Following months of speculative grand openings and delays, zoning hearings, and ongoing construction and renovations, the anticipated New Orleans Healing Center (NOHC) — set to be the "jewel" of the St. Claude Avenue corridor and a citywide destination — is now open.
The center, backed by developer Pres Kabacoff and his partner Sallie Ann Glassman (owner of the Island of Salvation Botanica, an NOHC tenant), occupies the former Universal Furniture building at the corner of St. Claude and St. Roch avenues, a 55,000-square-foot building that after the levee failures served as a Prospect.1 exhibition site, a New Orleans Police Department 5th District substation, and a temporary co-op grocery outpost. Several businesses, like Wild Lotus Yoga, the Building Block (including the Alliance for Affordable Energy and other businesses), "street university" workshops, and an ASI Federal Credit Union, have had soft openings in the space. (The center's grand opening was Aug. 28.)
A few week's before the center's debut, the sounds of hammers and saws echoed up to the building's third floor, where crews below were loading, unloading, building — obviously there was (and is) a lot of work to be done. Kabacoff says he envisions the space as a sustainability-minded community center uniting at least seven neighborhoods. Outside the NOHC, debates simmered among neighbors, locals and city planners over the center's role.
Is it a music venue or a restaurant? Is this gentrification? What about crime? Who's paying for this?
Following the 2005 levee failures, Kabacoff put together a "salon" to discuss potential revitalization projects, ultimately deciding on the center and plans for a "healing center" in "the sliver by the river that's been ignored," he says. The project has a $13 million price tag, backed by investors, a New Orleans Redevelopment Authority grant, and federal and state tax credits. The project's three goals, Kabacoff says, are to unify the area's neighborhoods, stimulate the corridor's economic recovery, and provide needed, affordable services to an underserved stretch of the city that still doesn't have a grocery store, among other things.
The St. Roch Market across the street — currently owned by the city — still is in the development stage. Built in 1875, the market once was St. Claude's cornerstone, but since 2005, it's been unoccupied and a blighted pockmark on the avenue. In 2009, the city and developers (including architect Lee Ledbetter) held community meetings to determine the best use of the building. In May, St. Claude Main Street manager Eva Campos told Gambit the market formerly served as the avenue's "cultural center, the historic center. Everything about it is what brings people here."
Another blighted former grocery store, the Robert Fresh Market at Elysian Fields Avenue and St. Claude, also continues to rot while residents nearby commute as far as Mid-City or Chalmette to shop at a full-service grocery. Farmers markets and corner and convenience stores fill in the basics.
Moving into the NOHC, then, are organic gardens and nurseries (The Earth Lab), an organic restaurant (Fatoush), and the New Orleans Food Co-Op, the ambitious 5,500-square-foot community-owned grocery. Kabacoff says he's supported the co-op with a loan from ASI, while hundreds of residents have signed on as members. (The co-op is set to open Oct. 1.)
Other tenants include an arts bazaar, and art galleries and "street universities" run by Andy Antippas, owner of Barrister's Gallery across the street. There also are nutritionists, wellness clinics, interfaith centers, and a new Maple Street Book Shop location inside the center. Kabacoff says he hopes to link the NOHC with the St. Roch Market across the street and the adjacent Shadowbox Theatre, connecting the center with local businesses and a planned park at its center.
Kabacoff also envisions the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority's planned streetcar service on St. Claude will boost the Healing Center's profile citywide. "It's catalytic to the goal of bringing together entire sections of the city — locals, regular (visitors), and the world," he says.
The Building Block is the center's second tenant, and it currently occupies the entire third floor — though the sustainable business developers share the space with their tenants, who rent space from the Building Block in a co-operative office space. Inside, start-up companies, artists, consultants and other green-minded businesses and entrepreneurs occupy several desks and offices — a community, of sorts, "doing like-minded work," says co-founder Forest Bradley-Wright. "It just feels like you're in the right kind of place. ... You'd expect to see that, a great deal of cross-promotion."
It's that same spirit Kabacoff envisions for the entire center among all its tenants. But several tenants have been the subjects of a debate over whether they're wanted in the first place.
With low citizen satisfaction within the 5th District (marked as the lowest among all eight of New Orleans Police Department districts in a recent poll), the center also has received criticism for keeping a substation within an "arts-minded" — not criminal — building. In March, Cmdr. Christopher Goodly replaced Capt. Bernadine Kelley, who in July became the subject of a Public Integrity Bureau investigation, only fueling weak public perception in a neighborhood riddled with violent crime. The center also will be patrolled by a New Orleans chapter of the Guardian Angels, a controversial citizen patrol group with chapters across the U.S. (When he served as Nashville's top cop, NOPD superintendent Ronal Serpas said the group "can be very dangerous. ... I believe it is in everyone's interest for a trained police officer to actually interact with suspicious persons and lawbreakers.")
Kabacoff defends NOPD's presence, saying he wanted to get the NOPD out of the trailers the district was stationed in since 2005, while NOPD plans a new standalone station for the district. (A zoning change could allow a "permanent police station" at the center.)
David Percival, aka Lord David, who lives across the street from the center, has been an outspoken community critic regarding the zoning change, which also would designate Cafe Istanbul (owned and run by Chuck Perkins and Suleyman Aydin) for "adult entertainment," allowing alcohol sales during late-night performances — a plan revealed to residents earlier this year when construction and contracts were already complete.
"Cafe Istanbul should concentrate on the quality of service & entertainment ... rather than go for the easy money of another late night drinking hole, in an area that has enough already, and doesn't really want one there," Lord David wrote on his blog, lorddavidtruth.blogspot.com. The Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association also opposed the plan.
In a July column, OffBeat magazine publisher Jan Ramsey wrote in response to Lord David and the FMIA's opposition, "They all need to back off and to let this thing happen in peace. ... Leave the music alone, especially in a place like the Healing Center. In fact, why don't you go listen to some music and get some healing yourselves...!"
At an Aug. 23 City Planning Commission (CPC) meeting, Lord David addressed the commission in opposition to the cafe's planned late-night hours and the high outdoor lighting overlooking the center's parking lot (and beaming into nearby residences). "I don't know anyone in the area who's against it. The performers we'd see there are our colleagues, and we're all for that," he told the CPC. "[But] the idea this needs to be open til 2 a.m. is ridiculous."
In an email to Gambit, he wrote that he supports the center and the cafe, and added they are a "much needed effort to bring change, economic & social, to an area steeped in culture, creativity and traditions. From the latest plays at the Marigny & Shadowbox Theaters, the hardcore bands at Siberia, the Bounce Dance Parties at the St. Roch Tavern, to the Mardi Gras Indian tribes that practice, off hours & on, at the Hi Ho Lounge, this is truly New Orleans New Bohemia."
His and others' concerns are with Kabacoff's original plans for Cafe Istanbul versus the eventual plans, and how they were revealed: "We expected something along the lines of the Marigny or Shadowbox theaters, with perhaps some shades of Snug Harbor thrown into the mix," Lord David said. "As it came closer to opening time, it became apparent that Mr. Kabacoff was planning something else."
The CPC did not pass the zoning change, but it will be revisited by both City Council and CPC in the future.
"Nothing is easy about this," Kabacoff says. "But the energy, attention and importance — we wouldn't have done it if I didn't think it could work."