Several members of the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council who represent urban and low-income areas of the parish are concerned the East Baton Rouge Parish Redevelopment Authority has lost its way and is failing to follow its core mission of propping up economically depressed areas.
At least four of the councilwomen say they are deeply concerned by the lack of affordable housing options included in a proposed site plan for the 6-acre former Entergy property on Government Street. Furthermore, they plan to block giving the RDA any additional publicly owned properties for redevelopment until they are clear about the agency’s mission and future.
“The public pronouncement that there would be no consideration for affordable housing for that site, that really smacks in the face of the purpose of the Redevelopment Authority,” said Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards.
Interim CEO Gwen Hamilton, who has been in the position for only three months, said the plan proposed Monday evening was extremely preliminary and affordable housing is not off the table.
“The plan shows what could be possible, but there is nothing final about the plan,” Hamilton said.
While stressing that affordable housing could be part of the equation, she also noted that the plan was crafted by nationally renowned urban planner Andres Duany, who consulted with the Planning Commission, the Department of Public Works, housing experts and the public.
Asked if she personally feels affordable housing makes sense for site, Hamilton said, “I don’t know how to answer that, because I haven’t studied the recommendations to that level of specificity.”
Hamilton said she saw the proposed plan for the first time on Monday with everyone else.
The councilwomen have long been the most ardent advocates of the RDA, because the agency’s purpose is most in line with advancing their urban districts by eliminating blight. They said Thursday they believe the RDA, which receives public funding, appears to be wavering from its core mission.
Hamilton, however, said the RDA remains committed to its mission, which she defined as “creating development and housing opportunities to eliminate blight — which is what would happen at that development site.”
The Entergy redevelopment site is a major project for the RDA, and the proposals envision retail and commercial uses for the long-abandoned property, as a catalyst project for the Mid City redevelopment.
At the meeting Monday, when asked about the possibility of affordable housing — which is federally subsidized or rent controlled — Duany told the audience it hadn’t been considered because the project would not be using federal funding.
Hamilton said Duany misspoke and funding for the project had not yet been determined.
Councilwoman Tara Wicker, whose district encompasses the property, said affordable housing concerns were just one of a handful of red flags for her. She said she was offended to see that the proposals also include a brewery on the property. Wicker has for years fought against the proliferation of businesses serving and selling alcohol in low-income neighborhoods.
She said the public input sessions for the development were also held downtown during the daytime, when they should have been located in an area more accessible to the people who are going to be most directly impacted by the project.
Four councilwomen, Wicker, Edwards, Donna Collins-Lewis and C. Denise Marcelle, met Wednesday with Hamilton to address their concerns. The councilwomen said they felt they’ve been locked out of communications since Hamilton took over.
“We used to have bimonthly meetings with Walter (Monsour),” Collins-Lewis said. “We have not had any communication with Gwen since she took over.”
Hamilton took the reins of the agency three months ago, after Monsour resigned amid criticism from the mayor-president that the agency was financially floundering under his leadership.
Wicker said Wednesday’s meeting was mostly cordial, but they ultimately “agreed to disagree.” She admitted she was at times “passionate” in conversations.
Hamilton said she thought the meeting was productive and she has agreed to meet regularly with the councilwomen. She said she values the support of the Metro Council and is eager to “open the lines of communication.”
The RDA has run out of money for operations and new projects. It has hired SSA consultants to craft a business plan providing a way for the agency to fund itself in the long term. Construction funding for the Entergy site is still unknown.
Uncertainty about the RDA’s future contributed to the councilwomen’s decision to vote against any future property allocations to the agency. The Metro Council has allocated to RDA more than 100 seized properties on which taxes were not paid.
“At this time, I’m not willing to pass any more properties to the RDA until I get a business plan in front of me,” Marcelle said. “We must be assured of the direction of the RDA.”
Samuel Sanders, director of the Mid City Redevelopment Alliance, said he agrees with the councilwomen that affordable housing is necessary for the area but it might not be necessary for that particular site.
Sanders said the feud is perhaps rooted in miscommunication, adding that from a development perspective, it seems likely that a mix of housing options is inevitable.