By Brad Vogel, The Lens contributing opinion writer |

The surest sign of success was when the fire marshal showed up.
I’m not talking about a jazz gig on Frenchmen Street. I’m talking about Saturday’s auction of nearly 100 vacant Orleans Parish properties.

The property at 2811 Ursulines Avenue brought the top price of the day: $185,000.

The sale, orchestrated by the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority drew a crowd of 1,100 people to an auditorium at Xavier University, and the overflow crowd was as diverse as it was massive. One member of the auctioneer’s staff said that, in 25 years in the business, he had never seen anything like it.

The arrival of the fire marshal rammed home a key point: there’s very clearly a strong market for vacant properties in Orleans Parish. If the advertising is done right, if people actually know what’s being offered, it’s possible to move even marginal properties into the hands of people willing to rehabilitate them.

That realization should shape the overall fight against blight in New Orleans.

This property at 3100 Cleveland Avenue sold for $54,000.

A strong market for vacant properties – especially those with historic character in historic neighborhoods (one property on Ursulines Avenue went for over $175,000) – means that efforts to fight blight should move away from the current demolition-heavy approach and beef up the city’s nascent effort to unload properties through sheriff’s sales. An  auction list of sales prices provided by NORA offers fuller evidence of the potential of this market-based solution.

The auction’s success shows that the ground is shifting in several ways.

Sure, some properties are so far gone that they must be bulldozed and carted off to landfills. But intensifying demand means that selling them to rehabbers should be the city’s option of choice.

The advantages are obvious.

First, the city’s heritage of historic architecture stands to be preserved and rehabilitated, enhancing the character and distinctiveness of old neighborhoods.

Second, streetscapes and neighborhood fabric are kept intact; cleared lots are often as blighting as damaged structures, and small, shotgun-style lots are not likely to be redeveloped quickly, if ever.

Third, getting new owners to take on properties helps to strengthen the tax base and permits new owners to build equity.

Finally, bringing properties back online, a condition that can be imposed in an auction bill of sale, helps to make neighborhoods safer by eliminating crime dens.

Building on Saturday’s success, the city

The shotgun at 832 North Dupre Street brought $31,000.

should focus on acquiring and selling more public-nuisance properties whose owners have gone AWOL. The money saved by avoiding demolition – several thousand dollars per house – should be used, not only to secure a building that’s a threat to the neighborhood, but also to cover the cost of running the property through necessary legal processes.

The city should also take a page from Saturday’s auction and heavily advertise all sheriff’s sales to ensure that taxpayers recoup blight-fighting costs. Indeed, let’s urge the Mayor to hold a press conference beforehand to get the word out far and wide.

Inexplicably, no major media outlets reported on the aftermath of Saturday’s auction. The Lens and The Times-Picayune plugged the event before it took place, but from what I’ve found, The Uptown Messenger provided the only follow-up story prior to this column.

At the city’s bi-weekly BlightStat meetings, there have been a number of questions lately about why demolition targets aren’t being met. While the city is slowly moving some adjudicated properties toward sale, that question reveals a lingering emphasis on demolition as a quick fix.

Along with demolitions and potential sheriff sales, the city should be tracking the number of blighted or vacant buildings being brought back up to code, the buildings that are being renovated. This could be done in part by looking at renovation building permits.

These are important markers in the blight fight, ones with more positive implications than demolition. A rehabilitated property eliminates blight, but it also retains greater value than yet another vacant lot.

Normally, when blighted property is involved, the arrival of the fire marshal is not a good thing. On Saturday it was, and Thursday’s BlightStat meeting, the first since the auction, provided NORA officials with a chance to talk about that success. There’s a market for vacant properties in Orleans Parish. And now it’s time to shift policy to reflect the good news.

Brad Vogel, a resident of New Orleans and a graduate of Tulane Law School, works as a fellow with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The opinions expressed here are his own.