Trader Joe's, the California-based grocery chain with a cult-like following, is planning to open a store on Tulane Avenue late next year, according to a source familiar with the development, another sign of the transformation of the once seedy boulevard into a burgeoning medical-based district.
The proposed development would transform a long-disused and overgrown lot — which covers almost the entire block between Tulane Avenue and Banks Street, with South Rocheblave and South Dorgenois streets making up its other borders — into a 13,000-square-foot grocery store, with more than 100 parking spaces.
It is located adjacent to the old Dixie Brewery, the façade of which is now part of the huge $1 billion Veterans Administration complex that opened in 2016.
The Feil Organization, which owns the property and is leading the project, has been going through the neighborhood participation phase of permitting, meeting with various neighborhood groups in the area to explain the details of the new development and fielding any concerns people have.
At a meeting Wednesday evening at Warren Easton High School in Mid-City, Feil representatives said they were not allowed by their client to confirm the identity of the "specialty grocer," though the description fits perfectly to Trader Joe's unique brand identity and store configuration.
The grocer's "model utilizes a smaller space than a traditional grocery store and carries a curated group of unique and interesting products, many of which are not found at traditional grocers," Feil's invitation to the meeting read.
A source familiar with the project confirmed it is Trader Joe's but asked not to be quoted as the grocer, which has a reputation for secrecy, has asked those involved to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
A Trader Joe's spokesperson didn't comment except to note that the Tulane Avenue location isn't currently on the company's list of stores opening soon.
A first for the parish
The size of the proposed store is identical to the popular Trader Joe's on Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Metairie, which opened in 2016; it too has just over 100 parking spaces. The Metairie store was the second in Louisiana after the one built in the upscale Acadian Village shopping center in Baton Rouge in 2013.
The addition of a Trader Joe's, with its hipster chic image, would be a new phase of the turnaround of Tulane, which had declined from its mid-century retail glory into a two-mile strip of seedy motels and a hub for drugs and prostitution until the medical complex went up.
The Trader Joe's chain has been around since 1967. It has grown slowly relative to the biggest grocery chains, with only about 560 stores nationwide. There are very few in the Deep South. Alabama, like Louisiana, has only two stores and Mississippi has none. The Tulane Avenue store would be the first in Orleans Parish.
The brand's reputation has been built on its unique, often own-label goods that are sold at reasonable prices. Food & Wine Magazine summed up its appeal in naming Trader Joe's to its 2023 "Best Supermarkets" list: "Trader Joe's is one-of-a-kind — and often tremendously accessible, to boot, offering great product, lots of it organic and all-natural, for sometimes drastically less than you'd pay elsewhere."
The initial reaction from neighborhood association leaders was favorable.
"I am in total support," said Don Wentworth, president of the Faubourg Tulane Gravier Neighborhood Alliance. "They are doing everything right," he added, pointing to their thorough consulting process and transparency about the development, if not the tenant's identity.
Questions about oaks
At a private meeting with Feil representatives on Tuesday, Mid-City Neighborhood Organization members raised some questions about traffic flow, lighting and the preservation of the old oaks on Banks Street. But generally, its members were pleased with the answers they heard.
"From what I understand, the proposal will be a benefit for the area," said Thomas Ecker, MCNO's President. "As it stands, groceries are sparse and having one will benefit the neighborhood more than anything else that might be possible along the Tulane corridor."
The revitalization of the lower part of Tulane has taken shape slowly since the multi-billion-dollar medical corridor plan was announced in 2008. It has included the New Orleans BioInnovation Center, completed in 2011, and the Louisiana Cancer Research Center, which was finished a year later. Also, the $1.2 billion University Medical Center, which was completed in 2015.
The old Charity Hospital site is now earmarked for a huge refurbishment. Tulane University will anchor a project aimed at bringing the ghostly old complex back to life.
Support from taxpayers
The site of the proposed Trader Joe's, which already is designated as an "opportunity zone," making its owners eligible for tax breaks, also falls within the newly-created Bio District. That taxpayer funded body aims to spend money on infrastructure improvements in its designated area, including along Tulane Avenue, to make it more attractive for medical science businesses and professionals.
Wentworth notes that property values in the immediate vicinity of the medical complex have already reflected the area's transformation.
"For three or four years before COVID and after the Lafitte Greenway was completed (in 2015), house prices in the area were the fastest-escalating in the city, on par with places like Marigny and Bywater," he said.
There have been hundreds of new upscale apartment units added in recent years, including most recently the opening of a 579-unit building on Poydras Street aimed at medical students and staff, located just a few blocks from the planned Trader Joe's site.
At the other end of Tulane, where the boulevard meets Interstate 10, there are also signs of turnaround after developer Sidney Torres bought the Fountainbleu Apartments and located Orleans Parish's first Chick-fil-A next door.
Michael Sherman, a land use consultant for Feil on the project, said he hopes the "specialty grocer" can put its plan to the city's planning committee and get City Council approval by the end of the summer, so that building can start around the end of the year.
"We could not be more pleased with the warm response we've received from the neighbors to date," Sherman said.
Editor's Note: This article was updated to correctly identify the name of the former brewery next to the planned Trader Joe's site. Also, to add a comment from a Trader Joe's spokesperson.