dryades Market, one of the former city-owned markets that opened in 1849. The museum is scheduled to open in 2013.

  The Alembic Development Company purchased the former Myrtle Banks Elementary School building with plans for a full-service affordable fresh foods market, run by Jack and Jake's, which currently offers wholesale distribution to restaurants and grocery stores. Developer Jonathan Leit says he anticipates construction will begin this year with an eye toward opening in late 2013.

  The OCH Art Market opened in 2010 and has grown to more than 200 visitors each month. A dozen of its vendors are from the neighborhood. "The best thing the market can do is showcase some of the talent from this neighborhood to other people and visitors from the city," Stafford says. The next market is 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, May 12, and it will showcase students from Tulane University, New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and Young Audiences, bringing them inside the Zeitgeist.

  "This neighborhood has its own story to tell and that is what is most valuable, being able to not mess with that, but accentuate that, spotlight that," Stafford says. "We're not trying to be the Freret market just in another neighborhood."

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