As it tries to find ways to deal with steep cuts in state spending for higher education, the University of New Orleans has found at least one new way to generate revenue.
The lakefront university intends to lease vacant land it owns but isn’t using to a developer who plans to build a McDonald’s on the site.
Despite objections from nearby residents, the university received the go-ahead from the City Council on Thursday to lease the tract at Elysian Fields Avenue and Leon C. Simon Boulevard.
The council’s 6-0 decision, with Councilwoman Stacy Head absent, came on the recommendation of Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, whose district includes the site. It was her final council meeting before she leaves office May 5.
The council’s action overrides the recommendation of the City Planning Commission, which agreed with residents of the Lake Oaks neighborhood that the potential negative impact on the community was too great to give the development the go-ahead.
Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson said she was voting in favor of the development because it did not come from “your average business” but from a university that deserves accommodating.
“I’m not voting against you. I’m voting for UNO,” Clarkson told Lake Oaks residents. “I think (UNO has) stood tall for us, despite what they have had to deal with, with our state Legislature and our governor.”
UNO said it needs to lease the land to McDonald’s to help make up for revenue losses it has suffered over the past five years because of state budget cuts. The university had lost $24 million in state funding in that period as of January.
The university laid off 28 staff members in February. That was in addition to 90 people who had already been let go since Peter Fos took over as the university’s president in 2012.
The university said it stands to receive about $100,000 each year in the deal. That amounts to the salary of three liberal arts faculty or four staff members, Fos said in a letter read to the council.
UNO chose McDonald’s to lease the site after issuing a request for proposals. The University of Louisiana System has approved the lease. The university would continue to own the property.
Residents of the Lake Oaks Neighborhood Association argued that the fast-food restaurant would hurt their property values and produce more trash in the area.
They suggested the chain move into a vacant building one block away that formerly housed a Wendy’s that never reopened after Hurricane Katrina.
The developers need to rezone the land from multi-family residential to commercial to accommodate the 5,000-square-foot business.
The City Planning Commission staff said the rezoning would be in line with the city’s master plan, which labels that area “institutional” and allows for “supporting businesses” at the site, but the commission sided with residents in voting against the development.
Though she voted in favor, Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer said she believed the university should have tried to select a healthier food option for the site.