If 14 acres of empty, grass-filled riverfront property existed Uptown, or in Marigny or Bywater, you can bet that community pressure would have ensured the resounding defeat of a proposed condo complex that involves 75-foot high-rise towers and hundreds of new residential units.
But in the Lower Ninth Ward, a village of one- and two-family historic homes, such a proposal may well be on its way to approval. City Planning Commission staff toyed with shrinking the towers to 60 feet, but then couldn’t bring themselves to make a recommendation for or against the project, which now has bounced to the City Council.
Even at 60-feet the towers would still exceed the zoning code’s current height limit by 50 percent — surely way more than the Holy Cross community thought would be entailed in the Master Plan’s call for “medium height” in that area. And at 75 feet, the towers soar beyond even what’s sanctioned by the Lafayette Square Historic District in the heart of downtown New Orleans. The Lafayette Square group managed to negotiate a zoning-code maximum of 65 feet on Julia Street.
The Holy Cross plan, promoted by the politically well-connected Perez Architecture firm, calls for 284 residential units, plus commercial uses, 500 parking places and the loss of a stand of live oaks. This is nearly quadruple the current density of an historic neighborhood noted for its small-town feel!
Did the citizens of this city go through years of excruciating public planning meetings to develop a Master Plan that would be so loosely interpreted — and perhaps betrayed — in the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance now aborning? Were we ever told that what the Master Plan meant by “medium height” could mean towers taller than would be tolerated on Julia Street?
The Holy Cross proposal is merely the opening salvo in what’s sure to be a years-long fight to stud the waterfront with high-rise residential towers. Bywater, Marigny — probably the whole Sliver by the River is at risk. Holy Cross will set the precedent.
But, hey, this is just Holy Cross, right — a part of the much-maligned Lower Ninth Ward? Developers and their political allies seem to feel that authentic community opposition can be ignored, or at least overshadowed by the kind of fake community consent that developers and their PR consultants know how to manufacture.
Despite all manner of impediments, Holy Cross is slowly but surely coming back, one historic house at a time. Values and prices are rising but plenty of vacant shotguns and other splendid houses remain to be rehabbed, as the community gradually repopulates with both returnees and newcomers.
What makes the developer’s plan for the condo/retail complex even more egregious is the way it defies the months of effort the Holy Cross community put into finding a superior alternative. This was done at the behest last summer of District E City Council member James Gray amid widespread discontent with the Perez proposal after it was unveiled last June.
In response, seven Lower Nine community groups, calling themselves the Lower 9 Vision Coalition, came together. They met five times over two months for brainstorming sessions that each attracted 30 to 75 engaged residents. With the professional help of the Tulane City Center, a program of the Tulane School of Architecture, this very real community unveiled three alternatives at a January press conference but has never had a chance to present them before an official city agency.
It’s easy and common these days for developers to hire a public relations firm to stage phony “community meetings” and hire people to carry supportive signs. By contrast, the grassroots Vision Coalition’s planning process was a genuine expression of neighborhood sentiment, and its mission was clear: to come up with smarter ideas for developing the space without undermining the historic character of the community.
Clearly, the Holy Cross Brothers want to sell the long-held property. The school that occupied the property for more than a century has been moved to Paris Avenue. And clearly, Councilman Gray wants to see development on the site that would bring jobs (alas, not necessarily for local residents). Just as clearly, this large tract of land can’t be kept in mothballs forever.
But the inequity in the way the Perez proposal is being steamrolled past the community is as stark as it is deplorable. The city has spent millions of FEMA dollars on “Reinventing the Crescent,” creating a 1.4-mile riverfront park that connects Bywater and Marigny to the French Quarter.
Perhaps it is too much to expect the Lower Nine to have a glorious park the way Uptown has Audubon Park and Mid-City and Lakeview have City Park. But the proposed condo complex is an alien intrusion that adds insult to injury — an especially daunting blow to a community that survived Betsy and Katrina and fought successfully for years to avert the destruction that would have come with a widening of the Industrial Canal.
To assume a more responsible developer will not come along to do the right thing is, in fact, both short-sighted and irresponsible. The gradual renewal of Holy Cross is there for all to see. Houses are being saved; a popular new restaurant on Dauphine Street is an early sign of a more robust economic renewal. How thoughtless — how just plain greedy — to abort a grassroots community initiative and shred the Master Plan that is supposed to guide the city’s post-Katrina recovery.
Roberta Brandes Gratz is an award-winning journalist, urban critic and author of three books about urban development. Her next book will be about the recovery of New Orleans after Katrina.
*Correction: The image first published with this column showed the original proposal, which was for a 13-story building. The company now proposes a maximum height of seven stories. (March 28, 2014)