On the Monday before this year’s Super Bowl, Mayor Mitch Landrieu stood in front of the Union Passenger Terminal and hailed the inauguration of the Loyola Avenue streetcar line.
“This new line is a catalyst for even greater things to come for New Orleans,” Landrieu told the crowd, which included Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Projects have already sprung up along the Loyola Avenue corridor downtown.”
One just broke ground. Called South Market District, it has received tax credits from the city’s Industrial Development Board as well as $533,000 of “transit-oriented” Enterprise Zone tax credits from the state.
Another site, a block away, could be ripe for development soon. For 20 years, that property has been owned by a partnership called Nineland, which consists of Mayor Landrieu and his eight brothers and sisters, including U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu. Now a parking lot, the property is worth $1 million.
View Parking lot owned by Landrieu siblings in a larger map
A developer who builds on that property would qualify for the “transit-oriented” Enterprise Zone tax credits, as long as the project cost at least $10 million and created at least 90 residential units and at least 20,000 square feet of retail space.
The Landrieus’ parking lot could be eligible for the tax credits because it, along with South Market, is within a quarter-mile of a “multimodal transit site” — the Union Passenger Terminal. State legislation passed this spring contained that language in order to benefit South Market District. Besides the Landrieus’ lot, at least 10 undeveloped properties could be eligible.
The vacant 45-story Plaza Tower across South Rampart Street could be, too. An official said last year that the company was hoping to benefit from the streetcar line, the South Market development and historic tax credits.
No evidence mayor tried to benefit his property
No evidence has emerged that the mayor has used his considerable powers to benefit Nineland’s property. The Loyola streetcar and South Market have broad community support. Meanwhile, real estate experts say the Landrieu parcel will likely rise in worth as part of a general gain in property values in that area.
But the potential benefits for Landrieu are sticky enough that the mayor and an aide told The Lens that the issue wasn’t worth writing about.
“The consequence of you writing that story is people will question my integrity,” Landrieu told The Lens in an interview. “I don’t see the story.”
Mayor Landrieu has listed his share of the parking lot on his personal financial disclosure, as have Sen. Landrieu and Madeleine Landrieu, another sibling who is a state judge, state and federal records show.
In the phone interview with The Lens, Landrieu asked rhetorically if he should have told his aides he opposed the streetcar and South Market District for fear that some people might cite his 1/9 share of a nearby parcel of land as a conflict of interest.
“The Landrieu administration supports every major project that will make the city better, wherever it might be,” he said. “I won’t oppose anything that will add jobs or create value for the city.”
A law professor told The Advocate that the mayor’s share of the property didn’t pose any ethical issue, in part because his stake is less than 25 percent.
The $53 million streetcar line was financed mostly with federal dollars from President Barack Obama’s stimulus package and enjoyed the strong support of the Regional Transit Authority.
“This corridor will create hundreds of jobs and create the kind of economic activity and economic growth that is long overdue in New Orleans,” said Secretary LaHood when the streetcar line was opened. He said New Orleans got the money “because of Mayor Landrieu and his vision and him telling us: ‘This has to happen. This is what will bring our community back.’”
In the interview, Landrieu said plans for the streetcar line date to the administration of Mayor Marc Morial and added, “My administration, from the second I got here, has prided itself on getting every dollar it could of federal funds.”
Long-neglected area now on the rise
City property records show that Nineland bought the parking lot in 1994 for $295,000. It groups together seven different parcels and is contracted out to Central Parking. It is now worth $1,008,890, according to Orleans Parish Assessor’s Office.
Nineland also owns a tiny parking lot on Girod Street that is across from Herbsaint Bar and Restaurant and faces St. Charles Avenue. Shelley Landrieu, another sibling who is listed as Nineland’s agent, said they own that lot mainly so the family can erect a viewing stand on St. Charles to watch the Mardi Gras parades.
Shelley Landrieu said she and her siblings have been content to hold on to the two parking lots. “It’s a very passive business,” she said. “We just get a parking check. That’s really it.”
Shelley Landrieu said she could not remember if their father originally purchased the two parking lots and gave them to his children or whether they bought them outright.
She and Mayor Landrieu said they have no immediate plans for the larger parking lot, which is bounded by O’Keefe Avenue, Julia Street, Howard Avenue and South Rampart Street. “There has been interest over the years by people to purchase it,” Shelley Landrieu said. “WWL-TV looked at it for a long time for their studio. It’s always for sale at the right price. But we’re not actively marketing it for sale.”
The Landrieus’ land is across Julia Street from two square blocks slated to be phase two of South Market District. The developer, the Domain Companies, is now prepping the site of phase one, one block closer to Poydras Street. That phase includes a five-story building called the Paramount at South District that will cost $48.4 million, according to Domain. It will consist of 209 apartments, a parking garage for 435 vehicles and 22,000 square feet of retail stores on the ground floor.
Kurt Weigle, president and chief executive officer of the Downtown Development District, said he expects South Market to pave the way for a new neighborhood. A Rouses supermarket across the street that opened two years ago has already proved beneficial. Weigle did not know that the Landrieus own the nearby parking lot.
Tax credits for South Market District
South Market District has gotten millions of dollars of federal, state and local subsidies, including the Enterprise Zone tax credit initially granted by the Legislature in 2011 at the request of state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans (House Bill 456) and revised under a law sponsored by state Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans (House Bill 255) in 2013.
In separate interviews, Moreno and Leger said they didn’t know that the Landrieus own the parking lot and that they had no discussions with the mayor before filing their bills. Moreno said she introduced the legislation at the request of the Downtown Development District; Leger said he did so at Domain’s request.
One of Domain’s co-owners, Matt Schwartz, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Schwartz’s project has also received a tax break from the Industrial Development Board, whose members are appointed by Landrieu and the City Council. That break will keep the project’s property taxes below the legally assessed rate until 2025. Minutes from the August 2012 board meeting show that Aimee Quirk, the mayor’s adviser for economic development, endorsed the project. Landrieu himself sent a letter of support on April 7, 2011.
Walter Flower, a member of the board and the president at the time, did not return two phone calls.
No guarantee that Landrieus’ lot would be developed
Wade Ragas, a longtime expert on real estate in New Orleans, said the Landrieus have a good-sized parcel available to develop, but he expects it to remain a parking lot until people see how South Market District fares and the owners of Plaza Tower decide what they’ll do the vacant building.
“It’s an edge-of-market location,” Ragas said. “It’s a very expensive process to buy downtown real estate and put up a new building. Over a long period of time, all property owners in downtown New Orleans will benefit from the general increase in activity. That parcel will benefit as well.”
The Lens told Buddy Roemer, the former governor and congressman from North Louisiana, about the tax breaks for South Market District and how the Landrieus’ land could benefit.
His response: “A rising tide lifts all boats…. He’s investing in his city. He didn’t invest the week before the deal. He invested 20 years ago.
“I disagree that it’s no story. It’s a good story. People should know this. If it benefits him, that’s good because it means it benefits the city. This is a mayor who puts his money where his mouth is.”