When people talk about good things happening in downtown New Orleans, the name Marcel Wisznia, AIA, tends to come up. That's because this local architect/developer has completed one of the few projects built there since Hurricane Katrina—The Union Lofts, a mixed-use renovation in the Central Business District. Leasing the ground floor to a bank tenant, Wisznia and his staff converted the second through fourth floors of the former Western Union telegraph operating station into 33 furnished rental apartments with flat-screen TVs, 10-foot to 14-foot ceilings, and a rooftop deck.
Wisznia inherited his penchant for real estate development from his late father, Corpus Christi, Texas, architect and sometime-developer Walter Wisznia. Architecture school at Tulane lured Marcel to New Orleans, where he eventually joined with his father and opened a second branch of Wisznia Associates. Since Katrina, the firm has focused almost exclusively on designing and developing its own projects. Currently, Wisznia is transforming the historic Maritime Building into offices for his firm, ground-floor commercial space, and 105 rental apartments, and he has more adaptive-reuse work on the boards. “We've created a formula that uses tax credits as an equity source, [placing] modern infill in historic buildings,” he explains. “You have to own the building for five years to use the tax credit, so we rent them out for the first five years.”
His enthusiasm for adaptive reuse stems, in part, from the fact that the upper floors of downtown buildings sit safely above Katrina's flood line. But another disaster-planning strategy intrigues him: the idea of housing designed to face flooding, not avoid it. Wisznia Associates' Robert Asistent is working on a prototype for a house with an aluminum-and-steel space frame light enough to float atop stormwaters. With the firm's backing, he's also developing portable emergency housing prototypes. Wisznia clearly accepts one of the central truths of the post-Katrina landscape: For New Orleans to overcome catastrophe, its architects, builders, and developers must think differently than they did before the storm.