Bayou District Foundation

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Bayou District Foundation - Our Story

The Bayou District Foundation (BDF), a Louisiana non-profit, was created by a group of civic-minded New Orleans business and community leaders committed to revitalizing New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Our mission is to implement an innovative community re-development model – focused on education – which enables children and families to escape the cycle of poverty, build a thriving community, and live productive, healthy and fulfilling lives. BDF is the non-profit partner leading the development of a mixed-income residential community on the site of the former St. Bernard Public Housing Development and surrounding neighborhood in Gentilly adjacent to New Orleans’ City Park. The new community, Columbia Parc at the Bayou District, is providing quality affordable workforce housing and "cradle to college” educational resources including a state-of-the-art early learning center, a new K-8 charter school, and a new public high school in the Bayou District. Commercial and retail facilities, as well as a health clinic, are being developed within the site to provide "walkable” support services. Additionally, a new YMCA facility and the restoration of City Park’s golf facilities will provide recreational amenities and sustained funding to support Bayou District educational programs. These housing, education, recreation and economic development components will be fully integrated in a unique community redevelopment initiative that will make the Bayou District community a model for similar efforts in New Orleans and other areas across the country.

The East Lake Model

BDF is inspired and informed by the highly successful and proven model of the East Lake development in Atlanta, Georgia. The crime-ridden East Lake Meadows Public Housing Development was adjacent to the historic East Lake golf course. The famous East Lake Golf Club, where golf legend Bobby Jones played his first and last round of golf, had deteriorated throughout the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Crime, drug trafficking, and poverty in the surrounding area had increased to the point where one police officer called the neighborhood "Little Vietnam.” In 1995, through the East Lake Foundation, Mr. Cousins created a public/private partnership with the Atlanta Housing Authority and set out to rebuild and renew the neighborhood through a mixed-income model, while simultaneously restoring the golf club to its former glory. As the project developed, a charter school and a YMCA were added to the plan. East Lake is now a thriving mixed income community with a great local school system bordering public and private golf facilities. These facilities provide recreational avenues to the neighborhood with profits from golf operations directed to support programming within the East Lake Community. The Bayou District Foundation, through the assistance of the East Lake Foundation, is working to replicate the East Lake model in New Orleans.

St. Bernard Housing Project and the Surrounding Neighborhood

Following the passage of the U.S Housing Act of 1937, the St. Bernard Project was built to serve low-income New Orleans residents in the 1940s. Initially, the housing community consisted of 744 units in 74 buildings constructed on 31 acres of land. St. Bernard expanded in 1949, adding 700 more units. With this expansion the St. Bernard Housing Community became the largest public housing development in New Orleans.
The St. Bernard initially was more than a housing project. A support system of necessary community services slowly became part of the area. Among these were the Union Baptist Theological Seminary and Asia Baptist Church, which operated a day care center. Built in 1980, the St. Bernard Area Community Development Center was an effective educational, social service and recreational resource for families in the area.
Despite the positive attributes of the development, the St. Bernard Housing Community became widely recognized locally and nationally for its deterioration—both physically and as a safe community. In the two decades prior to Katrina, the St. Bernard Housing community saw the number of available housing units drop from 1400 to 900 because of poor maintenance and upkeep. Overcrowding became a huge issue in addition to a precipitous rise in violent crime (10 homicides in 2003 within the 52 acre community) as the drug trade overwhelmed the local community.
In addition to these serious problems, the St. Bernard Housing Community was serviced by some of the weakest public schools in the City of New Orleans. The two schools located in the community, Vorice J. Waters Elementary School and Phillips Jr. High School, were underperforming academically and had extreme security, maintenance and financial issues. Realizing the need for transformation,  KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) was awarded a charter by the Orleans Parish School Board to take over Phillips Jr. High School thirty days prior to Hurricane Katrina. „The St. Bernard‟ as it was known to many former tenants and area residents was the largest public housing complex in the City of New Orleans with 1,300 public housing units serving roughly 6,400 people. Only 963 of the 1,300 units were rated as livable in 2005 with over 300 units unoccupied because of disrepair. The only recreational facilities were a playfield and gymnasium operated by New Orleans Recreation Department, each located several blocks from the development. Many St. Bernard residents were contributing members of the New Orleans community, trying to make ends meet as service industry workers and laborers. In 2005, the St. Bernard had a population of over 3,000 children between the ages of 0-19, 790 in the 0-4 demographic alone. Only 218 of the 2,800 adults in the St. Bernard community had a college degree or better. 327 adults had less than a 9th grade education. Less than half of the adults were employed. (GCR & Associates).

Hurricane Katrina

The entire Gentilly and Bayou St. John community was devastated by Hurricane Katrina on August 29th, 2005. The St. Bernard Public Housing Community was flooded by 4 to 8 feet of water. The two schools located in the community, Vorice J. Waters Elementary and Phillips Jr. High School were also substantially damaged. Flooded for over 3 weeks, the buildings and schools that make up this community were damaged beyond repair.
Prior to Katrina only 963 units out of 1300 units within the St. Bernard Housing Community were eligible to be occupied. Given this fact and the enormous damage caused by the hurricane, the City Council of New Orleans voted in December 2007 to raze the St. Bernard Housing Development and three other developments around the city. The buildings were demolished in the 1st and 2nd quarter of 2008 and a 'clean site' was delivered in July 2008.

New Orleans City Park

Just west of the St. Bernard Housing Community lies New Orleans City Park. New Orleans City Park is the one of the largest urban parks in the United States at over 1300 acres. The park has served as a cultural, recreational and athletic center for the City of New Orleans for more than one hundred years. City Park has hosted concerts by everyone from The Beatles to Pearl Jam and had active softball, baseball, golf, soccer and tennis leagues. City Park was also the site of countless neighborhood and family gatherings, in addition to other cultural and athletic events like Celebration in the Oaks and the Crescent City Classic 5K.
In terms of acreage, golf dominated the City Park footprint. Three 18 hole golf courses and a full driving range took up over 700 acres of land. Hundreds of live oaks and magnolias filled City Park while natural bayous and thousands of flowers added fishing and bird watching to the list of activities.

Moving Forward

With early support from the New Orleans-based Fore!Kids Foundation, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Bayou District Foundation's story continues as more and more join in the effort to rebuild New Orleans. Tom Cousins of East Lake Foundation and former President George H.W. Bush serve as Bayou District Foundation's Honorary Chairmen.
In December, 2008, political and civil leaders joined with former St. Bernard Housing residents to break ground for what will become 900 mixed-income housing residences. The building project has been assigned to Columbia Residential, a national leader in mixed-income residential construction, leasing and property management. With priority given to former St. Bernard residents, the elderly and disabled, Columbia Parc at the Bayou District welcomed its first tenents during Mardi Gras week 2010. There are now 320 families living at Columbia Parc with a waiting list at all income levels. Phase 2 of housing construction (additional 100 units) has begun with a senior housing center (125 public units) in the design stage.
Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, an entire American city has struggled to recover, readjust and rebuild. However, the Bayou District Foundation’s goals go beyond "re-doing” anything. The Bayou District Foundation is a "instrument for change" to make New Orleans even better than it was before Katrina. Bayou District Foundation will transform people's lives, providing them with the opportunities that all citizens should enjoy and that New Orleans had not provided in the past. Bayou District Foundation will provide quality housing, education and recreation for the New Orleans residents who truly make this city a place unlike any other.