Brad Pitt's Make It Right venture turns 10
By DOUG MACCASH
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Ten years ago in the summer of 2008, work began on one of the most daring post-Hurricane Katrina recovery projects, movie star Brad Pitt's architecturally avant-garde Make It Right neighborhood in the Lower 9th Ward. Most of the strikingly angular homes still glitter like pastel gemstones, but the project's 10-year anniversary is tainted by an obvious example of blight.
The multimillion-dollar venture began in 2006 when Pitt, an architecture enthusiast and social activist, employed his immeasurable celebrity clout to propose a neighborhood that would replace the one that had been washed away by water escaping the Industrial Canal during the Aug. 29, 2005, storm.
Pitt enlisted some of the world's great dwelling designers in the project, including the legendary Shigeru Ban, Thom Mayne and Frank Gehry, all of whom have won Prizker Prizes - the architectural equivalent of an Oscar.
With Pitt's encouragement, the top-flight designers drew up forward-thinking, environmentally sound, storm-safe, solar-powered, highly insulated homes. Make It Right was meant to not only replace some of the lost housing, but also to demonstrate how to produce homes that would help mitigate some of the environmental issues that precipitate the storms in the first place.
Those innovative homes would be paid for in part by the future occupants who would receive affordable resettlement financing, as well as government grants and donations from Make It Right. In summer 2008, a cacophony of pile drivers, circular saws and nail guns heralded the start of construction of the first batch of designs.
Not everyone approved. Onlookers scoffed that the homes were too odd, too mod and too expensive to build. Make It Right unfairly stole the spotlight from other more modest, more sensible home building projects, some said. Underlying it all, Make It Right had brought change to a storm-shocked city that was petrified of change.
Despite the naysayers, the leading man Pitt succeeded in the role of architectural savant. More than 100 extraordinary homes eventually rose along Deslonde, Tennessee, Reynes and other streets in the area. They were occupied by displaced 9th Ward residents, first responders and teachers. The average sale price was an altruistic $150,000, which was considerably less than the buildings cost.
Mary Picot moved into a Make It Right home with a swooping, wave-shaped shade wall above the porch with her husband Michael in 2009. In a 2012 interview, she said there was no downside to her family's decision to move back via Make It Right.
"That's my daily prayer," she said. " 'Thank you, Lord, for putting us back in a home.' "
A post-K tourist destination
Amid a surge of interest in the post-Katrina Crescent City, the Make It Right site became a tourist attraction, with busloads of visitors rumbling through the rutted streets snapping photos of the audacious replacement architecture.
"I get this swell of pride when I see this little oasis of color and the solar panels," Pitt said in 2015 of the Make It Right enclave. "I drive into the neighborhood and I see people on their porch, and I ask them how is their house treating them? And they say, 'Good.' And I say what's your utility bill? And they'll throw something out like, '24 bucks' or something, and I feel fantastic.
"It's a reminder of why we're there. It's a reminder of why we push like we push. It makes it all worthwhile."
In the intervening decade, the trees have grown, the occupants have taken liberties in decorating their homes, and what once felt a bit like an architectural exhibit has a softer neighborhood feel. But the heady days when neighbors might catch a glimpse of Benjamin Button bicycling through the development to lay eyes on the project he'd fathered are fading in memory.
In 2014 Make It Right was forced to spend an average of $12,000 on each of 39 homes to replace environmentally friendly weatherproof lumber called TimberSIL that was meant to hold up for decades but began deteriorating more swiftly. Make It Right sued the lumber company for $500,000, though it's unclear if TimberSIL was made to pay.
According to figures Make It Right provided in 2015, the houses had cost $26.8 million to build at that point. The nonprofit's 2015 tax forms list an overall loss that year of $2.5 million.
In 2017, when a Make It Right house was offered for sale at a mere $85,000, due to a bank foreclosure, a Make It Right spokesperson declined to answer any questions about the state of the project, and would not state the number of houses that had been constructed. In 2015, the group declared 109 were completed (two may have been added since). Construction has now ceased, and Make It Right did not reach its goal of 150.
The North Derbigny derelict
Despite bumps in the road, for most of the residents the redevelopment is still a boon. But the project's 10th birthday is tainted by a moldering eyesore at 5012 N. Derbigny St.
Built just seven years ago, the space-age shotgun house was once a spare, handsome rectangle surrounded by wooden trellises to provide shade. But the long-unoccupied building has become a tattered loaf of rotting wood, fraying tarp and ominous open doorways.
Some Make It Right residents see the wreck as a worst-case result of the failed weatherproof lumber that plagued many of the eye-catching experimental houses and, perhaps, other flaws.
According to a permit granted by the city in 2015, Make It Right called on architect John C. Williams to plan a renovation that would replace the wooden stairs, porches and trellises on the North Derbigny Street house. More importantly, the $81,000 project would remove the flat roof and replace it with a sloped one, to better shed rain.
Williams has been with the Make It Right venture from the beginning, overseeing construction of most of the dwellings. His firm's website lists him as the executive architect for Make It Right.
"We've got quite a few houses with flat roofs that have done well," Williams said in a recent telephone conversation.
But the roof at 5012 N. Derbigny wasn't among them. Williams said the roof may have leaked for a variety of possible reasons including "materials, execution, or climate." Whatever the cause, Williams decided to replace the flat roof with a slightly sloped roof in his redesign.
Because most of the exterior wooden features are now absent from the 5012 N. Derbigny St. building, and the roof seems to have been heavily coated with tarp at one time (now conspicuously shredded), the project was apparently begun. But it was obviously never finished. Williams said he doesn't know why.
Williams acknowledges that one or two of the Make It Right buildings "may be falling apart" but he hopes that doesn't overshadow the vast majority of homes (he counts 111 all together) that pioneered healthy, recyclable construction techniques. He pointed out that "there are people who come to New Orleans for the sole reason of seeing the houses" and that contractors across the city became skilled in futuristic building techniques during the project.
Williams said that "theoretically we've got 39 more houses to build." He said he hopes Make It Right "finishes strong."
But the forlorn property at 5012 N. Derbigny St. might symbolize the state of the Make It Right organization, which has become a ghost, with a disconnected phone line, out-of-date website, and spotty contact with the neighborhood's residents.
"Where is Mr. Pitt?" said Doris Wyman, a Make It Right home owner. "I wonder, if he saw that house, what would be the first words out of his mouth?"
Wyman, who works in retail sales, said that despite a few minor maintenance issues over the years, she loves her Make It Right house, loves the neighborhood, and the whole Lower 9 for that matter. She says she's the sort of person who picks up litter on Claiborne Avenue to keep the area tidy for passersby. The ruined house reflects badly on the whole Make It Right concept, she said.
"It was their vision," she said. It was up to Make It Right to ensure that "the contractors and materials were on par."
Blowing the whistle
Make It Right resident Constance Fowler's opinion is similar to Doris Wyman's. The former teacher loves her Make It Right house. The porch is rotting a little, but Fowler says basically her home is sound. Like Wyman, she said she's beholden to Make It Right, because, without the nonprofit organization, both women said they might never have been able to afford to buy a house.
But Fowler can't abide the crumbling North Derbigny Street structure, which was originally designed by the Philadelphia architecture firm Kieran Timberlake. She sees it as a hazard, fearing that mold contamination might be escaping its open windows. Fowler said she watched the deteriorating house, which was surrounded by construction materials, go unattended for a year before she blew the whistle, reporting it to the city for multiple code violations.
The ongoing neglect of the house and Fowler's inability to regularly contact Make It Right compelled her to call media attention to the trouble.
Calling Make It Right
According to Orleans Parish assessor's records, Make It Right sold the then-new North Derbigny house in 2011 to Reginald Moliere of Little Rock, Ark., for $140,000. It has not changed hands since. And now its days may be numbered. Writing for The Lens, Karen Gadbois reported on a code enforcement hearing at City Hall in April that may have sealed the fate of the house.
According to Gadbois, a member of Moliere's family named Alexander told the hearing officer "that he and his wife were living there in 2015 when his wife started having health problems related to mold. They learned the roof was leaking. They contacted Make It Right, which had provided warranties with the homes, and arrangements were made for repairs."
Those repairs were apparently the $81,000 renovation mentioned above. Why the repairs weren't completed remains a mystery. But based on a building permit application filed with the city, Make It Right has contracted Northshore General Contractors to demolish the building for a fee of $8,310, pending final municipal approval.
Make It Right did not respond to requests for comment.