By Melanie Lasoff Levs
NEW ORLEANS — Residents of Columbia Parc, the bustling mixed-income residential community built on what was a blighted housing project, are used to visitors. Sometimes, when people come to pay rent, there are curious groups lingering around the model of the neighborhood in the leasing office. Other times, international visitors speaking different languages move in packs through the community.
It’s not unusual for organized tours to come through Columbia Parc, which has become a worldwide source of curiosity and inspiration since it opened in February 2010, says J.T. Hannan, director of public and governmental affairs for the Bayou District Foundation, a Purpose Built Communities Network Member.
Before Hurricane Katrina, the St. Bernard Housing Community, on which Columbia Parc was created, “was not an area you visited,” he says. Violence and extreme poverty were rampant. Today, it is a different world. And delegations from some 50 U.S. cities and seven foreign nations have witnessed the transformation, Hannan adds. “Half the battle for us was bringing in local business leaders and community members to see what has changed.”
“Change” is an understatement. Columbia Parc features more than 685 mixed-income apartments, including more than 100 homes for seniors, both preserving affordable housing and attracting higher-income individuals and families. A cheerful early childhood education center, Educare New Orleans, serves more than 165 children from ages 6 weeks to 5 years, and a temporary health clinic recently opened. Green space and playgrounds abound, and construction on a championship golf course in neighboring City Park is in the works.
“We, along with East Lake, are a standard of how [Purpose Built Communities] works,” Hannan explains. “Folks come to us and ask us to tell our story, and when we’re done, the question is, `How do I talk about doing this in our city?’”
Among the international visitors, according to Hannan: a delegation from the Republic of China, investigating how to rebuild housing after earthquakes hit Western China; a group from Haiti; a congressman from Honduras; a member of the Republic of Ireland’s debt asset liquidation department considering how to create revenue from distressed properties; and a crew from the national TV network of Japan.
A real estate developer from Fort Worth, Tex., recently toured to generate ideas to enhance the neighborhood surrounding a retail outlet that he controlled, Hannan says. Members of government housing authorities and employees of public sector housing organizations also have visited Columbia Parc, according to Hannan. A delegation from Tennessee spent three hours at Columbia Parc, peppering Hannan with questions about sustaining revenue in such a community. While the Foundation is building a golf course, these developers were considering a museum or retail as the sustaining element of the model, Hannan recalls.
The diversity of visitors “shows there are different ways to get where you want to go in terms of building up the model,” he says. “Everyone has a different approach.”
Due to a lack of attractions surrounding Columbia Parc, the area is not a strict “tourist” destination — yet, says Hannan. Once the community’s college prep high school complex opens this summer, he expects crowd-pleasing events such as band practices and competitions will follow. The health clinic intends to serve some 13,000 patients from Columbia Parc and neighboring communities as well.
Whatever their initial reason for visiting Columbia Parc, Hannan says, those who have toured are impressed with how the city has recovered from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. “New Orleans was not known as a hotbed of innovation and policy work prior to Katrina, and now it’s an educational laboratory with a lot of things happening. A lot of folks are studying how we’ve rebounded,” he says, adding that he is proud to show off Columbia Parc, a shining example of that recovery. “You meet a lot of different people, answer a lot of different questions, and you know you’re doing things that are improving people’s lives.”