This interview appeared in the September issue of PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door nine times a year? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!
Co-owner of Rubensteins, the men’s clothing retailer founded in 1924 on Canal Street.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made this past year and a half particularly challenging for retailers. How are you doing now, and what are your projections for the holiday shopping season ahead?
We were fortunate to weather the COVID-19 storm; we only closed for three months. We have many loyal customers in and out of town who supported us well. Our business the last three months has exceeded our pre-COVID 2019. Our projections for holiday shopping are to keep on this fine trend. We see visitors returning in great numbers; businessmen are returning to work dressed up; and we hope to see conventions start. We are cautious about two things: the new virus wave and the unstoppable violence on Bourbon Street. The visitor’s view of safety in the city affects the future growth of our economy.
Rubensteins has been a business leader and a destination retailer on Canal Street for nearly a century. In addition to the store, your family is now turning the upper floors into a hotel. How is that project progressing?
The hotel addition to our upper floors is going well. We slowed it down a little as visitors were few. Now, we are ramping it up to be ready mid-2022. Also, during this time, we are renovating the men’s store to accommodate the hotel’s needs and do a timely renovation to the interior. We expect the renovation to be complete in November, and we will remain open during construction. At this time, business continues to do well.
Over the past several decades, Rubensteins has done a remarkable job of catering to both locals and tourists. How do you strike the right balance, and what do you think could be done to attract more local shoppers downtown?
We are fortunate because of our location and our reputation earned through our remarkable selling staff’s association with our customers. After 98 years of business, local people know our reputation for service and have passed us down to the younger generations. New Orleans and Louisiana are fortunate to have such a great reputation for being a fun and interesting place to visit. More local shopping is hard to attract, as there is not a lot of expansive space left for larger retail businesses in the CBD. Also, convenient parking is very sparse. I feel the development of large apartments, as is going on now on the edges of Canal Street, will give future retailers the market they need to begin opening stores for these customers. We are starting to see this in the Julia/O’Keefe streets area.
The collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel has reopened a large piece of Canal Street property for development. What do you think should be allowed on that site?
There is one perfect thing for the defunct former Hard Rock hotel site. It should be the site of City Hall. It is perfect. The site should be studied by an architect to confirm it is large enough to house all of City Hall’s needs, including parking. I feel a beautiful building — we don’t need another Dallas-looking tower — in keeping with our Canal Street historic facades could be built. I would not object to a 170-foot height as it would “mirror” the Four Seasons development at the foot of Canal Street and frame the future of Canal Street forever.
It is the ideal location: There are four streetcar routes that connect through transfer to that corner. Additionally, there was a transit hub proposed one block away, as so many bus routes end nearby. This would make City Hall convenient to almost the entire city, including many lower-income citizens who do not have car transportation. The site could be traded with the Hard Rock developer for the current City Hall.
The Hard Rock would have a better economic spot for its hotel as everything near the Superdome sells out for big events. Also, it is near many great restaurants. It already has a garage built (big savings) and has an enormous footprint of ground. What a great land swap for all. This would also solve the controversy of moving to Armstrong Park and would protect Treme’s historic culture. I think the $38 million in federal dollars currently dedicated to the Municipal Auditorium could be redirected to this venture. President Biden has already denounced the destruction of the Treme neighborhood that happened with the building of the Claiborne overpass. Cedric Richmond could help guide the President to advocate that Congress move the money to this new location to save the park. Because Congress has already approved the money, we would not be asking for additional money. I am sure our powerful senators could help reallocate the money to this important future historic location
As someone who grew up surrounded by historic architecture downtown, what does historic preservation mean to you?
My favorite downtown buildings are all the old ones (especially ours), which have not been torn down. It is our culture which cannot be replaced. What gives Paris its culture? It is Parisan architecture, as this is ours.