The Healing Center and the Road to Recovery

Long after the news crews packed up and moved on, the business of rebuilding New Orleans continues.  Now nearly five years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, the determination to rebuild around its older and historic resources is as strong and as present as ever.

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The Universal Furniture Building before rehabilitation began, cloaked in metal sheathing.

Credit: Kirk Carrison, NTCIC

In the St. Claude Main Street community within the Bywater district, the adaptive use of the Universal Furniture Building has generated much interest and anticipation. The 1926 furniture showroom and an adjacent house built in 1841 are being rehabilitated by HRI Properties' co-founder, Pres Kabacoff, who is donating his development services to the project to ensure that this important commercial landmark will once again anchor the St. Claude commercial district.

Bywater is a diverse district known its artists and eccentrics, mixed with equal parts grit and charm. In a city notorious for its flooding, the main artery, St. Claude Avenue, is situated on high ground along the river and is lined with historic—and somewhat tattered--buildings. This makes St. Claude the commercial district one of the city's "most compelling" frontiers for public and private investment, in Kabacoff's estimation.

The planned use for the structures is as unique as the community from which it springs. The rehabilitation creates the New Orleans Healing Center, which will bring health and wellness services and a full-service co-op grocery store to the neighborhood, which has been without one since the hurricane hit.  The idea sprung out of informal Sunday meetings organized by Kabacoff's partner a few months after Hurricane Katrina. These "salons" convened a diverse group of artists, scientists, and various intellectuals to generate ideas and energy to counteract the overwhelming negativity in the press. Salon members starting searching for a project that would forge bonds between the mixed-race Bywater and the historically black St. Roch neighborhood across the other side of St. Claude.

The $13.2 million certified historic rehabilitation removes the ugly metal cladding that covered both the 55,000 square foot commercial building and the residential building next door. The sheathing enabled the two structures to operate as a single showroom until Hurricane Katrina-related flooding forced its closing in 2005. Project financing includes a combination of state and federal New Markets Tax Credits, federal and state historic tax credits, and funds from city and state redevelopment agencies.  (The National Trust Community Investment Corporation, the for-profit subsidiary of the National Trust, is syndicating the historic and new markets tax credit equity investment).

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The completed New Orleans Healing Center will feature a carefully restored exterior of the 1926 Universal Furniture Building.

Once completed, the Healing Center will offer four floors of commercial/retail space. Tenants will include a restaurant, a yoga studio, an arts and crafts bazaar, a healing arts consortium, and a police substation.  The original rooftop will feature a small-scale hydroponic farm serving the food co-op and restaurant. Other uses may include a women's resource center, a live performance venue and a spiritual center. It will also make commercial space available at below-market rates—helping start-up enterprises get established. There is also interest in organizing a "street university" at the Center, where community members reserve room space and can share their expertise on a subject, meaning the topics are truly limitless.

The project's role as an economic development engine and a catalyst is of vital importance to the St. Claude Ave. community and beyond. The rehabilitation is expected to generate $6.4 million in household and business income, $611,793 in state and local taxes, 103 construction jobs, and 112 permanent jobs. The revitalized Healing Center provides residents with healthy food, a welcoming gathering place, and restorative services that will have an immeasurable impact on well-being and community unity in Bywater and beyond. The redevelopment of this landmark commercial building—and the proposed rehab of the St. Roch Market across the street—are key pieces to the recovery of the entire area, and is a strong testament to the resiliency of the New Orleanian spirit and creativity.