Last spring a real estate development company purchased five properties at 3000-3032 St. Claude Ave. with the intention of developing them into an upscale hotel compound dubbed the Sun Yard. These properties were formerly known throughout the community as the Truck Farm, site of the annual ChazFest alternative music festival, and were home to a dozen people.
The development company, based in Philadelphia, is pushing to combine all five properties and a large plot of adjacent green space into one 41,000-square-foot mega-parcel on which they propose to build a 37-room hotel.
The planned hotel development — in the very heart of a residential neighborhood — would have a footprint one-sixth the size of the Superdome’s. In addition to the lodgings, the Sun Yard would comprise a pool, a lounge and a high-end entertainment complex, with a parking lot across the street.
They’ll need a zoning variance to do it. Half the lots are classified commercial, but half are residential — the use to which all of them were put before the developers started kicking us out. City Planning Commission staffers have fallen in line behind the project as a way to jack up commerce along St. Claude Avenue. But City Council approval is still required for the variance. Planners heard comment on the Sun Yard proposal at their Tuesday meeting, but deferred action until March.
My partner and I are former tenants of 3030 St. Claude and were displaced from our home to make way for this development.
We are low-income working people. Our home on St. Claude was affordable and convenient, in a wonderful community with great neighbors. When the developers refused to renew our lease, Morgan noted that this was the second time in two years that he had been displaced from the area to make way for upscale development. (The earlier eviction was from his apartment on North Rampart near Spain Street. Morgan’s landlord had decided to empty and renovate the building, then cash out for a hefty profit.)
The $10 million Sun Yard proposal is just the latest struggle in a long and bitter history of asymmetrical development in New Orleans, a trend that puts tourism and business interests before the needs of everyday working people. Seeking to exploit neighborhood dismay over the out-of-control epidemic of short-term rental listings in Bywater, Marigny and other neighborhoods all across New Orleans, the developers argue that their plan is a “full-service alternative to Airbnb.”
Wait. Really? Hotel guests shuttling in and out of a 37-unit complex in a residential district aren’t themselves short-term visitors?
New Orleans faces a massive crisis of affordable housing. According to Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, a local housing justice organization, the city will need an estimated 33,000 additional units of affordable housing over the next 10 years to mitigate this crisis.
Since 2000, New Orleans rents have increased by 54 percent, the cost of homes has increased by 50 percent, yet the average income has increased by only 2 percent. An article published by The Lens in October noted that 6-to-8 percent of residential properties in the Bywater are now listed as short-term rentals. With fewer and fewer housing units available, rents and property taxes rise. Working people are pushed out of their communities and scattered to the margins of the city.
The Sun Yard development would remove four affordable shotgun doubles from the housing market. It would draw more tourists to the Upper Ninth Ward and accelerate the process of gentrification on both sides of St. Claude Avenue. The developers’ plans call for interior demolition of the historic homes, leaving only the original facades visible from the street, a Potemkin village in place of a once vibrant New Orleans neighborhood.
The Sun Yard developers have made no commitment to employ workers at living wages with benefits, nor have they promised to allow future employees to form a union.
Block out the Sun Yard, a grassroots campaign organized and led by concerned neighbors and former tenants, began circulating a petition on Jan. 2 to raise awareness and mobilize support against the development. In the first week alone over 2,500 people chose to stand together in opposition to the Sun Yard. Door-knocking efforts in support of the campaign are being led by the New Orleans chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. .
As proud New Orleanians who want to see our city grow and its people thrive, we are not opposed to all development. For us the question is who benefits from it? What should it look like? How should it be pursued? Ultimately, it’s up to the people to make our voices heard and to defend our communities against unethical, undemocratic development. After all, according to a recent poll by The Advocate, affordable housing is the No. 2 issue for New Orleans voters, behind crime.
We urge the city to block the Sun Yard proposal. We call upon the mayor and City Council to guarantee that any developments they approve provide quality jobs for New Orleanians. We must put the needs of everyday New Orleanians and our communities first.
Morgan Dowdy and Michael Esealuka are local organizers, service industry workers, and artists.
Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.