After years of frustration and tireless work by many to try and protect the old Holy Cross School, a Lower 9th Ward landmark, Holy Cross Neighborhood Association President, Calvin Alexander, has seen and heard it all — all the promises and all the excuses.
According to Alexander, “It is beyond time for Angela O’Byrne, owner of Perez, APC, and 4950 Dauphine LLC to step up to their responsibility to preserve and maintain this historic building which they own.”
The situation with Holy Cross is déjà vu. The neighborhood had already experienced the loss of the historic Semmes School to a developer who said they were doing everything to save the building and that it was structurally sound. As a result, HCNA has diligently fought for accountability. Throughout the past eight years, residents have repeatedly asked for the building to be secured and for lights to be put up because vagrants were living inside the structure. Most recently, residents have had to ask for basic yard maintenance and were forced to secure the parking lot to keep drivers from using it to do high speed maneuvers.
The owners have also been cited by the City for minimum property maintenance and demolition by neglect. In 2018, the Louisiana Landmarks Society named Holy Cross School as one of the most endangered sites in New Orleans. Residents and HCNA have had meetings, made calls, and filed complaints with Safety and Permits and Code Enforcement. Requests for help also went out to the Historic District Landmarks Commission and the City Council offices. And the Preservation Resource Center and the Louisiana Landmarks Society have been contacted to see if there was any additional help they could give.
The neighborhood is wondering if something can be done other than to watch the building go down.
They’ve concluded that if the City enforced the rules that exist, then more historic buildings would be saved and revenue for the City would be generated. In addition, enforcement would give them and other associations the much-needed help they seek to fight blight.
In August of 2012, Perez purchased 13 acres of the 16-acre historic campus, seven years after the property flooded due to the levee failure during Hurricane Katrina. The firm floated plans to revitalize the site. But the property has remained vacant since the 2005 hurricane when the school’s former owners abandoned the site. Four years later, Holy Cross School moved to its new home in Gentilly, leaving behind a site with majestic oaks and an historic building.
According to a February 2013 article, Perez planned to move its offices into the building and open a coffee or sandwich shop on the first floor. The firm also had an agreement with New Corp, a local community development financial institution, to open a business incubator in the building. Perez also vowed to preserve an existing oak tree grove on the property for use as a farmer’s market and host for art fairs so the property would continue to be accessible to the community. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? But it didn’t happen.
In 2016, Perez and its development partner, MACO, claimed that construction would start soon. Much to no one’s surprise, the new plans did not contain the coffee shop, or the sandwich shop, or a farmer’s market, or a business incubator.
Initially, two new 13-story towers were proposed. Residents and preservationists were up in arms. The proposal required a zoning change and neighborhood input, so meetings were held.
Sarah DeBacher, who was the president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association at the time, told The Times-Picayune, “We are being patient because we want to get it right. And it’s not as frustrating as you would imagine living next to an open space with a beautiful oak grove and a view of this historic building which would be dwarfed by this high-rise they want. It’s a ridiculous development.”
Angela O’Byrne was quoted as saying, “It is pretty common when looking for a zoning change to get some opposition from folks, but they are going to love it when it’s done, I do believe that.” According to DeBacher, “The argument is that the Lower Ninth Ward has to take what it can get. We believe that we deserve—as any community deserves—good development, not just any development.” The neighborhood prevailed. There was so much opposition to the initial plan that the towers heights were reduced to seven stories. But there were other concerns that were ignored.
- The neighborhood’s concerns about the blatant disregard for architectural compatibility were ignored.
- Concerns of having only rental units were ignored.
- The history of the area, a neighborhood with one of the highest numbers of black homeowners in the country before the levees failed, was ignored.
- Traffic concerns for the area, which is constrained by the Mississippi River, the Industrial Canal and Jackson Barracks, were ignored.
The residents were told a three-phase plan to redevelop the site, bounded by the Mississippi River, Deslonde, Reynes, and Burgundy Streets, was in the works. There was interest and hope. But concern still reigned.
So Perez hired a marketing and advertising firm, Velocity Agency, to create a campaign to change minds. A “Revive Lower 9” social media campaign was started and signs went up. Residents and groups opposing the plan were told they were against development. The agency canvassed the area asking people to sign a petition supporting the project; but some of those signatures are questionable.
The Holy Cross District, because of its history, is on the National Register of Historic Places. According to Abandoned Southeast, Holy Cross School was founded in1849, when the Archbishop of New Orleans invited five brothers from the Congregation of Holy Cross to New Orleans to assume responsibility for operating St. Mary’s Orphanage. In 1859, the Reynes Plantation was purchased by the Congregation. And in 1879, the orphanage became St. Isidore’s College, a boarding and day school, and predecessor to Holy Cross School.
Given its history, concerns continue to be expressed about the status of the building. Requests have been made, repeatedly, to tarp the roof. In response, residents have been told that the building is structurally sound, and the roof is fine. Ironically, Perez has denied the association’s request to walk through the building, citing safety issues. In March of 2019, Angela O’Byrne, told the City Council that she was concerned about the deteriorating condition of the 1896 masonry school.
On June 12 of this year, Ms. O’Byrne sent an email to the neighborhood association. It said:
“Thank you all at HCNA for continuing to care so much about this project, and about your neighborhood in general. Every neighborhood needs folks like you watching out for its best interests. I know that your care and concern will translate to a better quality of life for the residents who will one day occupy the buildings we are hoping to build and the one we are hoping to renovate.”
However, in a conference call, HCNA was told by representatives from Perez and MACO that this project has been a burden; and it costs a lot to tarp the roof and maintain the building. Meanwhile the building deteriorates. It seems as if the owners factored this in as just the cost of doing business in New Orleans. It’s cheaper to let it fall down than keep their word.
Calvin Alexander is president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association. Linda Marchand is vice president.The Holy Cross Neighborhood Association was formed in 1981 with the mission of making our Lower 9th Ward community the best place in the city to live and raise a family.
The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Opinion Editor Amy Stelly at firstname.lastname@example.org.