The former Market Street power plant sits on the Mississippi River between the high-demand New Orleans Warehouse District and the Lower Garden District. The power plant was constructed by the New Orleans Railway and Light Company and opened in 1905, producing power for the city of New Orleans that same year. A local newspaper billed it as “the largest electrical generating plant in the South.” The enormous brick building encompasses over 160,000-square-feet with its towering twin smokestacks and crumbling industrial façade. It began as one building and expanded over the decades. Within the building footprint are seven individual buildings, interconnected with various floor sizes. Its turn-of-the-century design offers no frills, giving off a decaying utilitarian steampunk vibe. Plant workers faced a hostile, dangerous environment each day from the unbearable heat and steam. With hot surfaces all around, injuries happened regularly.
In 1922, the New Orleans Public Service, Inc., merged with numerous power companies and acquired the facility. NOPSI deemed that all power to the city of New Orleans would be produced by Market Street power plant. The generating station supplied power by burning coal and using the waters of the Mississippi River for cooling. Coal was burned in a boiler to produce steam under tremendous pressure which flows into a turbine, spinning a generator to produce electricity. The steam is then cooled, condensed back into water and returned to the boiler to start the process over. From 1926 to 1939 – an era dominated by the Great Depression – electrical usage in the city increased 400% while the number of customers barely doubled. During that same period the cost of electricity fell 72%, so the average residential user’s total electric bill remained about the same despite the huge increase in consumption. This reduction in cost is attributable to efficiencies of new technology and economies of scale. While the city’s demand for electricity grew at an enormous rate, the city’s entire generating capacity continued to be housed at the Market Street power plant until the 1940s. Since the late 1960s, NOPSI has experienced a lack of growth, and no further generating capability has been added.
After generating power for more than 65 years, Market Street last produced power in 1973, then it became a backup source. The plant officially closed in 1984, cited for numerous environmental violations. The property is currently a brownfield site, loaded with asbestos and other types of contaminants that have yet to be removed. The massive five-story building has sat abandoned since it closed. Over the decades, the power house has become a haven for homeless, looters and vandals. The building has mostly been stripped of anything of considerable value, but many industrial relics from the past remain; like monster overhead cranes and rooms full of electrical gauges. Copious amounts of graffiti cover the interior and exterior adding a colorful, artistic touch to an otherwise cold, raw building.
The building and surrounding property was purchased by Baltimore developer Edward Giannasca for the outrageous price of $10 million shortly after Hurricane Katrina. At the time, apartment developers valued the site at $4-5 million. It was an offer the owner, Entergy, could not refuse. The money to purchase the building came from insurance proceeds on another building, Plaza Tower, owned by a partnership of Giannasca and retired Baltimore Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary. Since he was not informed of the diverted use of the proceeds, McCrary claimed fraud. McCrary sued Giannasca and was awarded $33 million by a Baltimore court which was overturned on appeal. Subsequently, McCrary became dependent on drugs, his wife filed for divorce and a protective order.
There are expectations it will one day become a retail center with Bass Pro as the major tenant. The first step in bringing the power plant back into commerce is to resolve its financial problems, since the owners filed bankruptcy in 2009. The property has a claim by MCC Group, a large contractor, and Market Street Ventures, which holds the first mortgage, as well as Market Street Trust which has a claim for $6.5 of the $19 million in debt being restructured.
After the proposed development never moved forward, Market Street was foreclosed and sold to developer Joe Jaeger in September 2015. At this point, there is no start or completion date as the project remains idle. Jaeger is currently focused on the development of the nearby Trade District that sits between the power plant and convention center. He says he plans to incorporate the power plant development with the Trade District project. In recent years, the plant has often been used as a filming location for movies and television shows.