A local real estate developer, and New Orleans returnee, focuses on community transformation to help the city thrive.
The unique character of New Orleans is known for attracting newcomers, but, when newer residents end up moving away for job opportunities, relationships or other reasons, the Crescent City also has a way of enticing them back. Real estate developer Matt Schwartz is one such returnee, and, through his firm, The Domain Companies, he is contributing to New Orleans by building new apartments, retail spaces and communities. The newest development currently under construction, called South Market District, is poised to completely transform what has long been a moribund area of downtown.
“It’s a great time to be doing what we do in New Orleans,” he says. “The city is experiencing change at a tremendous rate.”
Schwartz, who grew up in New York, came to New Orleans in the mid-1990s to attend Tulane University, where he studied business and finance. Tulane is also where he met his future business partner, Chris Papamichael (as well as the woman who later become his wife). Schwartz enjoyed living in New Orleans but didn’t see much opportunity here at the time; so he returned to New York after graduation to pursue his career.
While Schwartz and Papamichael landed positions at two different real estate development companies in New York, they both gained industry experience over several years. Meanwhile, they often discussed going into business together. Eventually, they took the plunge in 2004.
The Domain Companies was headquartered in New York, so that’s where the partners began working. “Our focus was mixed-income housing,” Schwartz says. “After Katrina, affordable housing is what was needed in New Orleans. We were already exploring opportunities in New Orleans, and now we saw a chance to help with recovery.”
Mid-City’s Tulane Avenue — with its run-down hotels, 24-hour bail-bond agents and auto-repair shops — isn’t a neighborhood ready-made for high-yield investments, but Schwartz saw potential. The Domain Companies renovated single-family homes in the area and created The Preserve, The Crescent Club and The Meridian apartment complexes.
“We looked at Tulane Avenue as different than most people,” he says. “There weren’t many other areas in the city where you had a large concentration of developable sites, but, here, there was underutilized land where we could create larger-scale development. And if you look at Tulane Avenue from an aerial view, you’ll see it’s crossed by several major arteries—Carrollton, Claiborne, Broad and I-10—and it ends in the medical corridor where new jobs are being created.”
As New Orleans shifted from post-Katrina recovery mode to growth mode, The Domain Companies shifted its focus as well. The South Market District being built along the new Loyola Avenue streetcar line is the firm’s most ambitious project yet. Costing $250 million, it’s transforming an area of underused parking lots into 700 apartments and 200,000 square feet of retail space. Nearby, the firm is also converting an office building into a boutique hotel.
“There’s a better-educated, younger workforce that wants to live downtown,” he says. “But it’s not just young professionals.” “This area is where the jobs are now and where new ones are coming. It’s at the intersection of the Warehouse District, the CBD, and what’s becoming a sports-and-entertainment district around the Superdome. We were looking for sites downtown, and the construction of the streetcar line solidified this area for us.”
The expectation is that the South Market District will also become a city-wide destination. The high-end home décor store Arhaus Furniture has been announced as the first anchor tenant, and New Orleanians should expect many hip bars and restaurants to pop up in new spaces along Girod Street.
The Domain Companies is different than a lot of real estate developers in that it always manages its properties once they’re built, whereas other firms sell off properties to other companies after construction.
“We’re not looking to build and sell,” Schwartz says. “Our focus is on community development. We benefit from transformations in the communities over time, and our properties end up being worth more. There are a lot of ways to make money in real estate that are easier than what we do, but we care about New Orleans. We want to see the city thrive. We live here.”
The Domain Companies now has offices in both New York and New Orleans, with 25 percent of employees currently based in New Orleans. Schwartz and his family moved from Tribeca to the Garden District in 2011. Papamichael has come back too. More projects are in the works in New Orleans, and the firm has expanded its presence into Baton Rouge.
“I love this business,” Schwartz says. “I like the entrepreneurial aspect of it — the ability to see ideas come to fruition. It’s competitive and always challenging, but the payoff is seeing what you’ve created and the positive impact you’ve had on neighborhoods, communities and people’s lives.”