(Joshua Rosenberg/The Lens)

The city of New Orleans is in the process of finalizing a contract with a local law firm that will provide legal services related to the planned, city-funded relocation of dozens of residents of the Gordon Plaza subdivision, which was built atop a former garbage dump and declared a hazardous Superfund site by the EPA more than two decades ago. 

The city sent the contract to Sher Garner Cahill Richter Klein & Hilbert, L.L.C., City Attorney Donesia Turner said during a Wednesday meeting with Gordon Plaza residents, and is currently awaiting the signature of the firm’s co-managing member, James Garner. That process should be completed by the end of the week, an attorney with the firm, Debra Fischman, said during Wednesday’s meeting. 

Sher Garner, a politically active law firm and frequent recipient of city business, won the right to  the Gordon Plaza contract in a public bidding process. Some City Council members objected to the selection due to the firm’s recent involvement in a lawsuit filed by Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration against the council. 

But it appears the contract is moving forward, marking the latest advancement in Gordon Plaza residents’ decades-long fight to move off the contaminated site. With the city council having recently allocated $35 million in the city’s capital budget to fund the relocation, residents are focused on leaving the site by the end of the year. 

“We need a commitment from the city of New Orleans, especially the administration at this point, to make this distribution process as seamless and expedited as possible,” Lydwina Hurst, resident of Gordon Plaza, said during the Wednesday meeting, saying she was concerned that other matters, including the upcoming 2023 city budgeting season and the summer hurricane season could take attention away from the process. 

City Council President Helena Moreno started the process to allocate the money through the capital budget early this year, a measure initially opposed by Cantrell’s administration, which was hoping to secure federal funding for the relocations. But that would have involved a lengthy evaluation of the site, and even then, federal dollars would not be guaranteed.

Cantrell later changed her position, supporting the capital budget allocation. And late last month, the council voted to reallocate $35 million from other projects in the capital budget, many of which the city had not yet initiated, toward the Gordon Plaza relocation effort. The city can replenish those funds when it executes a bond sale later this year, according to Moreno’s chief of staff. 

‘We really didn’t care … what company it was’

Using federal funding available through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city and HANO began constructing townhouses at Press Park and single-family homes at Gordon Plaza – housing developments designed for low-income and elderly residents –  on top of the then-closed Agriculture Street Landfill. (Press Park has been closed since Hurricane Katrina.) The homes in the Gordon Plaza subdivision were promoted to Black residents as inexpensive, high-quality housing.

Families began living in the Gordon Plaza complex in the early 1980s and the Orleans Parish School Board later built Moton Elementary School on the site as well.

Opened in 1909, the landfill comprised 95 acres of former swampland. Workers sprayed pesticides on the site like DDT, which is a “probable” human carcinogen, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The city closed the site in 1957, only to reopen it again for a year in 1965 to both burn and dispose of waste and debris caused by Hurricane Betsy. 

The soil upon which the city built Gordon Plaza is contaminated with lead, arsenic along with some 140 other toxic agents, 49 of which have been linked to cancer, according to a lawsuit a group of residents filed against the city in 2018. The EPA classified the area as a Superfund site in 1994, at which point the Orleans Parish School Board shuttered Moton.

A study authored, in part, by two professors at Tulane University in December concluded the total cost of relocating the 67 remaining Gordon Plaza households would be $34.2 million. But the city can’t simply accept those figures without performing its own due diligence, ​​Turner said last month, which is why it has sought to solicit the services of an outside firm by issuing a request for proposals. 

Sher Garner was the sole respondent to the administration’s April RFP. In a council committee meeting last month, Councilman-at-large JP Morrell criticized the then-prospective contract, noting that the Cantrell administration recently hired the firm to sue the council, an attempt to block a subpoena issued as part of the ongoing investigation into the city’s defunct “smart cities” project. But the city determined that didn’t amount to a conflict of interest for the firm, Turner said last month.

Jesse Perkins, a resident of Gordon Plaza, told The Lens on Thursday that he doesn’t anticipate an issue working with Sher Garner. 

“We really didn’t care, to be honest with you, what company it was,” he said. “We’re going to do everything that we can to steer them in our direction, or steer them in the right direction on this whole process. We’ve worked feverishly on how this should be done, how it could be done, and how we think it just will be done.”

Once Sher Garner signs the contract, the firm will work with a real estate escrow and title company, Fischman said. The residents plan to make their own suggestion for the escrow company they’d like Sher Garner to work with, Hurst said Wednesday, after Fischman volunteered that the firm would take those recommendations under consideration. 

Lauren Godshall – clinical assistant professor of law at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, who is representing the residents – told The Lens that the overall process could be complicated by some tricky situations relating to the ownership paper trail. 

“There’s going to be people with title issues, there’s going to be people whose dad died, who got a divorce – things like that happen all the time,” she said, adding that the residents and Sher Garner will eventually need to decide whether to prioritize certain cases that may be more straightforward, or to address all cases in “one fell swoop.”

Still, there’s reason to be heartened by the momentum the issue is experiencing, Godhsall said, which she credits Moreno and City Councilmember Eugene Green with sustaining by regularly scheduling meetings. 

“I know from experience with lawyers, having been a lawyer for many years, that things get bogged down by all the demands on your time,” she said. “So the fact that everyone is prioritizing this is super important.”

Joshua Rosenberg

Joshua Rosenberg covers the environmental beat for The Lens. Joshua is a Report for America corps member, and is working in collaboration with the Mississippi River Basin Ag and Water Desk. Prior to joining...