A group of residents who live near the closed McDonogh No. 31 school site on Thursday announced that it is proposing a change to the city’s new Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance that its representatives say will fix an error in the zoning law that allows developers to build inappropriately dense developments in some historic neighborhoods.

The group’s proposed amendment would shrink the maximum housing density in affected neighborhoods by nearly 35 percent. But in a written statement released Thursday afternoon, the development company that hopes to redevelop the site said the reduction “does not afford the full restoration and adaptive reuse” of the site.

The residents group, which calls itself Neighbors for Responsible Development, is made up of residents of the Bayou St. John neighborhood who for months have been fighting the proposed redevelopment of the old school site in the 800 block of North Rendon Street. Under the proposal, the school would be converted into an apartment building with more than 30 apartments. Several houses would be built on the surrounding land.

Neighbors of the old McDonogh No. 31 school gather at the site Thursday to raise objections to the density of a proposed redevelopment of the building. Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

The group says the development is far too dense for the neighborhood, which is mostly made up of one- and two-family homes. The problem for them is the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance, which the City Council passed in May after years of debate, allows for as many as 45 housing units on the site. At a Thursday press conference, members of the group said the council made a mistake. The zoning for the neighborhood, they said, does not comply with the city’s land-use Master Plan, which was intended to guide all land use actions, including the zoning law. The Master Plan is supposed to have the force of law.

Iran Thompson, who lives near the former school, said there was a “fundamental disconnect” between the Master Plan and the CZO.

“This disconnect impacts the health, safety, welfare and future of our neighborhood,” Thompson said.

According to group members, the Master Plan called for two types of multi-family zoning in older neighborhoods. The neighborhood around the McDonogh 31 site was originally supposed to be lower density, with no more than 24 units per acre. The plan called for medium density housing in other neighborhoods, up to 36 units.

But the zoning law omitted the lower density category, putting the neighborhood, and others, into a zoning district, HU-RM1, that allows up to 35 units per acre, nearly 50 percent above what the group thinks should be allowed in the neighborhood. The McDonogh 31 site was given the HU-RM1 zoning as the result of a last-minute amendment to the CZO. However, the amendment left some parts of the site out, said Shanna Sassoon, another member of Neighbors for Responsible Development, meaning the remainder needs a variance for the project to go forward.

“The CZO erased the distinction between these two types of neighborhoods,” said Jenny Bagert, another member of the group. “This violates the land-use plan for low-density neighborhoods.”

To remedy the problem, the group is proposing a new zoning category that will allow multi-family development, but limit it to 24 units per acre. The group planned to submit the amendment at  City Hall following the press conference.

“This is not a suggestion,” Bagert said, referring to the Master Plan. “This is law.”

A written statement attributed only to the development company for the school site, McDonogh 31 LLC, which purchased the school from the Orleans Parish School Board in a 2012 auction, said the developers met for two years with the Faubourg St. John Neighborhood Association to negotiate the plan before members of Neighbors for Responsible Development objected.

“MD31 has and will continue to keep the line of communication open with the adjacent neighbors while the site is redeveloped, and is committed to work with the official neighborhood group, the Faubourg St. John Neighborhood Association, as it has done for over three years. MD31 respectfully opposes any changes to the zoning that is not in keeping with the spirit of the plans discussed with the neighborhood during the process,” the statement said.

Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado is the editor of The Lens. He previously worked as The Lens' government accountability reporter, covering local politics and criminal justice. Prior to joining The Lens, he worked for...