The St. Roch Market, founded in 1875, was vacant for eight years after Hurricane Katrina but reopened last April. To help revitalize the neighborhood economy, the building’s owner, the New Orleans Building Corporation, invested $3.6 million in refurbishing the 8,600-square-foot (800 sq m) structure as “white box” space. (Edward Fountain/ULI)

The St. Roch Market, founded in 1875, was vacant for eight years after Hurricane Katrina but reopened last April. To help revitalize the neighborhood economy, the building’s owner, the New Orleans Building Corporation, redeveloped it. (Edmund Fountain/ULI)

A renewed focus on food is providing a bounty of innovations in real estate, attendees of the ULI Food and Real Estate Forum in February learned while sharing development experiences. The event was held at the Renaissance New Orleans Arts Hotel, and discussions included enhancing health, environmental sustainability, social equity, food system security, and investment.

The forum began with a tour of two redevelopment projects in St. Roch, an eclectic but economically challenged neighborhood in the Eighth Ward. Opened last April, the historic St. Roch Market was vacant for eight years after Hurricane Katrina. To help revitalize the neighborhood, the building’s owner, the New Orleans Building Corp, spent $3.6 million to redevelop it.

Local investors Bayou Secret LLC, which is leasing and managing the building, invested $750,000 in equipping it as food hall and platform for launching 13 local food-entrepreneur businesses. The market’s vendors include cafés, a coffee roaster, juice and cocktail bars, and sellers of fresh local produce; the space is programmed with community events to benefit local health, education, and arts organizations.

ULI Food and Real Estate Forum attendees inside the St. Roch. (Edward Fountain/ULI)

ULI Food and Real Estate Forum attendees inside the St. Roch Market. (Edmund Fountain/ULI)

Across St. Claude Avenue in another historic building, the $13 million, 55,000-square-foot (5,100 sq m) New Orleans Healing Center, which was redeveloped with private investors, a New Orleans Redevelopment Authority grant, and federal and state tax credits. The project’s goals were to unify the area’s neighborhoods, stimulate the corridor’s economic recovery, and provide affordable services to an underserved area lacking a grocery store. The center now is home to 25 local businesses and organizations, including wellness practices, yoga classes, arts and performance space, and a 5,500-square-foot (510 sq m) food co-op.

The following day’s session was opened by forum chair Jodie McLean, chief executive officer of EDENS, a Columbia, South Carolina–based developer and owner of $10 billion in shopping center assets. She offered the perspective that food-focused real estate provides gathering places that can address “a huge epidemic in the U.S. of isolation and loneliness.” EDENS tracks demographic data in areas where the company has developed shopping centers, she said, and has discovered that for every 1 percent increase in sales, a change occurs, such as a decline in crime or rising property values. “Community is happening with visits to our centers,” she said.


Forum attendees touring New Orleans. (Edmund Fountain/ULI)

The intersection of food and real estate is expanding for many reasons, said keynote speaker Ed McMahon, ULI senior resident fellow. These include the desire to eat healthfully, locally, and sustainably; invest in experiences more than material goods; and grow, prepare, and eat good food as social activities. Food production and the sense of community that develops around it is now the focus of 200 “agrihoods”—master-planned residential communities built around a working farm—as well as urban residential areas.

Development can be leveraged “to increase access to healthy food and as a springboard for equity,” said Eric Kornacki, executive director of Re:Vision, a Denver nonprofit that runs the largest community-owned food system in the United States.

“We have two movements—fresh local food and access to healthy food—and we are at the intersection,” said Donna Leuchten-Nuccio, director of healthy food access for the Philadelphia-based Reinvestment Fund. “Is the mission organic and local, or [basic] food access? We’re trying to get the economics of that to work.” Financing for food access projects is challenging, and no industrywide voice exists on how community organizations can help developers provide grocery stores in food deserts, she said.

“There’s a lot of conversation around the need for healthy fresh food and markets, but not a lot of data,” such as the location of areas with high need that have a market for retail businesses, Leuchten-Nuccio said. Targeting specialty shops and services that appeal to the community, such as a halal butcher in an area with Muslim residents and health clinics in grocery stores, help anchor food-focused development and provide community benefits such as food-related retail jobs, which are accessible and lead to other jobs, she said.

Forum attendees tour a food market within the New Orleans Healing Center. (Edmund Fountain/ULI)

Forum attendees tour a food market within the New Orleans Healing Center. (Edmund Fountain/ULI)

Evoking a character in the film Pulp Fiction, James Johnson-Piett, president and CEO of Urbane Development in New York City, described himself as a fixer focused on helping food-based enterprises and entrepreneurs create local wealth and address social inequity in underserved areas. A signature Detroit project involved a revolving loan fund and developer program with a physical plan, capital, foundation partnerships, and pathways to growth and good incomes for processing or distributing food. Ventures in lower-income communities require creation of spaces that leverage diversity, authenticity, and scale to attract local people, he said.

Incubator space is important for jump-starting local food businesses, said Richie Brandenburg, EDENS director of culinary strategy. “The makers are there, but they don’t have a lot of places to put their products,” he said. Other challenges are finding a balance of vendors and creating an experience to keep people at the incubator space long enough to create a sense of community through programming. The goal, he said, “is to make it their market, not our market.”

Because any great food destination has its roots in the community, New York City–based real estate investment firm Jamestown designs with the locals in mind first and tourists second, said keynote speaker Michael Phillips, president of the firm. Jamestown manages over $7 billion in innovative projects, including New York City’s Chelsea Market and Boston’s Innovation and Design Building.

“The right catalyst in food or retail will drive your rental rates” in the rest of the project, he said, citing local rents that had doubled with the Chelsea and Boston projects. “Food halls are very profitable, but are management intensive, and it’s best to have other sources of revenue.” He said the firm had also learned that “what we do requires a lot of people and high touch from us. It’s a people business, and you have to take time with people to make it grow. It’s a little like a tech startup,” he added.

“When I look at a project, it’s all about the food, and when we buy a building, it’s because we have a concept in mind,” said chef Adolfo Garcia, partner in RioMar, La Boca Steakhouse, and other successful New Orleans restaurants. “We’re in real estate because we love the businesses we have. We’ve bought out partners who want to move on.” Garcia said he looks for real estate “that needs help and creates value” for himself and also generates jobs and investments in neighborhoods.

Chef, restaurateur, author, and TV personality John Besch speaking at a dinner for forum attendees. (Edmund Fountain/ULI)

Attendees enjoyed dinner prepared by John Besh (speaking), a renowned New Orleans chef and cofounder of the John Besh Foundation, which promotes culinary education and mentorship opportunities for New Orleans youth. (Edmund Fountain/ULI)

Jeremy Hudson, chief executive officer of Specialized Real Estate Group in Fayetteville, Arkansas, discussed how community gardens at several apartment projects have drawn renters, including “a lot of young professionals who were looking for something different—a place that fosters community.” Gardening might not be “sexy,” he said, “but you can make the community aspect of gardening sexy. People have the desire to be around healthy food.”

In Miami’s dense environment, where people tend to eat out but do not want to endure long, traffic-congested drives, Laura Tauber, principal of Taubco, designs shopping centers and mixed-use projects that incorporate a “third place”—outdoor eating areas that mix national and local food vendors and various price points. “We’re building a beautiful place for people to go, and [creating] local community and support for local food entrepreneurs.”

The forum was valuable as a platform “to spark ideas and help people make connections and share lessons learned,” said Christopher Smith, senior program officer for the Colorado Health Foundation, a key forum sponsor. The second ULI Food and Development Forum is scheduled for May 4 and 5 in Tarrytown, New York.

Kathleen McCormick, principal of Fountainhead Communications in Boulder, Colorado, writes frequently for Urban Land about healthy, sustainable, and resilient communities.