June 19, 2010 12:44 am

Sliver by the river

 
Shotgun houses in Bywater

A row of ‘shotgun’ houses in Bywater, which sell for between $62 and $117 per square foot

After hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans five years ago, a small swathe of land was dubbed the “sliver by the river”, a flood-free zone of higher ground hugging the Mississippi. It included not just the French Quarter but also two neighbourhoods little known outside the city: the Marigny and the Bywater. In Katrina’s transformative wake, these districts have become some of the city’s hottest real estate markets.

Originally plantation land, farms here were carved up into homesteads in the early 19th century – in part thanks to landowner Bernard de Marigny de Mandeville, a Creole aristocrat burdened by gambling debts. Refuse from the mansions of the French Quarter was thrown into the Mississippi to drift away downriver, silting up the banks of the Bywater and Marigny, making them both poorer and less prestigious despite their central location.

The two areas evolved individually, separated by railroad tracks that found a place in history when Homer Plessy was yanked from a train in 1892 for flouting the “separate but equal” seating rules and prompted one of the US’s pioneering civil rights court cases. The Marigny was always French-leaning, complete with a wide street named Elysian Fields Avenue in honour of the Champs-Elysées, and had a higher cachet simply because of its location next to the French Quarter, the city’s oldest. The sprawling, more suburban Bywater, meanwhile, was developed in a more ad hoc way and was home to swathes of the working class, with a heavy influx of French Caribbean settlers, especially expatriate Haitians.

John d’Addario, a curator at the New Orleans Museum of Art, has lived in the Marigny since 1997. “It has the same housing stock as the French Quarter, without your having to dodge drunk frat boys when you walk out of the front door,” he chuckles. “There are more owners who live in their property as opposed to the large tracts of the French Quarter where there are absentee landlords. It means people are invested in the neighbourhood.”

Compared to the Bywater, there’s more commercial activity, notably in the blocks radiating from the intersection of Frenchmen and Chartres (or Charters, in local patois) streets. That is where Fair Folks & a Goat, a New York-based concept store-cum-gallery run by a collective of arterati, recently opened its second outpost. The hard-to-categorise, ultra-hip store is a typically high-end new addition to the Marigny’s commercial landscape.

 
Street in Marigny

A street scene in Marigny

Peter Fairman, one of the FF&G team, has become an evangelist for the area. “It’s not so hip here you won’t feel comfortable if you’re not dressed like an American Apparel ad but for the artists who put stuff in here it’s not totally selling out – there’s creative integrity.” Compared with the Bywater, “the Marigny has a little more of an edge to it, it’s more urbane,” adds John Messinger, president of the Bywater Neighbourhood Association.

Elizabeth Pearce, a culinary expert and tour guide, is a typical Bywater resident; born in Covington, an hour away in Louisiana, she was drawn to the Bywater for its eclectic architecture and diverse community, buying her house there seven years ago. She lives on Desire Street – where Blanche DuBois’s streetcar once started its trundling journey to the French Quarter – and relishes the close-knit feel. “The guys who live down the block from me regularly grill and cook in front of their stoop, in a big pot on a butane burner. Every time I walk by they offer me some and on Lundi Gras this year – the day before Mardi Gras – I ended up heading home with a pork-chop sandwich on white bread.”

“The Marigny is selling at a little higher price per square foot [than the Bywater] and is growing at a faster rate,” explains Shea Embry, an agent who specialises in the two districts. Prices for single family homes, for example, are about $174-$200 per square foot in the Marigny and $171 square ft in the Bywater (for fixer-uppers, numbers tumble to $144 and $85 square ft respectively). Compared with the prices in the French Quarter, though, which hover around $400 square ft, both are bargains, especially the Marigny, just a few minutes’ walk away from the city centre. Though it is more trafficked and picked-over than the Bywater, there are still smart buys here according to Bryan Francher, another local real estate agent. “One girl bought a house really close to Frenchman Street for $242,000 – a two-storey, three-bedroom home with two baths. She’s a local girl and she was living in another historic neighbourhood but she saw the value of the Marigny.”

Messinger says the Bywater has the largest stock of historic homes in the city. “Primarily single- and double-shotguns [narrow rectangular houses with doors at each end, so named because it is said a shotgun could be fired cleanly through them from front to back door] with a few earlier townhouses thrown in. My house, for example, is a shotgun from 1860 made of barge-board. It’s incredibly sturdy, 10ft wide and 2ft thick – the barges used to come down the Mississippi and without steam power they couldn’t get back up so they made houses out of them round here.”

Prices on the single shotguns and townhouses, Embry explains, average more than $300,000, well above the values of the same time a year ago; but it’s the low-slung shotgun houses split between two families – known here as doubles and everywhere else as duplexes – that are the Bywater’s signature. A double is a real estate investor’s ideal target, a canny combination of buy-to-live and buy-to-let on the same plot; certainly, it was appealing to Pearce.

“I own a double and I rent out the other side – that’s been nothing but great. Right now I have a pastry chef and I’ve had jazz musicians and veterinarians in the past.” Embry says she hears one refrain constantly from colleagues: “‘I have a buyer looking for a double in good shape’, and my response is ‘Isn’t everybody?’”

New Orleans map
Anyone lucky enough to find a renovated double should expect to pay about $117 per square foot – while a fixer-upper in the same category is just $62 per square foot. The issue, of course, is securing renovation loans, a tricky task in the current market. And though the “sliver by the river” isn’t flood-prone, Embry cautions to set aside 3-3.5 per cent of the purchase price of any home for annual taxes and insurance. Those already sought-after doubles might also become even more attractive investments, as the Bywater is imminently likely to be rezoned, from low- to medium-density usage – an economic dose of steroids.

The smartest opportunities today, many locals suggest, are on the Bywater’s northern reaches, around St Claude Avenue, where half a dozen galleries have recently opened and a condominium building is being built at the junction with Esplanade Avenue. A no-go area in the darker times during the 1980s and 1990s, it is now rising fast but prices are still slack. “It’s very inexpensive – I sold a renovated double there around $200,000 about a year and a half ago – it was artists that bought it,” Francher explains. And d’Addario agrees. “They’re rebranding that into an arts district and in the next 10 years there will be even more radical changes. If I were looking to buy, now would be the time to do it there.”

The other hotly tipped site is close to the river; although access to the water is difficult in the former industrial zone and prices accordingly low, a renovation project, known as Reinventing the Crescent, is set to transform it. Starchitects such as David Adjaye and Michael Maltzan have been recruited to re-imagine the clogged, dilapidated waterfront for the $300m project.

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Agencies

Shea Embry, InTown Realty www.neworleansintown.com tel. +1 5043241240

Bryan Francher, Prudential Gardner www.francherperrin.com, tel. +1 5042516400

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