Neighbors angered by the New Orleans City Council’s recent vote to allow demolition of an abandoned St. Claude Avenue store sued the city and the store’s owners on Monday, claiming the council’s action and the owners’ purchase of the building were both improper.
The neighbors will present their case before Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Tiffany Chase next week. Any planned demolition is blocked until the case plays out.
The suit is the culmination of a long-running battle between businessman Troy Henry and neighbors of the former auto parts store, who first tangled when Henry’s company, Infinity Fuels, purchased the store at 2501 St. Claude Ave. for well below market value in 2012.
Although it had been up for a sheriff’s sale, it was removed and sold to Henry for $19,900, according to Assessor’s Office records.
Some residents, who said they were willing to pay as much as four times what Henry paid, described the sale as a sweetheart deal.
Henry said the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority offered the property to him as part of its revitalization strategy for the neighborhood and that his detractors are simply upset they did not get the store for themselves.
Tensions rose again when Henry and his business partner, actor Wendell Pierce, petitioned the Historic District Landmarks Commission in December for permission to demolish the structure so they could combine the site with the Shell gas station Henry owns next door and build a new Sterling Express convenience store.
Neighbors who said Henry had allowed the building to deteriorate called for its preservation, not demolition.
The commission rejected Henry’s request, but the council approved it last month after hearing passionate arguments from both sides.
Soon afterward, residents raised the issue of Henry’s tardy property tax payments.
Now, residents are taking the debate to the courtroom. The plaintiffs — Matthew and Brooke Kyte, who live near the store; the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association; and St. Claude Main Street, a nonprofit community and economic development group — say Infinity Fuels did not petition the council to overturn the landmarks panel’s decision within 10 days, as required by law.
Because the request was not filed in a timely manner, the council “had no authority to reverse the decision of the HDLC or to grant any relief in the matter,” says the suit, filed by attorney Michael Laughlin.
The commission denied the demolition Dec. 11. A letter from Infinity Fuels to the council protesting the commission’s decision is dated Dec. 15, and a letter from Henry’s attorney, Daniel Davillier, to the council’s clerk is dated Dec. 18, according to council records.
However, the council’s staff did not receive and time-stamp that request until Dec. 28, after the deadline, Laughlin said.
“People in the public might call these technicalities, but they are important issues, and the judge will eventually decide them,” he said.
The plaintiffs’ second claim concerns Henry’s ownership of the property. The suit says Infinity Fuels never owned the property in the first place because its title is “fatally defective.” Although NORA may acquire certain properties on behalf of the city, the suit says, the agency needed but did not get city approval before removing the St. Claude property from the scheduled sheriff’s sale.
Further, the residents say that while NORA may have submitted “notice of intent” that it would bid on the St. Claude property in 2011, it did not actually bid on it. Instead, it improperly gave purchasing rights to Infinity Fuels, the lawsuit says.
NORA has taken heat for acquiring other properties in the same manner and passing them on to selected developers.
The suit also says the council should not have granted Henry’s demolition request until the property’s zoning had been changed and that it should not have ignored the landmarks commission’s recommendation.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Henry said he was not aware of the lawsuit but called it “frivolous, in my opinion.” He referred other questions to Davillier, who did not immediately return a call.
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.