The following article from, Times-Picayune, “How ReFresh Project, a post-Katrina milestone, built a healthy food hub, including Whole Foods,” highlights the complex but growing niche of community-oriented real estate development. In this particular instance, the focus is on bringing fresh food to underserved, economically depressed areas.

As noted by partner Robert M. Steeg, “These projects require a meaningful anchor, historic rehabilitation tax credits, new market tax credits, and a community-oriented theme that will attract donations from foundations nationwide. Other community-oriented themes, such as multi-use community centers, are also starting to take hold. These projects also involve a complex combination of elements for their financing, but provide an exciting opportunity that brings both economic development and community benefits.”

Steeg Law has worked with the developers of two such projects, including the ReFresh Project that is noted in the article.

How ReFresh Project, a post-Katrina milestone, built a healthy food hub, including Whole Foods By Judy Walker,, Times-Picayune

When the Original Pinettes Brass Band leads a second-line to the rooftop of the old Schwegmann’s on North Broad Street around noon on Saturday (Oct. 25), it will kick off the opening party for ReFresh Project’s fresh food hub in Mid-City and mark an important milestone in the neighborhood’s post-Katrina recovery.

The ReFresh Project is a collection of community-minded businesses and educational entities that includes Liberty’s Kitchen, a restaurant and youth culinary training program; the Goldring Center for for Culinary medicine at Tulane, a national model of a healthy foods teaching for medical students, doctors and community members; and a Whole Foods market, which promises a commitment to local products as well as instruction on healthy cooking and budget shopping.

Hundreds of people and dozens of community groups have spent years on the effort, which has gradually been adding partners to create a vibrant collection of educational, nonprofit and business partners.

The money to make it all happen has been cobbled together from a variety of sources. For example, check out the dark-green picnic tables and building materials for the raised garden beds on the rooftop of the old Schwegmann Bros. grocery.

“We didn’t have money to do the farm. Somehow we got hooked up with Garnier, who does projects with Terracycle,” a company who recycles the beauty company’s plastic waste into make the green boards, said Lisa Amoss, president of the board of Broad Community Connections, the developers of the ReFresh Center. “They donated $140,000 worth of materials, dirt and compost.”

Katrina births community involvement

Now retired, Amoss, who is the sister-in-law of | The Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss, taught organizational skills and management in the Tulane School of Public Health, and at the University of New Orleans she taught collaboration.

“I worked with nonprofits for years,” Amoss said. “I’ve been on a number of boards, but never anything like this. It’s gratifying to see it work. And to work with all these young people, who want to be in New Orleans, and who wanted to come back to New Orleans. It keeps you young.”

Amoss has lived in the Bayou St. John neighborhood for 31 years. Like many others, she said, she started going to community meetings after Hurricane Katrina and the floods. She became more aware her neighbors, their needs and desires and wondered: How could these neighbors be brought together?

Broad Street runs through several neighborhoods, including Esplanade Ridge, Mid-City, Treme, Bayou St. John, part of the 7th Ward and the part of Tulane being transformed by new medical complex.

Amoss and others formed “a little nonprofit,” Broad Community Connections in 2008, with people from all of the neighborhoods. And they started planning.

“I was lucky enough to know Karl Seidman, a professor at MIT in urban planning. He loves New Orleans and came down here after the storm. He’s a national expert on Main Street organizations, and he kind of advised us.”

At one point, Seidman brought his entire class to New Orleans to help plan.

The group applied to the National Trust for Historic Preservation community revitalization project. The program included no urban streets at the time, Amoss said, but several New Orleans thoroughfares applied through the state level and were accepted after Katrina. Broad Street was approved in 2009. (Also currently in the Louisiana program are St. Claude and Rampart Streets, Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard and Old Algiers.)

The Main Street section of Broad is 15 blocks from Tulane Avenue to Bayou Road.

“Karl advised us that one way to start was to try and do a significant project to get going. This is hard when you have no money, or only a little bit of money.”

The biggest derelict property on Broad Street was one of the original Schwegmann Giant Super Market.

“We really had no business thinking we could do this, but we signed an agreement to purchase it from the owners,” Amoss said. “Then, we set out to make it happen.”

Raising awareness and calling in experts

Occasional events on the site brought neighbors together and got them used to going to the old Schwegmann’s Giant Supermarket. Events included flea markets, roof-top movies and a festival called Broad Street Brew-Ha-Ha celebrating beer and coffee. (This festival may return in spring, Amoss said.)

It took quite a few years to find the right partner and get the funding for redeveloping the building, Amoss said, which eventually was an $18 million project. Broad Community Connections partnered with L+M Development, the biggest affordable housing developer in New York City. L+M was in New Orleans to redevelop the Faubourg Lafitte mixed income community, formerly Lafitte public housing development.

“They’re experts on tax credit deals, and helped put together” the $18 million project. The tax credit financers are Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase; other public funding came from the City of New Orleans’ New Orleans Redevelopment Authority; the city’s Fresh Foods Retailer Initiative to get fresh food into underserved neighborhoods; Foundation for Louisiana; Low Income Investment Fund; Newman’s Own Foundation; Hope/Enterprise Corporation of the Delta and the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation.

Broad Community Connection owns 20 percent of the ReFresh project building; L+M owns 80 percent.

“Because it’s so hard to get funding right now for nonprofits, a lot of nonprofits are looking for earned income,” Amoss said. “A share of the net rents of the building will go back to support our part of the organization. It’s not a huge amount of money, but at least it’s contributing to the public organization.”

One of nonprofit’s jobs was to find tenants for the site.

Luring tenants who fit the mission

“We knew that we would want a healthy grocery store here because the neighborhood is underserved,” Amoss said. “Whole Foods was our first choice.”

It turned out that Amoss had taught at Tulane with an old friend, John Elstrott, chairman of the board of Whole Foods. Amoss screwed up her courage and asked if Whole Foods could be a tenant.

It was good timing. Whole Foods was looking to be in more markets where it could promote healthy eating, and already had a contract for the first one in Detroit.

“They knew the Esplanade store was the first in the country, and knew that the Magazine Street and Veterans locations were booming and hard to get into,” Amoss said. “They wanted an alternative. And they liked the idea of being here, and in partnership with other people in the building.”

Along with Whole Foods, the hub has pulled together various entities, creating a community-minded collection of health-minded tenants:

Liberty’s Kitchen, which was originally located in a smaller building on Broad Street near Tulane Avenue, moved into the downstairs of a law office. Its new 10,000-square-foot site will allow the nonprofit organization to enroll more students in its full-time, 12-week program, which includes a Starbucks and barista program as well as a cafe open for breakfast and lunch.

The Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine, dedicated to teaching doctors about food and nutrition, so they can teach their students, moved here from the old Ruth’s Chris Steak House building on the corner of Tulane and Broad. They built a state-of-the-art teaching kitchen, for medical students, medical professionals and community members, on the first floor between Whole Foods and Liberty’s Kitchen

Upstairs are offices for Firstline Schools, the five charter schools who have Edible Schoolyards as a teaching anchor. An nearby community room, funded through the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation, provides a light and airy space adjacent to the rooftop that’s already been well used. Another tenant, downstairs on the Bienville Street side, is Boys Town.

And there is a small office for the Broad Community Connections Main Street executive director Jeff Schwartz. A paid director is one of the requirements of the Main Street program.

“He was at Ben Franklin with my kids, and happened to be in Karl Seidman’s class at MIT,” Amoss said.

Working together

The ReFresh NOLA Coalition includes all of the tenants and about 20 other organizations around the city that offer different services related to health and nutrition. The Prevention Research Center at Tulane University is designing evaluations for all these wraparound health services, measuring the efforts of the healthy-living hub.

For example, when people come to the doctors at the Tulane clinic with illnesses that can be addressed with a better diet, they come out with “health prescriptions.”

“Whole Foods had community health workers,” Amoss said. The workers take the holders of such prescriptions around the store and show them how to buy foods on the prescription affordably.

“It can be done,” Amoss said, noting that this store has greatly expanded its 365 line of house brands. Whole Foods is enthusiastic about replicating all this in Newark, N.J., in what will be their third urban market, she said.

At the Goldring Center, prescription holders can learn how to cook healthier foods, and at the farm, they can learn to grow the foods they need.

The new gardens here are about 6,000 square feet of raised beds, on the rooftop and perimeter of the building.

“We will be selling some of the produce to Liberty’s Kitchen and some on Good Eggs,” said Emily Mickley-Doyle, who with Matt Glassman coordinates the ReFresh Community Farm. The two will give individual and group gardening classes on a regular basis.

The fence in the middle of the raised beds outlining the garden areas will be used to grow vining crops, Glassman said. Passersby can help themselves.

The gardens are part of the city-wide network of Parkway Partners community gardens, as well as three urban garden groups: SPROUT NOLA, Harambee Community Farms of New Orleans and Faubourg Farms.

A block away is the Lafitte Greenway, “a great partner with us,” Amoss said.

The list of Broad Community Connections partners in as long as an heirloom cucuzza squash. Along with Parkway Partners, the Joan Mitchell Center, Whole Foods, SPROUTNOLA and more, 60 trees have been planted on Broad Street and Bayou Road.

In the mid 20th century, Broad Street was known for its neon signs that shone at night. One of the Broad Community Connections projects is to bring those signs back. The nonprofit worked with the Arts Council of New Orleans, with $25,000 from the National Endowment of the Arts, to create neon signs for some of the iconic businesses on Broad.

Look for the neon on the headquarters of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, while you’re looking admiring the new trees on Broad Street.

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