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.
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.
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.
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.
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.