It's a frigid Saturday morning at Freret Street Po-Boys and Donut Shop, and customers are sitting down for a meal or dashing in to grab a cup of coffee at this latest addition to the 4700 block of Freret Street, called the "Blue Block" by locals. All of the storefronts on the odd-numbered side of the block are painted a royal blue, and they include a fresh juice and sno-ball stand, a glass sculpture gallery, an insurance agency and Las Acacias, a Latin supermercado.
Across the street on the even-numbered side of the block, two buildings sit unoccupied.
It's a study in contrasts and a reflection of what this historic street, located between Napoleon Avenue and Jefferson Avenue, has become since the August 2005 levee failures. There are a number of new businesses which have set up shop — small restaurants, a comedy club, art galleries and others — as well as older established businesses, and they want to transform the area into a smaller and less expensive version of Magazine Street, with plenty of arts and culture offerings within walking distance. On the other hand, there are large gaps of vacant properties, and Greg Ensslen, a developer who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 10 years and owns the blue buildings, says it's time for the city to step in and help this on-the-cusp neighborhood.
"A lot of people are saying that we're doing things that are grassroots," Ensslen says. "It's really happening from within. The larger more organizational structure that you expect to get from your local government just isn't coming."
Robert Mendoza, director of New Orleans' Public Works Department, says that's about to change. With a $500,000 budget and construction slated to begin in June, the Freret Street area will benefit from one of the city's 22 streetscape, or enhancement, projects, designed to make pedestrian-friendly commercial corridors with densely packed shops. It's been more than two years since the business association and two other groups submitted a plan to the city for structural improvements, however, and nothing has happened so far.
Yvonne Landry, who owns La Nuit Comedy Theatre and is president of the Freret Business and Property Owner Association, agrees with Ensslen's sentiments. After a number of car accidents occurred in front of her venue because of a missing stop sign, Landry says she fashioned a makeshift version until the city eventually replaced it with a permanent one.
"I don't think a damn thing has happened," Landry says, referring to the streetscape project. "On Freret Street, we think anything that's going to happen we're going to have to spearhead."
While Landry and Ensslen are critical of city government, both say their City Council representative, Stacy Head, has been a champion for Freret Street. Head says she understands the residents' frustration. "They have every right to feel that way because of the slow way the city has moved on issues like this," Head says.
Head lives nearby and attends many of the different events held on the street, like the monthly Freret Street Market, and Landry credits her with rezoning the neighborhood as an arts and culture overlay district in November 2007. With this designation, art galleries, theaters, coffee shops, museums, restaurants and live entertainment venues are acceptable uses in the district, easing the permitting process for incoming businesses. In an effort to preserve the district's arts and culture integrity, the overlay specifically forbids certain types of stores like T-shirt, novelty and souvenir shops, as well as strip clubs.
While Head sympathizes with her constituents' anger toward City Hall, she's enthusiastic about the Freret streetscape. The public works project will provide the area with new trees, an archway sign hallmarking the entrance to the arts and culture corridor, curb extensions or "bump-outs" (intended to slow auto traffic), benches, sidewalk improvements and clearly marked crosswalks. Others on the City Council seem similarly satisfied with Mendoza's department. When Mayor Ray Nagin proposed a $3 million cut in general funds to public works as part of the city's across-the-board, 10 percent budget reduction, the council added $2 million back into the public works' 2010 allowance, even as it was slashing funding to other agencies.
Mendoza says the streetscape projects, which will be constructed in several areas throughout New Orleans, are part of the $730 million in federal funds and grants the city has programmed for street, bridge and road reconstruction and repairs, American with Disabilities Act improvements and bicycle facilities. The 22 street enhancement developments are a fraction of the 286 projects that Mendoza's staff is overseeing (he says about half are now completed). "We're staring at the finish line at this point," he says. With a few exceptions, Mendoza expects all of the streetscapes to be completed this year.
The public thinks the clock started ticking on the New Orleans recovery with the arrival of former recovery czar Ed Blakely, Mendoza says, but he adds his department has only had the Freret project for about a year, and it is on schedule.
"[The] normal time frame between finding out you're going to get federal money for a project and actually building it is five years," says Mendoza. "That's normal — that's not just New Orleans. We've done this in two years, which is actually a ridiculously fast pace."
The Freret Street project has evolved since early 2006, when local residents asked the city for about $50,000, mostly to replant destroyed trees. According to Mendoza, Blakely's staff told them to expand their vision, and in December 2007, the business association, Neighbors United (a residents' association) and the nonprofit Neighborhood Housing Services of New Orleans (NHS) submitted "ReNew Freret: Project Plans for the Freret Target Area," to Blakely's Office of Recovery Management. With a finished plan, totaling more than $2 million in repairs and improvements with $570,000 reserved for the streetscape, residents thought construction would start sometime in 2008.
Producing a plan was only part of the process, says Mendoza, and his staff held two public meetings in late 2008 and early 2009 to determine residents' priorities regarding street enhancements. Mendoza says his office is limited to the $500,000 budget determined by Blakely, but Public Works has been able to secure other funding sources. Originally, improved and decorative lighting was part of the streetscape project and took up half of its budget, but that's now being paid for through a separate energy grant through the federal stimulus funds, allowing for more street and sidewalk renovation. Additionally, Mendoza says a second phase of the federally funded South Louisiana Submerged Roads Program has been approved by the feds and state officials, and he is anticipating Freret Street will be repaved from Louisiana Avenue to Jefferson Avenue.
A preliminary design for the project has been completed, and a final design is expected by the end of this month. MWH Americas Inc., the global engineering firm hired by the city to assist in recovery efforts, is overseeing the project, which is scheduled to go out for bid in February. Mendoza hopes construction could begin as early as May and would take 90 days to complete. Before any of this can proceed, however, the city has to have environmental clearance to start the project, and as of press time, this hasn't occurred.
That last bit of news leaves Ensslen skeptical the project will ever come to fruition.
"Streetscape was a project prepared by 'Flaky Blakely' before he renamed his organization four times, and went through four managers, five different handlers, and there is still no directive on what is coming our way," Ensslen says.
With or without the streetscape project, the neighborhood is on an upswing. The Du Mois Gallery opened its first art exhibition in early January, and the grassroots nonprofit organization Hike For Katreena will plant trees in the area later this month. Ensslen expects to have a private campaign in 2010 to raise money for neighborhood improvements, and he says he has been involved in a deal to get an established New Orleans restaurateur to open a new restaurant on Freret Street. Because they haven't closed on the property, Ensslen won't reveal the owner's name or the location, but he says it is a significant marquee building that anchors one end of the district. And that leaves the Blue Block landlord optimistic about the future.
"On the cusp, yes, but I think it's only a matter of time before we start tumbling forward," Ensslen says. "I don't think there's going to be a retraction in terms of safety, development and sophistication in the neighborhood."