The Orleans Parish school district wants to swap a 19th-century Uptown school for land atop the 19th-century Silver City Dump to convert to athletic fields — but the district doesn’t know the extent of soil remediation that has occurred at the former landfill.
The land that the school district wants is on Earhart Boulevard adjacent to Booker T. Washington High School, which is being rebuilt. Owned by the Housing Authority of New Orleans, it’s on the site of the former B.W. Cooper public housing complex, which was built in the late 1930s on the Silver City site.
HANO, meanwhile, is interested in the 140-year-old McDonogh 7 school building on Milan Street as a potential mixed-income housing site.
The swap has been in the works for some time. And last week, a school district official announced that the plan is moving ahead. But the state is still reviewing the steps that HANO took to remediate the soil — removing contaminants like lead, arsenic and mercury — on the former toxic dumping ground. Contractors for HANO submitted a six-volume, 4,000-plus-page report to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality on May 1.
“HANO has remediated the land, and the district has not evaluated the extent to which remediation has occurred at the site since we do not yet have an agreement with HANO,” school district spokeswoman Ambria Washington wrote in an email. “The district will investigate the level of remediation prior to executing any agreement with HANO.”
In an interview last week, Orleans Parish School Board member Ben Kleban said the trade is a good one for the district. He said Booker T. Washington High School deserves the space, and that the McDonogh 7 building doesn’t have the capacity to be a modern-day school. Its site is roughly half that of what the district recently decided is necessary for a school and would require renovation, he said.
“Booker T. Washington school has been really short-changed since its inception, in being provided an adequate high school,” Kleban said, noting the lack of outdoor facilities.
Kleban said the district has been in talks with HANO for more than a decade.
The proposed deal has a school hopeful for football fields, an Uptown neighborhood group suing the district with hopes of keeping McDonogh 7 a neighborhood school, and has piqued the interest of an environmental lawyer.
The site stretching along Earhart Boulevard in the B.W. Cooper neighborhood is no stranger to environmental hazards and clean-up. It served as the Silver City Dump from the 1890’s to the 1930’s before the B.W. Cooper public housing complex was built. The old Booker T. Washington High, the first technical high school for black students in the city, was opened on the site in 1942.
The school’s theater served as municipal auditorium for the black community for decades. In 2002, on the 60th anniversary of its opening, the high school was added to the National Register of Historic Places because of its architectural and historical significance. With the demolition of nearly all of the high school, save for the auditorium and an entryway, it lost its place on the register.
The school was closed in 2004. Following the post-Katrina closures of HANO’s large housing developments, the agency built new subsidized housing at the BW Cooper site. Booker T. Washington was razed and rebuilt, but not without controversy.
Monique Harden is the Assistant Director of Law and Policy for the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. She said she was active in ensuring the Recovery School District remediated the land before Booker T. Washington construction began in 2017. The RSD’s plan called for removing 3 feet of soil, installing a geotextile barrier and then filling back to grade.
Following the controversy, State Rep. Joe Bouie introduced a bill to ban building schools on former dump sites. But critics, including Orleans Parish schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. and the district’s remediation company, said the bill was too broad and it eventually failed.
Harden said she has concerns about the land being used as a football field in particular because unlike the school, which sits atop concrete covering the soil, students will be in direct contact with the ground. Unlike 33 other states, Harden said, Louisiana does have specific remediation requirements for school or school-use properties.
“The football field, you’re directly rolling, coming into contact with the soil — that’s the whole purpose of it,” she said.
“You’re on that soil for hours, so that’s the real concern. I’m really looking to see what kind of remediation was done.”
Harden has a public records request pending with the Housing Authority of New Orleans. The agency did not respond to questions about remediation.
The document turned in by HANO’s contractors says that 78,560 tons of soil were removed from the site. LDEQ is reviewing the final report.
Regarding remediation, Kleban said “HANO has completed a substantial environmental remediation on that site.”
“This is a great opportunity to finally make that right and make sure that beautiful new building is rounded out with full athletic space.”
A neighborhood school
In Orleans Parish Civil District Court on Tuesday, lawyers for the Touro Bouligny neighborhood group argued the district was prematurely declaring the historic building “surplus” property because a charter school is leasing the building through the summer of 2021. The school board, meanwhile, argued its role is to decide what it does with its property is suitable for schools and it doesn’t want to start another lease after the current one with Audubon Charter School expires.
The neighbors oppose the district’s plan to swap McDonogh 7 for land near Booker T. Washington High School. They say they want the building to remain a school.
Earlier this month, a judge denied a temporary restraining order the neighborhood group was seeking. Tuesday’s hearing was over a preliminary injunction the group wants to stop the district from declaring the property a “surplus” which then allows the district to dispose of it.
“That declaration has already happened so there is nothing to enjoin,” school board lawyer Sharonda Williams argued.
The group also argues declaring the property surplus is inappropriate because new charter schools could open in the next two years. The district offered McDonogh 7 to current charter schools, as state law requires, but none were ultimately interested.
Judge Kern Reese is expected to issue a ruling soon.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to have a building that can’t accommodate a K-8,” Kleban said. “We have a situation where we know the property is not suitable for a school long-term.”
“If HANO proceeds with a potential plan to develop affordable housing, I see it as a win-win and a great opportunity,” Kleban said. “And by they way I’m also a neighbor, and I’d love to see it happen.”
In court, the neighborhood group also argued the trade would be unconstitutional because the properties aren’t worth the same amount of money. District officials have acknowledged the potential differential and Williams said they don’t intend to violate the state constitution. According to the Orleans Parish Assessor’s Office, McDonogh 7 is worth about $5 million, versus $2.1 million for the HANO site.
In October, HANO’s Executive Director Gregg Fortner proposed swapping the 358,326-square-foot property next to Booker T. Washington for McDonogh 7 and another school district property, the former James Derham Junior High property on South Rocheblave Street. HANO said its property was appraised at $2.8 million in 2018 and that they’d put $4 million of remediation work into the site. In the letter proposing that trade, HANO said a swap would be “contingent” on the City Planning Commission changing the zoning for both McDonogh 7 and Derham.
In the fall of 2018, an appraiser for OPSB valued McDonogh 7 at $3.5 million. The appraiser said that the figure “assumes approval of multifamily/condominium use of the historic school building.” The appraisal noted other parts of the property could be subdivided into four residential lots.