By Karen Gadbois, The Lens staff writer

The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority should be developing houses not demolishing them, said two City Council members this week, as they considered a demolition request from the agency and a potential new owner.

“I thought you were the Redevelopment Authority not the Bulldozer Authority,” Councilwoman Stacy Head told two top officials of the agency during a contentious exchange at Thursday’s council meeting.

Council members usually consider a passel of zoning matters at each regular meeting, most of them mundane and minor to the general public.

But Head and Councilwoman Kristen Gisleson Palmer seized on the demolition request during a recent meeting to release some frustration with NORA, the quasi-city agency tasked with moving state-purchased, Katrina-damaged properties back into commerce.

Two top NORA officials explained that the Neighborhood Conservation District Committee – the first line of review for demolitions in most of the city – denied the request to raze the house, and they asked the council to overturn that decision. Jasmine Haralson, a NORA liaison to other government agencies, was joined by the authority’s chief, Executive Director Joyce Wilkerson, in making the pitch.

They said their successful Lot Next Door program, which gives right of first refusal to adjacent property owners, had a buyer for the property at 2529-31 Marengo St. However, the buyer didn’t want to be saddled with the building and its significant renovation costs.

2529-31 Marengo St.

Head insisted that there must be other options. The house is in her district, and she said she’s familiar with the area, which she said is on an “intact block full of beautiful houses.

She suggested the cost of demolition be given to the new owner to help with renovations.

The potential buyer, Annette Vaandrager, said she was given a $200,000 estimate to renovate the house, which she called “ugly and huge.” Even if she received the $8,000 set to pay for demolition – an unusual move that would require state approval, Haralson said – the money wouldn’t go very far.

Vaandrager said she signed a contract with NORA in September 2009 but has had to nag the authority to move on the sale.

The pre-Katrina owners took advantage of the state’s Road Home program, selling it to the state for $84,000. Vaandrager is set to buy it for $30,000, which Haralson said is the value of the land.

The council voted 5-0 to deny the demolition, with two members absent.

Gisleson Palmer, who has a background in preservation, joined Head in asking for a list of unsold  properties under NORA’s control. Gisleson Palmer said said she asked for such a list 90 days ago and has still not received it, despite assurances that she would have it in 30 days.

Gisleson Palmer asked whether NORA could auction these properties, and no one had an answer.

In a recent council Disaster and Recovery Committee meeting, Gisleson Palmer asked NORA  “to explore the possibilities of auctioning a small control group,” a move she characterized as “a great start in the overall effort to provide methods of home ownership while strengthening our communities.”

She said constituents in her Algiers neighborhood were clamoring for an auction of the 20 or so NORA properties in the area.

A report issued last week by the state’s Legislative Auditor said NORA is struggling to move these properties and, as a result, the state wouldn’t be able to close down a portion of the Road Home program by the May 31 deadline. The report said NORA wasn’t alone, though, with the similar agency in St. Bernard Parish moving slowly as well. The two parishes account for more than 99 percent of the properties still in the state program.

In an e-mail exchange after the meeting, Ommeed Sathe, NORA’s director of real estate strategy and redevelopment, said the agency has closed on about 800  properties, with 655 pending. Most are in the council districts that include hard-hit areas of Lakeview, Gentilly, eastern New Orleans and the 9th Ward, he said.

The state has more than 3,000 more Orleans Parish properties to send to NORA.

Karen Gadbois

Karen Gadbois co-founded The Lens. She now covers New Orleans government issues and writes about land use. With television reporter Lee Zurik she exposed widespread misuse of city recovery funds and led...