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Winds of Change


Three years after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast, a familiar West Bank shopping landmark has done its part to reassure residents that, even in the wake of disaster, some semblance of normalcy is possible.

After the nation’s costliest hurricane hit the Southern coast on Aug. 28, 2005, Oakwood Center was still standing. Although the General Growth Properties (GGP) mall had taken hits from the wind, as high-powered gusts and flying debris damaged skylights and dinged the exterior shell, it was relatively unscathed. But then a massive fire caused a full roof collapse and structural-steel damage.

“According to the police report, looters set the fires,” Nicole O’Connor, director of public affairs for Chicago-based GGP, told Chain Store Age. Intense flames and billowing smoke devastated the mall complex, as did water damage from the continuously running sprinkler system.

“After Katrina hit, there was a lot going on in the city of New Orleans,” said O’Connor. “The sprinklers were damaged from the fire and roof collapse, and the continuous running of water only made things worse for the mall.”

GGP realized that no amount of patching would restore the 40-year-old enclosed mall; a rebuild would have to take place.

“We knew from the outset that we would rebuild Oakwood Center,” said O’Connor. “There was never a question of abandoning this property. We made a commitment to the community that their mall would come back.”

The demo began that December, and it wasn’t without complications. The developer’s rebuild team was faced with finding alternatives to obsolete materials and with bringing the facility up to current building and fire codes that had become standard after the mall was originally built in 1966. GGP included more customer-friendly amenities, such as a family restroom with changing areas, color-coding for wayfinding purposes, a new logo and more soft seating.

Residents are grateful to the developer, the building team and the mall tenants for their efforts and contributions. A thousand workers were employed during the construction process and hundreds have jobs in the mall today. Since Oakwood Center’s grand opening last October, sales-tax dollars have helped fund growth throughout the area. And more improvements lie ahead.

“We are in the process of extending the rebuild to the prior Mervyns space,” said O’Connor. “No plans have been solidified, but all kinds of ideas, including a streetscape, are being generated.” However the space is rendered, Oakwood Center will continue to evolve, and provide a breath of fresh air for a city that badly needs it.

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