A proposal to renovate a blighted Carrollton area store into a commercial kitchen expanded into a far broader discussion last week before the City Planning Commission about how the rapid rate of development in New Orleans can affect longtime residents. The commission ultimately decided that those societal issues can’t be saddled onto an individual business owner and voted in favor of the project.
Rebecca Schultz, Kim Burgau and other partners plan to redevelop part of the building at 8837 Willow St. into the Carrollton Commissary, which would serve as a for-hire commercial cooking facility. Food trucks might use it to prepare items before going on the road, for example, or vendors might use it to cook prior to major festivals, or restaurants might use it when they need more kitchen space to prepare for an event, the owners said.
“These particular owners want to be entrepreneurial and create a business in a building that is completely blighted,” architect John Williams told the commission.
The project first came before the commission in late October, when it encountered vocal opposition from some neighbors over its possible effects on their property and lives. There were complaints that the plans for the building were unclear. The commissioners voted to defer a decision to give the owners more time to discuss their plans with the neighbors.
When the issue came up again Tuesday, Burgau said the project would have minimal impact on neighborhood parking because it has room for only about eight people to work inside and several off-street parking spaces are provided.
The kitchen would have daily trash pickup, there would not be any major delivery trucks and it would have exterior lighting and security cameras, backers said.
“We can’t figure out a less intensive use than this commissary,” Williams said.
The owners also are hoping to hire a neighborhood resident to help manage the property and are willing to offer free use of the building for neighborhood nonprofits once a month, Burgau said.
A number of residents spoke in favor of the proposal.
One woman said she fears for her children’s safety with the shady characters who hang around the blighted building now, and that the project would be a major investment for the neighborhood. Others said support for the project runs deep in the neighborhood.
Opponents, however, turned out in force again. Some reiterated concerns about noise, odors, parking or pests, or that the commercial activity would draw crime. Many elderly residents have lived there for their entire lives and do not want to see Willow become another commercial corridor, they said.
“They don’t want a zoning change, because we may end up like (heavily commercial) Oak Street,” Norma Davis said.
Other speakers, however, focused on the broader issues of the changes taking place in the neighborhood.
The Rev. Jermaine Hampton, who has facilitated some of the community meetings, said many residents feel disrespected by the project. The building should be redeveloped, he said, but a commercial project should function to improve the community directly — “offering something back in terms of training, in terms of jobs.”
Joyce Cunningham, a Willow Street resident for more than six decades, said children wait for the bus at that corner before dawn, and a catering kitchen won’t do anything to improve their lives.
“I feel as though it will increase the taxes in our neighborhood,” she said. “Who wants to live in the middle of a business district? … I don’t see anything in there for our neighborhood.”
After nearly an hour of discussion, the commissioners took up the issue.
Commissioner Alexandra Mora moved to endorse the zoning change needed for the project. Both sides included a mix of newcomers to the neighborhood and longtime residents, she said. Some of the issues raised by opponents should get continued attention, she said, but others, like increased tax rates, couldn’t be solved by the City Planning Commission.
Commissioner Nolan Marshall III said the discussion spoke to some of the largest issues facing the city’s future.
“Whenever change happens in the neighborhood, it’s hard. Whenever you have blight in the neighborhood, it’s hard,” Marshall said. “Gentrification is a real thing, and it’s something people are afraid of. The fears are based off years and years of history, but this is a good project for this neighborhood. … I get the fears and concerns of the neighborhood. They’re real. But you have something that’s real also, and that’s blight, and it’s hard for the city to deal with.”
Commissioner Royce Duplessis said residents all agreed that something needs to be done with the building, and Commissioner Kyle Wedberg said he hopes the energy expressed Tuesday about the issue can be channeled into bettering the neighborhood.
“I think there are bigger issues at play — children waiting for the bus at 5 a.m., the tax implications of your property values going up,” Wedberg said, but he said they are societal issues the entire city needs to address. The business owners “can’t be held responsible for those things.”
Commissioner Craig Mitchell, though, said he had concerns about the flow of public information about the project and that neighborhood engagement is increasingly important as the city changes.
The commissioners voted 7-1 in favor of the project, sending it to the City Council for a final decision.