By Matthew Kredell
Undergraduate students from the USC Price School of Public Policy spent a week this May in New Orleans applying what they’ve learned in the classroom to a real-world planning and development issue in the Big Easy.
The students arrived in New Orleans to find a City where many areas have bounced back from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But they were asked by their City leaders to lend their attention to the Gentilly Woods neighborhood, an important community outside the City’s historic core, developed in the second half of the the 20th century in the age of the automobile. Specifically, they were asked to look at the Chef Menteur Highway, an auto-oriented commercial corridor with a high level of vacancy and blight, including several empty big-box stores.
“There’s a lot of historic neighborhoods in the city center, beautiful 19th century neighborhoods, that have gotten a lot of attention the last 14 years as a response to Katrina,” said adjunct instructor Jason Neville. “But some corridors outside that historic area haven’t gotten that attention and are need in of investment, and Gentilly Woods is one of them.”
The students took on a big problem without an easy solution. They were tasked with preparing a revitalization plan for Chef Menteur Highway in the Gentilly Woods neighborhood of New Orleans. As part of that effort, they were asked to identify a site for a real estate development project that would address the needs of the community.
The proposal was for the whole corridor, and included the creation of a financing district to generate funding for neighborhood revitalization such as streetscape improvements, a new transit plaza, and support for small business development.
Within the corridor, they proposed the conversion of an abandoned big-box grocery store into a community-serving mixed use project.
On the ground floor, they advised creating a movie theater with restaurants, small businesses and a tutor center. The second floor added 36 units of affordable housing for seniors. Surrounding the building, they put a transit hub and outdoor basketball courts for the community.
“I was proud of how creative our ideas were and how seriously everyone took the project,” said Daniele Kaiser, who is entering her senior year. “Everyone saw the need in this area and worked to create a project that can be a catalyst for change that meets the needs of the community. It was special to see everyone want to help the place and do good for the community.”
The 20 students broke up into teams of two-to-four to handle different parts of the report. Kaiser was on the project management team, helping to oversee and facilitate communication among teams that focused on such topics as finance, urban design and presentation.
Students met with property owners that live and work in these corridors to get a sense of the opportunities and barriers that exist. The students also looked at what similar cities are doing to inform their recommendations.
“It’s a challenge to digest so much information about an unfamiliar location in such a short period of time,” Neville said. “I think the students did a good job of that and, most importantly, the clients felt the ideas were strong. I was particularly happy with how the students realized that there is a case to be made to develop a transit plaza at that particular site because of the transit connections to job centers.”
The partnership between USC Price and the City of New Orleans began last year as a passion project for two USC Price alums with a personal love for the city.
Neville had just arrived at USC to pursue a Master of Planning degree when Hurricane Katrina hit his hometown in 2005. Before completing his degree in 2007, he helped design and served as a teaching assistant for a USC Price course on post-disaster recovery in New Orleans.
“You can tell how passionate he is about New Orleans,” Kaiser said. “He’s especially passionate about helping those in need, and I think his commitment to embracing the culture of New Orleans and bettering the community set the tone for the class with the students feeding off that energy.”
After completing a dual MPL/MPP degree at USC Price in 2014, Liana Elliott returned to New Orleans, where she now serves as deputy chief of staff for Mayor LaToya Cantrell. Elliott served as the client along with Brenda Breaux, executive director of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), which has a program that makes grants for projects to revitalize commercial corridors.
“This is a great partnership with USC Price and the City of New Orleans,” Elliott said. “Every time the students come down here, everyone benefits. I love that we have this partnership to augment the class experience at USC and get some fresh eyes on some of our problems here.”
Elliott finds it valuable for the City of New Orleans to bring in students from USC Price because they come with perspectives from all over.
“I love that the students come from all over the world so they bring parts they’re familiar with from their hometowns, projects that may be applicable to us, but they aren’t something we would have seen because they’re not in bigger cities, but often are the most valuable” Elliott said.
Breaux indicated that the work produced by the class will provide a basis of information as NORA moves forward with considering the corridor. She was impressed by the concept of the transit hub.
“Looking at that corridor as a transit hub is a new concept for us, and one we might even uplift out of that report,” Breaux said. “As we talked to them about utilizing that as a transit stop, we realized that really is a center point of getting on and off that interstate where traffic ties up like you wouldn’t believe. To have some of that traffic come off of the interstate really makes sense.”
Although the City doesn’t own the property, which limits the scope of the direct impact it can make, Elliott attested that the work she found most implementable was the recommendations of streetscape improvements.
“The actual cost of proposed streetscape improvements was interesting, well thought out and detailed,” Elliott said. “They brought in a lot of ideas from small towns that we wouldn’t really know to look for when considering a streetscape-improvement plan.”