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The DDD Saved Downtown New Orleans

When you think of downtown New Orleans, you likely think of the bright lights of Canal Street or the many-windowed business-y buildings towering over the sidewalks. It’s that, yes, and it’s also an oh-so-walkable 1.2 square miles of 11 neighborhoods whose names you’ll hear dropped—the CBD, the Warehouse District, the Arts District, to name a few—in reference to any number of hip restaurants, bars, retail, or music venues. Stretching from the Mississippi River up to Claiborne Avenue, then from Iberville Street to the Pontchartrain Expressway, downtown is where you head for springtime’s Wednesday at the Square or some quality time with the Saints in the Superdome.

But in the 1970s, downtown wasn’t exactly the kind of place you wanted to stroll through. Much of it was crumbling and unused. And despite a venerable history as the second-oldest section of the city, any kind of charm and energy seemed to be a thing of the past.

October 7, 1929, at the start of the 1930 beautification project for Canal Street (Photo courtesy of the Downtown Development District)

Enter a decision by the Louisiana legislature in 1974 to form the Downtown Development District (DDD). One of the first of its kind, the DDD is a development authority combined with a business improvement district. In the last 44 years, the group has managed to turn a part of town that people once avoided into a place where people now want to be.

The same scene from today, more than 85 years after the start of the 1930 beautification project for Canal Street (Photo courtesy of the Downtown Development District)

At the time the DDD was formed, the New Orleans skyline was beginning to take shape. Oil and gas were booming, and money was coming into the city. Shell had completed One Shell Square on Poydras Street, New Orleans’s first skyscraper, in 1972. The tallest building in Louisiana then (and now!) turned out to be a sort of beacon. Other oil and gas companies started building, too, ushering in a new sort of business district. But new buildings alone would not create a thriving downtown.

One Shell Square (Photo: Paul Broussard)

The DDD went about their work very intentionally, shying away from anything considered to be a silver bullet or a quick fix. For 44 years now, the team has taken the long view, working to develop partnerships and relationships with business and building owners. They move building by building to make sure the look, feel, and vibe stay consistent to the overall mission of cultivating economic development, advocating for the future, and promoting a lively downtown.

They’ve also developed public safety programs like enhanced policing, private security details, and the Public Safety Rangers. Free SafeWalks are offered to and from downtown office buildings, hotels, restaurants, and bars. The Clean Team keeps the downtown spaces among the cleanest in the city—from paint jobs to pressure washing to litter removal.

It’s a lot of little things that add up to one very big thing: how downtown feels.

 

Lafayette Square and Baronne Street (Photo: Paul Broussard)

Something as simple as the number of sidewalk cafés, for example, can tell an important story. People don’t sit outside when it’s dirty or they feel unsafe or are uncomfortable. In the last few decades, downtown New Orleans has gone from three to 60 sidewalk cafés. For those involved in urban development, this kind of information is like a canary in a coal mine. And in this case, it’s a very good sign for downtown—it’s one of the places we all really like to be.

Come September, the DDD will honor six downtown organizations with their annual Downtown NOLA Awards. From turning a historic building into a multi-vendor food hall (Auction House Market) to maintaining a successful high-tech life science business (InnoGenomics) to reinvigorating a historic jazz club (Little Gem Saloon) to making information accessible (New Orleans Public Library) to showcasing the work of black artists (Stella Jones Gallery) to instituting a bike share program (Blue Bikes NOLA), these groups have unique focuses, but their sense of history, innovation, culture, and community embody the present and future of downtown New Orleans.

Visit New Orleans and start your story with #OneTimeInNOLA.

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