Members of the St. Roch community were anxiously awaiting the city-sponsored auction of an old auto parts store on St. Claude Avenue. They imagined the property would be preserved to reflect the character and scale of the neighborhood — in the spirit of the nearby St. Roch Market.
Several developers sympathetic to that view were in the audience hoping to purchase the building.
Now, the community is questioning why, in December 2011, the property was yanked off the auction block at the last minute and sold for peanuts to a developer with a very different idea in mind: replacing the barge-board camelback with a small strip mall.
To take the property off the auction block, Joyce Wilkerson, then-executive director of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, resorted to a little-known device in state law — a so-called “priority bid.” It enabled her to circumvent public bidding and sell it to the owner of a neighboring St. Claude Avenue gas station.
Troy Henry, owner and operator of the Shell station, Infinity Fuels, paid $19,000, plus a $2,500 fee, for the former auto parts store. The property was valued at $273,000 in 2012, according to the Orleans Parish Assessor’s Office.
The property, on St. Claude between St. Roch and Franklin avenues, is a block away from the newly redeveloped St. Roch Market, an area that has seen rapid redevelopment and some high-priced real-estate transactions recently.
Henry, a former candidate for mayor, recently teamed up with actor Wendell Pierce to develop Sterling Farms, a chain of grocery stores.
Henry was also in a struggle for funding in April 2012 when the redevelopment authority severed funding for his and Pierce’s plan to redevelop Pontchartrain Park, a lakefront subdivision ravaged by the collapse of the federal levee system after Hurricane Katrina.
The original plans Henry presented to the redevelopment authority called for a two-storefront strip mall and an expanded gas station on the lot where the auto parts store stands.
Henry has attempted to win community support for the strip mall. In a recent email to The Lens, Keith Marrero, architect of the plan, said, “A number of designs have been discussed, as well as presented to the Faubourg St. Roch Neighborhood Association. These schemes include, but are not limited to, an addition/renovation of the existing building.”
But the appearance that the redevelopment authority had played fast and loose with the process of a public auction was as galling as the design.
Bywater resident and real estate investor Tom Houghton, an engineer at WVUE-TV, also had his eye on the auto parts store when it was slated for auction.* When it disappeared from the list, he sent an email to members of the New Orleans City Council blasting the priority-bid maneuver and suggesting that Henry had exploited his political connections. ”Influential politicians walk away with all the cake,” Houghton said recently.
“My pockets were not as deep as some of the other developers” who he believed were willing to bid up the price, Houghton said, but he was shocked at how little the property sold for.
In an email exchange with The Lens, Henry, in a perhaps facetious response to Houghton’s critical email, offered to give him the old auto parts building if Houghton would haul it away.
According to Jasmine Harelson, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority’s director of external affairs, the agency has no jurisdiction over a property after it has been acquired through the priority bid process.
“While we are sympathetic to the concerns of the community, NORA has done everything it is authorized to do under our charter,” Harelson said.
The site continues to lie fallow, aggravating neighbors. It has been cited for blight numerous times, as well as “demolition by neglect” by the Historic District Landmarks Commission.
With the latest blight citation, imposed at a November hearing, the new owner, Infinity Fuels, was slapped with a fine of $200 a day. Albert Thibodeaux, the attorney for Infinity Fuels, has appealed the fine to Civil District Court.
Neighbors are also dubious about the quality of the development Henry has in mind. The plans provided to the redevelopment authority do not specify exactly what store would be located there.
Rosie Lacy, chairwoman of the Faubourg St. Roch Improvement Association’s blight committee, has long monitored the lack of progress at the site. “The concern for me is that he got priority for a piece of property that could have increased the value of the neighborhood,” said Lacy, who has a graduate degree in urban planning from the University of New Orleans.
“It is an inappropriate use of public power for an inappropriate outcome,” she said.
Lacy characterized Henry’s neighboring gas station as a locus of drinking and loitering, and she believes he would increase alcohol sales with a new convenience store.
She also faults the city for poor public notices when it comes to Henry’s development. She only learned through a friend that Henry had appealed his $200-a-day fines to court.
“How does a neighborhood association stay informed about the trial date, and will we be subpoenaed to testify?” Lacy asked about the just-filed appeal.
The city’s Neighborhood Participation Program, a post-Katrina innovation, requires developers to meet with neighbors regarding any proposed land-use action and is supposed to keep residents informed about projects. But “it has no teeth — there is no oversight,” Lacy said.
Tyler Gamble, spokesman for the Landrieu administration, said the Neighborhood Participation Program addresses only projects that go before the City Planning Commission, City Council or the Board of Zoning Adjustments.
As for the controversial priority-bid mechanism, that shouldn’t happen again, Gamble said. “NORA completely overhauled its use of priority bid and has agreed to only do so in consultation with the City for strategic initiatives,” he said.
Outgoing Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer has been working with neighborhood leaders about the vacant building. “We want this building redeveloped, not demolished,” she said, adding that she welcomes Henry’s interest in the St. Claude Avenue area and hopes it can be redirected to a more suitable project.
*Correction: This story originally misreported Tom Houghton’s position with WVUE-TV. (Dec. 16, 2013)