Land Use

Holy Cross community looks askance at proposed riverfront towers

Architect renderings of the proposed development show towers clustered at the riverfront edge of the property. credit: Perez

Renderings of the proposal show towers clustered at the riverfront edge of the property.

Greater Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church in the Lower 9th Ward’s Holy Cross neighborhood was the scene of a packed Valentine’s Day meeting—not quite a massacre, but no bouquet of roses either.

The fight over placing multi-story buildings along the riverfront—a recurrent theme in community politics around Audubon Park for some years—is breaking out on a new front: the campus of the former Holy Cross school located along the levee and bounded by Reynes and Deslondes streets and St. Claude Avenue.

Perez, the architecture and development firm behind the proposal,  has gone public with a plan that would include, in addition to low-rise buildings, two 13-story apartment towers far taller than allowed in a blueprint for the site developed through a community planning process.

The first part of a multi-phase project, the proposal calls for 181 residential units, 10,000 square feet of commercial space and parking for 349 cars—and that’s just for starters.

Perez’s Steven Massicot told a standing-room-only audience of 80 to 100 people that later phases might include another 130 units and additional parking for approximately 200 vehicles.

Perez executive Angela O’Byrne called the meeting “a good first step” saying that she and her colleagues took lots of notes. She said the developers will continue to work with the community.

The proposal is a far cry from what the neighbors envisioned in a yearlong $300,000 planning process initiated when the venerable Holy Cross School decamped for Gentilly and put the grounds and buildings up for sale.

Sarah DeBacher—she is on the board of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, but speaks as owner of an adjacent home—said she isn’t interested in looking out her kitchen window at a high-rise project. “What we were presented last night was hugely different from what was narrowly approved four years ago,” she said in a follow-up conversation with The Lens.

And what does this development do to address the abundance of “vacant and blighted housing” in Holy Cross, DeBacher asked. If the developer wanted to “open a dialogue with the community, this is a bad way to start,” she said.

The earlier planning process resulted in support for a zoning change—approved by a 13-10 vote of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association—to permit construction of a building 75 feet high. The plans presented Thursday night call for two connected 135-foot structures.

“In order to preserve green space, there is only one direction we can go, and that’s up,” O’Byrne said in defense of the towers.

Earlier plans also stressed that the Holy Cross community’s view of the levee and the school’s venerable administration building, with its graceful wrought-iron galleries, must be unobstructed. Current plans block the view.

The zoning variance sought by Perez would affect 7.7 acres of the 12.3 acres they are purchasing.* The impacted acreage is the part of the campus closest to the river, with additional zoning changes to be requested on the remaining acreage as the project progresses.

Gambit newspaper owner Clancy DuBos, a former member of the Holy Cross School board, spoke at the Thursday night meeting. He said he “thanked Jesus” when Perez Architects contacted the school about purchasing the site, because, Dubos said, they “get” the neighborhood.

Judging from the groans and gasps emitted when the plans went up on the screen, the developer may get the neighborhood, but the neighborhood does not seem to be getting with the plan.

Developers are scheduled to go before the City Planning Commission March 26. Final approval would require a vote of the City Council.

*Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated the acreage of the property in question. The error has been corrected.

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About 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 to guilty pleas in federal court. Her work attracted some of journalism's highest honors, including a Peabody Award, an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award and a gold medal from Investigative Reporters and Editors. She can be reached at (504) 606-6013.

  • Everybody I know and respect seems outraged at this proposal. The Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, along with a number of other groups in the Lower Nine have done tremendous, tireless work over the past seven-odd years bringing their neighborhood to where it is today. If they find it to be a breach of trust or threatening, I’m inclined to sympathize.

    That said, I’m typically for high-density development along the riverfront, regardless of where it is. If we’re going to add population in New Orleans (which I see as key to maintaining/growing a healthy tax-base, economic opportunity, a future for my kids), I feel like we should do it in a way that doesn’t tear existing city fabric, and is clustered on the highest (safest, least flood prone) part of town—whether that is Audubon Park, or the LGD or Holy Cross.

    Wouldn’t a major influx of population–and by extension, badly need stores and services–be exactly the thing to address the problem of vacant and blighted properties that Ms. DeBacher would like to see the developer focus on?

    Also, a couple questions about details, for Ms. Gadbois or anyone else:

    1. Was the planning process undertaken by the current owners of the property, or a former owner? Was it meant to guide the owner at the time, or any future owner?

    2. From which angles is the view of the administration building blocked? In the image, it seems like it would be visible, but I don’t visit the neighborhood very often so don’t have a good idea.

    3. Any information on the economics of building so many housing units in the Lower Ninth? I’m really surprised a developer thinks that would be a profit-turning endeavor.

  • I should also note that I don’t trust Perez to build anything beautiful. They have a pretty bad aesthetic track record IMO. Maybe that’s grounds enough to oppose.

  • karengadbois

    The planning process was sponsored by the Holy Cross School and they are still engaged in this project. There was no mention in the meeting of the economics of the project also seems there was a level of uncertainty about what type of housing, market rate,rentals or condo’s which will eventually be sold.

    There were a lot of unanswered questions.

    I think the “blocking” of the original building would happen if you were walking on the levee.

  • The current architectural landmark is the historic administration building, which is, I think, about 45 feet. You can see it in the diagram hiding behind the proposed new construction. But this diagram is from an airborne perspective. The actual highest point on their application is 142 feet, so this will tower above the admin building and, because the new stuff is in a horseshoe configuration, block the view from several angles.

  • …says the guy whose fake-grassroots “Neighborland” business teamed with developers to try and shove zoning changes down the Bywater’s throat. Your principled reservations about this CTC project must mean that nobody involved with it has paid your consulting fee, as those who wanted to Starbuckify the Wiltz Gym did…

  • karengadbois

    This comment was emailed to The Lens by Clancy DuBos and is posted here as a comment :

    Karen, thanks very much for your thoughtful article about the planning process for the old Holy Cross School site. I don’t normally comment on news stories, but in this case I wanted to clarify two things that have been mentioned in the “Comments” section. First, in your comment immediately above, you state that HC School remains “engaged in this project.” I fear that some might interpret that statement to mean that the school has a long-term financial or other stake in the Perez plan, which is not correct. Holy Cross School still owns the property, which is the subject of a purchase agreement with Perez, but the plan unveiled on Feb. 14 (as I stated at the meeting) is “all Perez.” As the owner of the property, Holy Cross School is required by law to formally submit proposed zoning changes or similar applications at City Hall on behalf of a prospective buyer such as Perez, even though that process is being driven by the prospective buyer. To that extent, Holy Cross will remain engaged in the PROCESS, but not the project itself. I’m not trying to be hyper-technical, but I do want to make sure there’s no misunderstanding in the community about the nature and extent of Holy Cross School’s role in all this. The school has long enjoyed a very close relationship with its neighbors in the Lower 9, and we cherish that relationship. I was at the meeting on Feb. 14 to observe the process on behalf of the school and to answer any questions that anyone might have of Holy Cross School.

    The other clarification I’d like to make concerns a statement below by Mr. Foster, who wrote that the height of the historic HC Administration Building is about 45 feet. The current height is actually 70+ feet, at the top of the 4th-story stairwell. The historic building (erected in 1895) originally had a 5th-floor bell tower, which was badly damaged by a hurricane in the 1960s and never rebuilt. The land-use plan jointly written by Holy Cross School and the neighborhood association in 2007-08 called for rebuilding the bell tower as part of a historic restoration of the Admin Building. Perez proposes to rebuild the 5th-floor bell tower in accordance with that plan, which would give the Admin Building a height of 85 feet. I make this clarification solely in the interest of getting accurate information out to the public.

    Thanks again for your coverage of this important process.

  • Hi, Clancy! My confusion on the height comes from the diagrams submitted by Perez. Although they don’t specify the height of the administration building, they do note the lowest portion of the new project at 68 feet, and the diagram seems to show that height of 68 feet to be two stories higher than the administration building. Perhaps there’s an error on that diagram, which they chose not to present at the meeting, or in my eyes, which are admittedly bad.

  • Holy Cross went under, remember? That riverfront view the developer’s lust for is of the Mississippi. Which floods. Sean Cumming’s $30 million invisible Riverfront park was underwater last March. These people are moneychangers, interested in exploiting our commonwealth and resources for their personal advancement. And if they offer a ‘community center’ as an incentive – feed them to the crabs. They are thieves.

  • Come and take a long hard look at the rear of Colton school on the 2400 block of N. Rampart, in the Faubourg Marigny Historic district.