Businesses on Rampart Street along the French Quarter are looking forward to more customers seeking out the corridor and more investment in real estate as construction wraps up on the Rampart Street streetcar line.
It's been more than 18 months since the digging, jack-hammering and street closures began to snarl traffic along North Rampart Street and down St. Claude Avenue, a period that was fraught with blowing construction dust and a seemingly endless line of orange construction cones. Now, the new streetcar platforms have come into view, magnolia trees are planted along the neutral ground, and workers are beginning to sweep away the grit.
"It sure does look pretty," said Vincent DeFonte, who owns Diety Arts on Rampart Street and whose husband, Gregory Gagus, owns Mister Gregory's coffee shop on the same block. "Compared to what we had before, it's gorgeous."
But it comes after a trying period for businesses along the corridor. DeFonte described it as "torture for us" -- the coffee shop managed to stay open but the retail portion of DeFonte's studio went "just dead." A wall crumbled in the couple's Rampart Street home, which DeFonte believes was caused by construction vibrations, and he wonders whether other buildings will remain standing a year from now.
Concerns about structural problems aside, Rampart Street has struggled over the past several decades with crime, disinvestment and with a reputation as the part of the French Quarter most people were told to avoid.
But with the $43 million investment in the streetcar line, investment has started to trickle in: Bars such as Black Penny have opened in the last two years, building on the success of businesses that opened well before construction -- Bar Tonique, for example.
There are still some vacancies. People in the neighborhood hope that grand restaurants such as Marti's, which closed during construction, return. And other businesses with impeccable facades, like Mary's Ace Hardware, are optimistic that the landlords of some of the derelict properties with graffiti-strewn windows and tarps over their roofs finally clean up their properties.
Mark Benson, the hardware kitchen and bath department manager, worked as a chef at a Rampart Street restaurant in the 1970s and 1980s, and noticed the street began to decline in the early 1980s. It's only been in the last few years that things have started to look up.
"Maybe this time it'll stay a nice street," Benson said.
Since construction began wrapping up, Benson said store managers have been counting on an uptick in business. Construction made access for customers so difficult at times, some didn't bother coming in. But with much of the heavy work wrapped up over the last few weeks, people have started to return at the 4 1/2-year-old business.
City officials say they are confident businesses will flourish with the construction wrapping up, and the streetcar line should spur interest among investors. The real estate activity has already started to bear that out: According to a NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune tally of recent property sales along North Rampart, nine properties have sold since the start of 2014, representing $8.7 million invested.
In some cases, sellers have been able to demand a large premium over the original purchase price. The building that now houses hot dog restaurant Dreamy Weenies at 740 N. Rampart St., sold for $260,000 in 2002; a buyer in March 2015 paid $830,000.
Rebecca Conwell, who leads the mayor's office of economic development, said it's not just the streetcar line that will make a difference on North Rampart Street. More than $2 billion has been invested in the nearby University Medical Center and VA hospital on Canal Street; the Iberville public housing project is in the midst of redevelopment as a mixed-income apartment complex; and more than $8 million has been spent on improvements at Louis Armstrong Park.
The Saenger Theatre at Rampart and Canal streets reopened after a 2013 restoration, and city officials hope to announce a FEMA settlement that will help pay for the restoration of the Municipal Auditorium in Armstrong Park.
"All of that creates the foundation," Conwell said. "Historically, if you look at any economic development around street car lines, or even trains, there's always a substantial increase in the value of the property. The type of businesses that pop up along the way are strengthened."
Conwell acknowledged there's still work to do for some of the more run-down properties along the corridor, but said that "it's just a matter of time before somebody" sees the potential of the real estate.
"You run out of property and they start going to the edges because they expect the money to go in that direction," she said.
Even so, some businesses are skeptical about the new streetcar line, which has a rather abrupt terminus at Elysian Fields Avenue after turning onto St. Claude Avenue. Benson said he's not counting on much new business from the streetcar, and thinks the store will end up stocking goods that tourists are looking for.
DeFonte, who both lives and has his business on Rampart, wondered whether the streetcar will be noisy for nearby French Quarter residents, and about the amount of pedestrian activity the streetcar will draw.
"Is the street going to get that busy?" he wondered.
Officials are hopeful the streetcar line will eventually extend to the 9th Ward to connect more neighborhoods. The city has applied for a federal transportation grant to stretch 1.6-mile route from Elysian Fields Avenue to Press Street. New Orleans was awarded similar money for Loyola streetcar project but rejected for the first segment of the Rampart line.
But in the meantime, it appears tourists are ready to start frequenting the line. The other night, DeFonte heard a story in a bar about some European tourists who waited more than an hour at one of the new Rampart transit stops before finally going inside to ask, "When does the streetcar come?"
"Maybe November," the bartender answered.