Land Use

Holy Cross condo plan: Are we already abandoning post-Katrina reforms?

This rendering shows part of the Holy Cross proposal. The company has originally proposed a much taller tower, but reduced it to 60 feet. That's still well above what's allowed by the city's current zoning code.


This rendering shows an earlier iteration of the evolving Holy Cross proposal. The company proposed a much taller tower but has since reduced it to 60 feet — still well above what's allowed by the city's zoning code.

It looks like the “new” New Orleans might be fading fast, even before the Crescent City can celebrate the 10th anniversary of its much-heralded recovery from the Katrina disaster. Sadly, the old ways of doing things are staging a comeback and seem to be winning more and more fights involving inappropriate land use.

What are the old ways, now resurgent? Pure and simple:

  • a City Council that community members believe is about to accept an illegitimate review process rather than honor input they have provided in private meetings.
  • a willingness to let developer shenanigans win the day over honest, deep-rooted resident opposition
  • a process that chases away developers willing to do the right thing for a neighborhood and, therefore, the larger city.

The most egregious example of the old ways is the continuing review of the proposed Holy Cross condo development, planned on the campus of the school that gave the neighborhood its name. Postponed twice already, it’s on the Council’s docket for Thursday.

The so-called 11th-hour compromise, reducing proposed building heights from 75 to 60 feet, was given to the community 72 hours before the last Council meeting. While that may make the proposed buildings five feet shorter than the former school’s administration building and bell tower, the revamped proposal still comes in 20 feet above the current legal limit of 40 feet.

That’s way too high for the neighborhood and higher than is likely to be  acceptable to the communities of Bywater and Marigny, the inevitable  next targets of upscale waterfront development. These are historic districts that, in OK’ing a draft version of the city’s long-simmering and complicated Master Plan, certainly did not expect that height limits would soar by 50 percent, Holy Cross community leaders have said.

Indeed, what got discussed during the Master Plan process were issues affecting land use and density, not height. The community assumed height would stay the same because of a neighborhood’s historic designation.

Instead, the development proposal would undermine forever this village-like neighborhood of low-rise historic homes, dwarfing them beneath an intrusive complex of more than 100 high-end condos — and that’s just for starters.

It’s a project guaranteed to do nothing for Holy Cross but flood the streets with traffic and raise property values beyond the ability of many local residents to afford their rents or taxes.

With the help of thousands of volunteers and dozens of foundations, this remarkable working class community struggled to rebuild itself after Katrina, one restored house at a time.

Don’t call it a compromise when a developer drops from overwhelmingly too big to still too big and out of scale — just less so. Don’t call neighborhood resistance NIMBY-ism (short for “not in my backyard”) when the community has complied faithfully with a public process, only to see it subverted by the developer.

The community process yielded a plan respectful of the neighborhood’s scale and fabric. Three developers stand ready to advance this alternative vision in “partnership” with Holy Cross residents, community leader Sarah DeBacher says, and all three of them have agreed to work within current zoning limits.

Does a scaled-back proposal mean — by definition — one with less political clout than the oversized proposal before the City Council? Are hot-wired political connections once again a requisite for doing business in New Orleans? Holy Cross dared to dream that the cynicism and corruption of the old, failed city had been washed away in the retreating Katrina flood waters. What a shame if the community is proved wrong.

How can the Council in good conscience approve a developer who falsely generates community support with, among other things, a faked petition containing the 272 false names and addresses found so far? (Another 144 signatures are still unverified.)

How can the Council disregard the real neighborhood that has followed the democratic process of community engagement that once seemed the very essence of the “new” New Orleans?

How can the Council claim to be following a legitimate public process when the community has never had the opportunity to publicly present its sensible and creative alternative, one that favors lower density, lower heights, a publicly accessible park and educational and artistic uses of the former school’s historic administration building?

No doubt about it, the “old” New Orleans is rearing its ugly head. Only the players have changed. For the new Council members, this is a real trial by fire to start off a new term, a pass-fail test of their ethical probity.

The neighborhood did its job. Galvanized by their fight against the condo complex, residents pored over the city’s draft Master Plan and made some unhappy discoveries.

One was that the Master Plan, if approved, would allow the former Holy Cross campus to be declared eligible for mixed-use, medium-density development in which building heights could indeed rise to 60 feet. That was a sharp departure from the spirit and texture of the surrounding blocks of cottages and single- and double-shotguns.

Worse yet, the draft Master Plan — offering no fewer than 18 zoning options for mixed-use sites — made a mockery of the public’s well-articulated desire that the plan have “the force of law.” Investing the plan with binding legal power was New Orleans’ bid to end the sleazy tradition in which zoning rules were regularly overridden by council members as a political favor to big-shot developers. Eighteen options wouldn’t end the sleaze; basically that range of choices would do nothing more — nor less — than define the arena in which sleazy politics could be practiced.

To make their case, residents gave city planners 74 pages of documentation showing why 60 feet was not only illegal under current law but also inappropriate — if the draft Master Plan ever becomes law. And the Planning Commission’s response? It failed to revisit the inappropriate mixed-use designation and uphold the height restrictions already embodied in the current code. Why?

Is the same fate in store for other low-rise neighborhoods or is the Lower Nine a special case, singled out for abuse because of its lower incomes and higher presence of minority residents?

The Historic Districts Landmark Commission and the City Planning Commission rejected excessively restrictive staff recommendations for the condo development in Holy Cross, but then shirked their responsibilities and fell silent, leaving the decision to the City Council. Genuine community input has been totally ignored. Why both agencies, staffed with sensitive and knowledgeable professionals, have gone out of their way to be so permissive is, alas, a puzzle.

The prospect of pricey river views will come at the expense of a racially and economically diverse working class community that has struggled to keep itself alive. Their community-driven success, a success matched in neighborhoods around the city, is the very hallmark of the “new” New Orleans, the city that — for a while, at least — received well-deserved national plaudits. What a sad day for this incomparable city to be squandering that distinction in less than a decade.

Roberta Brandes Gratz is the author of several books on urban regeneration. Her new book, “’We’re Still Here ‘Ya Bastards:’ The Recovery of New Orleans” will be published next year.

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  • Christine

    Putting aside any opinions on the Holy Cross Development, I take some issue with the view that Katrina was supposed to cleanse this city of corruption. Katrina destroyed thousands of lives – it wasn’t some great flood sent to punish the city for its wrongful ways. Not that I have much right to speak on the subject as I wasn’t here at the time, but knowing people who were, it seems incredibly disrespectful to talk like that.

    Granted, it looks like the author of this piece doesn’t live in New Orleans at all…

  • Ken Foster

    I’m confused. You suggest that the author shouldn’t speak on the subject because she doesn’t live here. Yet Roberta does, in fact, live here. Then you admit that you don’t really know what you are talking about–and I can agree with you again on that point.

    What Roberta is referring to is the community-wide planning and goal setting that was put in place after Katrina in order to assure that the public and the community was included in decision making rather than handing the city off to the highest bidder. To me, it is a pretty clear argument, whether one agrees with it or not.

    You seem to be reading the piece with a self-righteous axe to grind. As you say, you weren’t here at the time, yet you seem to be jumping to some strange conclusions and inadvertently defending corruption at the same time.

  • Christine

    I wasn’t speaking on Holy Cross, just on the author’s reference to Katrina cleansing the city of corruption. When I looked up information on the author it said she was New York based – my mistake if this information is not true.

    This was coming purely from a place of witnessing the pain Katrina is still causing people close to me, and noting that maybe the analogy is somewhat insensitive. Take it as you will.

  • Ken Foster

    But she doesn’t say anything about Katrina cleansing the city of corruption. You seem to be projecting. She does talk about the hard work down by a working-class neighborhood, and the indifference the city and the developer has shown them–curious that you haven’t commented on that, which is what the editorial actually speaks to.

  • Christine

    “Holy Cross dared to dream that the cynicism and corruption of the old, failed city had been washed away in the retreating Katrina flood waters. What a shame if the community is proved wrong.”

    That’s what caught my attention – I was uncomfortable with the image this conjured because it draws such a hard line between pre- and post-Katrina when I know many that have lived their lives on either side of that gap. I very well could be projecting something that was not actually the author’s perspective, but it seemed worth mentioning because words have power (something I’m sure you are very familiar with) and perceived intent can be just as important as actual intent. Isn’t writing about bridging that gap? Again – my opinion on an opinion article.

    I am not speaking to Holy Cross because I definitely do not feel informed enough to have an opinion that I feel would contribute to the discussion, and have been reading about it recently. I’ll leave comments on this development to those who have done more research or are more informed, though I’m interested to hear more.

  • Ken Foster

    But it comes directly after she describes the DIY efforts of the community to rebuild and have their voices heard post Katrina. So, only in taking it out of context (and paraphrasing it badly) does it seem to have connotation you hope to critique.

  • Guest

    Please don’t feed the trolls people.

  • ill make the research simple for you:

    – the legal height limit it 40′.
    – latest proposed height is 50% too high
    – the actual residents (not made up ones) are opposed to it
    – the city council/mayor are in favor of it

    …thats it. consider yourself now informed and able to make an important decision — should the elected representation of the people honor the wishes of the people, or should it do whatever it wants to?

    i encourage you to express yourself to the council.

  • Katrina destroyed thousands of lives – it wasn’t some great flood sent to punish the city for its wrongful ways.

    true, it was not sent by god to punish the city. but it was certainly a critical juncture for many communities within the city, and an important time when we decided we were not going to let developers wash away said communities in order to get rich quick. no, we were very particular about building a “new” New Orleans, one in which transparency and honesty saved the day. not political back room deals.

    with that cleared up, i suggest you stop putting aside your opinions on the Holy Cross development and get engaged in your community. go talk to your friends and neighbors in HC and see how they feel about the project, or the shady way it’s been negotiated.

  • 1NONewsladder2

    Dear Perez’o’turfer, “What you mean WE, Kimosabe?” Katrina missed the city and hit MS. It was afterwards that the Corps of Engineers’ floodwalls failed at half-load, flooding 80% of the city.

  • RRod3

    You’re right the old New Orleans is back. The one that fights any and all development tooth and nail. In 5 years, no one is going to remember any opposition to this development. God forbid property values increase and more residents move in and pay taxes.

  • The Racket

    Oh. This would be called progress. Don’t you know this thinkin’ ain’t allowed in these parts? God forbid the property values increase…what a terrible thing…to create value.