Safety in Storms Now No. 1 Selling Point

Times Staff Writer

For a few hundred years, nobody could quite figure out what to do with Money Hill.

In the 1700s, pirates buried their plunder in the piney woods north of Lake Pontchartrain -- hence the name -- and in the 1800s it became a logging site. It was a tung tree orchard during World War II, then a campground. Finally, in 1998, it became a housing development, and an outer suburb of New Orleans.

Only recently, however, did the Money Hill Golf and Country Club find that it was truly resting on a pile of gold.

Long frustrated by slow sales, executives stripped their advertisements of descriptions they had relied on in the past -- garden homes modeled after the French countryside, Bermuda grass on the golf greens -- and produced new ads that would mean something to today's buyers.

"Lots start," the ads read, "at 100 feet above sea level."

After Hurricane Katrina, developments such as Money Hill are tweaking blueprints and marketing campaigns to capitalize on assets forgotten in the four decades that New Orleans was spared a direct hit by a hurricane.

The selling points here are no longer marble countertops or high ceilings.

They are elevation, the ability to withstand strong winds and even, in the case of one condo tower, self-sustainability through the use of floor-by-floor generators and a rooftop water tank.

Amid a crushing housing shortage and lingering fears about the integrity of the levees that line the area's drainage and shipping canals, the developers' strategic changes are having an immediate effect on the real estate market.

Money Hill, which is 50 miles north of New Orleans between Talisheek and Abita Springs, sits at an astounding elevation by the standards of swampy southern Louisiana.

"We said: 'Let's go back to ground zero and look at what we have and what appeals to people now,' " said Money Hill's marketing director, Debra Mosby. "We're not marketing anything we didn't have before. We're just pointing it out. We hadn't talked about it before because nobody would have cared."

Money Hill sold 20 lots in 2004 and another 20 in 2005, said Frank Csaki, the development's controller and vice president of clubhouse operations. Sales in 2006 are expected to at least double and perhaps triple, judging from contracts in the pipeline and interest generated by the new marketing, he said.

Katrina destroyed or severely damaged as much as threequarters of New Orleans' housing stock.

No one is sure what the city will look like in coming years. But housing is expected to be in demand, especially single-family homes on the outskirts, in places like Money Hill, and denser development inside the city.

After the storm, real estate agent John L. Schaff placed a full-page advertisement in New Orleans Magazine for a condominium building in the 1700 block of St. Charles Avenue, a Garden District address not reached by the floodwaters and virtually undamaged in the storm.

In red letters, the advertisement read: "KATRINA PROOF!"

Of the building's 220 units, 100 were unoccupied before the storm.

Schaff has since sold 95.

"It's definitely worked for us," he said of his new marketing approach. "There is just a sense of security in being in a large building."

Developers are funneling tens of millions of dollars into high-rise condominium and apartment projects.

One business group is planning to convert a downtown New Orleans landmark -- the Shell Building, an office tower on the National Register of Historic Places -- into luxury apartments. City officials say Donald Trump will build a 700-foot-tall residential tower in the business district.

Some proposals are ruffling feathers. Just outside the French Quarter, developers are hoping to build a 316-foot-tall retail and condominium tower in an area where local ordinances have long capped buildings at 85 feet.

Preservationists have pledged to fight and, in a city where architectural conformity has long lorded over new development, even condo real estate agents say they are torn over such an audacious response to the storm.

Schaff said such projects could provide an enormous boost to the city. Housing availability is considered critical to reconstruction; many businesses can't find enough workers because workers can't find places to live.

On the other hand, he said, new developments could change the flavor of the city.

"It could happen," he said. "It's definitely a Catch-22."

With so many developers capitalizing on the storm, some builders are even altering construction plans to give their projects an edge.

The executives behind L'Ultime Tower Lake Pontchartrain -- an 85-unit, $70-million condominium tower being built on the northern tip of New Orleans -- changed their marketing after the storm. The tower, their latest ads say, "offers you luxury living without the threat of flooding." Design plans have been changed to make the building impenetrable by floodwaters so residents will be safe inside.

To withstand hurricane winds, thicker glass -- which before Katrina was only to extend up to the fifth floor -- has been added to the blueprints for all 20 stories. A water tank on the roof will give the building an independent supply. Every floor will have its own generator, and builders plan to haul in dirt to raise the building.

Architect Raymond C. Bergeron Jr. said the changes would add 2% to the construction cost -- about $1.5 million -- and were considered a sound investment. Linda Forest, L'Ultime's listing agent, said buyers have reserved 10 units -- all since the storm.

"We are spending the extra money to make the building safer so that they can promote that they are selling a safer building," Bergeron said.

For Money Hill, Hurricane Katrina seemed to be another hit at a development that has struggled over the years.

David Goodyear, whose family has owned the land for a century, opened the first lots in 1998, and although investors bought 150 of them, few houses were built. Two years later, there were 20 residents at Money Hill. Today, 250 residents occupy 80 homes. Then came Katrina, which felled an estimated 300,000 of the development's picturesque pines.

But after the storm, interest in the development and its undulating hills has risen sharply.

Money Hill officials expect to offer 18 lots in February or March; nine have been sold. In all, 20 lots have come under contract since the storm.

"Katrina has pushed a lot of people this way," Csaki said. "They don't mind the commute -- not anymore. People will drive a little bit farther to be a little bit safer."

The development is scrambling to clear 100 more lots in the coming months to make room for newcomers; that project was a mere concept before the storm. So many people are expected that Goodyear said he would have to build a second 18-hole golf course this year.

"You hate to benefit from something like this," Csaki said. "But people don't want to worry....

"That's what we offer now."

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