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New Orleans proposal links St. Bernard and City Park
Golf fees would help finance development

Coleman Warner
Times Picayune

In its bid to create an ambitious mixed-use development at the site of the St. Bernard public housing complex the Bayou District Foundation, a nonprofit with financial ties to restored City Park golf courses, might be accused of post-Katrina fantasizing.

Golf and public housing may seem like odd bedfellows. But the plan uses as its model Atlanta's East Lake housing and golf development that replaced a notorious Atlanta public housing complex with what by all accounts has become a thriving mixed-income neighborhood. That unique project taps the golf revenue to finance education and recreation programs for families in subsidized housing.

The New Orleans plan, still evolving in its details, shoots even higher. It would feature more than 900 mixed-income apartments, versus East Lake's 542. It calls for building two charter schools, rather than East Lake's one. Its capital budget would top $240 million, nearly doubling East Lake's $128 million, although simple inflation accounts for some of the large spending gap.

Another key difference: The New Orleans effort lacks a local "sugar daddy," a philanthropist like Atlanta's Tom Cousins, who spearheaded that project after buying and restoring the storied East Lake Golf Club. And so the proposal will have to rely more heavily on nationwide fundraising and federal financing.

The City Park aspect of the redevelopment plan offers a mix of opportunity and potential opposition. Although the newly formed Bayou District Foundation plan would spend $38 million on recreational facilities to rebuild and vastly improve City Park's golf assets -- at a time when City Park has limited state money available for that purpose -- park directors may balk at developers' hope to use a portion of the expected $1.5 million in yearly golf revenue for support programs at the St. Bernard housing site.

Golf courses previously contributed about $500,000 a year to the park's operating budget, but Katrina and subsequent neglect allowed its fairways and greens to return to wilderness, and the park doesn't have the money to rebuild them.

That lack of golf revenue, essential to park operations before the flood, has stunted its rebuilding effort.

So the Bayou District Foundation is asking park officials to give up a portion of future revenue in exchange for the foundation's massive front-end investment in three golf courses, two of them of a quality that could lure PGA Tour events to the city. The foundation has proposed taking $500,000 from an expected $1.5 million in yearly golf revenue to finance educational and recreational programs at the St. Bernard complex. The plan's backers say they will assure City Park retains at least $500,000 in golf revenue.

In addition to directing money to schools and recreation programs in the St. Bernard, the developers hope to direct a third portion of the golf revenue to other charities serving children.

The revamped park space would feature two 18-hole championship courses, a nine-hole "executive" course, a First Tee golf teaching center for children, new soccer and ball fields, a new clubhouse and a driving range.

The Bayou District Foundation, formed earlier this year, acts as the public face of a complex partnership that includes the Fore!Kids Foundation and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, both established charities. An affiliate of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, Commercial Properties Development Corp., will manage commercial elements of the redeveloped St. Bernard site, while a for-profit Atlanta company, Columbia Residential, will develop the apartment complexes.

Despite the obstacles, businessmen pushing the foundation plan have high hopes. Federal housing officials have endorsed the developers' broad vision. And the complicated agenda has advantages created, oddly, by Hurricane Katrina.

While they face criticism and questions from displaced St. Bernard residents, the Bayou District Foundation leaders don't face the wrenching prospect of relocating people. The more than 1,000 families living in the 52-acre complex before Katrina flooded the neighborhood are gone, and St. Bernard is shuttered.

And while the local foundation faces a daunting task in raising more than $30 million from private sources, it can use two stories to make its pitch -- New Orleans' recovery struggle and the East Lake tale of neighborhood transformation. The latter, along with contacts offered by Cousins and the East Lake Foundation, will be critical, as local fundraising -- against the backdrop of a storm-damaged business sector -- is expected to raise just $6 million.

"This is not a New Orleans fundraising effort. It has to be national," said Gerard Barousse, a real estate executive and managing partner of the Bayou District Foundation. "He (Cousins) told us he will introduce us to people, make some calls."

Borrowing a tactic Cousins used in Atlanta, as he raised money for social programs among members of the exclusive East Lake Golf Club, the New Orleans foundation hopes to raise $10 million through 50 "corporate golf sponsorships" of $200,000 each.

Backed by federal housing officials who support more mixed-income developments to replace public housing projects, the Bayou District Foundation has secured $62 million through low-income tax credits and $27 million from federal block grant money. That's enough to launch the first phase of 465 apartments next year. Other federal rebuilding grants, state appropriations and fundraising for a new YMCA also figure into expected money sources.

The development effort, even without major snags, will consume several years, although some housing and recreation features may be finished during 2009, officials said.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has agreed to pay the development team more than $11 million for its work at St. Bernard, but total fees that would be paid for the entire project would be far higher.

The housing developer, Columbia Residential, has experience building mixed-income communities in Texas and Georgia. Barousse said Columbia Residential was recommended by the Atlanta Housing Authority and the East Lake Foundation, based on the firm's Atlanta work.

Recent hearings show that the Bayou District Foundation faces a tough sell as it tries to win support from former St. Bernard residents and City Park advocates. While designers of a new mixed-use complex with subsidized and market-rate apartments want former residents' input, the foundation said it doesn't need their vote of approval to proceed with remaking a swath of land next to St. Bernard Avenue. It does, however, need the City Park board's approval for an elaborate redevelopment of park land north of Interstate 610.

While golf is a traditional feature of the beloved park, which spent decades as a PGA Tour stop until 1963, the park's master plan would need to be changed. A decision by the park board may come as early as Nov. 27, during a regular monthly meeting.

Eager to mollify critics, the Bayou District Foundation dropped one proposal to relocate the Couturie Forest preserve in City Park, and another to move ball fields to a site near Robert E. Lee Boulevard. The latter drew fire from Lakefront activists worried about glare from tall lights at the playing fields.

And the foundation may have to compromise on its proposal to take $500,000 in golf revenue to use for programs in the St. Bernard. Charged with plugging holes in a cash-starved operating budget, City Park Executive Director Bob Becker said the revenue-sharing idea isn't an easy sell.

"Our responsibility is to try and derive the maximum amount of revenue that we can for the park," Becker said.

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