The Benson family owns a good bit of New Orleans, including two of its sports teams. After Hurricane Katrina, Rita Benson LeBlanc took the reins of her family’s endeavor to rebuild the city and revitalize its downtown real estate. Her most recent achievement is a restored high-rise that stands tall as a symbol of a more sustainable future: Benson Tower.
Only a certain type of executive straps on a mountain-climbing harness and rappels down the side of anoffice tower. Rita Benson LeBlanc is the type. The vice chairperson of the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Hornets, LeBlanc is hardly an amateur. She’s been rappelling down New Orleans real estate every year for some time in a fundraising stunt for the Special Olympics. When she had the opportunity to go down the side of the newly LEED-certified Benson Tower, which her family purchased four years after Hurricane Katrina, she knew the charity had to move its rappelling site to a higher and more harrowing plunge.
Now every September LeBlanc can be seen, strapped in, zipping down the side of the office tower that bears her family’s name—a building that is more than 400 feet tall, taller than a football field propped up on end. "This is another example of the excitement of life in New Orleans and how our friends inspire us to try things we would never dream of embarking to do on our own,” she says.
The Benson family is a colorful fixture in the city of New Orleans. Tom Benson, LeBlanc’s grandfather, was born and raised in the city and was the owner of several automobile dealerships before moving into banking and finally realizing a lifelong dream of purchasing the NFL’s Saints in 1985. "New Orleans is a part of our roots and our blood,” LeBlanc says. In 2012, the Benson family acquired the NBA’s Hornets franchise for more than $300 million.
Along the way, the Bensons have become major real estate developers and property owners in the city. LeBlanc is part of the executive team that manages the family’s real estate dealings, and in the tumultuous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Bensons began working with government entities to begin rebuilding parts of the city, which had a special interest in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the surrounding area, which included the office building now known as Benson Tower.
Many in New Orleans know the building by its former name, Dominion Tower. The Bensons purchased the 26-story office building in consort with a redevelopment deal the family made with the State of Louisiana. As a part of the deal, the state invested half a billion dollars of improvements for the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which had become an infamous symbol of mismanagement after the hurricane.
"In essence, the state agreed to invest in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome at the same time that we agreed to invest in the blighted property adjacent to the sports facilities on state property,” LeBlanc says. "The sports and entertainment district of New Orleans needed investment, and both sides had faith in the power of our fans and the recovery of our community.”
When the Benson team began the renovation of the 488,000-square-foot office building, which was left neglected and vacant four years post-Katrina, LeBlanc knew she wanted an efficient, sustainable approach and would be unsatisfied with a standard repurposing of the hurricane-battered structure. She set a high bar for its renovation. "Conservation and green design are a personal priority for me,” she says. "We made several design investments in order to have the first LEED-certified, high-rise commercial office tower in New Orleans. I hope that our efforts will inspire others to invest in efficient and environmentally friendly choices.”
The Benson family partnered with Woodward Design+Build to modernize the building and employ LEED standards while Holly & Smith Architects provided the design for the tenant space for both the State of Louisiana and Ochsner Health Systems.
Woodward used its experience of sustainable design and cost-benefit analysis to shape the team’s planning choices. Wesley J. Palmisano, vice president of operations at Woodward, says the Benson Tower redevelopment featured plenty of noticeable green elements, such as the green roof and finishes with high recycled content, but he says he’s most proud of the behind-the-scenes systems that made possible an almost 50 percent reduction in energy consumption. "The building’s existing MEP systems were outdated and inefficient,” he says. "We designed and installed a state-of-the-art central plant, new air-distribution systems, and all new lighting with occupancy sensors.”
LeBlanc is pleased with the building’s efficiency but believes there is additional work to be done. "I continue to conduct research on lighting technology and wall materials that consume less energy or create better sound solutions with environmentally friendly or recycled materials,” she says. "The challenge is finding products and companies while maintaining construction schedules and sourcing from a rapidly evolving sustainable construction and design industry.”
"We made several design investments in order to have the first LEED-certified, high-rise commercial office tower in New Orleans. I hope that our efforts will inspire others to invest in efficient and environmentally friendly choices.” -Rita Benson LeBlanc
Benson Tower now houses a host of state government agencies that were once spread around the city, providing greater efficiency and interaction. "These state entities have been brought together to strengthen the downtown area,” Rita says. "This movement of strength in unity to spur creation following adversity is a lesson we learn every day.” With the help of Corporate Realty, which was hired by the Benson family upon their acquisition of the property to lease and manage Benson Tower, the building is almost 100 percent leased with tenants such as the Ochsner Clinic Foundation, which leased more than 100,000 square feet for administrative and human resource operations, and a high-tech WVUE Fox 8 television studio, another Benson-owned entity.
As a part of the real estate deal the Bensons made with the state, the family also acquired the New Orleans Centre Mall attached to Benson Tower, directly across LaSalle Street from the Superdome. It demolished much of the shuttered mall and created an open-air area it renamed Champions Square. The space has been redesigned into an entertainment venue capable of hosting 8,000 guests for pregame festivities and year-round concert series.
"I always envisioned Champions Square as similar to the community nature of an Italian piazza and an oasis in the city,” LeBlanc says. "We have palm trees in the square and green walls along LaSalle Street. This is a place of game day excitement, community engagement, and peace during a casual workday stroll to food and parking.”
Benson Tower and Champions Square are key pieces in the effort to revitalize the downtown of New Orleans. The significance of the development is not lost on Mike Siegel, president of Corporate Realty. "Benson Tower is a real estate redevelopment project that rose out of the devastation of Katrina to become the catalyst for the redevelopment of the Poydras-Loyola corridor,” he says, and he believes Benson Tower will also lead the way to a greener future for New Orleans. "Realistically, receiving the LEED certification is a big deal today, but my expectation is that in the very near future virtually all new developments will be LEED certified.”
Siegel is quick to credit the Bensons as impresarios in the push for sustainable design in New Orleans. "It is not surprising that Tom Benson and his family, especially Rita Benson LeBlanc, who was advocating to make Benson Tower LEED certified, would also become leaders and advocates in the green movement,” he says.
Many believe that the post-Katrina era of New Orleans will come to be seen as a renaissance for the city and will show the true nature of its inhabitants. "There is an entrepreneurial, can-do spirit in New Orleans,” Siegel says. "This spirit, and the confidence and optimism that comes with this spirit, will help define New Orleans over the next generation.” With high-flying entrepreneurs like Rita Benson LeBlanc, the city can’t help but win.
Senior Program Director Enterprise Community Partners Inc.
Monica Gonzalez is senior program director for Enterprise Community Partners, Inc. Monica relocated to New Orleans in 2008 after three years in Enterprise’s San Antonio office. Based in New Orleans, where Enterprise has invested nearly $450 million in loans, grants and equity towards the production of over 12,000 affordable homes in Louisiana and Mississippi in the years following Hurricane Katrina. Monica manages Enterprise’s capacity building and technical assistance work in the region as well as managing the Enterprise Louisiana Loan Fund and coordinating resident services for Faubourg Lafitte. She works closely with nonprofit and for-profit affordable housing developers to integrate sustainable building practices into their projects with an emphasis on incorporating cost-effective solutions through the Enterprise Green Communities criteria.
Before joining Enterprise, Monica was the Associate Director of Guadalupe Home, a transitional home for women and children in San Antonio. She has worked with various populations including at risk youth, the homeless, and HIV/AIDS infected persons and families. She has a master's degree in social work from Our Lady of the Lake University and bachelor's degree in psychology from St. Mary's University in San Antonio, TX. Monica currently serves as Chair for USGBC Louisiana Board of Directors, chair for the Greater New Orleans American Heart Association’s Multicultural Initiatives Committee and is a member of Rotary Club of Mid-City New Orleans.
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