Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"This is a groundbreaking project." - A Look at Builders of Hope

While it's unfortunate that the neighborhood inside the VA Footprint continues to be dismantled to make way for a hospital, the outcome is not as bad as it could have been.

A group of citizens and local officials certainly had a hand in the effort to move dozens of historic homes out of the site (which is in a National Register Historic District) as opposed to demolishing more of them outright and sending them to the landfill.  But there's one organization that's really proven to be the essential factor in the entire undertaking - Builders of Hope.

A national non-profit operating out of Raleigh, North Carolina, "BoH" stepped into the breach at the invitation of Providence, a New Orleans-based housing non-profit that's also playing a key role as the owner of many of the destination lots for the houses that are moved.

I remember the first time I met Lew Schulman, BoH's COO, at the Providence HQ back in the spring - I sensed immediately that he would have the stature and the drive to interact with major contractors and local officials to make something happen.  A few months later, he stood at the podium beside Mayor Landrieu and looked on as the second batch of homes rolled down Palmyra.

More recently, I took some time to chat with Casius Pealer, the Gulf Coast Regional Director for BoH about the non-profit's role in New Orleans and the house moving project in general.  As we stood in the neutral ground on S. Galvez, crews began to move a home off the site.

Pealer, a graduate of Tulane's School of Architecture, served as Director of Affordable Housing at the U.S. Green Building Council prior to returning to the city to assist with the BoH effort.  Providence, an arm of Catholic Charities in New Orleans, originally sought out BoH to assist with lot infill for a project, and the relationship ultimately shifted some of its emphasis to the VA house moving project.

Pealer observed that the BoH mission to "rehab the houses and get them back into commerce" has been a bit more complicated here in New Orleans than in some of the organization's earlier efforts.  The nature of the Lower Mid-City site is certainly unique.

"That's part of the complexity," Pealer said, "The project seems complex enough anyway - but here we have a house we've pulled out between two other houses, we have people living in the next house, we have guys demolishing a house over there.  Normally, you'd pull one house at a time, but we haven't been able to do that because of the nature of the acquisition process and the fact that some people are still trying to live their lives.  These are not things that normally co-exist."

By the end of the day on Friday, 27 houses had been moved off-site to new locations.  Teams, led by Construction Director Chris Dodd, typically move three or four houses per move day, typically on Wednesdays and Fridays.  Lately, things have slowed a bit.

"The site acquisition process has slowed up a bit, so it's given us a reprieve," Pealer said.  "But it's likely the calm before the storm."  The stated goal is to move 100 houses off the site.

Crucially, BoH is not able to move every historic home off the site.  Demolitions have proceeded alongside the house moving undertaking.

"If it's a slab foundation home...it would double or triple the cost of moving it," Pealer said.  "We've said from the beginning that we can't move those.  We can look from the street at a house that looks structurally sound, but we don't know for sure until we get inside.  We have to look at the sill.  Sometimes the sill is strong even when the exterior looks poor, the bones of the house are strong."

The intense timeline and the sheer numbers made the house moving venture all the more unlikely, but somehow, things have come together.  What's different about this project?  "The scale and the speed.  100 homes, you know...if you gave us 18 months...but here, we have about 18 weeks.  The city has stepped up, the Mayor has stepped up, and the preservation community has stepped up," Pealer noted.

"Everyone has to be flexible.  It's about jumping off a cliff and building the parachute after that.  Everyone has been helping to build that parachute."  Pealer also contrasted the feat with BoH's earlier efforts to move and rehabilitate 14-18 homes where all structures ended up in one place.  The multitude of destination lots, the urban setting, and the antiquated New Orleans power grid have all added twists to the routine.

BoH will also monitor the rehabilitation of the homes on their new sites in conjunction with the non-profit lot owners.  A number of new - but still classic New Orleans - streetscapes have emerged in various parts of town, as I've documented in other posts here.

How does the effort stack up historically?  Pealer didn't want to boast, but it was clear that the history books are not littered with many examples for comparison.

"This is the largest documented house move process.  In terms of anything in modern history and certainly anything in the U.S. - and as far as rescue of historic homes - this is unprecedented."

Importantly, the BoH house move effort has been confined to the site of the VA Footprint.  LSU has not made any plans for house moving on its side of the project.  "Our hope is that we perform well and make it clear that this is a viable option," Pealer said.  "We want to make sure that there's another option besides tearing homes down."

Finally, while the VA Footprint house move project has clearly been Builders of Hope's introduction to New Orleans, the organization is intent on growing a long term relationship with the city:

"We do hope to stay in New Orleans and look at other opportunities," Pealer concluded.  "We do rehab homes in place as well."

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