From high-profile landmarks like the former Holy Cross campus in the Lower 9th Ward to a trio of St. Charles Avenue mansions stripped by the state of local historic landmarking protection, the Louisiana Landmarks Society on Friday identified what it considers this year’s top threats to historic preservation in New Orleans.
The 2014 “New Orleans Nine” list seeks “to call attention to the places that are threatened and which, if lost, would compromise the very features that make New Orleans the unique place the entire world recognizes and values,” said Walter Gallas, the society’s executive director.
The society has issued the list each year since 2005.
The list also includes a French Quarter site once slated to become a Cuban restaurant; a vacant two-story home with $20,000 in liens that sits open to the elements in Treme; the 19th-century Wesley United Methodist Church, which could become a Central City parking lot; and four 1840s-era Central Business District buildings that recently were proposed for demolition to make way for two Marriott-branded hotels.
Though “The Nine” are billed as endangered sites, two entries on the list aren’t physical locations at all. The list cites the potential elimination of federal historic rehabilitation tax credits as a threat to all potential historic restoration projects and singles out a lack of adequate staffing at the City Planning Commission and low public awareness for preventing the city’s 2010 master plan from realizing its full potential.
The Holy Cross neighborhood makes the list twice.
Besides the former Holy Cross School site, which was just rezoned by the City Council to become a mixed-use development with midrise condominiums vocally opposed by many in the neighborhood, the society singled out the blighted, three-story Semmes Elementary School building as another endangered site. It notes that the building’s owners appear to have regularly paid judgments and fines levied against them without facing any repercussions from the city.
Kim Ford, vice president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, said she was glad to see the list includes the Holy Cross School site, even though the developers’ plans at this point need only final approval from the Planning Commission.
“We could use the positive energy,” she said after stopping by the landmarks society’s news conference at the Pitot House on Bayou St. John. “It helps a lot.”
John Koeferl, a founding member of the Lower 9th Ward Vision Coalition, which has fought for what it calls more community-oriented development at Holy Cross without tall buildings, said the city has a long way to go in creating a fair development process.
“Decisions were made before the public was heard in every case,” he said of the protracted battle over the site’s future. “We suspect this fight is not over because people are very angry over the failure of this process.”
William Borah, a land-use attorney who drafted the amendment to the City Charter that created the master plan, lauded the list for bringing attention to the lack of manpower at the Planning Commission.
He said the city’s master plan has been lauded around the world but isn’t nearly as effective as it should be because enforcing it takes resources the city hasn’t put into the planning department.
“There has to be a recognition that we’ve changed the planning process of the city significantly, but now we’ve got to make it work,” he said.
The list’s inclusion of three St. Charles Avenue mansions, one of which is an administrative building for Loyola University, drew some pushback from the university.
The school said the 2012 state law that excluded the buildings from the Historic District Landmarks Commission’s jurisdiction did so to ensure that their status would never be a roadblock to receiving federal funding, and it noted that Greenville Hall is on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Loyola University New Orleans is comfortable with the protections that currently exist for these historic structures, and they are in no way endangered,” Tommy Screen, director of government relations at Loyola, said in a written statement.
Sandra Stokes, first vice president of the landmarks society and chairwoman of its advocacy committee, said people need to understand the potential implications of two bills in Congress, one of which would eliminate the 20 percent tax credit for qualifying spending on historic renovation projects and another that would cut the credit in half.
The group noted 358 projects throughout the city qualified for the tax credit between 2001 and 2012.
“The majority of larger historic buildings restored in the past three decades have been restored because the tax credit has made the projects financially feasible,” the society said. “Should there be any reduction or elimination of federal tax credits, the impact upon New Orleans’ growth and economic vitality would be dire.”
The group urged vigilance in the cases of the property at North Rampart Street and Esplanade Avenue, where a bid to turn it into a Habana Outpost failed, and the four buildings in the CBD, even though the proposal to demolish them for a $120 million hotel development was withdrawn earlier this month.
Stokes said the advocacy committee is prepared to ramp up its efforts to protect the buildings that are on the list and welcomes any public support.