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Bringing fresh fare to an urban food desert

SA+P spinoff creates community food hub in New Orleans
Interior of Whole Foods Market on Grand Opening Day.
Interior of Whole Foods Market on Grand Opening Day.
Photo: Seth Knudsen MCP '08/NORA

In February, a 60,000-square-foot grocery in New Orleans' Broad Street neighborhood, vacant since Hurricane Katrina, reopened its doors as a mixed-use community 'fresh food hub' including fresh and affordable groceries, commercial kitchens for school meal providers, and retail and office space.

Anchored by a new Whole Foods Market, the ReFresh Project, as it is known, is an initiative of Broad Community Connections (BCC), a non-profit Main Street organization founded in 2008 to revitalize the city’s historic Broad Street as a commercial corridor, a project with connections to the School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P) that run both wide and deep.

Both the BCC and the grocery redevelopment project can trace their origins to a Spring ‘07 practicum taught by planning lecturers Karl Seidman and Susan Silberberg; with the assistance of Seidman and student Jeff Schwartz MCP ’08, community leaders went on to found the BCC, hiring Schwartz as the first executive director.

The following year, Jackie Dadakis MCP '10 and Aditi Mehta MCP '10 were part of a student team that won second place in the JP Morgan Chase Community Development Competition for a redevelopment plan for the grocery store. The grocery went into development with help from the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, including Executive Director Jeff Hebert MCP '04 and Seth Knudsen MCP '08 as project manager. Other planning alumni/ae involved include Elaine Braithwaite MCP '12 at L+M Development Partners and Wanda Chin MCP '80, chief operating officer at the Low Income Investment Fund, among others.

Occupying a part of New Orleans where the median household income is less than $28,000, and where more than 22 percent of residents receive nutrition assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the project aims to deliver both high-quality fresh foods and health-related education programs.

In addition to the new Whole Foods Market, the development comprises Tulane University’s Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine and Liberty’s Kitchen, a non-profit program offering culinary training to youth, and meals to local public schools. Already, Liberty’s Kitchen is making 12 bulk food products daily for Whole Foods, part of the grocer’s focus on local products.

Along with providing education and better access to fresh food, the development hopes to jump-start other investments by serving as an anchor for small business development. It will also provide office and community space, including the central office for FirstLine Schools and the offices of Broad Community Connections.

Broad Community Connections used various financing methods to make the project a reality. The group received a $1 million loan from the city’s Fresh Food Retailer Initiative, half of which is forgivable. Another $900,000 came from the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority’s Corridor Revitalization Program. And various streams of private investment also contributed, including $10 million from Goldman Sachs and $8 million from Chase. But the biggest subsidy came from New Market Tax Credits, providing incentives for equity investments in low-income communities.

In addition to its ReFresh Project, BCC provides design, urban planning, and financial technical assistance to business and property owners, community members, and other stakeholders, working on such projects as city streetscape enhancements and supporting Tulane University’s development of a new community health center. BCC also produces events to showcase the culture on the corridor, such as the Broad Street Brewhaha, a celebration of New Orleans’ beer and coffee brewing traditions.

Broad Community Connections is one of a host of initiatives growing out of SA+P’s years-long involvement in revitalizing the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. More than 250 faculty, students, and alumni have worked in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast with a number of organizations on a multitude of issues, all of which have made substantial contributions to the region’s recovery. BCC continues as one of many on-the-ground partners in New Orleans for Karl Seidman’s ongoing Financing Economic Development class.

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