Neighbors had heard rumors that a concrete-batching plant might be coming, but were surprised and angered to wake up one day to the sound of pile driving.
“I knew something was up when the owner of the property, Jonas Johnson, started to erect a fence,” said Marietta Ruffins, who for 49 years has lived near the site in New Orleans’ Zion City neighborhood. Working without city permits, Johnson installed a metal perimeter fence in the middle of the block, and not long after the fence went up the pile driving began.
Johnson had signed a lease/purchase agreement with a Chalmette-based company called Landrieu Concrete and Cement Industries to construct the batching plant, an industrial facility where cement and other ingredients are mixed just before its delivery to a construction site.
Ruffins and her neighbor Ruby Johnson, who is not related to Jonas Johnson, are concerned that the construction of the plant, as well as the constant truck traffic once it’s up and running, will damage their homes. The women had learned that the batching plant is likely to entail 13 to 15 deliveries a day. “And they never said what time they are going to stop,” Ruby Johnson said.
Ruffins, who works night shift at a bread factory, said the sound of pile driving was so loud that she had to sleep on the sofa in the front of the house to escape it. “Jonas is the only problem we have back here,” she said. “First it was manure, then it was helicopters, and now this,” she said referring to earlier projects Johnson has attempted to create in the area: a stable and later a helipad.
The site of the proposed batching plant is the 1200 block of South Dupre Street, just off Earhart Boulevard near South Jefferson Davis Parkway. Zoned “light industrial,” the site is in the middle of a block that was originally residential, but over the years has been encroached upon by commercial uses.
Ruby Johnson, widowed since March, is in her late 70’s. Retired after 32 years working at Charity Hospital, she said she would like to be relaxing at home, not worrying about a noisy industry moving in next door. “We call and report the work going on but nothing happens,” she said.
City zoning allows a batching plant, according to Tyler Gamble, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration. But the law contains constraints, Gamble said.
“Batching operations must be temporary in nature and are required to cease no later than one year from commencement,” he said. He added that proposed amendments to the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance would allow for the neighborhood to be zoned strictly for residential use.
Last month, at the behest of City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, Jonas Johnson’s parcel was placed within an “interim zoning district,” which froze its status as “light industrial” for one year. That blocked any further construction of the batching plant. Cantrell told The Lens she acted after learning that Johnson had failed to secure city permits for the work already under way.
A recent community meeting with Renee Landrieu, owner of Landrieu Concrete and Cement Industries, brought out neighbors who voiced fear about facing dust, fumes and constant truck traffic from the batching plant. The meeting was organized by the New Zion City Preservation Association, led by Cynthia Harris.
A memorandum issued by the city’s Department of Safety and Permits to Renee Landrieu’s attorney, Justin Schmidt, confirmed that a concrete-batching plant is permitted in a light-industrial zone, but did not specify that the permit would be temporary.
Landrieu, a cousin of the mayor, said she thought that the memorandum confirming the batching plant as a permitted use meant she didn’t have to get permits to install the equipment. It was only when her company sought permits for a work trailer that the company discovered Cantrell had placed the property within an interim zoning district.
“One motion of the council and you have this type of thing happening,” Landrieu said in an interview. “I have $200,000 of equipment laying on the ground with a bank note to pay.”
She said she feels caught in the middle: “Maybe people don’t like Jonas or they don’t like my cousin Mitchell; maybe that is why this is happening.”
Accompanied by a number of her employees, Landrieu opened the meeting by telling the crowd that her company was certified as a “disadvantaged business enterprise,” a status that allows for special consideration when seeking work from the city. She said she needs a batching plant in New Orleans in order to execute government contracts the company has secured here.
“We are bringing commerce to a neighborhood that looked stuck,” Landrieu told the crowd. She added that she had been working with Cantrell since May, but “too many people got involved and communication broke down.”
Landrieu told the crowd that she believed Johnson was working on community outreach, but a number of residents said the outreach consisted of Johnson knocking on doors and telling people there was nothing they could do to stop the project.
Jonas Johnson did not return calls seeking comment, nor did anyone answer the door at the address where he claims a homestead exemption in New Orleans.
Company manager Russ Walker followed Landrieu in seeking to calm an increasingly emotional crowd. He said the South Dupre site brings the concrete works much closer to two key construction projects: the new McDonogh 35 high school and overhaul of the Guste public housing development. Travel time from Chalmette to Guste is more than half an hour; from the South Dupre site, five minutes, Walker said.
With the crowd losing patience, Cantrell called for order. “Let’s get through the presentation,” she said.
Cantrell stressed that she had not seen the plans, and that in spite of having met with the developer she was not informed that work had begun until she was contacted by Harris in mid-October.
On Oct. 22, 12 days after the City Council approved the interim zoning district, the city sent out an inspector. A week later, Landrieu received a permit for the work being done — a permit that was revoked later that day at Cantrell’s behest.
The crowd was not placated. “Are you getting the strong vibe that you need to go to another location?” one audience member asked company executives.
The batching plant is not the first time Jonas Johnson has been crosswise with his neighbors. Before Hurricane Katrina, he built a five-stall horse stable on a lot across from where he wants to build the batching plant. Then-City Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt changed the zoning on the parcel from “light industrial” to “residential RD-2.” That scotched the stable; the property is now used as a parking lot for tractor-trailers.
Johnson was more recently in the news when The Lens wrote about the helicopter landing pad he was operating on the lot where he had wanted to put the stable. Paul May, the city’s former director of Safety and Permits, blamed one of his employees for looking at the wrong map when the department granted Johnson permission to land aircraft in the residential neighborhood.
Johnson, who owns most of the block, is behind on his property taxes on every parcel. All told, he owes about $67,000 on 24 properties he owns citywide, according to the Orleans Parish Assessor’s Office.
Gamble said the city does not have the legal means to deny a permit based on non- payment of taxes.
In an interview with The Lens, Cantrell said she had met with Renee Landrieu in July and outlined the steps the company and the landowner would have to take to secure a permit for the batching plant — steps Cantrell said Jonas Johnson ignored, prompting her to bring the project to a temporary halt.
Landrieu said that Cantrell led her to the proposed site and told her, “I am all for this under the right circumstances.” Cantrell denied that she helped choose the site but said she had agreed to support the plant if the surrounding community were included in the review process.
Cantrell said she was proud of the neighborhood’s grassroots leadership and its vision for the area. She called use of the interim zoning district a bold move to protect residents after the developer ignored an initial request to seek community input.
Asked if the relationship between the mayor and his cousin Renee Landrieu affected how the city made its decisions regarding the site, Gamble responded, “The City expects property owners and permit holders across the board to comply with the municipal code and to follow the processes administered by Safety and Permits.”
Renee Landrieu said she is waiting for the neighborhood to reconvene and meet with her company. In the meantime, she questioned whether immediate neighbors are truly opposed to the project. After reviewing the sign-in sheets from the last meeting, she believes most of those in attendance live blocks from the site.