April 8th, 2011
From making mayonnaise to creating art. That’s the transformation in store for the long-empty Blue Plate Foods building at South Jefferson Davis Parkway and Earhart Boulevard. After years of planning, work has begun to convert the former factory into 72 loft-style apartments, with a leasing preference for artists, many of whom will be low-income.
Initial interior demolition has begun, with the first units scheduled for occupancy in March 2012. The $25 million project is being led by local developers HRI Properties and JCH Development, with Woodward Design+Build as the contractor. The 99,000-square-foot building, which the developers often describe as “iconic,” is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The conversion will also involve creating on-site gated parking, a multipurpose room and gallery space for exhibitions, a roof deck, an outdoor patio, a soundproof music rehearsal room, a fitness center and a business center. In addition, the developers said, renewable and sustainable design features will be incorporated into the renovation to reduce residents’ utility costs and overall operating costs.
Two one-story brick warehouses at the rear will be demolished and their bricks used to build a fence around the property. “It will not only be a catalytic project for the neighborhood and surrounding communities, but will also return the Blue Plate sign to lights,” said lead developer Tara Hernandez, president of JCH Development. “So many New Orleanians know this landmark as the place where ‘ya mama’s mynezz’ was made for half a century.”
The building was constructed in 1941 for the local mayonnaise and sauce manufacturer Blue Plate Food Inc., which had been founded 16 years earlier. It was designed by architect August Perez in the art moderne style, a close cousin of art deco known for its curving forms, long horizontal lines and “streamlined” appearance. The Blue Plate building is familiar to generations of New Orleanians for its smooth, all-white exterior, rounded glass-block corners and large rooftop sign, which will be modified to read “Blue Plate Lofts.”
Blue Plate Mayonnaise was one of the first commercially prepared mayonnaise products in the country and for years was one of the South’s best-selling products.
Innovative acid-proofing technologies were incorporated into the design and construction to preserve the building from the corrosive effects of the ingredients used in the food production process. Mayonnaise production at the site ended in early 2000 when Reily Foods Co. consolidated operations at a more modern plant in Knoxville, Tenn. Reily had bought Blue Plate Foods and the landmark building in 1974 from Hunt-Wesson Co. Local businessman and investor Kevin Kelly bought the Blue Plate site from Reily in 2007 for $1.875 million. In early 2010, he sold it to Hernandez and HRI for $3.3 million.
Hernandez had taken the lead in trying to redevelop the building, winning City Planning Commission and City Council approval in late 2008 to turn it into 72 mixed-income apartments. She said then she hoped to start construction in mid-2009 and finish the conversion a year later.
But Hernandez, a former HRI executive, had trouble finding the financing she needed, and she eventually teamed up with her former company on a plan to focus the project on artists. HRI has extensive experience in developing artists’ housing, such as the 37-unit Bywater Art Lofts on Dauphine Street.
About 70 percent of the apartments will be set aside for low-income tenants. The city has provided $3.5 million of the total budget, with the rest coming from bonds, tax credits and bank loans. The State Bond Commission briefly stalled the project in November when it failed to approve a plan for the state Office of Community Development to put up about $9 million, but a month later it authorized issuance of up to $15 million in Louisiana Housing Finance Agency bonds.
Although the approval Hernandez obtained from the city in 2008 was good for only two years, she said she has been granted an extension.
Bruce Eggler, The Times-Picayune, April 7th 2011
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