Despite objections from neighbors who said the development would overwhelm their community of mostly modest, low-rise houses, the City Council on Thursday approved a proposal to construct two 60-foot-tall riverfront residential buildings and to redevelop an existing building into commercial and office space on the former site of Holy Cross School in the Lower 9th Ward.
The vote — the first major action by the council that took office Monday, including three new members — came after a debate that attracted more than 100 plan proponents and opponents, mostly the latter, to the council chamber.
The proposal passed 5-1, with Councilman Jason Williams, one of the newcomers, as the lone dissenter.
Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell was absent but expressed support of the project in a letter read by Council President Stacy Head.
After a year of deferrals, negotiations and attempts to win over angry neighbors, Perez Architects was before the council seeking to change the former school site’s zoning from two-family residential to commercial. The change was needed to accommodate the mixed-use development, which will contain 123 residential units and the architectural firm’s offices.
Most of Holy Cross School’s former buildings were torn down after Hurricane Katrina, and the school moved to Gentilly.
The development plan the council approved has been modified from an earlier proposal that called for construction of two 75-foot-tall buildings and eight smaller structures, as well as the redevelopment of the former administration building. 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 ran into stiff opposition from neighbors and was rejected by the Historic District Landmarks Commission’s Architectural Review Committee.
The revised proposal had the support of Mayor Mitch Landrieu and, even more important, Councilman James Gray, whose district includes the site.
Opponents had hoped to win over the three new members, Williams, Jared Brossett and Nadine Ramsey. But in line with the council’s longtime custom, all of the other members deferred to Gray on the vote except for Williams, one of the two at-large council members.
Council members read their expressions of support from prepared statements.
The zoning change includes 17 provisos that, among other things, require that final development plans must be approved by the City Planning Commission and that sustainable land-use practices must be used.
Supporters and opponents filled the council chambers, holding opposing signs with messages such as “We Support Perez” and “Perez Plan Is Bad for Holy Cross.” The council, however, limited public comment to 16 minutes, or about eight speakers, for each side, and the debate was less raucous than during earlier hearings before the HDLC and the Planning Commission.
Proponents argued that the residential development would help bring other needed amenities — such as banks, dry cleaners, restaurants and grocery stores — to the area.
“When I look out of my front door, I see three blighted properties and a vacant lot,” Holy Cross resident Brenda Robinson said. “We need better-quality housing, along with access to goods and services. … We want a walkable, livable, self-contained community in the Lower 9th Ward. This project is a step in the right direction.”
Opponents said they also support development at the site, but they urged the council to deny the rezoning request and require that any new structures follow the neighborhood’s current zoning, which restricts building heights to 40 feet. The proposed new citywide zoning ordinance would increase that limit to 60 feet.
“We want development, but we want development that is consistent with our historic zoning and with our status as a local and national historic district,” said Sarah DeBacher, president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, which led the opposition.
The project also was opposed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Louisiana Landmarks Society and the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates.
DeBacher said the neighborhood association was particularly disappointed with the level of community input in the final plan. There were no public meetings about the proposal, DeBacher said, and Perez’s modified proposal did not go before the HDLC or the Planning Commission.
“The Neighborhood Participation Program has failed the Lower 9,” she said. “That’s perhaps the most troubling element of the supposed compromise Perez seeks.”
Steven Massicot, senior vice president and managing director of real estate at Perez Architects, offered a mea culpa for the lack of community engagement. “These 18 months, we made mistakes,” he said. “At times we weren’t doing the best job of communicating. For that, I am sorry.”
Williams said he could not support the project because he didn’t believe the developer had done enough to reach a compromise with the surrounding community. While he is generally in favor of development and didn’t accept the claim by some residents that the project would be too dense, he said, he wanted to send a message to Perez and other developers that working with the community is not optional.
“As a lawyer, I rely on fair processes and due processes. And I don’t understand how in two years both sides have not been able to reach an agreement,” Williams said. “I am pro-development, I campaigned on developing our neighborhoods, but today I am leaning toward voting against this development.”
Williams said he also was troubled that Perez hadn’t provided letters of intent from potential tenants or letters of commitment from financial institutions.
Gray blamed any lack of communication on opponents, who he said refused to negotiate.
“The truth of the matter is there has been plenty of opportunity for the community to have a voice,” Gray said. “If you refuse to negotiate, you lose your opportunity to have input.”
Other members said they believed the project would spur development in the Lower 9th Ward, one of the areas that has struggled the most to rebound since Katrina.
“I believe that it will be, in the end, good for development and revitalization in the area,” Councilwoman Susan Guidry said.