1982: Firm founded
New Orleans gets word it will host the 1984 World’s Fair, and the city throws itself into high gear, hoping to rejuvenate 80 acres of the riverfront warehouse district, which has become derelict since shipping switched to containers after the decline of the cotton industry. It’s an area peppered with historical buildings, and after visiting SoHo in New York, Pres Kabacoff becomes interested in converting industrial realty into livable space. He meets Ed Boettner, who has studied the ins and outs of federal incentives for historical properties, and together they see an opportunity. For their first project, they tackle Federal Fibre Mills (above), a factory once used to turn hemp into rope. By transforming the warehouse into luxury apartments, the two stumble upon a model for complete community restoration. The effort ultimately spurs lively growth, drawing 3,500 residents and 250 new businesses, including hotels, eateries, galleries, and museums.
1984: A Discovery From Disaster
Exactly 100 years after the city’s last stint hosting the fair, this time around is a flop. Some blame the low attendance (and eventual bankruptcy) on the fact that the summer Olympics are happening in Los Angeles the same year. New Orleans goes into an oil recession, which the fair had been masking. “The exuberance from the fair hit our soft underbelly,” Kabacoff says. “Instead of having a pot of cash when it was over, we were in the hole, and the city had lost 50,000 jobs.”
But, instead of experiencing the 40 percent vacancy seen in other parts of the city, HRI’s residential experiment fills up. “That told us that we were on to something, that there was a pent-up desire to live in the older sections of cities,” Kabacoff says. “So we grew a business out of a financial disaster, and instead of two employees, we have 700 and have done $1.5 billion of work.”
1991: HRI Properties Expands
The firm ventures into other cities throughout Louisiana, and later it expands its work to other second-tier US cities such as Houston; Omaha, Nebraska; and St. Louis, a city where it takes on a $300 million downtown revitalization program, including the Merchandise Mart (left), the Cupples Station Apartments and the St. Louis Renaissance Grand & Suites. “We really are a neighborhood developer,” Kabacoff says. “We look to create enough pieces to kick-start a community like a SoHo. We’re thinking about 24-hour life.”
1997: Revamping the Blackstone Hotel
Part of HRI’s modus operandi is to meet with political and civic organizations and leaders to target the right areas. “We’re pioneering, and usually you can’t finance these things conventionally,” Kabacoff says. In Fort Worth, Texas, one of the keys to the renovation of the Blackstone Hotel (right) is working with the state’s well-connected Bass family. The project is later completed in 1999 and managed by Marriott.
2000: Ed Boettner dies
“He was a creative guy,” Kabacoff says. “This was a second career for him, and he gave us stability in the beginning, when things looked really bad. But we’ve matured, and I think he’d be proud of where we’ve come.”
2005: Hurricane Katrina Hits
The disaster offers HRI the grandest opportunity in its 20-year history to foster widespread revitalization. Despite the immense pain and suffering delivered by the storm, there are also hidden benefits—including the opportunity to revisit the city’s justice, education, and residential systems. HRI is involved in a $1 billion redevelopment program downtown. There are those who complain about the folly of rebuilding a city below sea level, but Kabcoff says to them, “Would Italy let Venice go?”
2011: Work for the Marine Corps
HRI’s continues work on a 170-acre compound for the Marine Corps. Filling the gap left by a fort damaged in the hurricane, the facility is seen as a model for integrating military and social fabrics. It emphasizes a walkable community, drawing inspiration from the city’s neighborhoods of old. Says Kabacoff of HRI’s current and future endeavors, “If we’re successful, we’ll end up with a reimagined concept of what it means to be neighbors.” ABQ