Three years after the New Orleans City Council approved a controversial plan to transform the old Holy Cross School building in the Lower 9th Ward into a $15 million mixed-use development, neighbors are up in arms over the condition of the 1895 building, which sits in disrepair on its site near the Mississippi River.
Members of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, which opposed the development from the start, say the architectural firm behind the proposal has allowed the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged building to deteriorate through "extreme neglect" — an outcome they call worse than the planned high-density apartment building and office space they once fought against.
Residents point to crumpled blue tarpaulin, once meant to protect the structure from rain and wind, that now dangles from wrought-iron balconies. Italianate architecture is marred by construction debris, and weeds grow through brick mortar.
Graffiti, pried-away plywood and broken concertina wire suggest the work of vandals.
Angela O'Byrne, the developer and president of the Perez architectural firm, acknowledged the delay, saying she's been able only to stabilize the building because her hands are tied until she gets financial approval to make further repairs.
She credits delays to a perfect storm of tax-credit financing changes and the sudden failure in April of First NBC Bank, the institution that was slated to back the Holy Cross project.
"Like everything in life, it’s taking much longer than what we wanted," she said.
O'Byrne first announced plans to convert the old school into a mixed-use development in 2013, with an initial stage providing more than 120 residential units, as well as offices for her architectural firm.
Two years ago, she said that stage of the project was supposed to be finished by the end of 2017. It was the last public announcement she made about a plan that would involve several stages and eventually cost between $50 million and $100 million.
Construction will begin early next year on the first phase of a planned mid-rise mixed-use d…
On Friday, she told The New Orleans Advocate she now anticipates breaking ground on the project in six to 12 months, completing the first phase by the end of 2019.
Members of the neighborhood association have a different vision, however. Noting the building's state of disrepair, they've lobbied city officials to lower the building's allowable density — a topic that's ignited controversy since the plan was approved by the City Council in 2014 — in a last-ditch effort to stop the project.
On Wednesday, longtime Holy Cross resident John Koeferl asked Paul Cramer, a City Planning Commission staff member, to once again zone the area as a "neighborhood" mixed-use district, a notch lower than the "medium-intensity" category the property falls under now.
"It's an important part of New Orleans architecture," Koeferl said of the old school building, "and it's been used as kind of a football for developers."
He expressed concern that the developer could sell the property and profit from the current zoning without ever having done any work to improve the building.
"Because the project for which the higher usage (zoning) was given to Perez APC has not materialized, we feel that steps need to be taken to have the zoning revert to its previous category consistent with surrounding uses," Koeferl wrote in an email. "There is no reason whatsoever the developer who has not acted should be profiting from a higher zoning given for this project that has not happened, while the building that is at the center of it deteriorates."
Rodney Dejoie is another resident who says the building's "extreme neglect" adds insult to injury following the neighborhood's multiyear fight over the site, marked by several heated public meetings.
Despite objections from neighbors who said the development would overwhelm their community o…
It's unclear if the neighbors' lobbying will produce any results. After lengthy negotiations and compromises, Perez Architects persuaded council members in 2014 to change the school site’s zoning specifically for the firm's project.
The change was proposed years after the building was ravaged by Katrina and the all-boys school it once housed moved to Gentilly. Most of Holy Cross School’s former buildings, too, were torn down, leaving just the main one.
Although neighbors were unhappy with O'Byrne's plans, the development was a compromise, having been vastly modified from an earlier proposal that called for construction of two 75-foot-tall buildings and eight smaller structures. That plan had a total of 284 residential units.
At one point, the developer had proposed buildings as tall as 85 feet, but that proposal was rejected by city officials.
In a win — at least in the short term — for Holy Cross residents hoping to stave off constru…
The latest tussle isn't the first time neighbors have attempted to stop the project. Even after the 2014 council vote, the neighborhood organization filed a lawsuit in Civil District Court seeking an injunction against the project and challenging the council's decision.
That lawsuit became moot after a massive overhaul of New Orleans zoning regulations was approved in 2015, instituting a comparable but different zoning for the Holy Cross area than the one at issue in the lawsuit.
The neighbors, who said such a large, high-density development would overwhelm their community of low-rise houses, had come up with their own proposal for the site, involving a community center and public park.
O'Byrne admitted plans for the building aren't fixed in stone and said she had "no crystal ball" available to determine whether the development might be changed to accommodate a future partner's vision.
At one point, she was negotiating with seven potential partners, she said, a number that's now been whittled down to three. The tenant of the commercial space could range from a nonprofit organization to her architectural firm, depending on the partner.
She said she expects a final version of the plan to come out in the next six months as she continues to "build relationships" with Whitney Bank, the project's new lender. She said she is spending roughly $250,000 a year just keeping the building in its current state.
In the meantime, the old school — which is credited for giving the neighborhood its name after the Brothers of the Holy Cross purchased the riverfront plantation of the Reynes, a prominent Creole family — remains an eyesore for everyone.
"It's in distress," O'Byrne acknowledged. "It's quite a financial burden."