Large mixed-use real estate project in progress near New Orleans

If you're thinking of investing in an iPod stocked with songs capable of drowning out the rumble of forklifts or heavy car traffic, now may be the time because the construction isn't stopping as the North Shore experiences an unprecedented building boom.

Over the next year, builders will put the finishing touches on the largest real estate developments in the history of St. Tammany Parish. The hundreds of acres of new homes, shops and offices promise to change the face of the parish at a time when a lagging economy and national credit crisis has slowed the pace of real estate development in other areas of the country.

Six of the largest projects in the works - Terrabella; Nord du Lac; Rooms To Go Outlet and Distribution Center; Chenier and Cypress Bend - are expected be at least partially open for business in 2009, while Summit Fremaux in Slidell is expected to have its first phase complete in 2010. Half of these projects will rise alongside Louisiana Highway 21.

The concentration of new development reflects a growing westward migration of commercial and residential activity from traffic-choked U.S. Highway 190 to the quieter highway that connects Madisonville to Covington.

"Highway 190 has been the major commercial boulevard in St. Tammany," said Quentin Dastugue, CEO of New Orleans-based real estate company Property One Inc. "Now (Highway) 21 is becoming the alternative because 190 has gotten so crowded. "

Dastugue is the developer for Cypress Bend, a 24-acre office park being built near the intersection of Interstate 12 and Highway 21 off Ochsner Boulevard.

The development will include a headquarters for LLOG Exploration Co. and a posh 52,000-square-foot health club. Dastugue said the location was not chosen arbitrarily.

"We were looking for an environment to attract top-quality employees, and this part of the parish seemed to be the place," he said. "We overlook a lake and have an upscale shopping center, doctors offices and nice subdivisions being built just down the road. It's the place to be. "

The subdivision referenced by Dastugue - Terrabella - does not identify itself as such. Instead, the Web site for the 276-acre project touts a "traditional neighborhood development" where residents will stroll along tree-lined streets to get from homes to the grocery store, one of the neighborhood's numerous parks or to their children's school.

St. Tammany resident Mark Malkemus is the original mind behind the eco-themed development - "terra" means earth and "bella" means beautiful in Italian. He chose the Covington site because of its proximity to the Tchefuncte River and pristine woods as well as to modern conveniences like the coming Nord du Lac shopping center and a new parish high school planned for the area.

"Growth is headed west," said Malkemus, who sold the rights to the development to Boh Bros. Construction Co. and is now working as a consultant to the firm as it gets the project going.

The new development is expected to generate thousands of jobs in the region, with 300 construction jobs and more than 400 permanent positions expected to come out of the Rooms To Go facility alone.

"It will create jobs in the near and long terms, as well as providing our residents with a convenient new furniture shopping alternative," said Brenda Reine-Bertus, executive director of the St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation.

But as developers go west, some worry the new growth will lead to the same problems that lead them to the road less traveled in the first place.

Ivan Miestovich, director of the Institute for Economic Development and Real Estate Research at the University of New Orleans, lived in the Tchefuncta Club Estates neighborhood off Highway 21 for 12 years. He sold his house and moved to Tangipahoa Parish the year after Katrina, just as developers like Malkamus were hatching plans for his neighborhood. The area's increasing popularity contributed to the Miestovich family's decision to pull up stakes and move farther into the countryside.

"The traffic was about to drive my wife into a padded cell," said the 60-year-old real estate expert.

Though St. Tammany Parish plans to widen Highway 21 this year, Miestovich questions whether the road will be able to support commercial development on the scale of Highway 190.

"Highway 21 will never be a 190 because it crosses the river. It will never be able to grow or accommodate traffic the same way," he said.

The question is, however, will it have to?

The price of homes is already dropping in St. Tammany and those unsold are sitting on the market for increasingly longer periods. For-sale signs litter driveways in communities where in a stronger economy, buyers would line up for the chance to tour a house on the market.

What if no one buys the homes planned for the area?

"Then they will sit," Miestovich said. "If you look around, you'll see they will be in good company. "