NEW ORLEANS — For 17 years, people driving into New Orleans East have been greeted with one word: Caveman.
Abandoned since Hurricane Katrina, what used to be a Holiday Inn became a nine-story billboard advertising the neglect and decay in New Orleans East.
It was a daily reminder for Tangee Wall of how her neighborhood had changed since the storm.
“This is something, I think, the entire community of New Orleans East has been concerned about for years,” Wall said.
But today, Wall sees the long-abandoned building as a sign that says New Orleans East is open for development.
The old Holiday Inn has a new life as “The High Rise,” a workforce housing development with 144 apartments and three commercial spaces.
But it’s much more than that for Wall.
“I can tell you that it means a great deal not to see ‘Caveman’ as the first thing you see once you pass the Welcome to New Orleans sign,” she said.
The process started when the old Holiday Inn went up for foreclosure auction in 2017. That’s where developer Peter Gardner comes into the picture.
Gardner missed the auction, but by pure chance had dinner with the man who did buy the vacant building that night.
“I was like, ‘Hey, did you hear that building went for auction and sold for really cheap?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, because I bought it,” Gardner said. “The next day I hit him up and said ‘You want to sell it?’”
Gardner calls himself a “glorified house flipper.”
To simplify the renovation process, he works as the developer, contractor and owner. It’s a different way of redeveloping properties that he says opens a lot of opportunities.
“What I was able to do is say, hey, I’m the owner, I’m the developer, I’m the contractor. I don’t need to get paid three or four times on this,” Gardner said. “I need to make a product and if that makes more money than my loans and things cost at the end of the day, it makes sense for me.”
But the real key to redevelopment was finding the beauty under the blight. In this case, the infamous “Caveman” graffiti was covering an iconic piece of architecture – Breezeblocks.
And when Gardner realized what he had on his hands, the light came on.
Holiday Inn put up around 20 hotels in this style in major cities across the US in the 60s and 70s. The breeze blocks were both decorative and functional, hiding the AC units while giving the building an eye-catching design to lure in travelers.
But after decades of demolitions and renovations, the New Orleans building is now one-of-a-kind, earning a historic properties designation and a major tax credit.
“Historic tax credits provided approximately 40% of the money to develop a place like this,” Gardner said. “Without that, I wouldn’t be able to do this project.”
It’s those kinds of incentives that New Orleans City Councilmember Oliver Thomas wants to see more of in New Orleans.
“Not only will we increase opportunity, developers will begin to look at New Orleans differently in terms of where they do business and how they do business,” Thomas said.
And if developers and the City can work together, Thomas sees The High Rise as just the start of a new New Orleans East.
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