By Richard A. Webster
Dolan Media Newswires
New Orleans — In the early 1990s when developer Brian Gibbs was a student at Tulane University, he and his friends never considered the dead zone between Uptown and the French Quarter as a party destination, much less a place to live.
The swath of vacant and abandoned buildings bordered by a sea of offices was something to drive through, a lifeless section of town that had little to offer.
But times have changed in the Warehouse and Central Business districts, said Gibbs, who is set to open a 21-story, 250-unit apartment building this year in the Warehouse District.
“When we first started developing apartments in the Warehouse District in 1998, we didn’t have any student residents. Now between 20 (percent) to 30 percent of our residents are graduate students,” Gibbs said.
Large projects such as the National World War II Museum have been game changers for the district. But without the smaller, lifestyle-oriented businesses, the dozens of restaurants and bars that have proliferated throughout the area in the four years since Hurricane Katrina, there would be little reason for people to live and invest in downtown, Gibbs said.
“We need to show business owners that it’s a fun place to be and there’s plenty to do. It’s a quality of life thing for employees in addition to potential residents. The nightlife component is something we’re definitely trying to incorporate into our buildings.”
Capdeville, the newest addition to the scene, opened New Year’s Eve on the ground floor of Gibbs’ Intellectual Property building. Billed as a twist on a British social house with gourmet bar food, Capdeville is the latest venture of Lifestyle Revolution Group CEO Robert LeBlanc.
LeBlanc was one of the first people to invest in the Warehouse District after the storm. He took over the old location of Howlin’ Wolf in October 2005 and opened Republic two months later. In the four years since, he opened another CBD nightlife venue, Le Phare, partnered in Loa in the International House Hotel and has several other projects in the works.
The goal of Lifestyle Revolution Group has always been to create a social atmosphere that would attract young professionals to New Orleans, and there was no better fit for that model than the Intellectual Property building, a breeding ground for young entrepreneurs, LeBlanc said.
“What we do is not inherently innovative, selling beer for a living. But you can use that application to do a lot of incredible things by creating a sense of community and providing a meaningful gathering place where people can have intelligent conversations and enjoy themselves,” LeBlanc said.
The biggest challenge for the Warehouse District and CBD is attracting businesses that will create that sense of community, the missing ingredient potential residents are looking for, said Michael Hecht, CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc. and one of the conceptual founders of the IP building.
“Every time we get a new business or social venue like Capdeville it adds to the critical mass and brings us closer to that tipping point,” Hecht said.
An estimated 3,500 people live in the Central Business and Warehouse districts, roughly the same number in the area 10 years ago, said Shaun Talbot, vice president of Talbot Realty Group. A pre-Katrina report found that the downtown area, excluding the French Quarter, could hold as many as 10,000 residents.
“Look at all the properties that can be developed and the vacant parking lots. There is tremendous room for development that can go on for years,” Talbot said.
“Out-of-town developers come into an area and scratch their heads saying, ‘Why isn’t this done yet?’ They’re amazed by it. We’ve plodded along like a turtle. Good things have happened, but it has been a slow process.”