This was a good week for both the history and the future of an important block in downtown. The 500 block of Milam Street sits in the heart of the Central Business District. Across from the Caddo Parish Courthouse, for 60 years it was the home to the Rubenstein’s Department Store. For the past 35 years, though, the two buildings that made up the department store- the Rubenstein and Lanford Buildings- have sat vacant. That will now be changing. On Tuesday, June 21, the Downtown Shreveport Development Corporation (DSDC) hosted a press conference to introduce the new owner of the buildings, Isaiah Lee, General Contractor and owner of Leeson Real Estate Investment Firm.
Lee came back to Shreveport nine years ago and immediately started making a name for himself in local residential real estate. Over the years, Lee and his crew at Leeson Real Estate have rehabbed nearly 200 mostly historic and mostly much-maligned properties, many of them in the Highland neighborhood just south of Downtown. To say that Lee has no fear of old structures would be an understatement. He both understands them and loves them. He also respects the history of these ‘elders.’
In 2019, the DSDC was gifted the Rubenstein and Lanford buildings through a donation. The buildings were ‘free,’ but terribly compromised. In addition to serious roof leaks and years of water intrusion, the buildings had no working systems. It had also become the repository of tons of huge and heavy broken commercial kitchen appliances, car parts, doors, unusable furniture, and boxes of junk, all of which was moved into the buildings back when the elevators were functional.
Though DSDC (along with sister organization the Downtown Development Authority) had rehabbed – and found partners for multiple downtown buildings- 617 Texas Street (Robinson Film Center), 708 Texas Street (artspace), 416 Cotton Street (DDA office) – and others, they knew that this project was too large for them to handle. They hired a company to clean the junk out, and an electrician to wire the building for construction electricity and then, went to find the person who COULD bring the buildings back to life. That person was Lee.
DSDC’s Liz Swaine called Lee after seeing his work on social media and hearing glowing reports about his drive, desire and ability. He responded quickly, toured the buildings a number of times and crunched the numbers. He talked to investors and partners and laid out a plan.
That plan, announced this week, involves reconfiguring the space in the 4- story (and full basement) Rubenstein and 3-story (and full basement) Lanford into 36-40 rental units, both traditional apartments and Airbnb-type units, commercial space on the ground floor for commercial/restaurant/office space, 45 paid self storage units and a small rental ballroom-type area for up to 75 people. Lee recently told KEEL Radio that he is willing to ‘put money where his mouth is’ and that is no small thing. The cost of the project is expected to be $8 million-plus.
At the press conference, Lee talked about the potential of the buildings, the beauty of the location, the knowledge that the block is, in effect, the ‘town square’ of Shreveport. He is right on every count. This is not the end of the story. There are many plans still to finalize and decisions to be made. He will no doubt encounter challenges, as does everyone on projects such as these. But Lee sees what can be done with the space and is thrilled at the potential.
Lee has already pulled permits and gotten approvals for the needed emergency repairs to weather in the building and make it water tight. Next will be the process of finalizing the scope of work to apply for state and federal historic tax credits. It is a process that takes time, and he has given himself and his team two to three years to complete the Rubenstein-Lanford Apartments project.
Those speaking at the press conference; Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins, downtown councilperson LeVette Fuller, and the DDA/DSDC’s Swaine, talked about the importance of a vibrant downtown, the importance of saving and repurposing our historic buildings, the tax base and additional foot traffic the project will bring. Lee himself spoke about the full circle the sale brings to his family. In the 1960s, his grandmother worked at Rubenstein’s. She had moved to Shreveport from a northern state and had the accent to prove it. Lee said that her job was not a good experience, that people treated her as an outsider. He smiled as he shook his fist and said ‘We got revenge, Grandma. We bought the building!’
Grandma may be happy, but others are, too. It is a good thing for all, but especially to the buildings that not that long ago faced a very real threat of demolition. We congratulate Isaiah, his partners and employees and investors, and look forward to a happy ending to this already wonderful story.