Photo: Sean Cummings

Sean Cummings wants to reinterpret New Orleans for today.

Photograph by Brian Perkins

By Keith Bellows

A New Orleans entrepreneur helps guide the rebirth of his city after Katrina.

Sean Cummings doesn't think small. The New Orleans native, known for developing cutting-edge hotels and condos, has lately taken on one of the biggest challenges of his career. The massive redevelopment project he now heads, called Reinventing the Crescent, will rejuvenate six miles of riverfront property, including some just off the French Quarter. Cummings prides himself on bringing modern flair to his projects while preserving their historical roots. A graduate of Brown University with a degree in economics and urban studies, he won praise for a pair of boutique hotels he developed in New Orleans, International House and Loft 523. "Fourteen of the real estate development projects I've done have been adaptive reuses of historic buildings," says Cummings. "This sort of thing is almost second nature to me."

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, what's happened in New Orleans that the media isn't reporting? What's been missed is an important underlying trend—that New Orleans is morphing into America's boutique city. And what a well-executed boutique hotel is to a fairly antiseptic traditional hotel, New Orleans is to the typical American city.

So what makes New Orleans special? The great cities in the world are less and less places where we must go for a job and increasingly places where we choose to visit or live because of the quality of life. And New Orleans is in the quality of life business. It's a geographically compact city where office space and housing are cheap, relatively speaking. It is ferreting out systemic public corruption. It's accomplished the most comprehensive overhaul of a public school system in the country. It's in the process of reinventing six miles of its riverfront. And it has playoff caliber NBA and NFL teams.

Plus there's the city's famous cultural heritage, right? Certainly. It's given us Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr., and before them Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson, and great chefs who have seeded the nation's kitchens, and artists who have populated the nation's performance halls. Today, the creative class is flocking to this city in numbers I've never seen before. The aftermath of Katrina is that New Orleans is reinventing itself as a more prosperous place by recruiting entrepreneurs. They love our restaurants and bars. Office space is cheaper than in New York, San Francisco, or Boston. We've got cheaper lofts and residences, so folks can have a high quality of life on a start-up wage. New Orleans is like a smaller Seattle, a great waterfront city with a terrific music scene and great artisan community.

What can other cities learn from New Orleans as it re-creates itself? They have to ask, "What do we stand for and what can we be the best at? Where do we have a competitive advantage?" In the case of New Orleans, it really is food, music, architecture, the climate, and the funky culture. Other communities might lack some of the authenticity or the patina of New Orleans, but that same thinking would be helpful to any community.

Tell us about the Reinventing the Crescent Project. It's a $300-million transformation of the New Orleans riverfront from traditional cargo sheds and maritime commerce to a smart infrastructure that will allow the city to flourish in the early part of the 21st century. It ranges from new cruise ship terminals to an applied research institute focusing on New Orleans's proximity to the Mississippi River. It's meant as mostly open public space and will provide performance venues. We've hired the best riverfront design team in the world to inspire New Orleaneans, to remind them of their greatness and what New Orleans stands for. The idea is that we want to make a break with the past. The city has rested on its laurels for too long. We want to say that this is indeed a new New Orleans. It's not losing its signature sense of place or culture but it is expressing it in a new time.

How is the project coming? We'll break ground for the first $30 million of the project in late summer, with the first phase being complete in 2011 and the entire six miles before 2018, when New Orleans celebrates its 300th birthday.

Do you feel a sense of social responsibility that goes beyond just trying to reclaim a city? Yes. If you drill down on what really makes New Orleans tick, it is this mix of the new and things that have been bequeathed through the generations. On the riverfront, David Adjaye is building a new nondenominational contemplative sanctuary on an old work structure. Michael Maltzan is designing a contemporary walking ramp and viewing platforms that take the pedestrian up and over a bit of industrial railroad and through a 120-year-old work shed. We're expressing a new time but also incorporating into the design architectural artifacts that allow one to feel part of the continuum of human life.

Have you seen significant changes in the way we're traveling now? Folks are taking shorter trips, and they want their hotel to be part of the quality of life experience that traveling represents. The hotel stay is almost as important as the compelling reason for actually going to a destination.

What has changed about boutique hotels in the last five or six years? Large players like Starwood and Marriott have gotten involved. And because there's an increased supply in designed hotels, the public has more of an appreciation for what's well done and not much tolerance for projects that have been sort of thrown together.

Who are your heroes? Far and away, Steve Jobs. He recognized the power of design to uplift the human spirit and differentiate his commercial offering from others. He hired a team of people with uncommon capabilities and placed himself as the editor-in-chief. That's my job at International House and at Reinventing the Crescent, to be that guardian of the idea.

Keith Bellows is the editor of Traveler.

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