A Forum on Food and Real Estate: ULI in New Orleans
The Urban Land Institute asked “…how are innovative approaches to food … deliver[ing] healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable outcomes in cities and communities?” My first reaction was enthusiastically, “what a great question!” My appetite was whetted, enough to join a group of 55 invited by ULI– and willing to pay and to travel– to New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA). We convened in February as the first of a few “Food and Real Estate Forums.”
To make the most of the official program’s limited day-and-a-half time, I arrived early enough to explore some of the real city, beyond the windowless world of conference rooms. Thanks to my co-conspirator Sandra Kulli, I was lucky to tag along with her and Andria Mitchell on a Mid-City breakfast quest.
While the Pagoda Café (no joke) itself was not serving that morning, serendipity accelerated as we queried an unsuspecting Gia Hamilton where could we find coffee (if not beignet) nearby. More than friendly, this consummate community-builder, host, and urban ag alumna invited us to tour her workplace, the astounding powerhouse of creative community at the Joan Mitchell Center. Tucked carefully into a Mid-City block, Gia led us through the compound of historic structures, new rain gardens and LEED-rated artist studios.
Taken together, this special place supports emerging local artists who join visiting artists from everywhere else in the world for a long-term residency. And while our purpose for being at their front gate was simply searching for breakfast, we were fed with inspiration and connection. For me, the inspiration came from discovering the mycelium-based work of Mei-Ling Hom, one of the resident artists.
It brought me back to the creative magic we had cultivated in Seattle at the [storefront] Mushroom Farm. Everything is connected.
And a new connection made through Gia could not have been more fortuitous. Her colleague from previous urban ag projects in NOLA, James Johnson-Piett, would be arriving later that day—to be participating in the very Food and Real Estate Forum that had brought us to the Big Easy in the first place! Indeed food does connect us all.
Our wanderings took us further into the Mid-City neighborhood, ending with a charming streetcar ride to regroup for the official start of the ULI Forum. While the morning had been warm and sunny, predicted storm clouds gathered, and all were marched onto a tour bus headed for the St. Roch Market Hall and New Orleans Healing Center.
This pair of tour destinations revealed the first pair of post-Katrina stories we would hear over the course of the Forum. As context, I was fortunate to have done some work with the fabulous Laura Curry in the Holy Cross/Lower Ninth Ward. But for those among this ULI group who didn’t have the benefit of post-Katrina’s horrific and life-affirming context, the particulars of our tour bus visits might seem puzzling.
First up, we literally scrambled across streetcar Desire’s tracks mid-reconstruction to bear witness to the re-born St. Roch Market. Seen by some as a flashpoint of gentrification, this 140-year old market hall now hosts twelve vendors and a perfunctory fresh produce stall that is deeply subsidized by the private management entity. The intent is to incubate these endeavors to their own, stand alone enterprises. Since opening in 2015, one has “graduated.”
Our hosts fully disclosed that St. Roch Market’s current incarnation was jolted to life by more than $3.5 M post-Katrina federal grants, plus some of their own private build-out investment. To be sure, its gleaming white, thoughtfully restored space was an attractive venue for 50+ gawking conferees. Yet actual customers were conspicuously absent. Walking out, I felt pangs of déjà vu from my previous NOLA “drop-in” at Holy Cross: much attention, good will, public re-investment, but how much everyday vitality had returned where de-population (the fundamental, mind-numbing reality) is now mashed up with an influx of in-migrating, urban affluence?
Across the street, we re-grouped at the New Orleans Healing Center. Our host explained that the adaptive re-use of a furniture showroom and warehouse was born from his wife’s desire— again post-Katrina— for a yoga studio. Here, more public money and a new non-profit ownership entity now host an eclectic mix of conventional medical and complementary therapy providers, along with community spaces, niche retail, and NOLA’s first cooperative grocery store.
Touring the grocery coop, we heard first of their operational challenges without street visibility, shoe-horning into an existing building, and so forth. Most disturbing, though, was hearing that this fledgling enterprise had already retreated from one dimension of its social mission. That is, its neighborhood food access program (that provided a discount day to low-income local community members) had been, in their words “too successful to continue.” Nothing more. That was disturbing to hear, especially as the next part of this Forum– billed as an exploration of food access, equity and economic development– would be a celebrity chef sit-down dinner (with, of course, the three requisite wine pairings).
I had no reason to assume there’d be much challenge for the renowned Chef John Besh enterprises to produce a sit-down meal for 60 in a private home. And the evidence supported me. What was surprising to learn in the home of NOLA’s local ULI leader was how once again, the Katrina disaster catalyzed a cascade of opportunity, creative response, and, in this case at least, huge financial success.
After a sumptuous feast, Chef Besh unpacked his own wisdom, starting with his strategic leverage of disaster responders’ needs for simple sustenance. He now can boast over 100 mentored chefs, investment in securing the future of a local dairy, and a slaughterhouse. To this eater, at least, those efforts sound like very appetizing, real investments in a local food system.
Then, rather early in the morning, the structured program began for the assembled group. Ensconced in the requisite, windowless hotel conference room, our menu would be replete with a full day of panel discussions, powerpoint slides, on-stage interviews. Granted, an effort was made to include some interactive, facilitated “sharing” elements in the program as small group discussions. And yet, I was reminded of how, around food as a topic, CityLab7 had “broken the fourth wall” of conference session “theater” with our Market Meal. (Then, when charged with presenting innovative techniques in community engagement, we planned a “spontaneous” exodus from a conference hall to explore Seattle’s Pike Place Market, share meal preparation and a salon discussion.) Alas, that kind of fun with a purpose wouldn’t be on the menu today…
Our NOLA Forum Chair, Jodie McLean framed the challenge as “an epidemic of social isolation.” As a retail real estate developer, she articulated success as increased shopper dwell time at F+B (food and beverage) establishments. ULI Senior Fellow Ed McMahon then set the table with a veritable smorgasbord of food-oriented development and agrihood examples, variations on urban farming, the shocking statistics of food waste, and demographic trends of the “experience economy.”
As Ed took us on a whirlwind tour across the nation, I felt honored to see him report on vision I had shaped at Denver’s Mariposa Homes as a precedent of healthy community design. In a later aside, I provided Ed the genesis of how our team came to build healthy community master plan. More, I noted that cultivating a partnership in Denver with Colorado Health— who now was sponsoring this very event in NOLA—was born from the lessons we learned in realizing the Breathe Easy Homes initiative at High Point.
From Ed’s survey, I was also left with lingering questions: how precisely would reducing food waste address inequities of access and food security? Would ULI bring its grasp of understanding on energy pricing/ efficiency price distortions to the food economics equation? And finally, needn’t we confront the Farm Bill’s commodity crop-subsidizing distortions on land valuation and land uses throughout the food system?
A panel of loosely related examples followed. One program in Denver showed impact on many low-income families’ lives and food choices through a self-help urban gardening program. A supermarket investment fund manager and community developer recounted their work targeting urban food deserts and underserved neighborhoods. And a veteran culinary director explained the long arc of curating start-up food enterprises in large, mixed-use development projects.
Then, the “Developer Dialogue” showcased a top-shelf collection of very curated, artisanal food courts. This is apparently a very successful recipe for lobbies/entry levels of re-purposed industrial buildings where the multitudes of tech-bros look to be fed and sated in social spaces as they funnel through to their offices upstairs.
A third panel surveyed a master planned community, the repositioning of tired garden apartments, and retrofitting strip centers for outdoor dining and social lingering. I was particularly interested in how the Fayetteville apartment developer/owner crowd-sourced revitalization of their new-to-them property by enlisting the green thumb of a pre-update tenant. That resident gardener has since become the ”new” property’s manager. Equally, efforts to add social outdoor space—without raising restaurants’ CAM charges in Miami strip malls was a notable, if incremental step. Still, my notebook’s big question remained: Are these food “hooks” amounting to more than the next level marketing tactic— replacing a batch of fresh-baked cookies in a model home?
The final course served up to our group featured another chef who has thrived in post-Katrina NOLA. His big lesson learned spoke directly to what the real estate developers in the room already knew: be the master of your own fate— know your locations better than the next guy or gal, and own it! He hasn’t become a tycoon, but now boasts a collection of restaurant properties where rent and the vagaries of landlord relationships are no longer his concerns.
As the event wrapped up, our attention began to split between reflecting on what we had shared through the Forum and growing attention to tornado warnings bearing down on our departure plans. Still, I was able to discern one substantial issue as I left for home. For an organization such as ULI that really appreciates the power of the dollar, the agenda and the discussion at the NOLA Food and Real Estate Forum were notably silent on what is arguably the most dramatic market distortion in the whole food equation: the Farm Bill. All I know for sure is that I don’t know nearly enough about it.
While it may not be what interests others, it seemed to me that we fundamentally need a deeper understanding of food, farming and land use economics that direct us to make too many bad choices in our very fragile and unsustainable food system.
In some respects, this topic is overdue to catch up with the discourse on energy—where pricing distortions and resulting decisions can now be understood as the results of historic policy choices and externalized social and planetary costs. In the case of energy pricing, “new” thinking, “catch-up” policies and market incentives have arguably begun to pivot real estate and urban development thinking and actions about energy. What precipitating event or arc over time will it take for us to have equivalent realizations about our food system?
Finally, as we await the compilation of the Forum’s small group discussion notes, I will nibble on a handful of stories and further questions raised by the event:
- Don’t waste a crisis: celebrity chefs can be powerful catalysts and model innovators in (re)building elements of a local food economy. That’s among the best stories I’ve heard from the horrors of Katrina.
- Artisanal food enterprise “collections” are firmly established in urban real estate. They are a sure bet as a ground-floor amenity for cubicle-bound tech-bros.
- When are we throwing good money away: is almost $4M to revitalize a 12-vendor food hall incubator a smart investment? How do we measure that as success?
- What to do when a needed food access program is suspended for being “too successful”?
- We need to dig further into the “ag” in agrihoods: where is it more than marketing channel? If not, is that ok? Are there economic models that can make the concept replicable?