The Times-Picayune, April 11, 2011
What a long, strange trip it’s been for the former home of the Universal Furniture store in Faubourg Marigny.
The run-down building, which flooded after the levee failures in 2005, had a brief but head-scratching post-Hurricane Katrina life as a temporary home for both the New Orleans Police Department’s 5th District station and the avant-garde Prospect.1 art exhibit.
Now, the one-time retail space is morphing into the New Orleans Healing Center, an eclectic, new-age development.
Spearheaded by Voodoo priestess, artist and writer Sallie Ann Glassman and her high-profile longtime companion, developer Pres Kabacoff, the site is about to become a community center where neighborhood residents can buy food from a cooperative grocery, get a micro-loan, find worship space or take a yoga class.
The $13.2 million project grew out of a series of meetings organized by Glassman and her friends after the storm. The group identified a need for a center where wellness services and amenities would be offered to those struggling to rebuild both physically and spiritually.
“We didn’t want it to be a spa or a resort in the country,” Glassman said. “We wanted it to be integrated into the community.”
‘It just felt right’
The group chose a complex of two-story buildings that formerly housed Universal Furniture. The complex included an 1840s cornerstore and residence, a large 1926 commercial structure and a smaller commercial building, all united behind a 1960s-era metal screen that obscured the buildings’ architectural features. Situated at the corner of St. Claude and St. Roch avenues, the complex sits across from the iconic St. Roch market building.
“When we first visited the Universal building, it was dark and labyrinthine,” Glassman said. “Three buildings had been joined together and divided up. But when we went up onto the roof, all of a sudden there was this beautiful view of the city and the skyline. It just felt right.”
Kabacoff undertook the rehabilitation of the 55,000-square-foot complex independently of HRI Properties, where he is chief executive officer.
Renovation work began last May, financed by a blend of state and federal New Markets Tax Credits and historic tax credits, as well as allocations from city and state redevelopment agencies.
The exterior, where metal screens once hung, is painted in a Caribbean-inspired color palette, with bright purples, oranges and teals. Infrastructure work, including new Sheetrock, has been installed and primed, and tenants are in the process of customizing their stores.
Free barbecue, open house
To celebrate this milestone and further acquaint the public with the project, the Healing Center plans a free community barbecue and open house on Sunday, April 17, from 2 to 6 p.m.
“The Building Block should be open by then,” said Glassman, referring to a consortium of green and sustainable businesses. “Others will still be in the process of their build-outs when we have the barbecue, but will be fully open by May 1. A few others will take a little longer. So May is our soft opening and we’ll have a grand opening in July.”
In addition to Glassman’s business, Island of Salvation Botanica, which specializes in Voodoo religious supplies, medicinal herbs and Haitian artwork, the complex will house up to 20 more enterprises.
They include Fatoush Restaurant and Juice Bar; ASI Federal Credit Union; Crossroads Arts Bazaar, a place where local artists can sell their work; Wild Lotus Yoga Studio; Café Istanbul Performance Hall, a combination meeting space and performance venue; and the New Orleans Food Co-op, a 4,000-square-foot full-service grocery store. Currently, about 85 percent of the center is leased.
A long-needed grocery
Lori Burge, general manager the food co-op, said the grocery is one of the businesses that requires a longer build-out period than others because of the need to install refrigeration equipment and shelving. The store will sell fresh food to the Marigny and St. Roch neighborhoods, areas that have been without a grocery since the Robert’s market on St. Claude Avenue closed. To secure the final piece of its financing, the co-op is trying to recruit an additional 200 member-owners.
Crossroads Arts Bazaar director Lorien Bales said her gallery is timing its opening to coincide with that of the co-op.
“Foot traffic will be key,” Bales said.
Glassman believes that the Healing Center will bridge the Marigny and St. Roch neighborhoods, catalyze revitalization of the St. Claude Main Street corridor and help encourage other projects, like the resurrection of the St. Roch Market and the installation of a streetcar line.
“It’s interesting to me that the physical work on the buildings turned out to be a healing process in a way,” she said. “We took these totally neglected and sad buildings and restored the facades and opened them up and healed what had been done to them. Now everyone who visits … just feels uplifted by the open spaces and all the light.”