- Associated Press - Sunday, February 12, 2017

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The Lafitte Greenway carved out a path for New Orleans cyclists and pedestrians through an industrial landscape, winding past warehouses tagged with street art, storage for old stoplights, and vacant lots stretching from downtown to City Park.

But that urban landscape is evolving this year with real estate investors pushing a wave of new development connected to the greenway - including proposals for a patio bar, hundreds of apartments, at least one coffee shop and co-working office space, all with direct access to the path and the possibility of making the 14-month-old park a busier public space.

“The greenway presents a really unique opportunity,” said Mike Sherman, a land use attorney who represents several property owners in the area. “The greenway is only in its infancy. The grand plans in the master plan aren’t yet realized but because it has the basic element of connectivity between neighborhoods, it does present an amenity for both retailers and residents that’s captured the attention of developers.”

The bigger vision for the 2.6-mile Lafitte Greenway as a linear public park with amenities such as a visitor’s center on Basin Street, side paths, a dog park, community gathering spaces and gardens and footbridges over a neighboring canal - bringing together residents from surrounding neighborhoods - have yet to be fully developed.

Even so, millions of dollars have been invested in the hot Mid-City real estate scene surrounding the greenway: Whole Foods, Broad Theater, Mid-City Market anchored by Winn Dixie and the shopping complex at 500 N. Carrollton Ave., to name just a few commercial investments.

This year could be a turning point for real estate investments directly on the path.

Local developers Herbert Dyer and Rusty Smith, who own the Velvet Cactus in Lakeview, have proposed building a patio bar on the path near Bayou Bicycles and Jefferson Davis Parkway. Billy Good, a real estate broker who is working with the developers, said it’s modeled after a patio bar on Dallas’ 3.5-mile Katy Trail, a similar urban greenway for bikers and pedestrians.

Good said he envisions a quiet, laid-back atmosphere for drinks overlooking the park. “We want people to ride their bikes to it, to jog to it, to walk to it … we want it to be more of a neighborhood place,” said Good, who recently helped develop a Camp Bow Wow dog kennel on the greenway, a building that also has a condo where he lives.

The patio bar developers have applied for a conditional-use permit with the City Planning Commission for the project. The land would be leased from Sidney Torres IV, the high-profile local businessman who owns several greenway properties.

Meanwhile, on a much bigger scale, an Ohio-based apartment developer plans to build a 382-unit apartment building on that same stretch of the greenway, between North Carrollton and Jefferson Davis Parkway near the intersection with Cortez Street. The at-times controversial project from Edwards Communities got city approval last year after a deal for including 14 affordable housing units was hashed out with city leaders. The property was also part of Torres’ greenway portfolio, with the sale to Edwards conditional on the city supporting the proposal.

New Orleans-based Green Coast Enterprises is renovating the Tulane Industrial Laundry building at 2606 St. Louis St. near the North Broad Street crossing with 12 second-floor apartments, interior parking on the first floor and three ground floor commercial spaces. That will include a 1,000-square-foot space fronting the greenway where a local coffee business will open a cafe, said Ramsey Green, a partner in GCE Green Development LLC.

Green said the coffee business isn’t ready to publicly announce the new location. The dozen apartments are one-bedroom units, he said. “It’s a historic renovation of an industrial building,” Green said. “There’s a lot of exposed beams, exposed steel, with incredible views of both the downtown skyline and the Lafitte Greenway.” The total development cost of the project is more than $3 million, he said, and construction should be finished late this summer.

The New Orleans Redevelopment Fund, a growing real estate company invested mostly in Mid-City, bought the former Times-Picayune distribution warehouse at 2720 St. Louis St. on the greenway for $1.5 million last year with plans for more than 20,000 square feet of modern office space.

Cullan Maumas, development director for the fund, said the company plans to move its offices into the building and lease out another 14,000 square feet. The property includes about 22,000 square feet of vacant land for future development, he said.

The greenway and the new University Medical Center-Veterans Affairs medical complex have been among the main drivers for investing in Mid-City, he said. Developers bought along the greenway in hopes of the park becoming more finished than it is today, he said. “I think there’s promise, and I think there is excitement in what the park can be … we all hope it materializes as it’s been conceived,” Maumus said.

“We have identified a number of locations along the greenway we hope to see developed and are working actively to develop ourselves if possible,” he said.

Sophie Harris, executive director of Friends of Lafitte Greenway, a nonprofit advocacy organization, said the greenway’s plan calls for revitalization of surrounding neighborhoods and high-quality development that’s oriented toward the greenway and that promotes an active lifestyle. “This goal of seeing trail-oriented development is a key one for the greenway,” Harris said. An average of 746 people used the greenway every day last year, according to a University of New Orleans study.

The greenway, a $9.1 million project relying on Community Development Block Grant funding, officially opened in November 2015. Built on an old shipping canal and former railroad corridor, the greenway was envisioned to stretch all the way to the Navarre neighborhood at Canal Boulevard. For now, the trail stops at Alexander Street, where bikers are directed toward Orleans Avenue to reach City Park.

Friends of Lafitte Greenway will host its annual hike the greenway event March 25, including walking the envisioned extension toward Lakeview, Harris said.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office said two capital projects on the greenway are scheduled to be finished this year. A renovation of an old brake-tag station on Lafitte Avenue into a multi-purpose pavilion for $1.1 million is scheduled to be completed in July. Construction of a new concessions and restroom facility Lemann Playground will be done in September. The $760,000 project includes a 1,500-square-foot concessions facility with restrooms and storage next to Lemann Pool.

Meanwhile, $79,000 in capital funds have been dedicated in 2019 to demolishing a Department of Public Works signs and signal shop to create green space.

The New Orleans Recreation Development Commission received a new allotment of $567,000 to take over maintenance and operation of the Lafitte Greenway starting this year.

In September, the National Recreation and Park Association is bringing its conference with an anticipated 8,000 members to New Orleans. As part of that conference, the Lafitte Greenway was picked for “significant renovations as donors and local companies alike come together to transform the area into a vibrant public space,” according to a news release from the association.

The New Orleans Recreation Development Commission and the city are “engaging third party vendors to install play and exercise equipment along the greenway as well as high mast lighting at the greenway multi-purpose field” as part of the upcoming conference, a mayor spokeswoman said.

The nonprofit Trust for Public Land initially helped the city acquire and assemble the properties for the park during Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration, and more recently, the group has been working with the city on different options for managing the park in the future. Sarah Olivier, New Orleans area director for the trust, said it’s common for parks like the greenway to involve public-private partnerships. In Chicago, which is in the beginning phase of a massive elevated park known as The 606, the Trust for Public Land helped lead a philanthropic fundraising campaign, she said.

James Moises, a local physician who owns an Oregon winery, also owns Bizou Wines, a distribution company that operates out of a warehouse on the greenway at 2500 St. Louis St. Moises said he is seeking to convert part of his warehouse into a rustic space for private event rentals, and he welcomes the energy brought to the greenway from new developments. He said he often watches as people of all ages use the greenway to get between downtown and Mid-City. “It’s really pretty amazing what it’s turned out to be,” Moises said.

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Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com

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