Posted July 20th 2010 at 2:18 pm by
in Historic Preservation in New Orleans, Historic Preservation in NOLA, New Orleans

Preservation at the Magnolia Street Projects in the Harmony Oaks Era

An important story in post-Katrina New Orleans has been the redevelopment of the city’s oldest public housing projects. C.J. Peete, formerly the Magnolia Street Projects, is comprised of approximately 1,500 units of housing in Central City, and received a HOPE VI federal redevelopment grant in 2008. C.J. Peete is currently being rebuilt as “Harmony Oaks” – at a much lower density and for a mixed-income resident group – by a cohort of developers including my NOLA Fellows sponsor organization, NONDC.

Harmony Oaks_small Most of the Harmony Oaks development is still under construction, but its bright and varied buildings are rapidly nearing completion. This photo was taken from LaSalle Street in June 2010.

Public housing redevelopments like the one at C.J. Peete are controversial and contested. Although some people object to the replacement of public housing with mixed-income projects, and the oft-resulting decrease in affordable units, others praise HUD’s approach to deconcentrating poverty and improving living conditions at the country’s most severely distressed public housing developments. In all cases, the displacement of an existing community of residents is a serious matter with social and neighborhood consequences.

Renovation_small Renovation of the sole remaining original residential building at Harmony Oaks is almost complete (July 2010).

At C.J. Peete, more than 55 historic buildings themselves were also at stake, some of the earliest examples of public housing in New Orleans. The original part of the housing development, the Magnolia Street Projects, was completed in 1941 (itself the heralded replacement for a bulldozed “slum” area), and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1990s. Its low-rise brick buildings were ornamented with New Orleans-style balconies and metalwork, with common courtyards where families hung their laundry and residents could gather. The original 740 units in two- and three-story buildings were at a scale relatively consistent with the surrounding neighborhood, although the complex eventually grew to over 1500 units on about 41 acres.

Historic Magnolia_small The Magnolia Street Project was listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its significance as an early federal housing effort in New Orleans. (Source: Website of the LA Office of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism)

A quick tour on Google Maps in street view shows the poor conditions that the buildings were in before redevelopment started. Poor maintenance on the part of the New Orleans Housing Authority shares blame with damage from Hurricane Katrina and years of subsequent vacancy. Large-scale demolition seemed inevitable.

Thanks to the public participation process and federal guidelines about historic resources, however, two buildings on site were spared the redevelopment bulldozers: the project’s administration building and one adjacent residential building, of type “E.” Unlike at some other local public housing redevelopments, the residential structure that was saved has been remodeled for modern residential use, as opposed to being converted to housing offices or community spaces.

New Kitchen_small The units have been reconfigured to modern sizes and with modern appliances, but retain some historic features.

Why is it so hard to re-use these historic public housing buildings? For one, units in 1941 were extremely small—at Harmony Oaks, the original 15-unit building was turned into a 10-unit building through some architectural acrobatics. Plumbing and heating infrastructure needed dramatic upgrades. Fire and building codes have changed, so the 1950s fire escapes building had to be replaced with exterior stairs. Lead paint had to be stripped from the exterior ironwork. From the inside, with new appliances and new carpets and floors, only a few touches reveal the long history that this building has had of housing New Orleans families.

Most of the people I’ve talked to about the Harmony Oaks redevelopment would not call themselves preservationists, and some would go so far as to say that preserving public housing buildings is more trouble and expense than it’s worth. Ironically, new construction can come out less expensive than the interior demolition and reconfiguration of units, the cleaning of exterior brickwork, the hours of negotiations with historic preservation officers. However, the two preserved structures at Harmony Oaks are simply designed, solidly built and, with this renovation, seem poised for another 70 years of service.

Photos by Laura Manville

Laura Manville is a Master in City Planning candidate at MIT and a 2010 New Orleans Fellow at CoLab. For her fellowship, she is working with the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Collaborative as they develop homeownership units for the HOPE VI revitalization of the CJ Peete housing project. Her research is on the preservation of affordable and public housing.

5 responses to “Preservation at the Magnolia Street Projects in the Harmony Oaks Era”

  1. Aditi Mehta says:

    When I worked in public housing redevelopment, the sentiment you described above was common among most developers. “Why should I preserve these buildings, when it is so much cheaper to build new ones and when I can get more units from new construction?” In my experience, answers from the preservationists never really convinced these developers. What would you say is the case for preservation of public housing, especially from an economic standpoint?

  2. Amy Stitely says:

    Laura, In reading your post I came up with one overarching question:

    What is the true cost demolishing public housing for the city’s poorest? There may be a dollar argument for starting over, but what about the social and environmental costs?

    From an environmental standpoint, I wonder what happened to the brick or the lead painted windows when the original building was brought to rubble? What resources were consumed to manufacture, ship, and construct the new buildings.

    Then, on the issue of social costs and benefits – What is the shared cultural and emotional effect of tearing these structures down or leaving them up? Are the forms sentimentally regarded by their former residents? Or the opposite?

    Then of course – what happened to the old residents? Where do they live now?

    Obviously, there are not answers to all these questions, but we should ask them none the less.


  3. Laura says:

    Aditi and Amy, thanks so much for your comments! The economics of preservation are complicated and challenging and often less then favorable. But as Amy points out, these buildings are also loaded with cultural, social, and personal significance for a community of people who lived there.

    A lot of the language of the HOPE VI program was about changing physical spaces, and demolishing severely distressed buildings as a prerequisite for improving neighborhoods. New structures symbolize a new start for projects that had a lot of issues and very poor living conditions for many years. But does this idea of renewal and a new start preclude any sort of preservation? In many cases around the country, it has, though not at C.J. Peete.

    Amy, the bricks from some of the demolished C.J. Peete buildings have been used to pave walkways in front of NONDC’s new homeownership units in the neighborhood. A hopeful way to recycle these materials!

  4. Shoko says:

    Hi Laura! The point you are raising, the true value of “historic preservation” is something that has been on my mind since I had coffee with Danny in HCM City last week!

    Many countries in SE Asia are going through a rush for modernization, and we were talking about whether there really is a need from the bottom-up for preservation. Is historic preservation a westernized concept?

    I’m not saying that Asians don’t have a sense of culture and we do respect and value traditions, but when it comes to housing or shopping centers, we tend to push for cheap, quick, modern things. When the people living in/around these old, historic buildings want modern-convenient facilities, is there room for preservation?

  5. Jackie Dadakis says:

    Laura, I am getting caught up on your blog post series and continue to be impressed. This past Saturday I actually got a pedicure in one of the new ground floor commercial sites on the old St. Thomas Housing Project. Similar to the C.J. Pete development, this site is mostly all new buildings with only a few of the iconic brick buildings remaining. The feel of the site is completely different from a few years ago – as exampled by the thriving nail shop located in a neighborhood that just a few years ago I was told never to drive through.

    The question that was nagging me as I sat in the incredibly comfortable pedicure massage chair is how many of the customers around me are long time residents of the neighborhood. This development is also mixed income and is generating quite a bit of buzz in the city for the quality of the final product. But after five years, how many of the original residents are making it back?